“My Truth Was in That Contradiction”: A Conversation with Christine Larusso




CHRISTINE LARUSSO’S POEMS alternate between revelation and privacy, immediacy and distance, memory and forgetting. In her first book, There Will Be No More Daughters (winner of the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writers Residency Prize and published by Northwestern University Press in October 2019), family secrets and the lies told in the name of assimilation and patriarchy coexist within a dreamscape of melodies — from grief to intoxication to rage. These poems paint a complex picture of multiracial Southern California, of the experience of women and girls, and the complexities of family and heritage in inventive, restless forms.

I was glad to talk to Christine about how she developed her “multi” sensibility, as well as about Los Angeles stories of racism and assimilation, alcoholism, memory, erasures and false erasures, and the faulty but alluring narratives of capitalism and the poetry marketplace.

¤

PATRICK COLEMAN: Everywhere I went with this book, people — and mostly women — asked me, “Ooh, There Will Be No More Daughters — what’s that about?” More than the (very beautiful cover), the title strikes an immediate chord. So if someone asks you what’s the story of that title, what do you say?

CHRISTINE LARUSSO: It sounds very apocalyptic, doesn’t it? I remember workshopping titles, and this one was among many that I was deciding between and most of the reactions were like, “Spooky!” or “Ominous!” While that doesn’t exactly hit the tone or spirit of my book, it does relay a feeling I’ve always worked toward in writing, a balance between saying too much and being too opaque — there are many poems in the book that function more like “mood setters” and there are others that more directly tell the reader the histories I am working through and function more narratively.

Later, though, as I was reflecting on all the comments my friends and editors and teachers gave me about the various titles I was considering, I realized how important the titular poem was to the book. It was about the death of the feminine, and in a way, the death of a certain kind of feminism that I saw happen to my grandmother and my mother as a result of white patriarchal violence.

I loved the intricacy and patterns in the title poem, and its forcefulness. It feels like a final poem, like something that comes out of and takes a stand on everything that’s come before. But it’s the second-to-the-last poem! Instead, we end with “Bivalve,” which creates a very different mood by taking the mollusk as its central image, “Whose possession / of a wave / curled inward.”

The effect is so powerful. Can you talk a little about ordering this collection and how you put these poems into conversation with each other?

Morgan Parker, who is super smart about book structure, helped me so much with the ordering of this book because I was initially struggling. At first I thought the book needed distinct sections, and it was sort of split up thematically, like the poems about the body and sex and womanhood all went into one section, and another section held all the poems about my family. When Morgan and I laid out all the poems on the ground, it became clear that the sections had created walls between the content where it was more important for there to be woven narratives and emotions. I think, at first, I wasn’t ready to trust the reader — and I feared that my less narrative poems would be confusing, because this was a refrain I encountered a lot while getting my MFA — but I kept coming up against this nagging feeling: when I first approached some of these poems, I thought about them cinematically, and that spirit was kept much more alive by the poems moving back-and-forth between more direct poems and the ones that fight against linear narrative (and time and memory). I think that even when the poems in their sequence create a difficult or violent or painful tension, because of the various forms and tones and places, my truth was in that contradiction and in that conversation.

Can we talk a little about Los Angeles and Southern California? Your book has so much to say about the contradictions of this place. We start in Downey, in a meat freezer, “the one place in my family’s bodega where I later / learned I could hide and couldn’t be found,” which already tells us so much about the terrain these poems will explore, the pressures and counter-pressures of family, gender, race, and geography, and a tending toward secrecy.

How did your understanding of this place we call home evolve from when you grew up here?

Yes, we can definitely talk about Los Angeles because it’s one of my favorite topics, for obvious reasons!

The book deals with me, as an adult, trying to actually fully understand my own and my family’s history, both in California and beyond, because most of that was wildly obscured or erased for me, as a child. To this day, my family doesn’t really tell stories or talk about any history that occurred prior to my grandfather and my grandmother becoming middle class, even though there was obviously a long road to get there. The history I was given was one that white supremacy and capitalism wrote, more than anything true about my own place in the history of Los Angeles, of California, of being a multiracial person in this place, of being a woman. The story my grandfather wanted to project — and that his kids, my mother, my aunts, my uncles still to a large degree project — is that they are relatively successful Americans because they own homes and have jobs and thus, the system has worked for them. Most of the poems that deal directly with my family I wrote when I returned to Los Angeles after a decade in Brooklyn, and it was that coming back as an adult (I left when I was 17) that made me hyper-sensitive and aware of this false narrative, while also dealing with a great sadness for my grandmother’s slow suicide by alcoholism.

I was talking to a friend recently, who was saying how Le Corbusier’s idea that a home is “a machine for living in” could only be said by a man — this kind of mechanistic view. In your poems, home is, if anything, a machine for advancing assimilation (“a tradition invented by televisions and microwave dinners”), a tool for passing on intergenerational traumas, a series of rooms where shame and self-hatred and alcoholism become a kind of shared language between a mother and daughter — and a place designed to keep secrets, except when they can’t be held back any longer.

Like home, poetic form is a way to contain or surface or subvert different realities and registers of language, which can, in your book, move from gut-punchingly declarative to lushly metaphoric, from the clinical to the fantastical. How do you think about the relationships the “home” of this book contains, and the forms and languages you needed to contain them?

Maybe the best way to get at how I was thinking about these issues is to look at a couple specific poems. I think that in revising, there’s more pressure to cut than to add. For the book, I found that I actually needed to add more, and in the adding, I found myself creating a sort of collage of narrative within the poem, which is what I believed it really needed to find its voice. “When I was painter once” is about a teenager learning how to grieve, for the first time ever, the death of one of her peers. This isn’t the death of a parent, or a grandparent, an aunt — this is someone her own age. The poem had to register as cinematic, it needed to span time, months, a year, it needed to be able to bounce in and out of scenes and emotions and be wild and uncontained, while also being intensely airy, giving room for the grief, the sadness, and depth, like a scar, that that kind of event leaves on a person. That’s why the poem is long, and why it’ll probably never appear in a journal.

That’s funny — it should appear in a journal, but I know length is an issue. I loved reading it, and that line “You can’t invent landscape” really opens up how all of these landscapes (physical but also interpersonal) reshape how we perceive them. I kept thinking about this book as a series of landscape paintings after that. A bit like Ed Ruscha’s L.A. landscapes but from a different point of view, with a different set of concerns.

I also want to talk about “The Letting Go,” which was one of the last poems I drafted during my time at NYU, in the MFA program. I got to a point where I started to hate the boxing-in of genre (despite the many great writers, like Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine, who buck against this). I think it reminded me of the way I felt personally un-box-in-able. I’m multiracial, I’m Chincanx-Chinese, and for me this has always meant that I’ve never felt comfortable applying to CantoMundo or Kundiman, or checking one box on a census form, even though I’m often told I can only choose one, because my identity has always hinged on being multi, rather than one of anything. I wanted to bring this multiness into my work, into my use of prose, of long poems, or short poems, of poems that were borne out of sonnets and poems that completely ignore any sense of traditional form altogether. Poems like “Extinction” were meant to be read like erasures, even though they are not erasures. By constructing these false erasures, I was hoping to conjure the erasing of language, memory, and history that capitalism inflicts upon women of color.

I had read “Extinction” as an erasure poem, but this framing of false erasures is so interesting. And I very much wanted to talk about “The Letting Go,” which is such a brilliant and painful long poem — or do you give it a different label? Since you bring up CantoMundo and Kundiman, though, and “being multi,” do you think there are ways poetry institutions (publishing, fellowships, residencies, programs, et cetera) can better foster other multi-identity writers and writing?

I think in general, there just need to be more opportunities! Right now, the system — at least, the US system — is mostly working on a non-for-profit model, so the institutions need to be funded by a) big donors, b) small donors, c) government grants, and d) submission/reading fees. It’s not a great model for creating enough opportunities — and I especially mean time and space to write.

This reminds me of a comment Anne Boyer made once, that Rachel [Zucker] referred to on her Commonplace episode [Larusso is a producer of Commonplace]. Boyer was asked about the largely white and male canon, how women are underrepresented. Boyer’s response was basically, “How wonderful to not have a canon! Women have the freedom to imagine the literary world we want, something not so tied to identity or a literature of geniuses.”

And I agree with Anne: this is larger than the literary world. The market asks marginalized folks to sort of, slot ourselves into particular categories, because this is how funding works, but I think it’s necessary to imagine and fight for literature, and life, “outside of empire,” as she says, because the empire and capitalism is what’s creating competition — for the few prizes that exist, the few fellowships that exist, the various publishing contests. What does poetry and literature become outside of the marketplace?

That’s an amazing inversion, to make the lack of a canon a kind of freedom. I don’t want to forget, though to go back to “The Letting Go,” which charts a series of attempts, at different stages, to forget or “un-remember,” through alcohol and other intoxicants, or to remember or reconstruct:

I am trying to tell you, and please believe me: you can erase your own memory. I am not advocating for it as I have been spending the last several years trying to get it back, the way you might dig through boxes and boxes of letters from past lovers, looking for the one clue that might solve the riddle of what destroyed the relationships, what went wrong.

Here and elsewhere, you make use of film cuts, poetic lines, prose-y paragraphs, and repeating quotations from Emily Dickinson and others — including Lewis Hyde, June Jordan, and a friend, Julie, who shares her wisdom about surviving alcoholism and patriarchy. This variety seems to shore up the act of remembering, of stitching together a new story, a new perspective, a new relationship to “[t]he taking in and the letting go.” 

How did you build the book from all of these different genres and styles? Is this genre-blurring a direction that you’re working in these days?

I never even tried to write traditional narrative poems, so when TWBNMD is direct and more narrative at times — that’s me sort of working backward. I’ve usually written the more dreamlike, obfuscating pieces and language first, and the hard work for me is going back in and figuring out what story the poems are telling, and how to be more straightforward with my reader about that narrative.

I’m always going to be a poet, whether or not I write more pieces like “The Letting Go” or not, but, in general, I believe that form is invented and manipulated by poets first and foremost. Even though it’s an art that has to inherently exist and work within the market, it also feels like the one best positioned to push against it because, well, we don’t really make any money doing this, do we? So because of that, the writing of a new poesis, one that rejects traditional ideas of genre, feels like my duty, as a multiracial person, as a woman, and as, primarily, a poet.

¤

Patrick Coleman is the author of the poetry collection Fire Season (Tupelo Press, 2018) and the novel The Churchgoer (Harper Perennial, 2019). He lives in Ramona, California.

 

RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT
Feed Your HeadSubscribe to LARB's FREE Newsletter
Newsletter