Revisiting Ruin: Paul Lisicky Interviews Barrie Jean Borich
By Paul LisickyMay 9, 2018
In addition to Apocalypse, Darling, Borich is the author of the three other works of literary nonfiction: Body Geographic, My Lesbian Husband, and Restoring the Color of Roses. She is an associate professor in the English Department and MA in Writing and Publishing Program at DePaul University in Chicago. She leads creative writing workshops, teaches courses in LGBTQ memoir and the history and practice of the American literary magazine, and edits Slag Glass City, a digital journal of the urban essay arts. A Chicago native, Borich lives with her spouse, Linnea, in the city’s Bryn Mawr District of the Edgewater Beach neighborhood.
PAUL LISICKY: Apocalypse, Darling feels different from your previous books. For one thing, it’s more compressed. For another, it’s working with a number of threads. Do you see this book as a departure?
BARRIE JEAN BORICH: Apocalypse, Darling is much more compressed than any prose I’ve ever written. I’ve always written long — even back when I wrote poetry — mostly because I’ve always been interested in the relationship between seemingly unlike things (maps and bodies, lesbians and husbands, ruin and recovery) and I enjoy indulging in association and essayistic wandering. Body Geographic had all kinds of image and idea threads, but only a few of them — map theory, Columbia as the female embodiment of America, actual and fake cities, tattoos — extend through the whole book. Apocalypse, Darling has both narrative threads and compression serving as a time and focus editor.
When I was writing the early drafts of Apocalypse, Darling, I was on a mission to figure out for myself what lyric forms meant to me as a prose writer. I was consciously striving for less-than. I wanted to see what I could do within a tighter, more poem-like frame. Also, I became obsessed with my intimate listening experience of the single long poem — T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — that surprisingly did not grow into an obsession with the poet’s work overall. Any other time in my life when I’ve fallen in love with some work of art, I have plummeted into auto-didactical study of that artist’s oeuvre. I did this with Virginia Woolf, starting with her books, then extending to pretty much everything about her family and social circle and even culminating in a trip to the United Kingdom to see her homes. I’ve taken on similar private flights of enthusiasm with Joni Mitchell, Tony Kushner, Stephen Sondheim, John Edgar Wideman, Edward and Nancy Kienholz. Oddly I’ve not written about any of those enthusiasms, not yet at least.
But with The Waste Land, I stuck with just the poem. I read a bit about the work and the author, and about that moment when the city came into the modern poem, but mostly I just listened to the language, in a visceral repeating, fully physical way, without letting analysis words get in the way. Though the book itself is finally not that much like the poem, I lived in The Waste Land while I wrote, rather like playing an album over and over, an experience that provided me a kind of form container. At the same time, the narrative of this book is organically contained because it circles the events of a single wedding day. Usually I write into form, resisting or even resenting preset containers, but this time I wrote within. So, yes, that was a departure, but also a return to my very first memoir (Restoring the Color of Roses, the book of my youth published by the small feminist press Firebrand) which was, until Apocalypse, Darling, my most story-based writing. Apocalypse, Darling taught me so much about depth within containment, but also just plain reminded me of how to tell a story.
I love the description of your purely sonic relationship to The Waste Land. Did that experience change anything about your own sentence-making? And did you read this book aloud as you were working on it?
There are moments of the book where I played directly with the cadence and even a word or two of the poem, so in that sense, yes, the impact on my sentence-making was direct. But in much of the book, particularly in the passages where I narrate the experience of the wedding, the sentences are deeply my own cadence, in that way our most organic voices spring from the places and people who made us. For many years people have told me that when I do readings of my work they can hear my old Southside of Chicago accent, which for me of course is not an accent but a deeply familiar and intimate form of language. Some of what happened in this book is that more of that accent ended up on the page, strangely through my immersion in a poem that seems to have nothing to do with the setting. I think that happened because I allowed the poem to come into me sonically, yes. I read it aloud, but too I listened to it in as many different forms as I could find. I located digitized archives of actors reading the poem, for instance, as well as an old recording of Eliot himself. What I did with these was listen on a loop as I walked my dogs around South Minneapolis, where we were living then, over and over again, on my way to, around, and back from a city lake about a mile from home. These were some of the longest walks of my life, most of them in Minnesota winter, so my physical recall of that time is very snowy and slippery and full of whispers to two silly, curly goldendoodles — by which I mean a landscape of both icy desolation and joy — which is also my experience of the poem, as well as the arc of my book.
That Southside accent, or as you call it, that “intimate form of language” — that’s a great way to describe it. I’m thinking now of the speaker’s complicated relationship to the culture and place of her youth. She’s of it, she’s definitely not, she loves it, she’s wary of it — so many feelings at once. Could you say more about that?
That complicated relationship to Chicago is one of my fundamental stories, and this push-pull is in all my books, though perhaps most grittily in this one. It’s what I’ve been given, as the poet Philip Levine once said when asked why he kept writing about Detroit even after living for decades in Fresno, California. I’m obviously not alone in this kind of condition as there is a great deal of writing — from poetry to cultural geography — about the way places imprint us and affect our deepest identities and longings. But there is something peculiar about the place of Chicago that seems to encourage this relationship. I’m not sure of the cause, except to say that I’ve rarely met a Chicagoan outside of Chicago who does not express some kind of deep connection to the place — sometimes love, sometimes hate — even when their Chicago is not the same Chicago as mine.
When I lived in Minneapolis, I missed Chicago daily — or perhaps what I missed was my idea of Chicago — and part of me was always certain I would someday do exactly what I did, which is come back to teach and write here. Another part of me was certain I would stay in Minneapolis, where my spouse, Linnea, and I had built such deep queer community, and at one point I even hung a photograph on my studio wall of a tiny skyline of Chicago receding into the Lake Michigan mist, thinking yes, now I am finally letting this go.
Interviewing for a teaching job in Chicago was one of the great thrills of my life, an experience of integration and personal-professional wholeness that six years later still amazes me, yet when I was in a taxi on the way to the airport after that interview we passed an abandoned mill, one of the many remnants of the old industrial Chicago that marked my youth, and I was struck with a furious, sinking, what-have-I-done feeling. Really, the cab wasn’t big enough to hold the extremity of my elation and regret in that moment.
And now — well my spouse and I have remade our home in Chicago, less than two blocks from that lake, and I no longer miss this place. Every day I inhabit this city more deeply, all the while understanding that where I live now, on the far north side, is not at all the southeast-side Chicago-Indiana postindustrial corridor of Apocalypse, Darling, where I came of age. I sometimes miss the romance of my old nostalgia, but the actual city is far more urgent and interesting.
You write about that post-industrial corridor with such cinematic power. It’s so clear-eyed and complex and you never fetishize the broken. What is it about ruin that draws your imagination to it?
Ruin is a complex subject. I understand why so many artists are drawn to ruin, particularly urban industrial ruin. The textures are exquisite, the formal disintegration so organically artful. And yet, because I come from a part of the city that exists so close to ruin, and which is today so economically determined by ruin, I can’t just look at wreckage through an aesthetic lens. Every annihilation is someone’s history. Memories, livelihoods, stories are located in these places, and so every ruin is somebody’s personal apocalypse. Now that I have returned to live again in Chicago, I am writing about ruin in even more direct ways. When I go back to the parts of the far southeast side where my grandparents lived, and where my parents grew up, I pass by great expanses of former steel mill land where members of my family once worked and where remediation of the industrial toxins has not even been attempted. I am overwhelmed in these landscapes by waste and neglect, and a long list of disordered American priorities. I see both the visual ugliness and slant beauty of ruin, but at the same time I see narrative, and I am aware of the human lives connected to that narrative. This understanding prevents me from seeing only aesthetics, and leads me to believe we have no business looking at ruin without also looking at history.
Reading your book, I couldn’t help but think about how rare it is to read queer perspectives on white working-class culture in the United States. Do you think of your book as being in conversation with other books?
Even more rare is literary writing about the industrial Calumet Region of Chicago. And while I can think of any number of writers who have written about class, gender, and queerness (Dorothy Allison, Amber Hollibaugh, Michelle Tea, Eileen Myles, Mary Cappello), across many geographies, I will argue that attention paid to this sort of work by queer women, is more scant than it ought to be. There are writers I am in literal conversation with about these issues — one being Mary Cappello — but the list of works occupying what I consider the deep archive of Apocalypse, Darling is hugely varied (a partial list viewable here, courtesy of Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago).
Generally, I’m drawn to work of many persuasions that speaks to the intersections of place, race, sexuality, and class. I’m grateful, for instance, that when I was young and just coming out I came across the then-newly published This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, and Anzaldúa was one of my teachers for a short time. The fierce and illuminating first-person narratives in that anthology helped form me as a reader and a writer, particularly as an essayist compelled to always self-interrogate my own positions in relationship to my subjects. This is the same questioning that keeps leading me back to my origins.
But if I were to name one queer writer’s work I will always be in conversation with I have to reach way back to one of my earliest influences. The lesbian poet Judy Grahn’s long poem “A Woman Is Talking to Death,” which I think of as the lesbian Howl, is what made me a writer of social witness who maintains the presence of her own queer identity in all of her own work. But it’s a lesser-known poem of Grahn’s that may have had a more complex influence, another long essayistic piece entitled “Descent to the Roses of the Family,” originally published in 1986 by a small publisher we would call a micropress today — a work that inhabits the cutting conflict between the lesbian activist speaker and a family legacy of formative people and place. This is work about class, but also racism and unexamined whiteness.
Julie R. Enszer (who has been publishing stunning articles lately naming the links between these earlier eras of queer women’s writing and work being written today) wrote about this poem recently for Lambda Literary:
This is a poet willing to look at the messiness of our lives, willing to resist easy conclusions or ideas. […] “Descent to the Roses of a Family,” may be one of her greatest achievements as a poet, though it is a poem that is rarely quoted, rarely cited. This descent into her family and its examination of the life of her family explores how race and gender are co-constituted.
This messiness in pursuit of literary truth-telling, particularly about the violent schisms between the worlds we’ve inherited and the worlds we (activist queers and other social justice seekers) want, has always been what I have been after as a writer, but in Apocalypse, Darling I feel I’ve gotten closer than I ever have before.
What are you working on now?
I am working very slowly on an urban-report-based memoir called Oh What a Beautiful City, which is about time, place, and the evolving queer body. This book has many threads. Parts are a classic memoir narrative about navigating my own history with addiction, damage, and sobriety. Parts are interrogations and arguments between my younger and current self, in which I mean to agitate the neat narrative arc common to memoir. Parts are about reseeing and reclaiming those far southeast side of Chicago ruins and restorations near where I grew up. But a vital strand has to do with locating and making home on my own queer terms, in a troubled and compelling city where I have uncertain yet tenacious roots — a story I’m still living day-by-day.
At the same time, I have been writing stand-alone essays about radical art and art-making that I’m starting to think about in terms of a collection, such as the piece I was happy to publish recently, in this very magazine, about attending a 24-hour show by the performance artist Taylor Mac. And currently, I edit a journal of the urban essay arts — Slag Glass City — in which I hope to keep broadening the conversation about art-making from and about cities.
I was just talking to a colleague the other day about how while Apocalypse, Darling seems like a new sort of book for me, in my own head everything I’ve written or am writing feels like one long book. In that sense, what I’m currently working on is informed by the subject I choose, yes — but also by what happens around me that I do not choose. The creative nonfiction writer’s job is to be awake to the worlds we inhabit, so where I am now will always be what I am working on now.
Paul Lisicky is the author of The Narrow Door, Unbuilt Projects, The Burning House, Famous Builder, and Lawnboy. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Conjunctions, Fence, The New York Times, Ploughshares, Tin House, and elsewhere.
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