The Limit of Lyrical Thinking: A Conversation with Susan Briante

By Roberto TejadaJuly 27, 2020

The Limit of Lyrical Thinking: A Conversation with Susan Briante
SUSAN BRIANTE HAS LONG probed and interrogated the systems that we inhabit. In her 2007 debut collection Pioneers in the Study of Motion, Briante grounded the lyric poem in documentary research and in the geopolitical effects of global finance capital. Her 2011 book Utopia Minus established links to histories excavated from the ruins of development, from the calculus of memory, and from material culture in the public sphere. And her 2016 collection The Market Wonders elegantly addressed the personal, financial, and expressive limits of life in the entanglements of neoliberalism.

Now, with her new book Defacing the Monument, Briante turns her gaze to the issue and system of migration in the United States. Kin to experiments in prose by such writers as Bhanu Kapil, Maggie Nelson, and Claudia Rankine, Defacing the Monument is defiant of genre and unceasing in its ferocity of mind. Briante, restless and self-reflective, sources the desires and politics that undergird documentary works while crafting a cultural critique through literary, visual, and sonic forms. She reflects on writers Muriel Rukeyser in “The Book of the Dead,” M. NourbeSe Philip in Zong!, Layli Long Soldier in Whereas, who make use of elision, defacement, and erasure to contest official archives. Like Briante, these poets turn to the document as a way of dismantling legal agreements that monopolize the truth and monumentalize history. Our initial exchange took place in May this year, first by videoconference, later transcribed and edited as current events unfolded in documentary time.


ROBERTO TEJADA: It’s been inspiring to read and reread Defacing the Monument. You’ve crafted a lyric essay on the political present. The intellectual, aesthetic, and political frames of reference are vast, but you manage to establish trust in readers, even those unfamiliar with the traditions you bring into view: archive-based works and documentary poetics. You relate this to the real lives of the undocumented — brutally held in detention centers, standing trial along the US-Mexico border — while offering a reflection on the possibilities and consequences for poetry today. 

In Defacing the Monument, you define a general problem — that is, the place and purpose of the historical record as raw material for poetic performances — in prose given to tonal shifts at once expository, aphoristic, and self-reflective. In the process, you offer other forms of evidence by means of photographs, artifacts, and public records, often collaged into an image-text. These palimpsests induce lateral thinking about experience, aesthetics, and ethics, expressed with a view to potential action. Can you describe the first of these facing spreads, how you conceptualize the experience for readers, and what it foreshadows about the scope of the book?

SUSAN BRIANTE: The first of the facing spreads features a map and an Excel spreadsheet from the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants, a partnership between the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office and Humane Borders, designed to help those who have lost loved ones to the deadly migration journey. The Excel spreadsheet lists names of the deceased (when available), dates, and coordinates; the map of southern Arizona features black dots to indicate where remains have been discovered. I encountered a version of that map on the wall of the Kino Border Initiative Migrant Aid Station in Nogales, Sonora. The map provided both warning and practical information for those on their way north.

On the next page of the book, readers find a palimpsest of two images. One is the schedule for an Operation Streamline hearing I attended in September 2017 and upon which I had written some notes. The other is an article from The People for the American Way website that outlines relationships between the Trump administration and the for-profit prison industry. I wanted to put these four images in conversation to suggest the interconnectedness of our deadly border policy, the for-profit prison-industrial complex, and the Trump administration.

The book’s driving narrative begins with you as a participant witness, as the documentarian at a court trial resulting from the impact of Operation Streamline. As you reflect on the nature of the document in terms of poetics, the writing begins to perform the stakes involved for you personally and for fellow writers who have invested in evidence-based documentary styles of the lyric.

I’ve spent the past three summers coordinating a program which sends University of Arizona creative writing graduate students to live and work near the US-Mexico border in order to engage in reciprocal research with community-based organizations. Through the program, we’ve attended an Operation Streamline hearing. These hearings began under the Bush administration, when “illegal entry” became a criminal as well as a civil offense. In this process, up to 80 migrants can be brought before a judge and sentenced en masse to the crime of illegal entry. The act of creating a criminal record for all of these migrants allows Trump to say that these are all bad people, that these are criminals who crossed. This is a departure from our previous immigration policy, called “catch and release,” in which border patrol agents would transport unauthorized immigrants across the border.

In the process of witnessing these court proceedings and working with my students, I thought I would write a book about migration. Quickly, I realized how fraught that project was. For example, I reproduce in the book a calendar from the Operation Streamline hearing that provides nothing but the names of the defendants, their attorneys, the date of arrest, and whether or not they speak English. This document is layered with ideology, but lacks so much information. I saw the limits of the documentary project, and I wanted to make those limits evident to my readers.

Muriel Rukeyser appears throughout Defacing the Monument. A phrase of hers — that “poetry can extend the document” — is a claim you define and trouble in various passages.

People take that quote “poetry extends the document” to mean we can put documents into our poems. But it’s more than that. It’s one of her most famously quoted phrases, and it appears in a footnote to her series of poems “The Book of the Dead.” The series attempts to recount and contextualize the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, which killed at least 476 miners, mostly African American migrant workers, between 1930 and 1935. Rukeyser goes back to the legal record from a congressional investigation and hearing regarding Union Carbide’s mining practices, which found the company negligent but resulted in very little justice for the workers and their survivors.

The title of my book, Defacing the Monument, references Rukeyser’s poem “West Virginia,” in which she places what happened at Gauley Bridge within a national legacy of racism and economic exploitation. At one point, she evokes John Brown, the abolitionist and leader of a failed attempt to launch an armed liberation movement for enslaved people. She transcribes the words that appear on a plaque dedicated to him: “The site of the execution of John Brown, leader of the raid at Harper’s Ferry.” But she writes in between those words within her poem: “The GRANITE site of the PRECURSOR execution SABERS, APOSTLES of John Brown leader of the WAR’S BRILLIANT CLOUDY Raid at Harper’s Ferry.”

For Rukeyser, “extending the document” means rewriting it, revealing its limits, not simply allowing it to live on a page within a poem, not simply translating the document into lyric sensibility. As poets or documentarians, we need to make a document’s elisions and omissions legible.

As a researcher who thinks a lot about photography, Roberto, you’ve considered how the photograph is always a product of a single point of view. Your book Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness takes up issues of representation across the Americas. Could you talk about that project and how photographic documents relate to these lyric investigations?

It points back to the long-term impact of first reading John Berger’s essays on art and photography and his analysis not only of what a representation depicts within a frame, but also “what it refers to outside it.” He writes that “a photograph is already a message about the event it records” and about its own relative value as the inventory of things seen, selected, and preserved. Berger’s focus is to match what’s left outside the visual frame to the depictions within it. 

My own book refers to documents of different kinds: a mid-19th-century engraving by Frederick Catherwood from his expeditions with writer John Lloyd Stephens; prints from the 1846 US Invasion of Mexico; photographs by Edward Weston and other US American makers like Laura Gilpin; snapshots of the furniture designed by George Oppen during his Mexico City exile in the 1950s; a 1994 photographic portrait from the series made by multimedia artist Harry Gamboa Jr. depicting Chicano cultural figures, styles of masculinity, and cultural belonging; and the indelible file photo of Elián González made by Alan Diaz of the boy’s “forcible removal” by helmeted, commando-clad agents in the year 2000.

Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness is a personal book that I hope unites an idiosyncratic view with sharable concerns. It brings cultural poetics to art history, reflecting back on the climate of inter-American relations in accounts of colonial settlers, migrants, exiles, and tourists, adrift in the hemisphere, lost in the mirage or unbearable intensity of the neighbor. I think of the book as an occasion for considering the hazards involved in metaphors of colonial settlement and counter-conquest. It aims to find the narrative equivalent of the mural as a critical genre — the panoramic jolt of time flashing all-at-once. 

The point of Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness is to unsettle the attributes of cultural encounter, whether the result of murderous colonial violence, perverse hospitality, or cultural misrecognition. Those documents serve as material evidence, but not as points of proof or demonstration. Rather, they measure the agreements and disagreements between history and metaphor; narrative and visual motives together enacting — and so exalting or reproving — these limit-case scenarios.

In Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness, as well as across your poems and other critical writing, you do not highlight a crisis in the photograph, but rather its potential even as you signal what is absent from it.

Poetry and art criticism can, in tandem, contest the essentialism of disciplines, and I view my own commitments to history and the lyric in terms of cultural poetics. I’m interested in putting past actions on trial in service of critique, even knowing they can’t be reversed. But I’m also interested in untangling an image’s potential in the present. I mean that a photograph activates disruptions, antagonisms, and fault lines that alter the picture of the past for political uses in the present.

I believe Robin Blaser’s idea of the “Image-Nation” — a term I summon in my essay on Elián González — can gain particular momentum here. In the poems of The Holy Forest, Blaser describes the Image-Nation — imagination; place, word, and image, inextricably bound in fields of power — as the “matter of language caught in the fact.” The sonic quality of the phrase suggests language also “caught in the act.” It splits the difference between “what happened” and the tools we have to convey and make claims about a society’s historical process.

I’m drawn to that strange space between artwork and viewer. There is a dynamic reciprocity through frames that mediate the near and far between persons and objects. This leads us back to this idea of the frame — what it exposes and what it conceals. I think that the very structure of Defacing the Monument has something urgent to say in terms of what determines an artifact as being potential evidence, the trace or register of events about which poets are especially equipped to lend clarity; to bring a lyric imagination — a lyric energy — to vastly divergent materials.

I love that phrase “lyric imagination” because that signals a discovery for me. In addition to considering the challenges I faced working with documents, I realized that the poem must contest, deface, and imagine. That’s part of “extending the document” as well.

In the book, I write about M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, a seminal book of poems created in response to the massacre of Africans on the slave ship Zong. Navigational errors prolonged the voyage and caused the ship to run out of supplies. Some of the enslaved Africans died from illness, others from dehydration. Others were thrown overboard, so that the ship might recover insurance, but the insurance company refused to pay. There was a court case and an appeal, out of which came the decision Gregson v. Gilbert, a two-page legal document.

In the book itself and subsequent interviews, Philip writes she felt certain this two-page document contained some essence of the story that it erased. But she could not find it until she cut into the words and sentences of the document. Then, she was able to hear the voices of the ancestors, as she calls them, of those murdered enslaved Africans speaking through the text. Zong! is a work of unflinching documentary and incredible transcendence beyond documentary limits.

I also think of Layli Long Soldier’s book Whereas, which takes inspiration from and constitutes an extended critique of the very short — and woefully inadequate — “apology” President Barack Obama issued to Native Americans for US settler colonialism and genocide. Long Soldier comes at the idea of apology in all sorts of beautiful, moving, fiercely intelligent ways throughout the book. In one poem, she reprints a section of the apology withholding certain words — “spiritual,” “belief,” “family,” “children,” among others — to safeguard them from a document created by the US government. Like Philip’s work in Zong!, this is an imaginative way to contest and diminish the original document. And this kind of lyric imagining can also inform and expand documentary projects.

This is why writers who think deeply about the contradictions intrinsic to form are driven — certainly in your poetry and in Defacing the Monument — to release historical meanings, formerly suppressed or silenced, by submitting documents to active reconfigurations.

I admire what Bhanu Kapil does when she lays her body down on the border of the partition between India and Pakistan. Her body serves as the register of the documentary act. But lying my body down on the border between Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Arizona, is not the same act. And to extend that notion of the frame, our own subjectivities form part of this frame that we need to work with.

For far too long, white writers have not been responsible to that frame, and many have had the luxury of pretending it doesn’t exist or theorizing that it shouldn’t exist or ignoring the repercussions of it. Again, regardless of my desires, the body of a white woman occupies a very particular place in history. It’s my responsibility to understand that place, so that I do not activate responses, contexts, and ideas that are counter to my intentions.

In the middle of your book, Anna Briante appears and there’s a meditation precisely on the idea of Nordic physiognomy and the history of how some bodies get racialized that today we would consider white.

Yes, Anna Briante is my great-grandmother. I include my family’s own immigration documents within Defacing the Monument to differentiate between the history of 20th-century European immigrants and the current immigration crisis caused by our government. Easy comparisons between the hardships my Italian ancestors faced and what migrants from Latin America or Africa face today erase so much difference.

Italian Americans occupy a space in US history from which they can point to both discriminatory practices and white privilege. No matter the prejudices or language barriers Italian Americans faced, they were legally classified as white as soon as they came to the United States. That designation provided them with legal protections never available to other racial and ethnic groups. But often Italian Americans focus on the sacrifices that they had to make in order to assimilate, and the separation they continue to feel from Anglo-American culture. And as part of that assimilation, Italian Americans also replicate anti-blackness.

As I write this, there are necessary calls to bring down statues of Christopher Columbus. I don’t think that many Italian Americans countering those calls realize that Italian Americans actually lobbied to make Columbus Day a holiday in the 1950s to prove their allegiance to the United States at a time when McCarthyism and anti-immigration sentiment prevailed. Columbus is no role model for Italian Americans — he’s a symbol of assimilation, not cultural pride.

You are the son of immigrant parents from Colombia, and much of your work considers relations and representations across the US-Mexico border. You and I actually met in Mexico City in the 1990s, as NAFTA was ratified, and the Zapatista revolution blossomed. Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness argues that US identity is founded in its relationship to Mexico. Could you speak to the importance of that relationship and what it could teach us at this moment?

I wanted a panoramic view of this relationship with no particular overarching argument other than that developed by way of example. The book begins with a fantasy tableau of intersecting scenes uniting the 16th-century Spanish conquistador-castaway Cabeza de Vaca and the 17th-century settler-captive Mary Rowlandson. If their distinct testimonies are divided by time, geography, and colonial enterprise, they can be read together as both submitting a kind of user’s manual to personal redemption — but with the genocide of native peoples haunting their sentences in the present tense of writing. Because this is fantasy, Cabeza de Vaca and Rowlandson metamorphose into Hart Crane and Katherine Anne Porter in the 20th century, which prefaces my later discussion of US American artists and writers who distort, mistranslate, or entirely ignore colonial histories: the occupation of land and extraction of resources; US expansion and annexation of Mexico; cultural imperialism and military intervention; and the cause and effect of US exceptionalism.

I want to point to an extended quote from Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness that addresses poetry’s potential to help us contest or learn from such mis-imaginings. I think both of our books share a belief — albeit limited — in poetry’s capability.

You write:

The limberness of what we call poetry entangles the strict partitions of subject and object, of self and other, with a kind of intuitive leap that only metaphor makes plausible. These moments of poetic elucidation cannot be generalized nor are they easily earned nor is it possible to isolate them without jeopardizing the architecture specific to lyric intimacy.

Could you speak about this idea of the lyric’s potential, these elucidations, that limberness?

I tread carefully in that you and I are both allergic to overreaching claims made in name of poetry’s potential to transform; yet I don’t know whether we would be invested unless we thought poetry had some hold on a wider reassessment of value. Our books reflect this.

I view profound transformations as being primarily internal to the poem — that is, sound qualities or a high metabolism that can jolt me out of my own narrative and connect me to more expansive realm of events, sequences, histories, experiences that are at once voiced as my own while also belonging — spectrally and kaleidoscopically — to others. At least the poetry that moves me most has this capacity.

There’s something so beautiful when you write: “The limberness of what we call poetry untangles the strict partitions of subject, object, self, and other.” I am at the same time concerned about this notion that somehow poetry or literature activates our empathy. Not to dismiss the importance of empathy, but empathy has a limit. Saidiya Hartman in Scenes of Subjection brilliantly points out that to empathize is to put yourself in the place of someone without necessitating you accept their humanity or respect them.

To value the human distinction of another person is akin to acknowledging aspects of the world that deserve to outlive us. Defacing the Monument harnesses the lyric imagination to ask what it would mean to transmit this knowledge through techniques or exercises that call for further learning, with such evocative subtitles as “An invitation to something other than a mirror.” How do we move beyond or outside of our alienated experiences or self-absorption?

I created a series of exercises at the end of every chapter in Defacing the Monument to bring the reader to the page, to allow space for them to note the limits of the book, to answer back, to reflect. I believe in the lab of possibilities on the page. I’m trying to provoke my readers in a space —

— a space that animates contrary desires or implausible thoughts.

Yes. I wanted this book to go beyond the trope of “watch me witnessing.” I gesture to other writers and traditions, as well as give the reader a place to mark the limits and potential of all that I’m placing before and in relation to them.

Doesn’t the limit of lyrical thinking compel the opacity you describe?

I think of Édouard Glissant’s idea of opacity — an unknowability. I think that the danger of relying only on empathy is that perhaps it says, “I can know what it feels like.” And it demands to know. There’s something settler or colonialist about that demand, as opposed to admitting, “I can’t know and I can’t expect you to teach me.”

But it’s not a “can’t” that surrenders.

Exactly. It’s the idea that I will stand here in proximity. I think this connects to the notion of exile as you refer to it in Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness.

I worry that I’ve taxed the analogies of exile. But it offers a way of inhabiting, without altogether occupying place. Exile, like what Michel de Certeau calls “a universe of rented space haunted by a nowhere,” can occur in cultural domains that refute my belonging. Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness plays the relative entanglements between exile, tourism, migrant experience, colonial settler reality, and the occupation of space.

I love that idea — to inhabit but not occupy. There’s a kind of correlation between that and the distinction we’re making between empathy and compassion: it is not “I fully possess or know.” Rather, it’s the idea of renting that possibility for the future, activated through gestures and words.

Yes, what you describe in Defacing the Monument as the simultaneous “turning away” and “the opposite of turning away” might be one way to conclude here. To dwell, as you suggest, in the “presence before what might be known or not known,” and “to tremble in the tangle of compassion, complicity, opacity, and relation.”


Roberto Tejada is an art writer, historian, and poet. He is the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing and Art History at the University of Houston.

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Roberto Tejada is the author of poetry collections Full Foreground (Arizona, 2012), Exposition Park (Wesleyan, 2010), Mirrors for Gold (Krupskaya, 2006), Todo en el ahora (Libros Magenta, 2015), selected poems in Spanish translation, and a LatinX poetics of the Americas, Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness (Noemi, 2019). He is the author of art histories that include National Camera: Photography and Mexico’s Image Environment (Minnesota, 2009), Celia Alvarez Muñoz (Minnesota, 2009), and, co-authored with Michelle White and others, Allora & Calzadilla: Specters of Noon (Yale, 2021). He is the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing and Art History at the University of Houston.


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