Susan Gevirtz on Making Something from What’s at Hand that Wasn’t Evident Before
Susan Gevirtz lives in San Francisco. Her books of poetry include Aerodrome Orion & Starry Messenger (Kelsey Street, 2010); BROADCAST (Trafficker, 2009); Thrall (The Post-Apollo Press, 2007); Hourglass Transcripts (Burning Deck, 2001); Spelt, collaboration with Myung Mi Kim (a+bend, 1999); Black Box Cutaway (Kelsey Street, 1999); PROSTHESIS : : CAESAREA (Potes and Poets, 1994, reissue Little Red Leaves, 2009); Taken Place (Reality Street, 1993); Linen minus (Avenue B, 1992); and Domino: point of entry (Leave Books, 1992). Her critical study on the work of modernist Dorothy Richardson and early film, Narrative’s Journey: The Fiction and Film Writing of Dorothy Richardson, was published by Peter Lang in 1996.Coming Events: Collected Writing is out from Nightboat Press (2013). Many essays have appeared in literary magazines and scholarly journals. She’s currently Senior Adjunct Professor of both Visual and Critical Studies and also Fine Arts at California College of the Arts.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
My grandmothers — it’s due to them that I survived childhood and adolescence. My grandfathers too. Each has an interesting story but the stories that interest me most are the ones I’m not sure I’m remembering correctly or the unknown stories of those in the stern-faced portraits dressed in traditional Lithuanian hats. Or the ones there are no photos of but I’ve heard stories about. Like the doctor who took care of a very rich man who told him a secret on his deathbed that rendered this doctor mute but rich for the rest of his life. My grandmother told me that story but what part of it did I make up all these years later? It sounds like a fairytale but I know it’s true. My great grandfather was the conductor of the Czar’s marching band in turn-of-the-century Russia. No one knew he was Jewish. How did he do that? My grandfather as a boy hid under a bed while a pogrom ensued and his house was pillaged. I knew my great grandfather but asked, “What did it look like there? What did you eat?”, and so many other questions, he and my grandfather would change the subject. There are many, many other stories too, of course, and I feel close to them. I have always felt an affinity to the ancestors I knew and those I didn’t know — especially the ones who made the trip here from Eastern Europe. I’ve always lived a little in the turn-of-the-century or had a fascination for that time. And the pogrom trauma and the immigration and much else is alive in my cells — I contend with it. We all are contending in this way I think.
And also Barbara Guest — with threads back toward earlier writers, Dorothy Richardson, H.D., Djuna Barnes, and so many others who fall into this time period and field of benevolent help and contending/contention.
What is art?
Making something from what’s at hand — something that wasn’t evident before.
Is it necessary?
Yes. Especially because its necessity isn’t obvious.
Because it’s dreaming while awake. Without it there is no access to the invisible worlds and worlds of hope. It is a source of changing what is intolerable — and it seems to do nothing. But if it really did absolutely nothing it would be no threat. Apparently governments and even some individuals are afraid of it sometimes.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old?
Madeline L’Engle. I wrote her a letter and she responded. I wish I still had her letter.
What did you want to be?
A writer like her, or a painter.
What’s wrong with society today?
Not enough ancestor worship. The U.S. Prison industrial complex… just to start a too long list… Abraham & Torok explain what I mean by ancestor worship in their book The Shell and the Kernel — they devote a chapter to “A Remembrance of Things Deleted…” and later in another great chapter titled “Theoretra: An Alternative to Theory,” Torok says,
He or she is dead. Yet a tiny something survives, emerges from its hiding place. From under the veil, he or she lets me catch a glimpse, hear a whisper of some continuing faint movement or noise. There is a murmur, a ventriloquy, rising from the tomb in which he or she or someone else, either a contemporary or ancestor, was buried alive, sequestered, with their desires cut out, deprived of both life and death; and above all, something has been left unsettled.
So, not worship in the sense of obeisance (maybe sometimes that) but in the sense of introjection, a being in relation with the past, present and the unborn, in order to consider the murmur — how what is left unsettled is in always our midst, in need of further address — not in order to settle the unsettled, although that may by a side effect. Without this kind of talking with the buried alive, our writing and sense of the present, politics and history is skewed and doomed to miss something critical — not that we won’t always miss something anyway…
What are you working on right now?
I’m thinking about how girls always think they’re the ones who have done something wrong and where/when that starts. I’m thinking about the figure of the caesura (a complete pause in a line of poetry or in a musical composition) in a long conversation between my great late poet friend Stacy Doris and myself. Revisiting Derrida. Reading Inside This Place, Not of It, Narratives From Women’s Prisons, … among other things.
What kind of work would you like to do?
I want to work in prisons and with those newly released — and/or, in service of dismantling prisons. In this and other relations to writing I want to feel that I have no choice — this is it — whatever it is, I can’t milk the stone anymore.
Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
Writing that feels necessary and dire in the above and other ways. I was recently talking to the poet George Albon about embarrassment, what it is and its desirability in writing and he reminded me of this from a John Weiner’s interview:
Interviewer: Do you have a theory of poetics?
Wieners: I try to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of.
I admire and aspire to that.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Two things: the housing situation and the weather. We really need to figure out how to have less fog and affordable housing.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
A real movie in a real theatre with real popcorn with real butter. Harder and harder to find…
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
Once, driving through the Texas desert at night hundreds of miles from anywhere, I saw two people sitting on chaise lounges at a crossroad. I turned the car around and went by again to be sure I hadn’t imagined it. Another time I was in a market in Morocco and saw someone sitting in front of a few foot high pile of teeth. I realized later that he was probably just a dentist and this was a common sight. But to me it was surprising.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
To dismantle the U.S. prison system. But that will take a lot more than money…
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I’m more apt to turn to ice cream than YouTube. But my friend Amy Trachtenberg did send me a fantastic James Brown YouTube — of course he’s singing “I feel good” — I have it bookmarked. But I usually forget to do the things that make you feel better when I feel bad. Or resist them.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
Depends what you consider “medications.” I regularly abuse ice cream.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
Cecilia Vicuña once said to me, “We have to be in love all the time.” I agree. Every minute so many kinds of being in love have parallel lives over here in my court. My daughter, nieces, and many of the children and teens I know, the sky, a book, friends, etc etc, are the unwavering constants.