The Poetry Project

Renee Gladman in Conversation with Miriam Karraker

I have been a reader of Renee Gladman’s work for a number of years and have long admired how she attends to the sentence and narrative as spatial phenomenon. Legibility of story is less of a concern than clarity of feeling—narrative becomes sensing the density of ink on the page of her Prose Architectures or her juxtaposed literal and figurative landscapes of her Calamities. Gladman seeks to place us at thresholds, for us to attend to modes of becoming.

In her newest, Plans for Sentences, Gladman continues to explore the generative relationship between drawing and writing, how the two inform one another in propulsive looping through what was and what is, towards what would or could be. She builds on this while also opening a generative space for the reader to take these plans as blueprints for their own futures. I read this plan for a sentence, “This chapter will comprise 465 passages without words; and there will be a gray happening” and I consider a performance: my body supine on a white sheet, I count breaths in my head, someone covers the lower half of my body in cool gray sand. To spend time with Plans for Sentences is to enter what Gladman calls a “propositional space, a space about a means of inhabiting that hasn’t yet arrived and may never arrive.”

Renee Gladman and I spoke via Zoom on February 25, 2022

Renee Gladman: So you’re a multimedia artist right, you work in sound and performance?

Miriam Karraker: Mostly writing and sound, yeah, I’m always sort of parsing what it means to write and be interested in music. I had this poetry prof in college say my work isn’t visual, it’s acoustic—I feel like I’ve spent years trying to figure that out.

RG: Do you agree with that?

MK: It may have been true at one point. I actually think my work is more spatial now.

RG: I feel like it really depends on the kind of writer you are. I mean writing is definitely acoustic, but I would never want to separate that experience from the spatial, or even the visual.

MK: Yeah I mean to me writing is always tied to the body, which is always in a particular context or environment. I don’t like the word ambient very much, but to me I think a lot about what the conditions are that make an emotion or thought. I write a lot of scores in my practice because it’s another way to engage with material conditions—for my body or other people’s bodies. I think a lot about what holes might form or improvisations might happen.

RG: When you say you don’t like that term ambient is that as a musician or writer?

MK: As both. Yeah—that term…it’s usually used in place of more specific language. I dislike it for the same reason I dislike the word experimental. Everything is an experiment, everything is ambient. These words don’t get after the mechanisms of what’s actually happening. I mean sound is space, the word ambient doesn’t help me locate what’s at play in terms of material, form, method.

I’m really interested in your relationship with sound—I ran across a collaboration you did with Val Jeanty online and I’d love to hear what your experiences have been like working in, or thinking through sound.

RG: This idea that sound is space—that’s something I think about a lot in relation to writing. Places that you can arrive at through writing that are sort of beyond writing. And, oddly, it’s drawing that most helps me traverse these spaces.

Lately, I’ve been working on a sort of non-knowing while doing these black paper drawings— using white ink and pastels, drawing into a black space. It feels like that’s where sound comes from, like, you put in your non-knowing and you get sound back, and by sound I mean music. Spatial music.

I’ve explored this in a couple of ways. My first collaboration was with composer/sound artist Mauricio Pauly. We met when we were both Radcliffe Fellows in 2014 and were both equally fascinated by the influence of architecture and bewilderment in each other’s work. In 2019, as a Bagley Wright lecturer, I was able to commission Mauricio to compose a piece for a lecture I’d written called “Theory of Moving Houses,” which was the first in a series of three talks on Ravicka [the city-state at the center of Gladman’s cycle of novels] and fictional knowing. I wanted to imagine what evacuated spaces sound like. In a city, where buildings migrate, I wanted to know what sort of material they left behind, so I asked Mauricio to compose a piece that would reveal what remains when houses take off. Because the lecture itself had to do with dislocation, I felt that whatever he produced would be about my living, too.

At the time, I was living in Berlin and was feeling alien there, also going to different cities in Europe, sometimes feeling alien, sometimes finding pockets of belonging. I was thinking about moving and not moving, the body in space, and being a black body in space. When we performed the collaboration for the first time in 2020, I read my lecture standing next to Mauricio, where he sat behind this amazing spread of electronics, with me but not yet performing. When I finished speaking my voice continued, creating a bridge between our pieces. I just really loved that because I felt like the language I was using could only do so much in creating the architectures I was interested in, but he could take that same language and treat it solely as sound or material and push it into a non-representational space, a space beyond writing. Sound has this ability of furthering the abstraction of language: the linguistic goes away and you’re no longer following language, yet you’re still in a communication space. I just love that his sound/sounds/distortions of my voice continued to construct the space that I was thinking about or longing for.

With Val, the collaboration felt much more embodied. I’d written a piece in which I was trying to talk about space and light and color using a lot of repetition, especially of the word “something”—“space was something cut,” I kept saying. So, when we met up, she had that recording and was manipulating it while also playing the drums and doing other turntable magics, while I drew. I loved that we were making something simultaneously and were responding to each other. Her sounds made me want to dance as I drew, and I did dance, and this made for a kind of presencing I really appreciated.

MK: In my own practice I’m really fixated on how sound can create a kind of scaffolding for existing incidental environmental sounds. How can a performance facilitate or direct attention to what is not the performance? I’m fixated on these mechanisms in our environment that are often very small or we subconsciously shut out—like the drone of heating or cooling infrastructure in a building, or people shifting in their seats during a performance—minor gestures, to borrow Erin Manning’s term.

RG: I love the way Manning’s interest in gesture, the body, and space so perfectly intersects with disciplines outside of her field. I’m actually not even sure what her field is! Geography? Movement Studies? But she and Brian Masumi, in their book Thought in the Act, use the term “commotional” to describe the character or nature of the spaces we inhabit; and since I’m always thinking about the page and the time of writing and the sentence itself as spaces or terrains we inhabit or cross through, I’ve found this idea of commotion infinitely productive.

MK: I want to make sure we talk about Plans for Sentences, I’m especially interested in your initial hesitancy to juxtapose drawings and narrative language, and how you navigated your way into this new book.

RG: The kind of drawing I’ve been doing for the last nine years, beginning with Prose Architectures, came out of writing. It felt really important that I didn’t have drawings and narrative language adjacent to each other. It felt like the work that I was writing became the work I was drawing, and, for a long time, I wanted to leave it like that. It was less a hesitancy than it was an insistence that drawing was writing and the drawing itself was a kind of enactment or mapping of that perpetual turning of the one [writing, drawing] into the other [writing, drawing]. It was in Calamities and in many subsequent essays that I wanted to put language to what I was doing. I was deeply interested in the story of how I came to be doing a kind of drawing that was writing. I wanted to make stories of it.

With Plans, which I began maybe half a year after finishing Prose Architectures, I wanted to push the idea of the blueprint toward writing, going further into this thinking about the relationship of architectural structures to the building of narrative. “Plans” meant that you were looking at something propositional: these were proposals for space, proposals for new shapes of habitation. By naming the drawings Plans for Sentences, I could posit that whatever these new structures were they would belong to writing as much as they belonged to architecture. Ironically, though, when I made the drawings—between early 2016 and late 2017—I had no intention to actually put writing next to them. I didn’t do that until fall of 2018.

Right now, I can’t exactly remember what made me write that first caption or future sentence, but I do know I was at a residency in upstate New York and I’d brought the drawings with me hoping to figure out what they needed to become a book. I spread them on the floor and set up a few of them on a couple of small easels I kept on my desk and a nearby table and just sat with them for a while. At some point I figured out that I wanted to activate the energy of the lines in the drawings and that I wanted to explore that notion of futurity implied in Plans. What would it look like to write descriptions of future sentences?

However, as I began to generate the text, it was imperative that I find a way to avoid a “here’s the image and here’s the description” relationship once the book was designed. There is a tendency when we see an image and text together to look at the language as a way to understand the image, or look at the image as an illustration of what the language is saying. I didn’t want people to read a sentence then turn to the drawing for some kind of visual analog, or look at the drawing then turn to the sentence for background or context for the drawing. But I did want to make a way that you could see the one as an extension of the other or see them as coordinates in different forms. I also, in most cases, wrote multiple captions for each drawing, hoping to offer varying perspectives and spaces for inhabiting the drawn space.

MK: I think those multiple captions produce a very propulsive energy in the text that calls for a kind of engagement and questioning, but I’m also curious about the broader structure of the project—how these drawings are paired with sentences in each “figure” section, how there is this index of sentences at the end of the book. When I think of an index, I think of something that’s documentary, repository—in an almost clinical way, but your index is so far from that.

RG: I love an index! I always have. I’ve never made a proper one myself but I enjoy imagining how one goes about deciding which are the words for a particular constellation, especially after you’ve named the obvious terms, the ones anyone would guess were relevant, how you decide on the minor ones. I definitely think of an index as a repository of terms and, as a lover of abstraction, it’s really nice to be in a space where words have been pulled out of context and are positioned next to numbers. It’s hard to explain what’s so special about that, but it makes me giddy to think about. With One Long Black Sentence, the series of white-ink-on-black-paper drawings that ITI Press published in 2020, I got really excited thinking about how indexing might work within the visual field, if you were given the task of indexing a series of drawings, what you would land on and how you’d put language to that. I challenged poet and scholar Fred Moten to do this for One Long Black Sentence, and the results blew me away.

For Plans, I wanted to give the reader a space to inhabit the sentences that were separate from the drawings. There is a rhythm there and a lot of repetition of unusual words and I sensed things happening between the sentences that had nothing to do with the drawings and felt this deserved its own time. If it were possible I would have made two indices: one for the drawings and one for the figures. For me, the drawings and the figures both index (i.e., mark time) and are indexical (i.e., they are a constellation of marks). There are sixty drawings in the book (a total of 137 in the series) and approximately 180 captions. Each drawing and each caption is an act or moment of thought having to do with architecture or blackness or the body or writing. Each act marks a point in space; it constellates, becomes a site. I can’t imagine what people will do with this book when it comes out, or, if they teach it, how that would work.

MK: Yeah I was thinking about that when I was reading, that this would be an interesting tool for teaching.

RG: Which kind of class would you imagine it being taught in?

MK: Fiction is my first impulse, but really any generative context, writing or otherwise.

RG: I’m interested in possibilities of collaborating with the index, like, if someone said, “okay, draw this sentence” or, “use this sentence as a score,” or “what would this sentence look like in your aesthetic, your novel, poem?”

I’m curious what people will make of a propositional space, a space about a means of inhabiting that hasn’t yet arrived and may never arrive.

I also like to insist or at least remind the reader that the plan for the sentence is still the drawing. That was the initial impulse: the proposal is in the drawing and not the concordant language. So, what do you do with the language? I don’t want to unpack that but I would love for someone else to do it.

MK: I’m thinking about how Fred Moten wrote in the intro to Prose Architectures that your work “disobeys completion,” and in the context of this book, your work disobeys completion in that the index is a generative space, but also in the way that time is sticky as you move between drawing and writing. It makes me think of how hard it is to integrate parts of ourselves, past and present, into how we render ourselves in writing.

RG: But what if you’re interested in the space of not finishing, not even trying to go somewhere or trying to complete a thought? What if you just want to exist in some form of liminality? I think that’s what drawing has most taught me about writing: how to loop, how to go out and over and back and under and back, how to elongate. Moving because I’m responding to elements or problems in the field, not to arrive someplace. Which, again, returns me to that idea of Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, that space is commotional.

The space you enter is always already shifting and changing, and, when you enter, you change the space and it changes you, again and again. I’m really interested in what it means to create within such fluctuation. This is what I was doing in Calamities, too. Allowing thought to make a shape, being less invested in the trajectory of it than the feeling or energy of it. Trying to be just another object in the field.

MK: That’s so beautiful. I feel like...I don’t know, so much of what is dominant in American culture are modes of aspiration or striving, and/or rumination, nostalgia. Is drawing attention to the present the work of poetry?

RG: But…see what’s been really important to my thinking for the last many years is that I don’t want this kind of awareness-of-the-self writing to be the work of poetry only. I want fiction to be caught up in that same consciousness. I’ve been going on and on about this for almost half my life. What if fiction allowed itself to embody the energy of non-knowing, embody the ruptures of poetry, the fragments, the silences, the nonlinearity? This is pertinent because fiction (and narrative language in general) is what most approximates the story of our living: the space of narrative is where our events happen, where we pull our events out to view them; it’s where memory happens, in syntax, in a building of sentences. So what better way to explore all the complexities of making structures of experience and memory—whether real or imagined—than to do so within a structure that proposes that that type of articulation is possible. Fiction says there is a story here; you are a story, what you think is a story. So why not unpack the real story of our subjectivities, full of gaps and loops and unreliable information, within that space?

MK: I think something I struggle with in writing is this desire to know what’s on the other side of the writing, the philosophy or some history or context that I’m part of that may not really exist yet. But also wanting to render that space of unknowing—I find that really hard to translate.

RG: I’m not sure whether it’s writing that’s difficult or if it’s the fact of being a person in a body. I think that writing becomes hard for me, for a lot of people, when we try to make a text that…repairs. Like that sort of nexus space that is our everyday existence, you know. I think going from a complex multi-layered, multi-timed, full of holes, full of bridges (some bridges being broken) thinking space through the body and into the regimented confines of the sentence then the prose block is beyond difficult or is at least deeply bewildering. And I love a prose block—but the prose block is repaired: it’s contained and is a container. It is designed to move you forward, to provide slots for you to place certain information, to give you a way to parse and build at the same time, with the idea that up ahead is an arrival, and when you get there you will have more than you started out with.

To me, that doesn’t at all mirror what writing is like. So I think where people struggle is in that translation between what it’s like to be a thinking person and what the expectation is for a text. Poetry allows much more freedom and allows you to be able to move more seamlessly from the thinking space to the poemspace. But that’s why I love the essay, because that expectation is even larger than it is in fiction, that expectation of knowing. To write an essay, you’ve done some kind of thinking over here, and you’ve found something out, and now you’re going to come to the essay space and place what you’ve gathered. Calamities was realizing the rigidity of that frame and exploring what it would be like to unleash thinking or to unfold the line of thought in that space, but to not follow the rules. To not have an argument, to not have a place where I’m trying to go, but just sort of like allow the sentence or the line to unfold.

Again the drawing taught me to do this, to unfold in an organic kind of curious way which feels more like how the imagination goes. I mean I think a lot of people are excited about this, trying to figure out how to make the language space more complexly represent or reveal the experiences of being. People do that in all different kinds of ways, but the sort of way in which fiction maintains the sense of wholeness, I just want to rip that apart all the time.

MK: Right, life is full of holes.

#268 – Spring 2022