Known primarily for her books of poetry (such as The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead, and the Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Year, The California Poem), Eleni Sikelianos is also a writer of hybrid memoir, who plays with the intersections of memory, artifact, image, and imagination in her work. During my last semester at the University of Arizona this fall, I struggled with structuring a book out of fragmented lyric essays and read Sikelianos’ latest work, You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek), hoping to find inspiration in its experimental form. In this magical olio of scraps, myth, dreams, and narrative, Sikelianos traces the life of her exotic dancer grandmother, and inevitably her family’s complex lineage. On so many levels pertaining to the exploration of collective memory and archive, the book gave me hope for the future of what I consider the most exciting genre, near limitless, shifting and transforming with every new voice. That’s what was on my mind when I reached out to her to talk about breaking nonfiction rules and creating new ones.
Nina Boutsikaris: A big question in nonfiction is, how do we talk about a thing, invoke something specific about it, in a way that sends light through just the right fractal? Eleni, how did you begin writing this very diverse and textured folio? What came first? How did it progress?
Eleni Sikelianos: It’s hard to know what came first, because I’ve been working on this book for a very long time. I think I could say that I’ve been working on these family histories my whole life, and certainly they are some of the interior elements—my personal furniture—that pushed me to be a writer, and shaped my psychic household. I remember trying to write a poem about my grandmother as long ago as twenty-seven years ago. She appears again in a long poem in 2001 (The California Poem), and in my last book, too. That may be part of why these family histories come out in such “diverse and textured folio[s]”—they come from the fabric of my life. Some writers would aim to distill that and simplify it into a more coherent, mono-tonal narrative (which has its own power, to be sure), but that is not how I feel the world.
I grew up with many of these stories, and with my grandmother’s showgirl scrapbooks. I’m not sure at what point it became clear that the book should flower from the form of her scrapbooks (which were old black pages with photos and news clippings taped to them, as in the center of the book), but it was immensely helpful as an organizing element.
I like your notion of a specific thing sending light through a fractal. I was just thinking today of a Zukofsky quote: “writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing”—so often we think or describe or write through a mirage of seeing—what we think is true or real or the world. When we get down to the minute particulars is when real seeing occurs. When we’re writing about trauma, it is very tempting to go vague (where the heart glazes over), but that tends to turn the sharp arrows toward cliché. I struggled with how to manage brutality (from my mother’s stories and what I witnessed). A glass ashtray flying through air toward my mother’s face (a story she told me—her mother had thrown an ashtray at her) became one of those images I seized upon—I realized I had to go through the specific object.
I don’t know if you’ve been on the Elena Ferrante kick (I’d like to make a short video called “How literature can ruin your life,” with scenes of me reading Ferrante when I should have been grading papers or sleeping). She’s writing fiction, but a fiction so close to life it burns. I just read an interview with her today, in which she says:
“In general, we store away our experiences and make use of timeworn phrases—nice, ready-made, reassuring stylizations that give us a sense of colloquial normality. But in this way, either knowingly or unknowingly, we reject everything that, to be said fully, would require effort and a torturous search for words.”
NB: Inevitably, discussions of nonfiction question the “I” as working through the logic of “confession.” I kept thinking about this in You Animal Machine, which includes poetry, imagined scenarios, dreams, and visual artifacts, and can be read as a genre-fluid memoir. What might you be confessing to, if anything? In one of the imagined interviews, you write: “What wound are you writing from? I am not writing from any wound. What wound? Lower-left quadrant, her gut. What about your wound? I never write from my wound. I climb in through a hole and get out clean. That’s the informant’s prerogative.” A few paragraphs down, the narrator explains, “It’s not a wound, it’s a birth-hole. I climb inside and look around.”
ES: First, I like your term “genre-fluid,” especially since “genre” comes from the same root as “gender,” and both have been categories meant to keep things in line. “Hybrid” has been helpful as a term, but not quite accurate, since it implies different categories of things stuck together, with less of a sense of fluidity. And indeed, I think part of why I seem to need to work in genre-fluid ways is that I don’t feel all these things as categorial.
I am not really interested in a logic of confession. I felt that profoundly while writing the book about my father (The Book of Jon). I get that confession can be very potent, and is a seductive stance. Who can argue with the potency of Sylvia Plath? But many tales of confession seem to wallow in accusation or self-pity. We can’t change the events of the past, but we can change how we deal with them, envision them. My reasons for writing, at their very best, are to
journey through materials, questioningly, and in the process actuate change. I change the materials (moving language, images around), the materials change me. There is an ethical relationship between the writer and other persons, between the writer and the world, and the writer and herself—one that requires agency. The abject engenders abjection. I’m using the dictionary sense of that word there, though Kristeva has an interesting take on the abject, which she claims as a border space, where the real—i.e., death, breakdowns between subject and object, etc.—erupts. This second definition of the abject is interesting to me, whereas a confessional abject—which preserves a certain ready-made symbolic order—is less so. There are other, more powerful ways for me to proceed as a writer. But it doesn’t always mean wide audience! We like our neat tales of woe! Conversely, the ethic applies in not cheaply turning family history to a self-congratulatory tale of individual triumph—unless that is the deep tale.
I am, however, for a baring of the soul. Maybe the differences are subtle. I’m going to quote my old teacher, Allen Ginsberg, here: “The point of Beat is that you get beat down to a certain nakedness where you actually are able to see the world in a visionary way, which is the old classical understanding of what happens in the dark night of the soul.”
I think part of what happens, in say, Ginsberg’s most potent work, is that the “I” is not the only important site in the work—it gathers others, relationship, to it, and sometimes disperses in such gatherings. That’s one of the potent things in Ferrante’s work too: so much of it is about relation rather than just one self (as in, say, Knausgaard—another interesting auto-fictionalist these days, but one more solidly focused on the tides of the “I,” less on its relations and dispersals).
The sentences you quote were written in response to a question a friend posed. She is a very straightforward nonfiction writer (and she’s sold a lot of books!). She asked me, in regards to this project, “What wound are you writing from?” The question irked me (I chafe at such an imprisonment of a writer’s motives), and yet the validity of the question was also apparent. So, I’m arguing with it and allowing it. And also letting it become something else—the wound of being a woman in any era, the womb/wound of being born, and one portal by which our lineages can be accessed.
NB: I also wondered about the slipperiness of the “I” and how that’s working towards your questions about family, maybe in relation to this admission: “It matters that there are holes in a family history that can never be filled, that there are secrets and mysteries, migrations and invasions and murky bloodlines. In this way we speak of human history.”
ES: Despite what I’ve said above, one of my ongoing struggles in the family histories is how to include/represent the self in the work. Poetry, the form I have worked in most devotedly, allows a phenomenal fluidity of self—I can present very personal information, then speak from the middle of an interstellar cluster. I think I could argue that the line break is part of why that’s possible—the gathering and breaking of language, of time, in that moment when we move through a line then hit the timeless, white expanse of the break. Eliot has of course called poetry an escape from emotion and personality, which is one (perhaps rather buttoned and dusty) way to express it. He also says that if you don’t have emotion or personality, you don’t need to find such an escape (!). I do often believe that poetry can be a place for us to avoid direct contact, to ricochet rather than plow head-on. I’m not sure the obsession with the self/I is any more natural or right than the dispersal of it, but it seems to be what we’re addicted to. Poetry’s terms of engagement could be very useful in our solipsistic culture.
In these genre-fluid projects, I seem to feel more comfortable writing about others; then I have to go back and intentionally insert more of myself (beyond being the consciousness organizing language). Part of being in relation, in family, in love, in the world (and for me, among trees, animals, rocks, dirt, etc.), and in relation in language, is to experience a slipperiness of self.
We tend to crave a “and so it is” and “so it was” that the illusion of a single perspective brings, but one thing I have learned from being in the world is that there is no such panopticon. Panopticons are for surveillance states. It behooves us as writers and artists at this moment in history to honor the unknown and the unknowable.
Just last night, I was reading Svetlana Alexievich’s incredible Voices from Chernobyl (the first nonfiction writer to win the Nobel in literature!), and came across this sentence:
“Someone said to me, or maybe I read it, that the problem of Chernobyl presents itself first of all as a problem of self-understanding… I keep waiting for someone intelligent to explain it to me.”
NB: You Animal Machine sometimes feels like a memorial: the narrator asks, “How does a dead woman find her voice?” But for me the narrative is also so much about the author positioning herself in the history of her whole family and of the female Greek lineage in America. Were you concerned with a balance between asking bigger questions about family and telling a story about yourself?
ES: Very. These family histories tend to awaken an insecurity about their importance. Why should anyone care about my grandmother? It can be a useful thing to feel pushed to connect one’s family story to bigger historical and familial questions. Some of the things that emerged for me in this particular book include how family trauma is passed down, and how it might be dissipated or reshaped, and how social/historical trauma might be intertwined with it; the ongoing question of how independent women have made a place for themselves (we can move that perennial question around through different cultures and times); and questions of domestication and ferality (that’s right in the title, I guess)—how we learn (through community, parenting, social forces, etc.) to be human animals, with beautiful and horrible things happening at either end of the feral/socialization spectrum.
NB: I’m interested in your research process and how the book shifts in between personal artifacts and stories to mythological ones. Could you talk a little bit about how and why you did this?
ES: Yes. I definitely get carried away in research tangents, trying to understand or make sense of all the possibilities. I went off on long journeys into histories of feral children, dwarves, jaguars. For this book in particular, because my grandmother had so many eccentric corners to her life, and because she was a wanderer, it seemed right to allow the materials to mirror that.
I was also trying to create a scaffolding for her to exist in—her life (perhaps any life) looks like a series of failures. Including quotes from Cabeza de Vaca’s wanderings across the continent, or Gilgamesh’s or Persephone’s experiences in the underworld, gave her a net within which to exist more meaningfully.
So, I do a lot of reading, and tend to get into jags. But there is also the process of gathering materials and stories from family (or others) that is really rich—and in a way, is where the real lifeblood is—not in the traditional archival resources, but in our walking libraries. In each family history thus far, I’ve also given family members an opportunity to write directly into the text. For my father, I gathered family members’ dreams of him, for my grandmother, besides the verbatim interview with my mother and her sister, I solicited their comments on the text, which I include as an appendix. (I love it when they correct me, especially because I’m often telling a story the way they told it to me.)
NB: The “visual essay” seems to be having a moment right now (Ithaca College, my alma mater, recently founded the Image Text MFA program) in terms of its abilities to add meaning to words with juxtaposition, for instance. Why were the visual elements necessary for you?
ES: Well, of course, pictures “say” differently than does language. I’ve been using photos, paintings, drawings, maps, documents, etc., for about a decade now. I’ve talked about them as non-languaged parts of a poem or nonfiction piece, where meaning and thought can pool, a relief from the explanatory weight of language. There is also what happens in the gutter between language and image. I’m interested in the way images tell story in a non-illustrative, additive way. Early influences for me were Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and (to a lesser, later extent) Sebald, as well as zoology textbooks and naturalist guidebooks.
Here is a crude snapshot I used in The Book of Jon — a picture of everything (except the $11.42 or so, which my three siblings and I split) that belonged to my father at his death.
For me, this shot does a lot of work in carrying the emotional impact of how little my father owned at the end of his life.
In You Animal Machine, that picture of my grandmother in her leopard costume probably tells about 90% of the story. At some point, I realized I was trying to gather her up, as if she’d been dismembered by time and trauma, so I took that picture and chopped it up into parts and scattered them throughout the book, like weigh stations, stations of the cross, or lost oases in the desert, until we get to the final, full picture of her at the end of the book. In that picture, we can see her as hiding behind the mask, or as suited up (like a super hero). Either way, the image has the last “word” in the main body of the book. It took me a lot of language to scratch at the other 10% of the story. I’m not saying a picture is worth a thousand words. A picture can over-fix reality, we can get stuck in an image’s interpretation of the past; language is a way to mobilize it.
Eleni Sikelianos is the author of seven books of poetry, including The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead (among Library Journal and The Volta’s best books of the year) and The California Poem (a Barnes & Noble Best of the Year), as well as hybrid memoirs, The Book of Jon and You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek). Sikelianos teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Denver and in Naropa’s Summer Writing Program. A California native, former New Yorker, and world traveler, she now lives in Boulder with her husband, the novelist Laird Hunt, and their daughter, Eva Grace.