Somewhere, in an email nearly a decade old now, and in reference to a conversation I can’t quite recall, Sesshu Foster wrote something to the effect of “there’s a difference between what our lives depend upon, and what we think of our lives, at their best—most successful, happiest, least remorseful, whatever—consist of.” We often do not think of bathing, or setting the alarm clock, or switching off the lights in an unoccupied room as providing for our sustenance, much less being redemptive or salvific. But, beyond this dull and dulling equipage, what lifeline is ever really thrown our way? And what if the best—most successful, happiest, least remorseful, whatever—art is similarly routine, albeit not in its effect, but in its means and measures?
Ben and Sandra Doller’s “blind collaboration,” The Yesterday Project (Sidebrow), frequently prompted me to reconsider this notion, and not in the form of a question, but rather in the shape of a corollary. That is, Ben and Sandra Doller did not simply write The Yesterday Project. Within it, they do something, and that doing establishes a different relationship to accomplishment than we typically encounter in literature, even literature as inherently speculative as the essay. I will confess that the last task I would volunteer to undertake would be to look at my life as it I really live it. (If I’m not mistaken, the name for this particular pathology is “hypocrisy.”) Because I already know what I would have no choice but to confront: failure piling upon failure, like the discarded shoes (if not amputated limbs) in one of Philip Guston’s late canvases. The only victory in such looking lies over the horizon of a kind of double vision, itself simultaneously grace and affliction (i.e., flat), one towards which the Dollers here doggedly pace themselves. They don’t look away, and yet they somehow keep putting distance between themselves and a past from which they know they’ll never fully be separated.
I want to say this without irony or conceit: reading each entry in The Yesterday Project is as profound as brushing your teeth every morning. Isn’t this how a contemporary Orpheus might protect himself in his search for Eurydice? Not all of us would or can journey into the “grievous circle” of the real. Instead, we are content to skim the real’s surface. To traverse, and to sing of all that traversal touches, is to quicken consciousness, which is perhaps the most perilous and impartial (or inhuman; inhumane, assuredly) aspect of our existence. Perhaps, as the Dollers discuss in the exchanges to follow, because its origins lie in the realms of everyday obscurity, The Yesterday Project is a most mindful book indeed.
The following questions and answers were exchanged over the terminal half of 2016.
Many a weighty, self-consciously tome-y literary work has made its own grand tour of memory in the most palatial sense of the word. Yet The Yesterday Project appeals to me as unique due to its engagement with short-term memory. Or perhaps the better term to use here is “recall.” What, for you both, made this form of memory a subject of interest?
Ben Doller: Prior to this project, we didn’t have a discussion that isolated any particular aspect of memory as our intended subject. The subject of recall was central to our simple exercise, and going into it we certainly had ongoing questions about the diminishing powers of our long and short term memories, outsourced as they have been the last 20 years to various devices. Not just our memories—our abilities to do simple arithmetic, to get around, to research, to make decisions about where to eat, what to do, and how. We are roughly the same age, and we teach students 20 years our junior, who don’t remember a time before the internet. We are members of the last generation—in the United States at least—for whom a non-wired childhood was possible. For me at least, it is very difficult to remember what I did the day before. The main reason is that I probably didn’t actually do anything. In some ways, the Project, and the way we had organized our lives at this point, was a way to ensure that we did some things and recalled what they were.
Sandra Doller: This is a nice turn on memory, and I’m attracted to the “short” in short-term here. Maybe because finitude is exactly what we were working with in The Yesterday Project. Brevity and finality and not wanting or being able to think beyond a short time into the future and a short time into the past. There is a focus on radical present/presence/presents in the book and it’s a synchronous collaboration in that way. Like how it’s a relief to not have to give your whole life story trauma to yet another therapist… It’s a cliché to say all we have is now, and what just happened yesterday, but clichés are such for a reason.
Which is more mortifying: the spontaneous, the cursory, or the act of faith (not in the sense of steadfastness or promise, but within the more modern denotation of an “assent of the mind to the truth of a statement for which there is incomplete evidence”)?
SD: I’m not sure how to answer this, I like the question too much to answer it. It’s all more mortifying, and mortality most of all.
BD: That’s a great question. We’re in the desert answering these great questions, without the Internet, so I can’t look up the etymology of “mortify” without reaching the hardcover OED off the shelf. I am sure I will wake the baby if I try this. But the etymology of “mortify” is pretty obvious, it must have something to do with dead flesh. I was most mortified by the very real prospect of becoming dead flesh sooner than I had ever imagined I would, and that the act of faith that I would not become so was a delusion. In this light, the spontaneous and the cursory seem like the gifts they are, the trace of the energy of human lives being lived.
The Yesterday Project flirts with automatism. How did you both relate to how this project required (or asked) that you submit to the procedural?
BD: It was a difficult adjustment for me. When I write poems, I am tuned into a kind of speech or anti-speech rhythm I can almost hear before I begin, one that has been accumulating for a long time. The poem is present already, I just have to find it. And I fail, but I’m left with something else that can be re-traced and re-tracked into something else, and so on. The only rhythm I could find in the Project was the tapping of the keys as fast as I could so I could be done with something that felt like a sentence (in both senses of the word). I remember feeling it was best in the process when it truly felt automatic, when my ego was somewhere else, where “quality” was not a question. I’ve been writing for long enough now that I’ve become less interested in burnishing an object that I am already capable of producing, and more driven towards the unknown. Automatism—in the sense of “automatic writing”—turns writing away from the sculptural and towards the performative. Automatism in the sense of “Automaton” does the reverse. It felt like both senses were being enacted during different parts of the process. Either way, we didn’t edit the work—in fact we barely even re-read this writing until it was published.
SD: In some sense, this project attends to the very automated procedural gestures of dailiness. You make the coffee, a decision about breakfast, an errand, you spy something on the side of the road, you do or don’t allow yourself to consider it for a second, you complete the errand, you start the car, you stop the car, etc. The “etc.” It’s the mundane you can focus on in a state of trauma, and yet here we’re doing so not in an attempt at avoidance, rather dipping a syringe into those daily moments and activities, concentrating them and concentrating on them to a radical or a ridiculous extent.
At the end of this experiment (in living, in language, in composition, in comprehension), Ben notes: “And I couldn’t believe my writing, not because it was good or bad, but because it had a subject and I have been an enemy of subject, because it wasn’t driven by sound because that is where I thought the truth was. And even now I cringe a little at the word truth, I would never have used such a word before yesterday, but now I do it all the time…” If there is lyric(al) truth here for you, where / how so?
BD: I used to try to write against. In the process of this Project, I began to try to write for. It’s a big shift. It’s terrifying to write something that is more than its gestures, more than its tempo, more than its own self-effacement. But I’m more curious about the things that embarrass me (that mortify me) than the things that I know I like/the things my identity has been pieced together from. In this project, the truth is in the dual perspectives on the same events, the intimacy that is shared with each other and the reader, and the fact-based reportage that it seems we were both gunning for. Despite the constraint of the project, there was a sense of not-knowing, a precariousness of destination, and also a circularity that I associate with lyric.
Near the beginning of this experiment (in living, in language, in composition, in comprehension), Sandra writes: “Yesterday yesterday started… A new project, a reality show. Each day, a performance of living. Each record, a matter.” How much are these yesterdays creations rather than re-creations?
SD: Completely. The “yesterdays” replace the yester-days. Once it’s written, it’s molded. It’s not just the obsessive selfie, it’s the obsessive Instagram selfie and Snapchat and whatever-next selfie. Maybe “replace” is not scientifically accurate, maybe “become.” You-are-what-you-eat kind of become. It’s just as literal, the way the written word becomes the recall. We have no photographs from the time period of the book, but I feel like I have an enormous album—I can see the couches in the rented Mendocino house, I can remember all the shitty plants on the yoga deck, I see hopsy the bird on the land in Landers, the guy walking across the street in front of our car, the crew of Christians with the hot tub, the non-raping patronizing electrician. How often can you remember a stranger who walked in front of your car in a crosswalk yesterday, or “yesterday”? Maybe it’s just a food journal, but with events, with the same ultimate goals: cleanse, attend, recalibrate.
The Yesterday Project is, in many ways, a feast. Literally: the book overflows with food. These entries are not obsessed with food; they don’t surround cauliflower steaks and kale with an (anti-)aura of pornography. Rather, the couple’s relationship with food is bound up in their shared apprehensions about what Ben can do to exercise some agency in healing a body (his own) affected by cancer. However, it is worth observing that the 21st Century has seen an important revival of philosophical (ontological, teleological, aesthetic, ethical) interest in food. (To take but one example, Gabriel Gudding’s Literature for Nonhumans). And so the exposure of diet in The Yesterday Project’s pages is also an exposure of choices, freedoms and comforts enjoyed irrespective of the conscious pleasures attending them. Couldn’t the abundance of food, from a classic literary perspective, be read as thematic? Food connoting intake and output, assimilation, digestion, essence and waste: the relatively undisclosed, but not unacknowledged meta-s of the endeavor that is The Yesterday Project. Still, I wonder: does this text want to resist such thematics? To be, in a word, literal?
BD: Yes and no. Food is literal, in the world, in the book. We literally ate the things we bought and cooked, but we also thought about the cellular and environmental impact. CA Conrad talks about the intake of feedlot animal flesh as the metabolizing of trauma, and how could he not be right? Ritual, preparing, sharing meals—all a vital part of our Yesterdays. In a culture where food is profit, thinking about and making (ethically/nutritionally) responsible food choices takes a lot of time, energy, and money. It is, in this country at least, a domain of the privileged. “Conscious Capitalism” (reprehensible phrase) and all that. It would be impossible for ethics not to enter the book as thematic. And food is absolute ethics. What you put in your body, who you buy it from, how it is prepared. We are both convinced that corporate/chemical/industrial food is a hellish poisonous disaster for the planet and for its humans and non-humans alike. But I can recall every indulgence pre- and post- cancer, and these indulgences were/are as much an aesthetic failure as anything else—an easy slip into a status quo that just so happens to represent much of what is quietly deadly about life in this world right now.
As noted, situated at the heart of the book is a very serious medical condition that may or may not be beyond the couple’s ability to determine. While the language in The Yesterday Project rarely posits itself as therapeutic, that notion hovers over much of the project’s discipline. How Heisenbergian is The Yesterday Project? How much might the book have been an attempt to change your lives by means of making visible to yourselves your own witnessing of your living?
BD: Sandra had this idea, and I think it was her intention to create a kind of snare or loop of attention. In any case, beyond intention, where most writing happens, it happened. With a project like this, you live in front of and behind the writing. Contingency becomes narrative, personal dramas become performance. It was a kind of method writing, a projected document that created a future. It never felt therapeutic, but it did reorient time in a way that put the trauma a few feet further away, and now has cryogenically frozen it.
Why add to the extant canon of literary about marriage / heterosexual union? (I ask this having written a novel, all of whose plot lines are hopelessly, stupidly tangled up in this same subject.)
SD: What does it say about us to say that we don’t see ourselves as a heterosexual union, though we are married. I hate being called a wife. I never say husband. Partner works. Comrade. Coeval. Conspirator. This question surprised us, maybe more because we’re not really aware of that extant canon, but maybe that’s just an unaware awareness. Anyway, this book tangles with gender and heterosexism and marriage, yes. Maybe the three of us need to go to couples counseling together to answer this… I think this question is what delayed our processing of this interview. Your paperwork has been delayed. That and the very fact of our united lives, the baby as cloth remnant, sleeping sometimes which is when we clean or answer email or watch Divorce on HBO.
BD: It’s what happened. That was the project. We happen to have a heterosexual union on our hands. We do not think of it that way: it’s a little more personal, specific. I feel we subvert the trope in our own way, daily, through care and terror. Canons backfire all the time. We decided during the writing of this book to bring another life into the world. What a cliché.
As readers rather than writers, what do you hope truly genre-less writing can accomplish?
SD: Something unaccomplishable, or at least, unaccomplished. Truly genre-less writing is the writing I’m interested in now, so I hope it accomplishes that—keeps me interested, interests others, challenges the notion of genre at its core. Genre today seems like either an outmoded or a romantic notion, the idea that something fits inside IT, rather than genre itself that fits inside the work. Writers are writing and when we call it poetry something changes. While we were completing this interview Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Genre-less writing has been achieved?
BD: Supplemental perceptions.
I apologize. This last question is really all about me. I love this book because, I think, it challenges me to make the act of reading an act of love. I suppose by love I mean being attentive and exercising care. But I also think I love The Yesterday Project because, as a writer myself, I recognize this world: these “lifestyles,” these coterie transactions, this background jazz, that reading one undertakes out of obligation, those toxic fumes emanating from academia, and so on. And, at a fundamental level, I loathe how my life is in part defined by these same things. In a weird way, inasmuch as the book represents “me” at my least individualized—that is, as a member of a discernible class—it actually rejects me. In fact, I feel tempted to be expelled from the book, to be exiled to a position of pseudo-sadism, one from which I can critique, interrogate, judge and therefore pretend to be unimplicated. But I know this is true fiction. Instead, I want to console the people in the book precisely because they ask for no consolation. They just go out and find it, if not heroically then at least without their defenses raised. The future pulls this couple along, even though the future for them may end at any minute. Assuming you know who I mean, what have readers unlike me had to say about The Yesterday Project?
SD: We like to think of this as our accessible work. But we may be too accessible to access here. I keep wanting to give the book to people so I don’t have to tell the same jokes or anecdotes or go over the same terrain, sort of like breaking in a new therapist. I want everyone to know about the Christians and the hot tub so we can move on. By “Christians” and “hot tub” here of course I mean Ben’s cancer. We have moved on, through, yesterday, but wouldn’t it be great to have everyone on the same page. Then we could really figure some shit out.
BD: Joe, I’m sorry it took us so long to finish this interview. I wanted to come up with a good answer to this last question of yours. I am incapable of doing it. We have given the book to friends outside our bizarre creative writing professor class. They are still our friends.
Sandra Doller’s books include Leave Your Body Behind, Oriflamme, Chora, and Man Years, and two chapbooks: Mystérieuse by Éric Suchère and Memory of the Prose Machine. The founder & editrice of 1913 Press & 1913 a journal of forms, Doller has taught at Hollins University and Boise State University, and she currently teaches film, literature, and writing at Cal State-San Marcos. She lives in California.
Ben Doller is the author of Dead Ahead, FAQ, and Radio, Radio, winner of the Walt Whitman Award, as well as the forthcoming Fauxhawk. Along with the poet Sandra Doller, he has published two collaborative books. He is an associate professor of writing and literature at the University of California, San Diego.