JT: Hi Hazel. I’m very excited that we get the chance to correspond about your brilliant new book Vigilance is No Orchard, just out from Nightboat. As perhaps an intro or frame to this discussion, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the focus of this collection, writing about landscape architect Isabelle Greene’s iconic Valentine Garden design, as well as the actual garden itself, emerged. What was your initial draw toward Isabelle’s project? How did it compel or perplex you enough to undertake this book- length engagement?
HW: Hi Jamie, thanks for your question. I saw an image of the garden in a magazine. Something was at stake there. It was a physical experience—later I would research the Stendhal syndrome, how people are made ill by an experience of art. The image, or something promised there, shot through me like electricity and suddenly I knew for certain that I would do anything to stand in the garden. The effect was strong for weeks, and then it faded, but it never went away. I was a professional writer, of books and magazine articles on gardening, especially design. I called Isabelle. When eventually I
did stand in Carol Valentine’s garden, I had the same fizzy alertness, but I couldn’t explain what was occurring there. So writing was my way to try to make sense of it. I didn’t know it when I turned the page in the magazine, but that was my first glimpse of one of the most internationally famous gardens of the late 20th century, and the maker of it, Isabelle Greene, is an artist as well as a landscape architect.
JT: It makes me think that we are trained to perceive in a particular way, which is then assumed to be sort of 101 when you enter any field. The physically disorienting experience of being stripped of a frame of reference or context that you had to seeing the Valentine Garden for the first time draws out all sorts of larger questions that perhaps weren’t raised in your writing previously; maybe more epistemological than practical questions? For example: what are the needs of a particular body in space and how do those needs prefigure an external world? Or, how are we surprised by what we need beyond the practical? You write in the book: “To know where you are as a fact”. When this certainty or mastery, in a sense, fell away how did writing change for you?
HW: Yes, it was just that—an experience of being stripped of a frame of reference. What was there in that garden was exquisite beauty in combination with no focal points. Without focal points, there was no insistence on how one should see. That presented as a sort of psychic decentering, and spectacularly, as an invitation to engage freely in space. Greene describes her work as leaving clues around to get people into the game. I was her perfect visitor!
Your idea of “the needs of a particular body in space”—yes, Greene plays with that. Our primary need is for safety, shelter. And this was a garden bound by tall white walls on three sides, in a tight canyon. When shelter is sufficiently provided, as it was there in that site and in the abundance of breath-taking beauty, the body wants to step out of shelter
into the world, to feel the joy of safe free movement. Greene provided a place for that roving by building space-exploding terraces that are seen from above and read as large as terraced rice fields in Banaue. She connects the body to the garden to the larger world and puts you in motion (I think of this as radical, it’s so important to overcome passivity). She creates her work that way: “Low where I want you to go and feel welcome, and then high to cradle you” (49). Here was a woman making space exactly how she wanted it. And I responded by craving a large field for myself. I wrote about the garden for magazines and in a museum catalog essay, but, to match my writing to her creation, to get myself in motion and in right relationship to this experience, I really needed the open spaces of poetry, which I had loved since I was a child.
JT: And that play of shelter and perception gets translated into the work via the sections the book is broken into, titled alternately “View” and “Refuge”. I like how these terms intermingle as well as play off each other. A refuge can have a view and simultaneously a view can be subservient to the welfare of the individual who is viewing. This is true even in the case of broad and uninterrupted views, ones that are seemingly “natural”. I think of the garden designs of 19th Century English landscape architect Capability Brown who, as Lisa Robertson notes in the essay “Arts and Crafts in Burnaby: A Congenial Soil,” creates a seamless transition between wilderness and front door. This sort of gets into the larger issue of walls and borders. You write “Greene silences the architect’s white walls by planting two eucalyptus trees to whistle over it”. Perception feels like poetry in this sense, engaged as it is with altering expectations of what is understood, while simultaneously being a created thing. So, if the idea of a garden assumes a particular type of set-off space (the word garden itself derives from the Old English geard, meaning “fence” or “enclosure”), then how do you think the Valentine Garden and your writing in relationship to it attempt to break down the binary of inside and outside, or explore the porous relationship of these designations? And maybe as a side question, can we have “natural spaces” that aren’t immediately ordered by our perception?
HW: Isabelle hates walls, she hates separation. It was the architect who built the walls at the Valentine Garden. I think the garden is where we declare or explore our relationship to our habitat. Capability Brown indulged his clients in a pretense—he planted the trees in the distance, redirected the river, stopped the wildlife from approaching the viewer by
placing a fence at the bottom of an invisible ditch (called a “ha-ha”). Modern gardens may be similarly indulgent by pretending that resources are unlimited—stone shipped from Italy, lawns consuming massive amounts of water, etc. The Valentine Garden is none of that. It’s water-sensitive, and not about grandeur. Rather it throws the viewer/visitor into relationship with land that is immersive, intentionally, provoking liveliness and engagement, driving a writer to write. The way poet Andrew Joron, in The Cry at Zero, talks about language as “an emergent phenomenon, spontaneously springing forth as a pure enigma, an overflowing of reality.” I remember now that Leslie Scalapino, my first poetry teacher, told me I was not writing “about” landscape, I “was” landscape. Does that answer your question about inside and outside? Yes, we do immediately try to order what we are looking at, but when we can’t, it’s an opportunity for hybridity. Joron, if I’m reading him correctly, calls all this the poetic-revolutionary nature of reality.
JT: I love how your remembrance of Leslie Scalapino’s redefinition of writing about landscape to “you are landscape” serves as another point of shifting perspective, first within the writer and then within the writing itself. It seems apt that so many new approaches to form emerge from self-interrogation. In discussion with other writers, I’ve sometimes been referring to your work as a new approach to the pastoral, one that is, indeed, more risky, more open perhaps to the complicity of voice in poetry. You write “Mutual life—and voyeuristic opportunity.” In this book, much as in your first book Peril as Architectural Enrichment, you are examining individuals examining nature. Often this individual is yourself, but you open the book up to include, and at times be redirected by, quotes from Greene in a manner that often grounds or redirects poetic reverie or psychological/perceptual self-inquiry. This mode of collage or collaborative writing opens up the possibility of an active landscape, one that functions so effectively because of its surprises and shifts of effect, color, etc. Joron’s “emergent phenomenon” feels powerfully connected to this “new pastoral” as a re-imagining of landscape, not as complete, solid, or evidentiary, but rather as something that continues to transform and startle. Do you feel connected to the tradition of nature poetry or of pastoral writing in general? Do you consider your writing to be pushing these forms in new directions purposefully or perhaps even subconsciously?
HW: Maybe I am, though I have never thought about it until now, pushing the forms of nature writing, or the pastoral. I grew up on English nature poetry—I read Wordsworth’s Prelude walking the hills where he walked, and the first poetry workshop I attended, when I was a teenager, was taught by Ted Hughes, just after Crow was published. I like that you see the writing in Vigilance as an active landscape and raise the idea of landscape as active also. I suppose I do adopt a mode of collage—I think of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s laying out on a desk hundreds of fragments of scientific theory and artists’ writings. I do like to let one thing overrun another in long lines, no barriers between landscape theory and a body immersed in its habitat and memory and what just happened right now. Mei-mei’s work has greatly influenced me. And I understand why I might always turn to landscape—I grew up in it, and I’ve worked in and studied it and written about it for decades—but I’m not sure that my primary interest is landscape. Rather I’m fascinated by a human animal body setting itself in motion, knowing already what it wants to do in a space. I read Alva Noe for years, hold close his emphasis on consciousness as action, as in his “perception is not something that happens to us, or in us. It is something we do . . . in a world that shows up for us.” I’m alert to that large space, the thrill of exploration there. It’s the same thing as seeing terraces that mimic a vast landscape and then lifting my foot and stepping down into it. A pastoral project that focuses on movement and immersion, no boundaries? What do you mean by “the complicity of voice in poetry”?
JT: I think with my statement regarding “complicity of voice in poetry” I’m trying to get at the awareness of a self in the poem, self-shaping the poem through a particular lens. Poetic voice functioning not as an assumed authority, but something that is noted and interrogated by the text. I’m thinking about how the collaging of Isabelle’s voice and
yours throughout your book suggests a mutable, multiple way of seeing. I read this as a sort of wrestling with the failure or inadequacy of any singular expression of space, much like how the garden invites you into a game of perspective that Isabelle sets up. This seems to correspond with your Noe quote regarding “consciousness as action”. But I’m also dreaming of a garden that, because it can never be viewed “correctly”, never ceases to exist. Maybe that’s what I hope for in poetry too; that its relational quality, existing in an intermediary space between writer and reader, never ceases to be active or to transform. The hybridity of your writing also suggests an openness to systems of design and chance which seem to mirror the garden’s counter intuitive, shifting beauty. Does that make sense?
Conversely, I was really struck by lines like “gardens flicker in and out of existence”, and the book’s ending: “Because a garden, like a photograph, can die, I’m placing the flat fact of it here, in the dry, like certainty’s stored apples and pears.” Because the Valentine Garden has been rapidly sliding into entropy with the death of Carol Valentine and neglect of the current property owners, do you think we’re left feeling a little bereft as the book closes, perhaps left with only the memory of a previous life? With all of the composite pieces of design muddled by this decomposition, I wonder when it stops being the Valentine Garden.
I do see this book as a way of perhaps continuing Isabelle’s game, allowing the garden to be, in a sense, renewed by each reader. However, I’m wondering how you feel now that the book is finished and out in the world. In the postscript we are asked to consider “the end of the garden” and you ask the self-reflective, maybe rhetorical question “why did I go in to index its presence, risk such a vascular distribution!”. There’s a feeling here of making a body out of an exteriority, a identity projected onto a landscape. Now with the ongoing erasure of the physical space that initiated your project in the first place, do you find that you’ve been able to let go? Perhaps in a different way than Isabelle, as a commercial landscape architect, had to with her design?
HW: The feeling is joy now. I survived a long, difficult journey, of relationship and immersion. I was just then wanting to write “without ruining anything.” I am so afraid of failure and neglect. At a recent reading—you were there, and I wonder if your question arose from it—I decided to read more of the poems that address loss and to speak about the garden becoming a ruin. I sensed I needed to read poems that spoke to the beauty of the place also and to plenty. I guess, unconsciously, I was wanting to generate an experience that mirrored my own, to stir people, promote a “vascular distribution,” and bring us through. It occurred to me I might cry. Perhaps I overplayed the loss, the garden being now a ruin. Several people talked and wrote to me about that after. Isn’t it, though, that we are incredibly alert to neglect of our habitat? Maybe that’s what’s triggered. I always wanted to write an essay about neglect. It’s very close to violence. I’m delighted that you see my book as continuing Isabelle’s game. “Making a body out of an exteriority”—yes, the garden’s beauty re-made me, in my writing of it. That initial impetus of dynamic energy, on seeing the image of the garden, became a reverberation that has reordered what captures my attention, where I am drawn. I’m grateful for it. I feel it in the rhythms of my lines. Perhaps it was that voice, in its explorative emergence, that you found complicit in the poetry. The garden will always be the Valentine Garden to 1. Tacita Dean, after spending years studying place, concluded “place is only ever autobiographical.”
JT: The play between vertical and horizontal perspectives in Vigilance seems important. It feels connected to a sapient sense of progress. Building up, in the sense of civilization. Spreading out, in the sense of defining the borders of a particular landscape. In the section entitled “Forcing a Shape” you write “visible from above, ordered, and solid in its insistence”. Later in the same section you state: “I lumber forward once more to defoliate east or west”. Can you say a little bit more about points of view in the book—how seeing, and perhaps “how to see” (aesthetic sensibilities themselves), emerge from complex systems of security and risk?
HW: In one of our early conversations, Isabelle spoke of her interest in working low to the ground, and in connecting the small patch of earth that was the garden to the world. She opens up a view by any means possible to pull off that connection. Many landscape architects build up from the ground plane, create large volumes of tree canopies and
arbors, etc., which gives a sense of power, order, security, stasis. I’m with Isabelle, wanting the sensation of stepping out into the world, while trusting—how could one not trust, with so much beauty—I will arrive home safe. In Jay Appleton’s prospect–refuge landscape theory, risk, as in exploring the world, is deemed “survival advantageous,” and I believe it’s something that can be felt as a pleasure. The play of perspectives, and I hope risk, in Vigilance is explorative, and you are right, “connected to a sapient sense of progress.” Tell me how you approached perspectives and points of view in your ekphrastic book, The Motion Picture, The Village, after Cao Fei’s La Town. There are such thrills of movement in it, aerial views, and drags outward and then zooming motions into small bounded scenes, privacies, and then I’m walking/reading again and something generous expands. Are you also organizing space toward connection?
JT: Thank you for inquiring about my book! I think there is definitely some overlap in our concerns, particularly regarding the importance of risk which I believe is a precursor to any sort of communal experience. At the end of The Motion Picture, The Village I include a brief dedication to the artist Cao Fei and her film La Town, which became the focus of my writing after first seeing it exhibited at PS1 in New York, about three years ago. This particular exhibition included model sets for the various scenes of the movie La Town, which documents a post-disaster city constructed from the landmarks and detritus of other cities; a city, according to Fei’s own self-generated mythology that travels through wormholes in space and time, accruing and expanding as it goes. The film uses evocative cinematography, slow pans, close-ups, arching overhead shots, to present a series of decimated cityscapes constructed out of customized model railroad layouts. The backstory of La Town is never revealed. Instead we are guided by the disembodied voices of two lovers (text re-purposed from the screenplay to Marguerite Duras’s Hiroshima Mon Amour) through various tableaux that create a sort of metropolitan event horizon. Of course, the aftereffects of massive violence loom over everything. PS1’s exhibit of La Town, where I was able to watch the film then examine display cases with its trainset layouts reconstructed and presented as discrete artworks themselves, focused my responsive writing toward shifts in visual perspective and memory. I began thinking about all the cities that I’ve visited as if they were an overlapping singular space, warped and deconstructed by predatory economics, environmental degradation, racism, as well my complicit engagement in these systems of violence. Now it feels as though perhaps connection, or rather the residue of connection, became the starting point for each “visual shot” of the book. Connection is not always peaceful. The assumption of a city as a solid artifact, as isolating, masks the fact that we are always together creating, shifting, multiplying our environments in ways that can be both affirming and destructive. Because of this I felt the need to interrogate my seemingly isolated day-to-day life the first year of living in Oakland as a collection of scenes and memories that are pointing toward something important that I hadn’t noticed during that time; to take some form of action toward addressing my lack of understanding.
As a genderqueer writer, my use of the second person pronoun throughout The Motion Picture acknowledges isolation, and the violence that emerges from it, as a construct more than a bare fact. In the postscript I write that La Town functions as a place where “urban space, disaster, and longing merge in a search for points of connection which disregard assumptions of continuity.” I think this has something to do with memory as an imprecise register for an elusive exteriority, and forgetfulness as the site where again and again violence finds a path of least resistance.
A large portion of The Motion Picture, The Village is composed of a variety of collaged texts whose voices interceded as the writing developed and became the citizenry of my version of La Town. One of those voices is your own from Peril as Architectural Enrichment: “No matter where you stand, at least one surface of the unbuilt garden of planes is hidden. Seeing, anyway, engenders a false sense that all things are knowable”. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the gaps or hidden planes that exist between seeing and knowing, as well as how they fit into your work? Are they
where exploration or self-interrogation begin?
HW: I like hearing you speak of your book, which I loved reading. I’m fumbling with your question about perception and knowledge. I realize I don’t prioritize knowledge. At the start of writing Vigilance, I was very taken by Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just. Turning to it now, I find, on p. 81, “The structure of perceiving beauty appears to have a two-part scaffolding: first, one’s attention is involuntarily given to the beautiful person or thing; then, this quality of heightened attention is voluntarily extended out to other persons and things. It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level.” Right after that, she speaks of Plato’s requirement that we move from an experience of beauty to caring. I think I’m attuned to experiences of alertness and care, and not knowledge, which feels static and dull in comparison.
JT: So, the recognition of beauty hopefully leads toward the desire to care? Can you talk a little more about beauty? It’s an idea that has so many complications throughout the art histories of dominant cultures; the esteeming of symmetry, the linguistic privileging of whiteness (the idea of “fair” and fair-skinned connected semantically), rigid conceptions of cultural femininity, and myriad other oppressions. How do we expand the idea of beauty and how it relates to the work we do toward mitigating these systems of inequality? How can our writings recognize beauty in a more holistic manner and aid in our search for justice?
HW: This is such a large and important topic. Beauty in landscape—is it an escape from engagement with the world and our complicity in injustices, or is it also possibly a base for action. I’ve been investigating the usefulness of beauty in public performances. It began 8 years ago when I was invited to speak at a conference of scientists, architects, and artists. I chose a 14-part form, each part 3 or 4 minutes, and juxtaposed parts on poetry with landscape theory, aesthetics, and what was happening right there in that place, to surprise a topology of connection. It provoked a lively response, so I started using the form in different places—beginning with a public walk at a land art installation at i-park in Connecticut, where I placed colonialism into the mix with landscape, beauty, and language. I’ve done perhaps 12 public performances since then, using the same form. In a walk last year at Headlands Center for the Arts, I mixed parts on beauty (the view, the survival of the tidewater gobi, the intimacy of speaking a little from the heart and being heard, as in the practice of nonviolent communication) with parts on war and injustice (the reflections of an Iraq war veteran from an interview at the Headlands, my experience of white racial violence). The mixing, and the action of walking, perhaps break the habitual frames of thinking. I‘m always moved by people’s readiness to decenter the self and feel empathy with human and nonhuman others, and there’s joy, I think, in experiencing a more distributive agency.
Denise Newman and I had the problems of beauty on our minds during the 2-year public project we did at the UC Botanical Garden, which is online at bioticportal.com and includes a site essay on beauty. We came across Bruno Latour’s idea of beauty as an actant. See also Kathleen Marie Higgins, “Whatever Happened to Beauty.” And yet,
returning to your question, is this attention to beauty sufficiently holistic or achieving anything in terms of justice—I’m uncertain about it. My main inspiration is Yedda Morrison’s interview with Myung Mi Kim, Generosity as Method, which addresses this dilemma of what a poet can do.
JT: This conversation has been so rich and to end on a sense that we are not finished interrogating these issues seems correct, especially in such precarious times. I do, however, have a final inquiry. Considering that an interrogation of beauty, perspective, and risk together seems particularly appropriate because of how they are inextricably connected to systems of power, white supremacy, and isolationism, maybe you can talk about what the end of “Vigilance” has led into. I remember speaking with you several weeks back about the most current writing that you’ve been doing concerning whiteness. Maybe you can discuss that a little more. Do you see this current project as emerging from the afterglow of Vigilance? Are the two connected in any way, or do you feel like this writing represents a break or shift in practice?
HW: Thank you, Jamie, for such a close reading of my work. The desire to write about whiteness has come through my experience of being the adoptive parent of a black child. I thought I knew about race, but I didn’t understand, viscerally, the cruelty of whiteness until I witnessed it in relation to my son. It made me so angry, and writing poetry about it seemed an entirely insufficient response. Ten years ago, Tony Labat did a public art project at SFMOMA, asking the public to make a demand by completing a sentence beginning with Uncle Sam’s “I Want You.” I want you to end racism, I wrote, and quickly filled the page. It was one of the five publicly voted winners of the live monologue competition, and posters went up all over the Bay Area, I Want You to End Racism. But as the years passed and I continued to speak up, I felt some despair because nothing seemed to change. My son is grown now. Vigilance is published, and I’m hoping the resilience I learned from writing it will transfer into this new project. I’m reflecting on whiteness from two points in time: a police incident involving my son, brought about by a white woman calling 911 (you’ve seen the videos of such calls), and my growing up, and being drilled on how to be white, 40 miles from Bristol, a center of the British slave trade. I’m writing about white violence. I’m no longer writing about shelter. Even in Vigilance, I had to take shelter out of the book to finish it. Someone at the last reading cannily asked me to sign page 6, specifically near the text “For beauty is not shelter, it necessitates a forward momentum.”
Jamie Townsend is a genderqueer poet, publisher, and editor living in Oakland, California. They are half-responsible for Elderly, a publishing experiment and persistent hub of ebullience and disgust. Their first the full-length collection, Shade (Elis Press), was released in 2015. An essay on the history of the New Narrative magazine Soup was published in The Bigness of Things: New Narrative and Visual Culture (Wolfman Books, 2017) They are currently editing a forthcoming collection of Steve Abbott’s writings (Nightboat, 2019).
Hazel White is the author of Vigilance Is No Orchard, published in May 2018 by Nightboat Books, and also of Peril as Architectural Enrichment, from Kelsey Street Press. Her public work includes presentations at SFMOMA, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Headlands Center for the Arts, where she was an affiliate artist for several years. She’s a recipient with poet Denise Newman of a Creative Work Fund grant, and her poetry has appeared in New American Writing, Denver Quarterly, Elderly, and Fence. She grew up on farms in England, and once wrote gardening books.