Joshua Clover: The thing that makes me anxious when people mention crystals is, beauty. The thing that makes me anxious when people mention poetry is, beauty. Can you tell me your thoughts on crystals and poetry in relation to beauty?
Melissa Mack: Well, yes. I think this is one of the reasons I wrote this book, I was drawn to the “beautiful” object of the crystal and the jewel, but also suspicious of my attraction. Aware of the human and ecological misery upon which such beauty is built. How poetry fits in exactly feels like a harder question. As a “language artist” I mostly write poetry, so in some ways it was predetermined that if I was going to undertake such an investigation, it would occur through poetry. And as to poetry and beauty, ah. Poetry, the well-wrought urn. I do want to make beautiful poems. One of the texts that inspired this book was Craig Dworkin’s chapbook The Crystal Text (after Clark Coolidge’s book of the same name, itself an inspiration), which is one of the most lush texts I’ve ever read, somewhat surprising coming from a conceptual poet. But from the beginning – meaning not the beginning of my book, but the beginning of writing the poems that became the book – I kept getting interrupted, disturbed by that misery, it kept finding its way into the poems. Part of the later work of revising the manuscript was a kind of reverse-engineered destruction. I made, and then I broke. I went back and threw things at some of the poems that felt like they had fallen for the myth of a certain kind of beauty. It’s why I used an epigraph from Ted Rees for the last section of the book, The Lattice. His line is “terror ever present / a shitty lattice” – and whereas the poems in that section had come together as a kind of dream of absolution, I knew (and was questioned about, very aptly, by Emji Spero at Timeless, which helped nudge me into dealing with) that it couldn’t be a stand-alone solution. Do you remember saying you were waiting for someone to publish a book called The Poorly-Wrought Urn? It still makes me laugh out loud. I thought about it when I was working on the book.
I do believe in beauty. And, I believe in the work to understand the cultural values that result in this or that object, idea, action being considered beautiful. And, I believe – gosh, I didn’t realize I was writing a credo – that poetry is also a form that is well-suited to considering and constructing new forms of beauty that incorporate these investigations and imaginations of upheaving the forms of beauty (culture) that depend on oppression and what alternatives might look like. To mention just one formal thing, the assembly of a beloved community by way of pastiche, a technique this book uses generously (although I’m sure there can be a critique of it too).
JC: What’s the relation between spirituality and form, spirituality and formation?
MM: Deep breath. OK. If I believe in a divine, it’s a divine that manifests incarnationally and immanently. It is divine love. Plants and rocks and people – including groups of people, also known as communities, collectivities, polities, cities – being their selves. Selving themselves, as Gerard Manley Hopkins calls it. Deals out that being indoors each one dwells. I can’t believe you asked me this question. Or, I can. Of course you asked me this question. Formation – with which this book is concerned, geologically in terms of the formation of crystals and individually/socially in terms of figuring out how to live within and respond to material conditions I find abhorrent – happens, as the book says, under immense pressure. I give “spirituality” a roomy interior, like Mary Poppins’s purse. So, I think of spirituality as one’s awareness of how to live, what to do, one’s sense of mystery, one’s sense of the presence of love in the world. Since my sense of the divine is incarnational, spirituality and formation go together. As one forms, as a person, as one becomes aware of the particular problems in their local, regional, global world – white supremacy, male supremacy, capitalist supremacy, to name a few of the key ones, and as one makes choices about how to act, or allows choices to be made for one, or becomes aware of choices that are possible, all of that is spiritual formation. To me.
JC: The relation between the mining, especially of gems/precious metals, and an extractivist economy with its intense bodily exploitation of colonized laborers, has been an ongoing thematic for art: I am thinking of the photography of Sebastião Salgado, or Mark Nowak’s poetry, or “Blood Diamonds.” Can you talk a little bit about your own particular approach to this history and, if you will, lattice of social relations?
MM: Yes. First, becoming conscious. But that doesn’t feel like enough. In my position as a writer and consumer (but not of gems – I hardly wear jewelry and do not have enough money to acquire jewelry with precious stones or even, more likely given my interests and identities, raw or tumbled stones purchased from what used to be called “metaphysical stores”, though I do own a handful of crystals purchased from aforementioned stores, and also rocks – crystalline and otherwise – picked up from all over North America) – acknowledging that I live on occupied Ohlone land is important, but it doesn’t feel like enough. So, what else?
I wasn’t sure if by “this history” you meant the history of art that engages with the exploitation of colonized laborers, or the exploitation itself. Although those two things are related. Part of the motivation for the book was to engage with both of those histories (also the presents) — especially the actual exploitation. Although I was aware of writing within a writing tradition that … ‘deals’ (which feels gross to say) with exploited laborers and settler colonial exploitation more generally. Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary, Yedda Morrison’s book Crop, the poems of Xu Lizhi, the Foxconn iPhone factory worker poet who committed suicide, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia. Which also contains a line that sort of functions as a provocation to me to put out the book and, for example, be willing to talk about with you despite my deep discomfort with its inadequacies: The delay only whets our monstrosity.
One thing that made me (makes me) nervous about this book is being a white person in a relatively stable labor position (although I, too, am a “wage slave”, I have a secure day job with benefits doing intellectual labor that I complain about, a lot, but pays my bills and offers me protections like access to workers comp and Unemployment Insurance) writing about the bodies of manual laborers in precarious material and financial circumstances, who are often people of color. In this I was moved by how Lauren Levine writes in The Braid, “Tony’s dad isn’t white/ I want to say this because of what I wrote/ about Miami Vice, though I feel weird showing you his body”. I didn’t want this to be “witness poetry” written by a removed and privileged observer. On the other hand, as we’ve talked about before, the danger of the obsession with privilege is that it makes awareness of one’s own or other people’s privilege more important than the inequalities and conditions that produce privilege and un-privilege in the first place. Still, I felt uneasy about showing other peoples’ bodies, which is why I tried to show my own body in the book, my material and emotional experiences – not that those experiences are equivalent with gemstone or other mineral miners, or the hip hop artists I cite, or the celebrities, but because I felt that by making myself visible I could try to take a certain kind of responsibility for my place in the world. Trying, in an incomplete and inadequate way, to show that ‘lattice of social relations.’ And, also, with what I identify in the book as humiliating and complicit sincerity – although even identifying that, I wondered if it centered or made too precious my own attempt that I was making in the book to see those relations, including my place in them – of trying to look for shared experience because a shared understanding of all of our estrangement (from ourselves, each other, the earth) under capitalism feels crucial to bringing about the revolution, whatever it is going to look like.
JC: You write “To mention just one formal thing, the assembly of a beloved community by way of pastiche….” That is something I’ve always loved and admired about your poems, and you’ve named it better than I could. Now that it is so well-named, let’s see if we can stretch it across the frame of beauty, divinity, urns. I think one of my experiences of the political period in which this book was written was that of losing a sort of faith in community: I mean this in a practical sense, regarding the way in which my local community in Oakland fell into massively destructive infighting after the fall of Occupy Oakland, fighting which might have been necessary but still felt terrible to everyone. So now to my question: is there a beautiful community? Does it depend on a certain political dispensation to retain its beauty or even its community? And perhaps most saliently, is poetry with its formal capacities most attuned, most beholden to the beauty, the community, or the political circumstance which orients them? I am hoping “all of the above” is not the answer, because where’s the fun in that?
MM: Oh, Joshua, this is a wonderful question, and fills me with grief. I’m going to try not to let grief be dominant in answering because where’s the fun in that? You’re so right about the period the book was written in being one of losing faith in community. I experienced the fallout of the aftermath of Occupy Oakland in my way. (I always assume anyone reading this who was there will be like, who is this person? I don’t remember them.) My participation was meaningful to me, but I have so much ambivalence and confusion about whether I ever knew how to participate in a way that wasn’t afraid of doing it wrong, and so had a sort of lurking comportment throughout Occupy and organizing efforts in the years that followed, such as the creation of the Bay Area Public School and the Omni Commons.
The hopeful part of me wants to say that there is a beloved community. It’s very fragmented in the bay area and probably elsewhere, but it’s there. There are cells. Pods. It’s a matrix. There are antagonizing events like the white supremacist rallies that were happening over the course of last year, both before and after Charlottesville. In that weird way that dominant oppressive structures shape the resistance movements that hate them, those events have been the ones where I have most felt the presence of a broader political community that I identify with. That is, not just my close friends or the slightly larger ring of people I see at poetry readings and protests. I was really happy to see such a broad base of resistance out on the day of that Patriot Prayer weekend, at least in Berkeley. I wasn’t in San Francisco. What I miss – and this is almost certainly because I’m such an introvert, I’m sure these spaces are all over the place in the bay – is a more ongoing presence of a community working on mutual aid. Like, why aren’t we sharing money yet? If Oprah runs for president, will she just make us all feel better our respective shitty situations, rather than showing up to work together on destroying and remaking them?
I don’t really have a good justification for poetry here. It reminds me of a line in Andrea Abi-Karam’s chapbook The Aftermath, put out by your own Commune Editions, the poet can show up sometimes or not. I like that that book doesn’t obsess about the un-value of poetry. I’m a person and that’s one of the things I do, make poetry. In trying to figure out how to live, in making decisions that often feel unsatisfactory but then also feed something in oneself and bring one into contact with other people doing that thing or constellation of things. If there’s political value in it, it’s that – I know I’m doing the thing you said not to do but they are – the community, the beauty, and the political dispensation, are all intricately tied together. Poetry is one of the things that helps me understand – try to understand – the structures that shape our lives, and imagine or construct possibilities for other ways of living and being with the formation circumstances and the people I find myself among.
Can the community be conceived of in the absence of the circumstances?
I think again of Lauren’s book The Braid, published by Krupskaya, one of the many small presses (including Commune Editions!) putting out amazing work that helps me live and I do see a political value in that – of the very end of that book:
I hadn’t seen Wendy for at least a year
We met at Mosswood and walked around
She told me how every attempt to do anything
she’d ever been involved in had mostly just created new problems
Not even better problems, maybe even worse ones
but more complicated ones
I thought about the problems
they make me feel closer to…something
These lines make me want to argue that, yeah, “all of the above”. The beloved community is a mythological structure that I believe in and try to act on that belief. What I experience is pretty low key, but it is material. And I try to remember that the circumstances of the formation of that community are deeply intertwined with the structures that surround it. I thought about the problems/they make me feel closer to … something. Beauty is a product of that attunement and beholdenness to the problems.
JC: Are you done with a thing? What are you writing next?
MM: Remember the show Treme, about post-Katrina New Orleans? The small talk that arose in the wake of that disaster revolved around people’s living situations. One character repeatedly responds with miserable exasperation to these queries: “Oh, my house! Don’t ask me about my house!”
I’m a very slow writer. I’m trying to read more, engage with other people’s creative and critical work. Also working on calming down my nervous system so I can live usefully in the long wake of the post-industrial capitalism disaster.
Melissa Mack is a poet who lives and works in Oakland, California.
Joshua Clover is a professor at the University of California Davis. He is a published poet, scholar, critic, and journalist. He is co-founder and -editor of the small press Commune Editions.