Amy De’Ath

amy-deathInterviewed by Maegan Cortens

Amy De’Ath was born in Suffolk in 1985. Her poetry books include Lower Parallel (Barque 2014), Caribou (Bad Press 2011), and Erec & Enide (Salt 2010). With Fred Wah, she is the editor of a collection of poetry and poetics, Toward. Some. Air. (Banff Centre Press 2015). Her critical writing has appeared in Anguish Language (Archive Books, 2015), and Cambridge Literary Review. She is a PhD student at Simon Fraser University and works on the poetics journal Line. She lives in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories.

What was one of your earliest encounters with poetry that has had a lasting effect?

Here’s a cute anecdote: I’m not a massive Sylvia Plath fan, but when I was 17 and leaving the college at my high school (Sudbury Upper School), I went to return this first edition copy of Plath’s Ariel to the school library. I had renewed it so many times but previous to that it hadn’t been borrowed from the library since 1976. The librarian handed it back to me and told me to keep it, which made me feel good because, in her opinion, I was a person worth that book, worth reading it. I guess that feels significant because I think you have to have a certain amount of confidence to read poetry, let alone write and publish it.

I find it inspiring how much you’ve accomplished in such a short time. At what point did you decide to dedicate your time to literary pursuits (i.e. quit an unrelated “day job”, etc.)?

Thank you. Perhaps I should say, I feel squeamish identifying as a poet; it seems too much of a romantic—conservative, anti-revolutionary—idea in the context of my various structural advantages (being white, straight, cis-gendered, and now highly educated). But for me, writing poetry is another way to think and communicate, and it can enable or embolden political emotions in a way that I don’t usually find other intellectual/“creative” work (with some exceptions, especially certain materialist feminist writing), can do.

But to answer your question, I still have a day job of sorts, albeit related to poetry-writing: I’m a PhD student at Simon Fraser University. Characterizing the activities I do as a PhD student either as work or as an accumulation of debt is important not only because it situates the contemporary academy in relation to a system of social reproduction that often hides behind romantic facades, but also because it highlights the continuity between my presence at the university, whether teaching or producing research, and the enormous profits of what is essentially an investment firm operating as an educational institute. We can see this logic play out in current student struggles around wages and tuitions, from student and TA strikes to campus building occupations. Despite all that, though, I decided do a PhD because it’s a way to get paid (through scholarships) to think about things I care about.

One thing that I admire in your poetry is your ability to render poetic the images from our technological age, in such a way that forwards the lyricism, while also challenging the very use of technology. For instance “asterisk nipples” in the poem “Just Handcuff Me”. How do you think the technological age can inform poetics and vice versa?

Approaching this question from a Marxist perspective, what you’re referring to as the technological age I would probably call the age of deindustrialization, to borrow a term from Jasper Bernes. So much has been written about the relation between economic structures and the status of art and literature, and perhaps Walter Benjamin’s famous 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” is still a good starting place for thinking about the disappearance of auratic art with the arrival of modern industrialized (and thoroughly capitalist) society, as well as what Benjamin saw as the new possibility, and necessity, for a revolutionary politics in art. Benjamin shows how our perceptions are always historical; that is, determined by socioeconomic conditions, for example, in terms of the shift from participant to spectator or consumer of art. Then, with 70s and 80s postmodernism there’s another shift back to modes of participatory art that surfaces, for example, in ideas about the “writerly” (rather than “readerly”) text; in poetics, these ideas are explored in books as different as Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence, Lyn Hejinian’s The Language of Inquiry, and Steve McCaffery’s North of Intention.

Of course, capital has also found ways to “creatively” engage the consumer-participant. To point to a more recent debate, we might consider Marina Vishmidt’s critique of social practice art as business model, whereby, for example, art “adds value” to a business project, or the “entrepreneurial artist” reproduces the institution of the art world simply by reproducing herself as an artist. To use Vishmidt’s words, “this instills an ethical and affective homogeneity that obtains between the subject and object of art, and, in times of the intensified rule of abstract value over production in general and art’s markets in particular, between art and capital” and results in a “benign artist-run (rather than art-led) gentrification.”

To gesture towards academic studies of the relationship between art and deindustrialization that have been important to my own thinking: critical books by Christopher Nealon (2011) and Sianne Ngai (2012) are part of a body of work that is both attentive to the subject’s interactions with the materials and objects of global economies, and attuned to the affects that circulate among these social relations. The poetry critic Charles Altieri has noted that for many contemporary poets, Kantian conceptions of sensuousness—as an approach to the object-world—are not sufficient in this regard, but rather that an employment of rhetorical devices, and a dialectical view of their approximate uses as intentional modes of manipulation and sincerity, is one way that poets seek to convey an emotional situation determined by the conditions of the historical present: a post-Fordist totality—that is, a totality inherently fragmented and decentered—defined in turn by the crises of finance capital, global economic precarity, intensified colonial violence, and hyper-commodification. An important feature of these poetic modes, I think, are the temporal conditions they stage (semantically, syntactically, and through their use of the page and serial forms), which become crucial tools of critique in that they prescribe—and in a dialectical reading, proscribe—a materially-felt sense of what Lauren Berlant has called the “suspended present.”

But I wonder about the limits of “avant-garde” poetic works (which are often produced within a set of narrow cultural parameters tied to academic institutions) to explicitly or implicitly comment on the relationship between the technological development of productive forces (“real subsumption”) and the expulsion of living labour from the production process; especially in terms of thinking about how this results in a global consolidation of absolute surplus populations, i.e. the portion of the population that must be permanently unemployed or—especially in the US—imprisoned.

Erec & Enide seems to reference your hometown in Suffolk. Your second book, Caribou moves from East London to West Canada. From what I gather, you’ve also spent some time in Australia and completed part of your undergraduate degree in Philadelphia. Do you find the movement and constant change inherent in travelling conducive to writing?

Well, I am here in Vancouver writing a PhD thesis and I certainly don’t find that conducive to writing poetry! PhDs kill poetry. Hah. I wrote more poems on the tube in London, on my commute to work, than I ever write now. But I like to think (perhaps wrongly) that the poems I write now are better…?

I think the stability of being among friends is what makes writing feel not-futile. I write for my friends, I hope. And moving around a lot means I’m extremely lucky to feel part of several groups of friends but the logistics of it also prevents me from being anywhere in a more permanent, committed way. I think I write less as a result, but maybe that’s okay.

I believe that the literary tradition in poetry has been exclusionary in the past and want to commend you for breaking down these barriers in Lower Parallel. I appreciate your inclusion of the working class and the fact that the speaker identifies with this in lines like the following “and women as a body but a man manifested the only body the only one/ Marx got, resembles me not on thought or love, but eternally working”. In writing this book did you feel that you were working against literary representations of women and the general conception of “the poet”?

I hope so—I certainly feel enraged on a regular basis at the persistence of white male dominance in literary communities and in Literature with a capital “L”. I don’t think a poem can break that because it’s centuries old, but I’m tentatively hopeful that that things are beginning to change in some ways. I think the dominating influence of “Cambridge Poetry” in the UK is something that must be thought about in relation to class and in terms of the kinds of confidence enjoyed and entitlement felt by particular groups or individuals. I’m trying to consider how this is connected to a preference for poetic “difficulty” in the work of many UK poets, to some degree in London, but more emphatically in male-dominated poetry scenes at the universities of Cambridge and Sussex – an affinity that has produced the term “Cam-Sex,” a not-altogether derogatory moniker that sounds like an unimaginative porn site.

I wish that men, in academia in general but especially in poetry communities, would think more about the power structures inherent in the form, as well as the content, of their rhetorical modes. For example, the tones of condescension, aggression, or refusal to be seen to be losing an argument—often, the sheer length and self-centered nature of online comments by men—all these things need calling out! The current dynamic of Anglo poetry scenes, in my opinion, informs and is informed by a political conservatism that perpetuates and enforces a culture that is structurally racist, sexist, ableist, misogynist, transmisogynist, and homophobic; a culture that ignores and even at times encourages mental illness (for example, in the interests of poetic intensity, or so-called Great Poetry); a culture that somehow still calls itself “radical.” It’s only in the last year that these power relations – which are reproduced everywhere, in poetry, criticism, listservs, facebook, reading line-ups, friendships, academic relationships – have begun to be challenged in a substantial way in the poetry circles I’m familiar with.

I’m excited about the recent release of Toward. Some. Air. Can you tell me a bit about the process of curating and editing this collection with Fred Wah? What inspired you to compile a book focusing on the discourse around contemporary poetics and how do you think an interdisciplinary approach has aided this exploration?

I was asked by Fred to edit the collection with him – he had been asked by the Banff Centre Press and he was looking for a co-editor who was younger and in touch with different kinds of work with which he thought he might not be familiar. I think partly because Fred and I have such different approaches to reading and writing poetry (no doubt inflected by the fact that we belong to different generations, and identify differently along lines of both gender and race), we wanted to put lots of different modes of writing and thinking about poetry side by side. As we say in the book, the positions articulated in the anthology are vastly differ­ent, crossing generational, geographical, and theoretical borders, and in this sense we are aiming to encourage dialogue by proxim­ity but also to suggest a looking-outwards; not so much towards other individual poets but towards other poetics and ways of relating to the world.

Your collection of four poems published by Line journal completely blew me away. They looked outward to the larger issues of the world while maintaining a delicate intimacy. Do you have any suggestions or things to keep in mind when confronting the political in writing?

I don’t think the political is something you choose to confront; everything is political, including attempts to be “apolitical,” and we are all always-already embedded in it whether we admit that or not. The idea that it is possible to separate the political (or cultural) from the literary is making a comeback in literary studies at the moment though; with a return to New Formalist modes of “surface reading” or Sharon Marcus’ call for “just reading,” as well as more sentimental pleas for a rediscovery of “the pleasures of a kind of reading that theory has supposedly made impossible,” to cite Marxist critic Carolyn Lesjak’s supple critique of these approaches.

I think the most important thing I am learning right now is how to understand—and act on (or against)—my own position within various overlapping structures of domination and exploitation. That is a very difficult thing to understand, it’s both abstract and concrete, and always an ongoing process.

Maegan Cortens is an undergraduate student in the Creative Writing Program at University of British Columbia. She grew up in Boise Idaho where she was encouraged by a family friend to explore the works of Sylvia Plath and shortly after developed a love for poetry as an adolescent. She later felt compelled to live by the ocean and moved to Canada to write on the coasts of British Columbia and reconnect with her Canadian heritage.

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