Friday, 5 August 2016

Aggressive Interview #4: Sophie Mayer

Having recovered sufficiently from former wounds inflicted in the interview room, George Ttoouli has decided to resume the foolhardy interview series, which may become regular, or might just be as sporadic as before.

Round 4: Sophie Mayer, most recently author of Political Animals (IB Tauris, 2015), (O) (Arc, 2015) and kaolin (Lark, 2015). A writer, editor, activist and educator based in London, she is so prolific online you could be forgiven for thinking she's some kind of post-human datacloud. Her poetry also features in Out of Everywhere 2, which launched this week in London.

So, Sophie, thanks for agreeing to an interview. How's the armchair activism going these days?

Sofa feminism (preferred term, please) has never been better. I even joined Twitter and Tumblr so I could shout more into the black hole of the internet, mainly about this totally niche artform called film.

Writing for poetry magazines like Athens-based international journal aglimpseof and new UK experimental magazines like Datableed or para*text has really confirmed to me that this internet thing is on a hiding to nothing and/or the doom of our time: who wants the possibility of international community and exchange that’s not dependent on increasingly expensive travel? Pfft. Or the integration of vispo, filmpoetry, sound poetry, experimental narrative etc. on a single site, in two or more languages, available for free?

I look at world-class writers such as Rebecca Solnit and Alison Croggon wasting their time writing impassioned and informative posts for online magazines and then sharing them via Facebook and think: really? So clickbait. Such attention-seeking behaviour. Surely this stuff is best kept in closed-access journals, for the élite – and really, far fewer people should be allowed the tools of research and self-expression. Nothing good will come of all this communication and conversation. Particularly because it bears no relation to RL (as the kids call it): no-one starts a conversation on Facebook idly one Sunday morning that leads to a (print) anthology featuring over one hundred poets that raises thousands of pounds for Pussy Riot’s legal fund, with over a dozen live launch events.

But, tbh (as the kids say), a lot of the internet is shit and a lot of clicktivism is disjointed from larger political communities and strategies. Which is why I think poets need to spend *more* time online doing that unacknowledged legislator thing. As the current government destroys education, including all media and arts education, and reduces the complexity of language and rhetoric to recognising made-up grammar, someone needs to intervene into the corporate double-speak, alarmist preaching, and displacement of verbal language by gifs and emojis. Who better than poets? This is our business. 🙊💪✒️💻💣 [*]

Indeed, that 'niche' artform, film. Many of your film recommendations, by feminist or female directors and writers, don't seem to manifest in my local supermarkets/multiplexes. It's fair to say, isn't it, that your war fronts are London-centric hipster battles--aren't they?

Oh, absolutely. Because video on demand – and possibly the internet – hasn’t reached outside gentrified urban areas, with tons of cheap or even free viewing options. Safe to say, if you’re spending your time and money at the multiplexes (all owned by big US corporations), you won’t have the time to save money and get better films at the growing number of independent cinemas across the UK (homemade cakes AND a wider choice of films!) and the amazing community screening spaces, like An Lanntair in Stornoway, some of which have been outfitted with excellent portable digital projection by the BFI’s Neighbourhood Cinema Fund. Liverpool Small Cinema has committed to the 58% project, screening films by female, trans, intersex and/or non-binary directors across their 2016 programme (I have a spreadsheet of 500 that you can consult).

It is sadly true that independent DVD and video rental and retail stores are vanishing, like bookstores and record stores. As rent rises, it’s harder to see a “disposable” income available to give to culture of any kind. So then it becomes even more important to choose wisely. Sure, you can see BlockBusterFaceSmashYesAllMen for a tenner each, plus a tenner for snacks. Or you could take that 20 quid and check out a site like ourscreen, which lets communities “pull” the films they want toward them, to screen in independent cinemas. Or start your own curation group or film club. Or just stay in and watch independent Indian films directed by women on Netflix (really).

But let’s go back to the supermarketplex. And a film called Selma, which had wide theatrical distribution here. Major historical biopic. Nominated for major international awards. Directed by an African American woman. Whose name doesn’t appear on the DVD you might pick up at the supermarketplex or order online. So believe me, some of my recommendations are there — but they are (as James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon put it so brilliantly) “the women men don’t see”.

I noticed via your recent tinyletter that Sara Ahmed quit her job at Goldsmiths. And that she thinks she can do "more by leaving than staying". But how can you effect change from the outside? Via a right-wing mass media? And what about your own hypocrisies, in fighting the good fight from your divan, macbook resting on your lap, cup of fairtrade/organic chamomile steaming on the table beside you?

The existence of the question is proof I’m doing it right. You've already read my tinyletter, which was written shortly after Professor Ahmed resigned and reached audiences immediately. My academic paper on Ahmed’s life/work will be years in the finessing, and decades in the publishing, and then accessible only to a tiny élite. Whether Ahmed remains outside the academy permanently, or takes another job as a professor, her post has done more to generate conversation about sexual harassment in academia than any number of internally-focused conferences. Enjoy your ivory tower privileges, and remember that ivory is made from murdered elephants. Plus via writing the tinyletter I learned that fitte is Norwegian slang for vagina. You don’t learn that in school.

I’ve held short-term teaching contracts at half a dozen UK universities in the last decade, and been a guest speaker or seminar leader at a dozen more, so I’m hokely-cokely doubly hypocritical (as well as a dilettante and a flibbertigibbet). And I often feel like a double agent, especially when I’m trying to get arts organisations and academia to work together: I wish it were dangerous liaising, but it’s just frustrating. Not as sexy a quality.

For every hour I’m quaffing fair-trade organic tea on my divan (aka scalding my tongue on something from EAT on the bus running between fifteen different jobs while trying to write a blog post on my phone), there’s at least three hours where I’m at a meeting or on a panel or participating in a seminar or workshop or supervision or training or exchange or screening or conversation (I refuse to use the word “networking”). I don’t know if that’s TEF standard. But standing up and moving around certainly keeps the macbook from frying my innards any further; even fair-trade camomile can’t repair that degree of free radical damage.

It sounds like you're merely reinforcing binary power structures: let's all replace patriarchy with matriarchy; rigorous heteronormativity with rigorous trans-culture, yadda yadda. Even queering as a process suggests an unchanging social power structure, the need for a process because society ain't getting any better.

So: if you became Kueeng of the World (through democratic revolution by armed insurgent-workers), what ten books/writers would form the basis of your Literary Canon?

Wait, are those the same question? Base-2 and base-10 are different things, aren't they? Even in queer math (which is a real thing, particularly in superalgebra). But (to address the first question first) even in normcore boring heteronormative math, a spectrum (or sphere) and a binary are not the same thing. And (I'm warming to my theme now) processes in mathematics are agents of change: addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc. Within the Euclidean universe, yes, but they are based on the core idea that performing a process or function creates change.

Society is a set of processes: they can be repeated ad infinitum (more math language! I am a language thief, see below); or they can be interrupted, altered, redirected, reversed. Society is not an iterative zero-sum in which we cannot intervene; queerly, if you will. I think about the appropriation of the iteration in Claudia Rankine's Citizen, the use of repetition to foreground (make aware, interrupt) social/political unthinking repetition of the (extra-)judicial murder of African Americans.

So (queerly), given that society is a process (and one that is not unidirectional, linear or eschatological: that's another normative myth), there can only be canons for a given moment. (Did you know that canon comes from κανων (Gk), meaning straight rod – which makes me think of fasces (Latin), bundle of straight rods, etymology of fascism. But κανων (Gk) itself derives from καννη, reed – so maybe instead of a canon we need leaves of grass?)

Reeds to read right now:
  • For Black Lives Matter: Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
  • For Idle No More and decolonisation: Gloria Bird and Joy Harjo (eds), Reinventing the Enemy's Language
  • For Brexit: Gwyneth Jones, the Bold as Love series
  • For the unbinary: Ivan Coyote and Rae Spoon, Gender Failure
  • For migration 1: Caroline Bergvall, Drift
  • For migration 2: Etel Adnan, In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country
  • For the memory of our elected leaders' wrongs: Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith), Human Acts
  • For the memory of another Europe, and its poetries: María Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
  • For another way being possible 1: Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction from Social Movements
  • For another way being possible 2: Inger Christensen (trans. Susanna Nied), It

Language does not equal the author. Reading black or female authors or tracts by trans, two-headed, aliens won't guarantee change. All this meritocracy and remixing says to me, is, Don't read Sophie Mayer, read these other people. Amirite?

You’re absolutely right. As Björk says (argh, I can’t stop myself), “I go humble.” When I think about what I’ve done that really counts, I think of co-editing Catechism, Binders Full of Women, and Glitter is a Gender – projects that amplify and contextualise a range of poetic voices; I think of collaborating with Test Centre to bring Derek Jarman’s poetry chapbook A Finger in the Fishes Mouth back into print; I think of a hundred people singing “Building Bridges” from the Greenham Songbook at a Club des Femmes screening of Beeban Kidron’s Carry Greenham Home.

Surely one way out of capitalism (heteropatriarchal colonial edition) is to think about what we do (whether teaching or writing) as acts of collaboration, sharing and clearing spaces for each other, together, so that no one is (read as) an alien. There’s no change as long as there’s a sense that “author” is a neutral universal that excludes trans, two headed beings – or, worse in some ways, grudgingly includes them on the authority of those who hew closer to the neutral universal.

So maybe the whole concept of “author” is the problem — the authority, the ego, the rugged individual with his Bic for Men pen. We need an auteurnative that keeps visible the differing sets of social and political conditions from which creative labour arises, the specific shape of a voice or a practice, but that doesn’t just simplistically equate that with being in charge or worth it. After all, we’re all multitudes. Being a hero is a bullshit narrative; adding your voice to the chorus is where it’s at.

Or in the words of Trinh T. Minh-Ha, in Woman, Native, Other:
By laying bare the codes of literary labor, it unequivocally acknowledges the writer’s contradictory stand – her being condemned to do ‘good work’ in choosing to ‘write well’ and to produce Literature. She writes, finally not to express, not so much to materialize an idea or a feeling, as to possess and dispossess herself of the power of writing. Bliss. (italics in original)

Interesting how well you've failed to contain your multitudes, but I'm glad to hear you're at least aware of your hypocrisies. Some poets might even take that unresolvable position as creative energy, but I noticed, in your latest book, (O), you've basically repackaged a lot of other women's words: Samira Makhmalbaf, Sappho, etcetera.

David Hart called your process "translating English into English." I'd call it yet more faux-experimental derivative sampling as intellectual posturing. Where the hell do you locate 'poetry' in your thefts?

Sadly, Samira Makhmalbaf didn't make the final cut for (O), although her words (which are the words of the young women with whom she made the film Sib (Apple)), are in a poem that you published in an anthology about apples (long a tendentious subject for women under Judaeo-Christianity). I.e. if I say apple, I say Eve (Milton, Newton). Blessed be the pure of subject/content, for they are ignorant of their history and/or references.

When I quote, I attribute: there's no theft or nod-wink "sampling" expecting readers to be hip to the source. OK, one line where I scratch an Emily Dickinson phrase. Flipside: a lot of potential readers wouldn't recognise an Audre Lorde reference if it wasn't attributed, although they might well recognise a Walt Whitman one. Or the expectation would be there.

Let me anticipate the follow-up question: I give the pale, stale, male canon a bloody good kicking, unashamedly (perhaps unadvisedly considering its contemporary iteration still rules whatever roost poetry lays claim to). It's a very small act of trying to settle the balance.

Obviously, with both Makhmalbaf and Sappho, I'm not translating English into English, but translating (or working with translation) in the more formal sense. I think Hart does capture that my work is exactly translation (transferre [Latin], metaphorein μεταφορειν [Greek]), an act of carrying). Absolute magpie acts – but because the words shine, shine, shine. Call it my critic side leaking through: I see all my writing as advocacy, as a Lily Brik-style shout-out, the poetic hand as megaphone saying READ THESE WRITERS! Voices carry, collectively, better than a single voice alone.

So I'd locate the poetic in the invocation. Witch work/squad goals, depending on your idiom. England may want to be a walled-in island, but no poet is/should. I'm proud of my lineage, my sisterhood, my un-nation. Call it grave-robbing if you like, but there's no ghostbusting this parade of goddesses.

[*] Respectively, these are: Speak no evil monkey, flexed bicep, black pen nib, personal computer, bomb. This apparently describes visually a narrative in which those monkeys chained to typewriters trying to produce Shakespeare have upped their game and are preparing to overthrow their human overlords.

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