Only Something that Is Possible Afterwards: Talking to Melissa Buzzeo

How does it feel on the day you end a three-year writing hiatus? How do the drought that preceded and the flood that follows take form in the book you write? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Melissa Buzzeo. This conversation, transcribed by Nicole Monforton, focuses on Buzzeo’s The Devastation, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist for lesbian poetry. Buzzeo’s Writing, a poetic memoir, is forthcoming from Nightboat. Buzzeo is also the author of the new If I Am A Silueta chapbook from fivehundredplaces. She recently gave birth to Laia-Rose Athena Christine. The Los Angeles Review of Books review of The Devastation can be found here.


ANDY FITCH: I want to respect The Devastation’s last words, from the last piece “Last Things,” stating that you cannot speak to this book, that this book cannot speak for you. Still it would interest me, given the loose, accumulative processes of metaphor The Devastation develops, if you could characterize how terms or tones or traces of devastation and of water play out across the overall project. I could guess at autobiographical reference. I could project my own personal response (grave sadness when I think of the acidifying oceans). But for you, within the book itself, what forces pass through devastation and through water? What do water and devastation pass through?

MELISSA BUZZEO: Water for me in my three earlier books equaled connection, or current, or currency. Language itself. So I was thinking about water in that way. Also as a kind of nothing form. Something that is essential to life but is not elaborated and will stay unelaborated and somehow unknown. At Iowa I read a lot of Levinas although so much of the content of those ideas was later lost to me.

The way that I came to The Devastation initially was: I had this image in my head (it just came to me one day in bed) of lovers picking off the debris, cleaning each other off and just reaching for the debris and letting it fall. The debris that falls became the lines of the book. Somehow at the same time came this idea that there was just no more.

The devastation is literally an event in which there’s no more water. The water capsized into itself. It’s like a natural event, like an earthquake, a tornado or flood. Or its emotional equivalent, which is totalizing.

So there’s some kind of ecological disaster in which the water, which is maybe desire (I was really interested in language as desire in my twenties) kind of capsizes into itself. So at the bottom of this sea, which is now this kind of emptied-out basin, in this waterless place (which also means this languageless place, which also means in some sense this meaningless place), I was interested in what would be connection there. And is it even possible to have connection? I was interested in what is it that would make the lovers want each other to survive. They’re not having sex. I keep calling them lovers, but they’re not lovers in the literal or linguistic sense at all anymore. So I was kind of interested in what would make it possible for a relation to exist outside of meaning or outside of language. I don’t mean non-language or in gesture. I mean in a kind of meaninglessness. It’s different from silence or gesture or things like that, which I’m also interested in, but that wasn’t what I’m thinking about here.

You brought up the concept of a nothing form. This book left me curious about the generative principles of nothing. Could you describe what nothing means here for you, or how nothing relates to relation, to communication?

Here the book is about being in an economy that is overloaded, over-inscribed, and the opposite of nothing. Everywhere you look there are enormous amounts of debris that maybe has no meaning in the present and yet is over-inscribed with many different kinds of meanings. Those meanings are connected to the body and to history and to the capitalistic society we live in. So that’s where I started from, wondering how to find language inside of that, or how to return to language inside of that, or to find the capacity to return to connection basically inside of that.

I think the book ends up in…even though the water comes back, it’s shallow, and there’s a return to language but not the desired return. It’s a really shallow and dirty water. It’s “shallow” in both senses of the word. I was interested there again in trying to move towards a nothing, or to acknowledge the nothing that is the other side of fullness. That move is also to me the only way out through all that debris — or maybe you have to think about the nothing inside the debris. I’m interested in Buddhism and a lot of different spiritual practices. I studied yoga for a long time and different practices like that. So I was really interested in that connection between impoverishment and abundance, for instance.

Considering economy, fullness, shallowness, and given your personal background (I think from Long Island), I still keep tracking water references even amid the devastation. I admire the sublime moments where the sea listens only to the sea, for example. Could you connect that sense of expanse, of abyss, to the spaciousness of this text? What does scale make possible for your poetics? Do you think of this book’s novel-like scope, both in terms of length and breadth — as providing room for you, and maybe room for the reader? How did The Devastation arrive at this present form, even with generous blank stretches between the parts?

I think I was experiencing too much in some sense. I stopped writing for three years, and had started The Devastation right before that. I’d written four books in three years. I didn’t publish one, but it was just a very intense and kind of flourishing time in life. I was really interested in the connection of text and life. I wanted there to be a connection and went after it. I wanted a kind of text-life and wanted to arrive at that in the fullest way possible. Then on purpose I stopped writing for three years, because I felt like writing was dirty in some sense (not just my writing, but all writing). The fullness and connection had left. I had different personal calamities and I think the idea that life and writing were interconnected made it so high-pitched and so everything-or-nothing. The minute that one part fell over the entire thing fell over. That made me question this belief in desire, this kind of utter belief in writing as I had experienced it — coming out of Écriture féminine, or many different things like that.

I had no desire to write for a long time, but I knew I would come back to it. I taught and kind of dropped out of the poetry community, again knowing I would go back. I had been very involved in it for many years. The Devastation was in my mind the entire time. In some sense, The Devastation is the record of this time — where there was literally no distinction between my life and my work, even when the book wasn’t happening. So the silence is the breadth for me that you’re talking about. Or the kind of refusal or dropping out is the thing that made it so big in some sense when I came back. Everything hinged on this. And I felt like I was going to finish this book or I was going to die. It was an extreme experience. It was a private experience too.

The spaciousness is the lostness which was a humbling too, and which made it possible for me to connect to people differently in the time after the book was written.

Well at The Devastation’s midpoint, or close enough, I remember reaching: “To resist the cataloging which saves nothing which petrifies / everything.” Reading this line, I couldn’t tell if it suggests that cataloging categorically petrifies and saves nothing, or if this line simply desires to resist one specific type of cataloging. I mention this because you present such lovely catalogues throughout the book. And I’ll hope we can bring the discussion back to relations between writing and life — to expansive centrifugal force as you push outwards and write about everything and write so many books at once, as well as to centripetal privacies, because I love those mini-catalogues that do come up: “The gorges the centenaries the ashes the muffins the amber. That hair, those infusions protections, oversights. Those injunctions.” Could you put The Devastation’s forms of cataloging in relation to installation-based art, or incantatory practices, shamanistic practices that appeal to you in poetry, perhaps in work by Ingeborg Bachmann, Bhanu Kapil, Anne Waldman?

All of these art forms you mention are really important to me. I studied hypnosis for a long time. I have a palm-reading practice that’s more of an energy practice. I was really interested in installation work as I was becoming an artist. Those are definite influences on The Devastation, as is Bhanu, a very close friend. I’ve been to Naropa many times. I love Anne and love performance art. I was really interested in Ana Mendieta and Marina Abramović and early-70s performance art — especially by women.

But in terms of the question about cataloging: I think I was trying to track that time, and that time…I’m not making a grand statement about my beliefs from that time, but how I feel now is different from when I wrote the book. I obviously like lists and like all the things you’re mentioning. I also like the idea of things in relation. Juliana Spahr’s work is really important to me. But I was trying to ask in this book: what is it that’s outside those attempts? Or what kinds of violence do those attempts do to the matter that they’re trying to engage with? If everything can be named and everything can be catalogued, does that mean everything can be owned in some way as well?

There’s also a self-indictment here. So what would be outside of that cataloguing? And what would that mean in writing? What would that make possible in writing? So I think in this book I was writing in a really different way from how I had written my previous work. In a lot of ways it’s a rejection of those past elements. That doesn’t mean I don’t like lists, but in that time I was really thinking about the violence that writing creates as well (on content, on matter), and the violence of any experimental writing community that has liberal aims.

The text-life was spiritual, bodily, and full of love but also a lot of passivity. This was just about trying to see what is there. The catalogues are about valuing anything, being able to value anything because it is left and can go with other things, which is also what memory is to me.

It is probably agency in its smallest form. The book ends with a quote from Ingeborg Bachmann whose book Malina is very important to me.

As you describe the violence implicit in certain types of writing, could we start to talk more specifically about your relationship to readers or to the reader? When you mention your training in hypnosis, I think of the affective steering involved in such practices. And I’ll notice in this book sudden clusters or emphases or densities of topic, as when our wingspan suddenly becomes a recurrent point of consideration. Or weight temporarily seems paramount. Did you consciously coordinate those volumetric pressures to push The Devastation forward? What did it mean for you to sculpt the durational experience of a reader working through this expansive project?

I’m interested in durational processes in general. The sculpting of the book in some sense became the book. I had started three years earlier. I had written a lot of the first section then, but all in fragments. It was very long, maybe 200 pages. A lot of it was bad and confused. So when I came back to writing after literally three years of nothing (no journals, nothing), I wrote the third section “The Sky” — its “The First Day” piece on day one, and its “The Second Day” piece on day two. It was so much pent-up energy from all that time. It just came right out of me.

Something about that experience made me go back and look at those fragments I hadn’t been able to do anything with. I’d studied debris-flow in nature, a process where the secondary trauma is much more catastrophic than the initial catastrophe. So if there’s an earthquake it will cause all this wreckage and many people will die and the land will become even more unstable, right? First there’s a catastrophe, and yet more damage happens statistically when the secondary thing happens, which can be much more minor. Maybe it’s just a rainstorm in this very precarious area with all these loose rocks and people who have no resources. The secondary trauma, which in some sense is not even a real event but a greater trauma, creates all these debris-flows. Literally debris is flowing in these different ways, because it has nothing to hold onto, and that creates a lot of death and a lot more wreckage. It kind of creates a momentum with things just flowing towards the end in some way.

So I’d studied the pattern of debris-flow, and I took that first section and I arranged the form according to different debris-flows. It was a really specific, crazy pattern. It was just so specific and insane. I was obsessed by this for days and days and I finally got it. I don’t really remember exactly what I did. There’s many different debris-flows included. So that was the sculpting of the first section. But it was only after I had done the third section that I could come back to those fragments and have that distance — or that safety, because I had gotten to a different time finally.

So the debris-flow concept deals with trauma, yet moving away from exclusively psychological definitions of trauma, focusing instead on physical ecosystems. But at the same time, when we think of a brittle, fragile, post-trauma ecosystem, we find a great metaphor for human experience.

I was definitely thinking about human experience.

You’ve mentioned this galvanizing day on which the fragments could cohere for you, could restart this project. And you point to Clarice Lispector in this book. You describe reading her as this catalyzing moment. But more broadly, in terms of literary reference points, could we get to some of the intertextual elements within The Devastation? You cite the “swollen singular rhythms of Jeanne Hyvrard, Marguerite Duras,” the therapeutic precedent of Elizabeth Grosz, Aharon Appelfeld, Melanie Klein, women herbalists. Then Clarice Lispector and Hélène Cixous. Jean-Luc Godard (always my favorite point of reference) and Walter Benjamin help frame the text. Adrienne Rich can’t help surfacing, or George Oppen’s “shipwreck of the singular” compared to your sea-wreck in language. Hart Crane and Walt Whitman get echoed across anaphoric, embodied, “I Sing the Body Electric”-like sequences. Biblical cadences, references to gardens and floods, Edmond Jabèsian references to more abstracted conceptions of the Book recur. Gertrude Stein echoes through these forms of repetition. What in that wide array of sources sounds worth discussing?

Those are all things that have influenced me. You just totally hit on it. And the span of this book was so many years. In some sense it’s influenced by so many different periods. It was influenced by different things at different times.

The book is in some sense thinking about what poetry is, and thinking about rejecting it, coming close to it, thinking about how to gather it, or asking: is poetry the same thing as a capitalist economy, or not the same? Is it the same thing to demonize or to love or to worship or to put away? So I think in writing the end of the book it was safer for me to go towards a more poetic fiction. Although I would say primarily the book is about poetry.

But the summer that I wrote the “Sky” section, I had read The Passion According to G.H. I was really influenced when younger by feminist writers like Nicole Brossard or Luce Irigaray. They always talked about how they loved Lispector. I had all of her books. I tried to read them maybe five or 10 years before, and they hadn’t appealed to me. I was 25, and they were in some sense post-desire. Or that’s definitely how I saw them at the time. Back then I was only interested in some kind of tension point or going towards something. In a way Clarice Lispector seemed totally past all that. But all of the sudden, I don’t know why, one day I had a feeling I should look at The Passion According to G.H. I looked and it was so amazing.

This entire book is about a woman who eats a cockroach. That’s the only thing that happens, but the cockroach is neutrality or negation or the mother’s body or everything you dislike about yourself — and the same for the other. So it’s this really intense meditation on taking that which is repellent into your own body and making yourself into nothing in some way, because of the grotesque or because of the oral in some way. It’s very dramatic but also very controlled, so that you’re willing to spend 200 pages on this one act which in some way seems crazy, and very kind of meditative and philosophical.

And also this point of encounter with the cockroach instead of with a lover — there was something about this kind of writing that allowed me to do the final section of my book, which is a kind of notebook in which the lovers wander around. The water has come back a little bit. Language has come back shallow. There’s a kind of refugee society that’s formed. Many people are doing many bad things.

Still on this topic of ingesting or absorbing the repellant, you also had mentioned Juliana Spahr. Here maybe we could move toward your use of pronouns. The “Day 2” section, for example, offers something like a love story, even as the “you” slips beyond fixed classification. Sometimes this “you” is a lover. Sometimes the “you” seems childlike. Sometimes “you” seems to provide a perceptual or emotional or metaphysical limit case. Sometimes the “you” gets generalized, whereas at other points it suggests a particular present reader. Then when we read “It is up to you to translate,” this suddenly feels like a direct address. Later we encounter a “we that is difficult to pronounce,” an “I” that no “I” chooses.

It’s obviously essential to the project and it’s completely influenced by Juliana Spahr. She’s a very close friend and I acknowledge her work in the back. I’ve read her work extensively. I just love all her work. She also read the book and helped me with it. So there was that real experience as well. I think with the idea of pronouns…so if the sea has shipwrecked into itself (and I was thinking about Oppen’s shipwreck, since Oppen had been really important to me early on), if there’s no more language, then there’s also no more gender. The Devastation was written at a time when many people were playing with gender and interested in gender. Nightboat is often considered a press that does a lot of queer work. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with Nightboat. But for me, in this book, I was not playing with gender at all. I was trying to think about how, if you lose language, you also lose identity. Identity is something very comforting, even if it’s socially constructed.

Identity is also part of what makes relation possible. So the challenge here is to think about what would be possible without identity. I think that’s where the pronouns come in. There’s no real gender and there are no real names. Naming things is very, very violent, actually. And yet with the pronouns I was trying to think about something very particular, but also a kind of universal where it could be so many things. In a way the fact that it could be so many things means that it’s everything. So then the stakes are so enormous and difficult.

Similarly, The Devastation’s preface states that “the relationship between reader and writer is of the utmost charge in this book.” Then it states: “It is and it is not.” Anything we haven’t yet addressed about that particular relation?

I think that’s what I was trying to do with the book — to explore how to make a relationship between writer and reader again. Literally, how to make it. Which is to say to become the “I” and the “you” in some sense, and in between writing and reading. I’m interested in different healing practices. I see writing as transformational. With this book I wanted to transform the things I talk about while also respecting the matter at hand (which is a kind of literal matter, which might not want to be transformed).

Yeah for discourses of healing, for your active participation in poetic communities that emphasize healing, could we address The Devastation’s attention to touch? Here could we approach touch as it relates to eros (as with the erotic charge of our turning your pages, which your preface describes), but also touch as a therapeutic lightness of touch (as well as the repetition of this particular formulation as your book progresses)? How can touch, light touch, light eros perhaps diffuse Blanchot’s concern that comes up here: “the danger that the disaster acquire meaning instead of the body” (and even this line repeats)?

I associate the idea of light touch with Bhanu Kapil. Bhanu often talks about that. During the writing of this book she and I talked almost every day. It was a very intense time for our friendship. First I had stopped writing, which I see The Devastation as literally being a somatic record of. I had stopped doing palm reading, something that literally involves touching and pressing somebody’s palm. Again, I knew I would come back to that, but was choosing not to do it in that moment because I felt like I didn’t have the resources — or that it had to be done with as little ego as possible, something that comes through to you. So it wasn’t the right time to do that.

Yet I think what I’m experiencing now in the after-part of this work is the light touch, and the kind of engagement with the book that would be healing. I had a really beautiful experience developing the cover with Juliana Spahr, David Buuck, Andrew Kenower. Emji Spero did all this stuff with the red pages and putting blood into the book. Stephen has been wonderful. Bhanu has been wonderful…in the pre and in the post and in every kind of touch and non-touch, which writing was to both of us for many years. Even in our conversation right now Andy — these are all kind of what I consider light touch on the work afterwards. I studied trauma for a long time. I almost did a PhD in trauma theory. It obviously has really informed my book, my work, and my palm-reading practice. Light touch has been something difficult for me to do in a state of catastrophe, only something that is possible afterwards. And yet creating a work somehow makes it possible for light touch to happen later. I was really conscious of that as well.

The lovers are not thinking about touch as the erotic per say, although there’s a memory of that. That memory of the erotic kind of makes the text possible, or makes the book possible. I really believe all those things of how writers write their sexuality. The erotic is very close to me and to my writing. But the lovers are taking their touch away. They’re reaching and recoiling. They’re cleaning each other off. So in a way they’re touching in order to negate what came before. That negation is also making it possible for the other person to survive.

Well should we return to questions of relationality? We could address small slippages that occur, like “mouthes” or “waling on water.” We could explore more extensively the writing relationship between you and Bhanu, specifically in terms of concepts that overlap in your books: the floor, the basin. You both offer dense and never definitively articulated conceptions of what “the floor” could be. You two share this concept, but it also becomes your own, for each of you.

Yeah. First of all, the floor is extremely important in The Devastation and in Bhanu’s Ban. The floor between Bhanu and I also. We co-taught a Naropa class last summer called “The Charnel Ground.” It was Naropa’s 40th anniversary, so you had to do some kind of workshop engaged with Buddhist or Dharmic themes. The charnel ground is literally the ancient Buddhist practice of, thousands of years ago, instead of burying bodies, they would put them on a high-up mountain and leave the corpses there to rot. It would be four or five hours away from wherever the village was. It’s a crazy area, this floor that’s attracting all kinds of otherness and vultures. It’s a place of very intense activity and craziness and energy. It’s between life and death in some conception.

In order to become a Buddhist monk, you first had to be left in the charnel ground for days and days by yourself. You would be brought there and left. You would maybe die, because there was nothing protecting you before they came back for you. So the idea was that if you didn’t die, you would think of yourself as inseparable from those things that were there. You’d mix with the corpse. So this is mine and Bhanu’s workshop. To me, that class was really kind of the articulation of our floor together. I was distinctly thinking about the floor when we created it. What I’m trying to say is that the “floor” had existed before, but there’s something about our relationship where it’s both in language and not in language. I think in both of our works there’s, for better or worse, a commitment to the floor. Or a commitment to a passivity that would engage the floor. So the idea is that, even though it’s very different in both of our works, you reach the floor of the world, the lowest conception of what it means to be human.

In my work before this I had such high ideas of wanting to be this kind of writer or that kind of writer, this kind of person or that kind of person. Then there was something about this book where I wanted to show the floor that I was with it — that I loved it, that I was ready to not be embarrassed, to be a part of it. I think that for Ban too Bhanu’s character lies down on the floor to die. Her character was maybe raped. It’s unclear. It’s also about showing the reader, showing the world, that instead of rejecting this, I’m going to merge with it and develop a kind of love relationship that’s really dangerous.

Then for those small slippages I’d mentioned, do these somehow help you find traction on the floor of language? I’d wanted to ask earlier, but didn’t really know how, about your concern with language becoming “smaller and smaller” while the meaning grows “more and more totalitarian.”

That was a real relationship for me in which the less value I gave to language, the more meaning it held. Although that meaning was separate from expressive meaning. It was a kind of shadow meaning. The shadow meaning I think came from elsewhere. This book was also really an indictment of a kind of waste economy and the economies that exist even in alternative communities that don’t seem distinctly capitalistic. That was devastating to me to find out, and way more nuanced. So I think that “more and more totalitarian” here also merges with the larger meaning of the culture that I came from and the culture that we’re all part of. When I was a young writer, like all young writers, I was fierce and interested in all of these alternative ideas and really believing that I’d found a kind of utopia or could be separate. But I came to realize that it’s not separate at all.

How does that particular realization shape your fused writing life/practice now?

I’ve completely gone back to writing communities. I’m writing a memoir now called Writing, forthcoming with Nightboat, about my relationship to writing. It’s more of a prose work literally about poetry, and I obviously have so many friends from there — poetry. My whole adult life has been this.

Still there’s so much violence in all the ideas of “us against them,” the “good” compared to the “bad.” That also makes it possible for a lot of things to be covered over and for responsibility not to be taken — for different stances to stand as euphemisms for other unarticulated violences. Again it’s because this economy works so well. I’m not talking about the writing community in particular, although I’ve been interested in that. I’m talking about the whole world. It’s much easier to critique the government or some kind of conservative situation, but it was shocking for me to see that this economy worked the same way in different stratospheres. I guess what I was trying to work out with this book was also…if the world, if my own world no longer offered the utopia I had believed in, then how to come back to this world with this real conception? It seems so naive now to think about, but so how to participate with all this knowledge and with also seeing myself as part of the world and as creating the different things I thought of as abhorrent in it?

Again, these violences exist, and can come into existence at any time. It’s not about people being evil or anything, but just the possibility in different systems for erasure and seeing other people as waste. All that said, I obviously am deeply committed to poetry and to a certain kind of community. Oki Sogumi, a very close friend, has many beautiful ideas on this, better ideas — her feminist commune was one I could believe in again.

I also had it in my mind that I really wanted this book with Nightboat. It was a really strong feeling. With the other books I was more open. But for The Devastation I was just very fixated on this idea. I was interested in the international influences of many of the press’s writers, the distinctly non-American lineage, the interdisciplinary influences, and the queerness or boundarylessness in a lot of the works. And I really was looking for a way to come back to a poetry community. Writing this book had changed me and has made this other time possible. But I didn’t know if it was ever going to be published. I had so dropped out that I really wrote it for myself at that point. Though one other reason I wanted to publish with Nightboat is I have a lot of friends published by the press. While that wouldn’t have been important for another book, it was really important for this book. I was looking for a different potentiality for community for writing, and beyond that for love — whatever love looked like in the beyond.