What happens when a poetics of “the soft body” prompts a “suite of vengeance poems”? What happens when participatory punks start blurring distinctions between being “on stage” or “in the crowd” at a poetry reading? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Andrea Abi-Karam. This present conversation focuses on Abi-Karam’s book EXTRATRANSMISSION. Abi-Karam is an Arab-American genderqueer punk poet-performer cyborg. Their chapbook THE AFTERMATH (Commune Editions, 2016) attempts to queer Frantz Fanon’s conception of how poetry fails to inspire revolution. Simone White selected their second book-length assemblage, Villainy, for forthcoming publication from Les Figues. Abi-Karam toured with Sister Spit in 2018, and lives in New York.
ANDY FITCH: I could isolate some of your opening “KILL BRO / KILL COP” section’s most pointed lines (“kill all the power dynamics in the room…. kill all the hierarchies of power of who is publishing who…. & that makes you select who to make eye contact with & who to ignore on alternating nights & which beer to schedule on which day & which bar to go to after which reading”), and I could wonder about the extent to which EXTRATRANSMISSION will end up reanimating many of the power dynamics that it claims to attack — and whether it will do so in a classic combative style characteristic of certain Bay Area predecessors that it claims to leave behind. But of course that weary reading starts to unravel when we reach this section’s concluding call to “KILL THE BRO IN YR HEAD.” So could you talk more broadly about what you have found most liberatory in assembling a “kill bro” poetics, and about the extent to which that poetics’ potential hinges on a performative self-implication that slowly ricochets across this first section? Or to make this question more concrete, could we take “KILL BRO / KILL COP’s” concluding admonishment (“I could be any of U sitting there. Reading. Remember that”) and talk about who all “I” and “U” already have become by this point in the book?
ANDREA ABI-KARAM: Part of my approach to hashing out and attempting to break through the massive hierarchies of power (patriarchy, military-industrial complex, global capitalism, etcetera) that shape the world is by finding specificity in details of their microclimates. My first attempt at writing about global capitalism failed. It was too large, too impersonal, too emotionally flat. I wasn’t implicated and neither was the reader. I love that you begin by asking about “KILL BRO / KILL COP,” since that was where this project began. I abandoned verse and lineation and wrote this suite of vengeance poems against bros, alongside pieces that translated into loud broadcasts the frustrations with misogyny, whiteness, and straightness that I encountered routinely at readings and punk shows.
When working on the “CHECK” poem I had a lot of conversations with poets around both naming and the refusal to name — whether to lean fully into New Narrative strategies or not. I decided against full-on naming. These instances are not singular, and I didn’t want people to get unnecessarily caught on the details. It’s not about the one nonprofit poetry org that’s trying but still not quite getting it right: it’s about all of them. It’s not about one bro one time at one show: it’s about the pervasive violence that bros perpetuate en masse. I arrived at a level of specificity in “KILL BRO / KILL COP,” detailed revenge fantasies that are honed and violent. There was this one workshop moment where my professor asked why the poems had to be so violent. My classmate mai c doan (whose first book water / tongue just came out from Omnidawn) responded quickly: “Bros are violent.” Why do they get to exist unquestioned?
Entering the small-press poetry world came with the need to untangle the stickiness and complexities of how various scenes attached to poetry function — how the forces of cultural and literary production operate. Although they might often exist in basements or living rooms, free schools or rooftop spaces (attempting to breathe outside of a capitalist framework), of course that does not absolve them from perpetuating hierarchies of power. One of the things I love about poetry is that as an art form it is not at the epicenter of capitalist desire, and has found ways of circulating outside of monolithic publishing, in small presses and hypersocially at readings and events. Smashing literary spaces and punk shows together forces their troubles to the fore. What I find liberatory about this assemblage of “kill bro” poetics is the breaking of bro bones through direct, immediate punk poetics. They’re not lyric poems. They’re lyric like punk songs. They’re large and loud, and I hope you can hear them.
I love that you’re not afraid to question my own implication, or the book’s implicit embeddedness in systems of power. This is a question I grappled with throughout the writing of EXTRATRANSMISSION. The close of “KILL BRO / KILL COP” reminds us that none of us are exempt from the capacity to perpetuate violence. I got top surgery as I was finishing EXTRATRANSMISSION, and had to think more critically about my own positioning, from cis-dyke to non-binary trans. Despite my best efforts at modifications and refusals, I get gendered every which way, and one of those ways is masc.
I also do want to address from the start EXTRATRANSMISSION’s softer sides, specifically its concern for the soft body, the gendered body, the internally (perhaps invisibly) traumatized body — subject, for instance, to traumatic brain injury. Here I especially appreciate how EXTRATRANSMISSION lingers “on the surface of the signature injury” (here with that standalone line itself not so different from a scab, and with the next page picking further away to just say / stay: “on the surface”). Band-aids come to mind throughout this text, as does the sturdy prosthetic traction found when a single word gets spread across a whole line, such as “S U R V I V E “ (again, if I may, not so different from early formulations of “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,” but also making me picture eye charts, my own vague projections of a military phalanx, Martha Graham performances). Skins and surfaces and flatness and glass likewise appear throughout. So could you discuss how / why a poetics both examining and embodying softness might seek to incorporate all of that?
I love the visual of prosthetic traction you apply to poetics. Stretching is about duration and discomfort. The soft body, as the site of modern warfare’s explosions, suffers real, physical consequences: tears, swells, stretches, desiccations, deconstructions. I’m always thinking about the work of Sarah Kane’s plays, especially Blasted, which takes the violences of the war in Bosnia and compresses them into and exploding out of (abusive) interpersonal relationships. The task of translating nameless mass death into something visceral and intimate. A literal stretching of skin until breakage. In the collision of flesh against metal, flesh fails to hold as container to blood, organs, brain, bones. Softness bears the honesty that the monstrosities of the war machine wield against flesh.
Such signature injuries from our so-called War on Terror also stand out for the lack of direct engagement with one’s apparent adversary. Instead, with tripwires and IEDs, one again seems to end up “fighting” one’s predecessor, some combatant who came before. Nobody hits the various “I’s” across this book — who instead get thrown and then themselves hit the ceiling or the wall or the ground (again creating their own concussive externalized and internalized ricochets). Or how else might you see various types of spatial, temporal, cognitive, affective, epistemological dislocation projectively allegorized through today’s most signature injuries?
Intensified combat at a distance follows the development of weaponized distance technologies: IEDs, tripwires, drones. I often look to Public Figures by Jena Osman, which has transcriptions from drone pilots running along the footer of the pages of ekphrastic poems describing colonialist monuments in Philadelphia. That parallel-running text has a strangely intimate effect. The other piece of this is how massive systems of oppression support each other. In response to each war’s specific weapons and injuries, the US medical-industrial complex creates a new band-aid to address them.
Part of the struggle of recovery and adaptation to the traumatic brain injury is discovering the shortcomings of the medical-industrial complex to address (gendered) memory loss. There is a search for alternatives, therapeutic-animal connections, a type of intimacy rich in contrast to the detached blasts. I personally look to queer community, trans community, DIY community, punk community to recover from today’s signature injuries.
As we sketch certain militarized points of reference, alongside efforts to harness oft-overlooked liberatory potential, I can’t help thinking of Rob Halpern’s Music for Porn, with its rigorous ruminations on what it might mean for a critically reflective, professionally exempt, solidarity-seeking, sexually aroused poetic subject to set its gaze on the eroticized soldier figure (all while recognizing that poetry of various ideological valences has done something similar for millennia). And here returning to EXTRATRANSMISSION’s own performative self-implication, could you outline what you might have borrowed from Rob’s fierce commitment not to turn away from some of our present moment’s most interpersonally fraught and (at least intermittently) appropriative relations — and what type of precedent that set as you likewise sought to write about soldiers’ lives, as part of thinking through this book’s composite “I”?
As you’ve picked up on, I spent a lot of time with Music for Porn! My obsession with the mechanics and devastation of the signature injury was well under way by the time I found Music for Porn, and it was exactly what I needed to read at the time. I had been deep in the works of Etel Adnan, reading and rereading Sitt Marie Rose, trying to figure out how to write myself into the conversation in poetry and politics of the War on Terror. I found myself somewhere between Adnan’s perspective as Lebanese-lesbian while having lived in the US for many years, and Halpern’s American gay-boy perspective — with me Lebanese-American, having lived only in the US, and queer and trans.
I had a lot of conversations in MFA workshops around the ethics of writing the perspective of a veteran. What are the ethics of writing from perspectives and experiences you have not had yourself? I feel as though this is a big conversation right now in poetry and identity politics. The workshop conversations pushed my research and intentionality more rigorously, through questions such as: “What if a family member of a female vet who lost her memory read the book? How would they feel?” I’ve had audience members at readings approach me afterwards and ask if I was there. No, I was not. Someone recently said to me after a reading: “You wrote it like you were there. Were you?” I said no, intergenerational trauma can be physical. And they said: “As a queer army vet, thank you.”
In terms of immersive scenes you describe, sentence fragments and parentheticals (some of which never close down) seem to start clustering in the “DECREATION” section, right when we receive advice on how to “cut the wires emerging from the back of the eyeball one by one — to lessen the shock.” Anaphoric insistence on subsequent pages offers a repetitive reaching perhaps not unlike pulling out these wires. Then by the “FUSION” section, with its performed assemblage of a “communication exoskeleton,” I sense something like syntactical assonance (internalized rhymes and iterations), as if offering some broader enactment of the verb “to port,” with increasingly dense possibilities for disconnection and reconnection and unanticipated glitches. Could you talk a bit about how cuts and scrapes and piercings and ports and fusions play out along the skins and surfaces of EXTRATRANSMISSION’s prose syntax?
The repetition in these sections puts to print the frequency of both violences and microviolences of daily life under interlocking systems of oppression, and envisions ways of adaptation and resistance. Adjusting to new synchronized technologies, to the restructured body, and to a new way of navigating the world is uncomfortable. Those tensions between “DECREATION” and “FUSION” linger in the liminal space of various attempts to function “after the blast.”
And as we bring in this diverse tonal range, I also don’t want to neglect the funny inflections this book barely lingers on, such as the murderous reverie (for a noise bro who cockblocked) concluding on the imperative “U SHD THANK ME,” or the post-hoc assignment “TO THE SPORTS BRO WHO ASKED IF I WAS MARRIED, GIRL: SEND 1000$ TO P.O. BOX #3825968 FOR YR STUPIDITY IN MY PRESENCE,” or the ominous opening line “THIS IS NOT I FORGOT MY WALLET AT HOME DURING MERCURY RETROGRADE.” I’d also hope to include the aggression and eros and fun all laced into the compacted lament “WHY DID U STAND ME UP LAST NIGHT. I WAS THERE WAITING 4 U IN THE DARK BOOTS DOUBLE KNOTTED, ANKLES BRACED FOR THE MOMENT WHEN THE BASS WAS DIRTY AND THE BLAST BEATS SHOOK THE FLOOR TO DRIVE MY ELBOW INTO YR GUT FOR EVEN DARING TO RUN INTO ME.” So here could we consider how an intermittently terse or didactic poetics premised upon destroying power relations might relate to the more participatory (at times more playful) punk notion of dissolving distinctions between active artist and passive audience? How do poetry (as you know it) and punk (as you know it) fair together when they find themselves side-by-side at a reading or at a show?
A reading is absolutely more fun when there are punks on stage or in the crowd (and this barrier does become blurry). There’s more interaction, more porosity. I love when a reading feels like it doesn’t matter if you have a book out, or if you’ve published anywhere legible beyond the local. I have the intersections of New Narrative and queer DIY to thank for this. When I first started going to readings in the Bay, it took months before I even realized that so many people around me, new friends and lovers, had published full-length collections. I probably owe this to cross-country distance from the publishing megalomania that is New York, and to the Bay’s longstanding commitment to leftist literary production and organizing. The collision of punk and poetry makes it possible for language to scream and mutate — for a poetics of directness and canonical refusal.
Anyone can write a “kill bro” poem, without having studied writing or craft or literature. Anyone can make a zine or throw a house reading. You don’t need the approval of the canon’s ghosts or a publisher to convey daily reactions to encounters with systems of oppression.
Finally then, with local ecologies still in mind (though this question could have come first, Andrea, since I know you best as a wolf, from email exchanges over the past few years), could we talk about animals, about your hooved “I” evoking (for me at least) Tyrone Williams’s pit ponies and Emily Dickinson’s loaded gun, about your Donna Haraway-esque cyborgian excursions also making me recall Haraway’s more recent work on interspecies relations — and how animals might remake us, and not just the other way around? Or again, if a more focused question helps: even when it happens amid some plastick-wrapped Oakland tech-boom gentrification site, does lying down beside a fawn make any “I,” any writing project, in the end a bit lyrical?
My wolf obsession is really about friendship and queer family. The myth of the lone wolf is just that, a myth — anytime a pack comes across a wolf alone in the wild, regardless of blood kinship, they adopt the lone wolf into their pack just like chosen family. I might rewrite your question “how might animals remake us” to: how might animals remake our relationships to each other? How might we learn from their practices of care? How have humans made the anthropocene so harsh and unlivable that our relationships to each other become screen, become surface, become plastick, become the sharp metal edge?
Photo by Lix Z