R. Erica Doyle: Physics and Feelings
Author: Jessica Mason McFadden
August 26, 2013
“When I write, I am hungry for something. And I don’t always know what it is. But the poem is there to assuage it.”
Released by Belladonna Books in early April, R. Erica Doyle’s quarto-sized Proxy brought forward a new kind of calculus: the poetic arithmetic of an intensely erotic intersectionality of politics. Doyle’s abstract relational arithmetic requires a lot of unpacking–not in the form of clarification but, rather, imagination and elaboration. An active member of the New York City writing community, Doyle’s poetry is influenced by her roles as educator and life-scholar. In a Lambda Literary interview, R. Erica Doyle gets real with Jessica Mason McFadden about social issues invoked by her work and the politics of process.
How and at what point did the concept of calculus come into play in your conceptualization of Proxy? Was it a starting point or did it manifest from another location in the content or process?
Before Proxy came into being as a project, I was reading books and articles about physics, trying to understand more about the nature of the universe, to put it simply, and this led me to calculus, and to reading books about higher mathematics and mathematicians in general. Before I started the poems that were to become Proxy, struck by the poetic language in A Tour of The Calculus, I constructed a found poem of what I thought were its most poignant moments, entitled “Fundamental Theorem.” At one time, I thought of “Fundamental Theorem” as the prologue to Proxy, and I suppose, conceptually, it was. What I was working out in Proxy and what I was working out in “Fundamental Theorem” are linked, and that is why it now exists in the epigraphs to each section.
Some reviewers have found the inclusion of calculus to be paramount to and determinant in the reading of the poems. Would you mind saying something about reader and reviewer reactions to the element of calculus or, more generally, about the reception of Proxy by the public?
I love the way that reviewers thus far have been taken with the ideas and the language and have written reviews that were incredibly poetic works in their own right! I’ve thought so far that they–yours included–were simply beautiful. As to what is the defining feature of the work itself –that is for the reader to decide.
The nuance and multivalence in the work is purposeful. The nature of existence is that everything is happening simultaneously. Everything is connected. Our position in a particular space and time is the lens through which we view the universe. This does not mean it is the only lens. We make decisions, conscious or unconscious, that affect what we see and feel and do.
People have reacted to the book as anthropology, autobiography, sociology, activism, prosody and porn. Some people have been scared to meet me, because the book was “scary.” Readers have argued about the gender and race of the characters, the protagonist. I use the pronoun “you” for a reason. What is Proxy? What you says it is.
The theme of limitation reoccurs and offers strong visuals as well as moving phrases, particularly at the end of Proxy. Did you work with a particular organizational strategy or were you led in an alternative de/constructive direction? In other words, how did you construct (piece together and/or organize) the book and how would you describe your pace throughout the project?
I was quite taken by the paradox of the limit; there are many, the most well known may be Zeno’s paradox. There are many mathematical conversations that can be had about it, and I mean that, literally, people are writing equations back and forth to each other.
To put it very simplistically, between point A and point B there are an infinite number of steps — half the distance, a quarter, an eighth, and so on. However, we are still able to step from A to B. This idea, arguably at the center of many human ideas about the nature of existence—that the infinite and finite exist not just at the same time, but in the same space—resonated with me. That we could be eternally moving toward a destination we never truly, exactly reached. Life as gesture, then.
The organizational strategy of the book once I had all these poems was to create something that embodied this idea. After much experimentation, which included handing it off to poet Arisa White who wrangled a suggested chronology, I imposed an order on the poems in the book, but this is not the only order. When I give a reading, sometimes I mix them up. Sometimes I give a framing hint, “This is where it begins” and then read from the end or the middle. Each one is a particle, or its own spirit.
I first encountered this idea in “Choose Your Adventure” books as a child, and it was most deliciously explored in the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, such as “El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan” (The Garden of Bifurcating Paths) and “La biblioteca de Babel” (The Library of Babel) which I read in my high school AP Spanish class. In his story “Las ruinas circulares” I first encountered the idea that our art is somehow recursive, that as we create, we are creating ourselves, that we are what we are ultimately seeking.
As to my pace, this manuscript was composed over six years, in two year intervals, with one year breaks between. In the meantime, parts of it were published and performed, and sung. Much of it was written after the writer and graphic artist Sarah Micklem heard me read at the St. Marks Poetry Project and said, “There should be a book of that.” Some of it was written for the Composer Collaborative’s Non Sequitur Festival with composer Joshua Fried, who actually created a chamber piece around what became the “petroglyph” section.
I read your work through a post-colonial lens more than a lens of calculus, although I think the two are complimentary rather than antithetical. In my post-colonial reading, I studied and struggled to make meaning of power dynamics as they were presented unconventionally in your work. I was fascinated, disturbed, and enticed by the ways in which power dynamics were linguistically subverted and asserted. Did these themes come up for you before, during or after you wrote (if at all) and can you speak to the role of power and imperialism in your work?
Let’s face it–that’s where we are, aren’t we? The power dynamics of settler colonialism toxically persist. I was working out some ideas around how this affects us, macro and micro. Power dynamics within families, sexual relationships, communities, countries. Where imperialism literally and figuratively sneaks in–when it is not banging down the door–to the “safe spaces” we are trying to create, with its disease, its pollution. Where we are not treating each other with care. Where we lie about what really happens between intimates. Where we pass down generations of pain. Where the imperialist project sneaks into our bedrooms, our minds. It’s messy. Proxy is messy. This is not victim-blaming. This is real survivor talk.
Toni Morrison discusses in Playing in the Light how the entire cultural context “leaks” into the artifact, and that to pretend it does not is to be the goldfish that sees neither the water nor the bowl.
Speaking of power, desire and drive certainly seem to take on a life of their own in relation to power throughout the book. Poetry, in my experience, is so much driven by desire, almost as if it is intended to hold up the mirror to desire in order to reflect it outward and sometimes refract it. How would you describe the role that desire has played in your poetry and how, as a poet, might you define or describe desire?
The idea of the mirror is interesting. Refraction, reflection. Bending light in different ways. But first, I am going to pretend that by desire you mean all the fucking that happens in this book.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I write about fucking because that’s what I do and I wanted to crow about it. I wanted to explore all the ways we could talk about how we bring our bodies together and what that “electric” feels like and have it be beautiful and startling and as unsafe as it felt. Our forbidden bodies. I wanted some more of that. I didn’t want to euphemize and beat around the bush (so to speak). The role that desire plays is to write with my whole heart. My body wants your body. I am trying to honor something that we are dying for. I found Chrystos instructional for this. Everything she ever wrote, and her speeches. How to do it all at the same time.
Second, I am going to pretend that by desire you mean the feeling of being drawn towards. Another kind of wanting. When I write, I am hungry for something. And I don’t always know what it is. But the poem is there to assuage it. This does not always work. After the Oscar Grant verdict, I wrote a poem. I was so hungry not to feel the gaping emptiness I felt. It’s still there.
If your work plays with and expands the notion of “geographies of desire,” what might it have to say in a setting in which post-colonial literatures and poetries are explored academically?
Given the nature of these academic explorations, virtually anything a theorist wants it to. And I’m okay with that.
Are you often asked to describe your aesthetic process–or, specifically, about the way in which you formed the aesthetics of Proxy?
I have learned it’s important to attempt to frame the conversations around our work because otherwise someone ends up taking the breath from our mouths.
Reading Dionne Brand’s No Language Is Neutral: “this is you girl, this is the poem no woman/ ever write for a woman because she ‘fraid to touch/ this river…” shifted my linguistic paradigms. This continued in my second year at Cave Canem, when I was introduced to the work of Erica Hunt by Dawn Lundy Martin. Ronaldo Wilson introduced me to Adrienne Kennedy’s work. Both Dawn and Ronaldo introduced me to the idea of thinking about one’s own aesthetic practice in a more critical way.
Harryette Mullen was one of our teachers the next year I was there. I read and reread all of her books. I walked around reading Muse & Drudge out loud to myself. I was entranced by Mullen’s layered, brilliant boxes. I basically slept with a copy of Hunt’s “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics” under my pillow. I felt it articulated what I believed writing should and could do perfectly. I wrote my Masters thesis on Hunt and Mullen and spent a good deal of time with their work and everything that had been written about them up to that time.
I took a workshop with Hunt in NYC during which I wrote most of the “prologue” and “proxy” sections, not really following any of the assignments she gave us but absorbing all of her brilliance and the essays and poems she brought in for us–Oulipo, Julie Patton, Adrienne Kennedy. And finally, I was reading and rereading Jeanette Winterson’s The Powerbook. Proxy is most directly informed aesthetically and conceptually by these explorations. Lyricism not in the service of niceness. Economy of language and shifting geography and persona. The prose poem. An ear to the ground for political rumblings. The material world. All bodies of knowledge and open field.
Readers of poetry are sometimes interested in the poetic sensibilities and tastes of the writer. Speaking directly to other writers, particularly those who have not yet achieved the successes that you have achieved, how did you form your poetic sensibilities, what do you enjoy reading, and/or what advice do you have for others writers who are following in your footsteps?
I don’t believe in the heroic idea of the writer persona. Anything that I have achieved seems random, and anyone following in my jagged footsteps should have their head examined, which is probably the only thing I actually recommend. Meditate (examine your own head) and go to therapy (get some help examining your own head).
I read a lot. I have always read a lot. I read a lot as a kid, and I read widely. I literally read every book in my entire elementary school library–one end of the Dewey Decimal system to the other. My mother bought me every book I ever asked for, and sometimes I asked for twenty at a time. This was supplemented by my library card. So you can imagine, the Internet was the best thing that ever happened to me. One more medium! I usually have a hard copy book that I am reading (fiction) and another one or two I am reading on my phone (usually non-fiction).
I prefer to read genre fiction by women, though I will read literary fiction written by my friends or that my friends insist I read, especially if is by a person of color/queer person/both. I love my friends’ poetry books and am most recently savoring Allegiance by L. Francine Harris, But A Wind is Blowing in From Paradise by Lillian A. Bertram and Autogeography by Reginald Harris. And Bone Light by Orlando White is so intellectually clean. I love poetry based on real life incidents like Brutal Imagination, by Cornelius Eady, Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson, and M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A by A.Van Jordan. I love poetry that makes me want to tear my hair out and run around screaming from all the feelings I am having, how they make my molecules cringe like everything is changing, pretty much anything by Wislava Szymborska, Aracelis Girmay, Toi Derricotte or Claudia Rankine. You can tell I love what I love–I really usually do love something or just hate it. I also want feelings, feelings, feelings. I love Neruda, too, but only in Spanish.
Recently, on a blog for writers, advice was given to people to throw whatever reading they don’t like across the room. I agree, but urge you to be clear why you don’t like it. Maybe your dislike is a challenge for your own growth. Lots of my classmates in my graduate poetry literature class did not like being assigned to read Audre Lorde. Oh, they couldn’t see why. They could have stood to examine their “dislike” and reflect on the challenge for growth.
Advice? There is so much already out there. Okay, two things: something you can do for yourself and something you can do for me. For yourself: trust your mind, not your ego. For me: fight like hell for justice wherever you are. To paraphrase June Jordan, decide exactly what freedom you are choosing to uphold. I know you are afraid, but we are all going to die.
And, lastly, a question that occurred to me in the middle of the night a while ago and would probably be the question I would ask if I were able to ask only one: If you were to imagine Proxy on an academic–creative writing, literature or interdisciplinary–course syllabus, what other works could you imagine (or would you like to imagine) seeing along side it? Feel free to offer a course title and description.
In my fantasy, every writer I’ve named so far would be on that list. That’s the “Erica’s Reading List Class.” I also think someone should just do a year-long queer poets of color class with no pre-set theme, just “Poetry Awesomeness” and put us all on there because we are so fierce –just sit back and talk and think. So, two classes.
Pay the instructors a fair wage to teach it, while you’re at it. Yeah, queers of color and fair wages plus insurance.