Rachel Zolf on Juliana Spahr: The Transformation thinks wit(h)ness

This essay was originally written as part of Laynie Browne’s project to curate essays on the “poet’s novel”  in mid-2013.A

Image.ashxThe Transformation, Juliana Spahr. Atelos, 2007

Thinking thought usually amounts to withdrawing into a dimensionless place in which the idea of thought alone persists. But thought in reality spaces itself out into the world. It informs the imaginary of peoples, their varied poetics, which it then transforms, meaning in them its risk becomes realized.

– Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation

Both my grandfather and father published books paradoxically deemed “autobiographical novel” and “fictional biography.” I became quite certain of the fictional part when I read the same unlikely passage in my father’s “memoir” as I did in his book of “stories.” It was a suicide note penned by a woman scorned by my father’s brother (or the thinly veiled representation of my father’s brother): “I love you, Meyer [or Saul], the way your body moves in bed, the way you laugh, the way you listen, and the way you talk. Without you life is shit, so fuck it. See you upstairs. Monique [or Eve].” Now, I doubt the first thing that comes to mind after reading that passage is that the letter “rings true” in that well-wrung verisimilitude fiction tends to vaunt. I doubt the reader can easily picture Monique (or Eve) feverishly writing these barked-out words during her last rapturous gasps in Winnipeg in 1950. In fact, I doubt the reader thinks much about Monique (or Eve) at all, because she is simply a badly composed stick/stock figure in whatever generic setting, fiction or non-fiction. To coin a trite bumper sticker, it’s not the genre that matters; it’s the writing.

Why this preamble to an essay on Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation as a poet’s novel? Partly because I’m not sure if The Transformation fits into the genre contours of the novel form, even a semi-autobiographical novel written by a poet; and I’m not sure it matters. I am certainly bored of the genre debates and am happy to call this book writing or prose or even sentences, an experiment fitting with the aim of the book’s publisher, Atelos, to publish “under the sign of poetry, writing that challenges conventional, limiting definitions of poetry.”[1] The plural “they” protagonist of The Transformation even states, “Because they were poets, they thought a lot about how they were glad they did not write novels” (104). In her Afterword to the book, Spahr writes that she produced The Transformation “under the spell of” Renee Gladman’s and Pamela Lu’s sentences (217), both writers who have produced innovative prose that is not “New Narrative” and not “New Sentence,” but something else entirely. Spahr’s note also states that The Transformation “tells a barely truthful story” (217), which could give the book status as fiction (or, from another angle, non-fiction).

And yet, even though the book enacts certain conventions of the novel or memoir, such as a (sort of) linear narrative in chapters, and a central figure (or figures) going through a process of, uh, transformation, I don’t think it’s the genre itself that makes this writing matter in the material sense. It seems to me that Spahr wrote The Transformation as a long-form prose narrative because she needed a broad canvas to explore a set of complex issues related to ongoing U.S. colonization and exceptionalism that couldn’t be encapsulated in a book of poems, even a book-length long poem. In fact, she had already addressed some of the issues she takes up in The Transformation in earlier books of poems. In broad strokes, Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You (2001) is a response to her experience as a settler in Hawai‘i, which is also the experience outlined in the first half of The Transformation. This connection of everyone with lungs (2005) is a response to her experience as a cog in the post-9/11 American “military-industrial complex” (The Transformation 56), which is also the experience outlined in the second half of The Transformation. Spahr has even published a book of non-fiction (well, academic essays) called Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (2001), focusing on questions of the we and the they and the you – key pronouns in all of Spahr’s work – and on writer and reader and citizen responsibility, and on the wedge between ethics and politics, and on what we’re complicit in, and what does that mean. My contention is that Spahr employs The Transformation’s barely truthful long-form prose frame as a laboratory to exhaustively experiment with her ideas and feelings about U.S. hegemonic practices. She needed to think through and “think with” (21, first instance of many) colonization and complicity and vulnerable bodies and witnessing. In the lab, she subjects her characters to vulnerable intrusions, revealing the sometimes monstrous face of the self and neighbour, alongside the intensities of what she calls, citing Anne Carson, the “third Sapphic point” (206), a point of desire in encounter that Carson claims (via Sappho’s poetry), “plays a paradoxical role for it both connects and separates, marking that two are not one, irradiating the absence whose presence is demanded by eros” (16).[2] One could claim, via psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin, that in The Transformation, “the third point creates a space rather than a line,” a space of and for shifts in thought and action (Benjamin 123). As Benjamin suggests, the intersubjective third is a mental space where responsibility begins.

The Transformation doesn’t try to be everybody’s autobiography, but it does show its debt to Gertrude Stein through its paragraphs that take emotional form. These paragraphs enact a process of deeply felt inquiry, in the sense that Lyn Hejinian has called us to do in her essays (and, not incidentally, Hejinian is the co-publisher of The Transformation). The text’s (because The Transformation is not simply non-fiction, just as much as it is not simply fiction or poetry) recursive, spiraling “long sentences and lists of connections, both paranoid and optimistic” (213), its indeterminate characters, its reiterative questioning and worrying at/of the same wounds, its raw honesty, its open beginning, its open middle, its open ending, enact processes of transformation in thinking – and being:

So this is a story of three who moved to an island in the middle of the Pacific and how
it changed them. And a story of how they became aware that they were a they in the
cruel inquisitive sense, in the sense of not being a part of us or we, in the sense of
accusation, whether they wanted to be or not. It is a story about realizing that they
cannot shrug off this they and so a story of trying to think with it. A story of how much
this realization of being a they changed them and a story of embracing this change […]

[…] And so perhaps it is a story of coming to an identity, coming to realize that
they not only had a gender that was decided for them without their consent and by
historical events that they had not even been alive to witness, but they also had a race
and a sexuality that was decided for them without their consent and by historical
events that they had not even been alive to witness and they just had to deal with this.
So it is also a story of finding an ease in discomfort. And a catalogue of discomfort. (21–22)

One could say that the form of The Transformation embodies the content, and both are indeterminate, and a label isn’t necessary after that; perhaps this helps define the perhaps indefinable poet’s novel.

What is clear to me is that it is an infectious transformation that Spahr releases into the world, akin to the “prickly new cells” (39, first instance) of awakening that become activated in the body of the text’s speaker. Rarely has a book resonated with me as much as The Transformation did when I first read it in 2008. I was in the middle of writing a book of poetry on settler-colonialism in Israel-Palestine when reading Spahr’s book led me to a deeper awareness of my own complicity with ongoing settler-colonialism in Canada. It was much easier to critique imperialism over there than examine my role in the “history of arrival by people from afar who came and acted as if the place was theirs” here in Canada (The Transformation 41). Reading The Transformation, I felt the “tiny muscles at the base of each hair […] contract and thus pull the hair erect” (33) when the book’s speaker – the “they” who can be read as singular and plural – recognizes their role as a “stupid fucking haole” (foreign, white) colonizer in Hawai‘i (40, first instance). I felt a similar shameful “cringe of recognition” (41) of my own role as a “mediocre colonizer” when Spahr alluded to Albert Memmi’s term for the left-wing colonizer who rejects the colony but can’t help but benefit from it.[3] I became a “colonization groupie” like the figures in The Transformation (32), and started working on a book in response to these issues in Canada.[4] I did find it curious that when “they” moved away from Hawai‘i and back to the “continent” (New York) in the second half of The Transformation that there was little continued reflection on ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples on the continent. I resisted thinking it was because the “Indians” had “vanished” there. This is just some of what came to mind as I did my own “thinking with,” and feeling with, Spahr as she, stating in an interview, “use[d] the genre of individual exploration to think about how that shapes … cultural issues” (Rosenthal 311). She continues, in reference to U.S. practices at “home” and as occupier in Iraq and elsewhere, “I was interested in thinking about what I’m complicit with. … In order to bomb someone you have to make them into a ‘they.’… Can one think ethically from a position of ‘they’? Maybe the beginning of doing that work is to see yourself as part of that ‘they’” (Rosenthal 311).

Considering this proposition of changing perspective in order to understand complicity and responsibility, I’d like to suggest that part of the transformation that Spahr enacts in this text is related to reading. In her essay on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee in Everybody’s Autonomy, Spahr quotes Cha on the reader-text relationship: “You read, you mouth the transformed object across from you in its new state, other than what it had been” (125). Spahr then claims, “Cha wants readers who, as they read, as they mouth the words, transform” (125). I would suggest that Spahr wants a similar kind of response out of her readers (however much we’re not supposed to talk about authorial intention). Spahr develops a thesis in the essay on Cha that Dictee is not only a critique of colonialism in content but that reading Dictee calls for “decolonizing” “politicized” reading practices, whereby the reader engages self-reflexively with the text and is changed by it (125). Interestingly, Spahr had already called for such reading strategies in an earlier essay on Hejinian’s My Life as a “postmodern autobiography”[5] (and My Life is also an important influence on The Transformation). Spahr describes My Life as a “reader-centred” work, “in that it requires its readers to bring multiple interpretations to the work […] with its dual resignifying of subjectivity and readerly agency” (142; 155). She also applies Judith Butler’s theories on the political subject (and hence the reading subject) as a constant site of resignification, highlighting the constructed nature of the subject in/of language, and deeming My Life “a mutating product centred around the way life and practices of representing subjectivity change from moment to moment” (142). The repeated “one” in My Life is “a pronoun that anyone can inhabit” (146, Spahr’s emphasis), like the singular neuter pronoun “it” that Hejinian also employs. This echoes forward to Spahr’s use of the plural neuter and gender neutral pronoun “they” in The Transformation as a stance of textual encounter that the reader can actively inhabit and question rather than passively absorb the colonizing “author who conquers and claims dominion over readers” (152). Reading is configured in these early essays of Spahr’s as not simply appropriating knowledge, but as taking response-ability, resistantly; reading as an active witnessing and interpretation that is a kind of trans-lation and trans-formation. “After crossing the boundary which distinguished the work from the rest of the universe, the reader is expected to recross the boundary with something in mind” (My Life 77).

Crossing the boundary from literary criticism to critical theory, Rosi Braidotti’s “radical ethics of transformation” comes to mind in relation to The Transformation, an ethical stance that:

rejects individualism, but also asserts an equally strong distance from relativism or nihilistic defeatism. A sustainable ethics for a non-unitary subject proposes an enlarged sense of interconnection between self and others, including the non-human or ‘earth’ others, by removing the obstacle of self-centred individualism. […] This is an ethical bond of an altogether different sort from the self-interests of an individual subject, as defined along the canonical lines of classical humanism. It is a nomadic eco-philosophy of multiple belongings. (Transpositions 35) [6]

Spahr displays just such an eco-philosophy in The Transformation and this connection of everyone with lungs, with the ecological aspect developed further in a subsequent poetic text also focusing on Hawai‘i, Well Then There Now (2011). It is a philosophy based on the inter-relationality of all things plant, animal and human that is highly indebted to Indigenous knowledges and philosophies. Spahr’s writing repeatedly features the kind of posthumanist, plural, embodied and embedded subjects that Braidotti promotes, and I would argue that this complex subject position is also one Spahr would like her readers to inhabit.

My own thinking on reading, writing and witnessing follows similar trajectories to Braidotti and Spahr. I have been using the final lines in Paul Celan’s poem “Ashglory,” “Noone / bear witness for / the witness” to rethink received notions of the “poetics of witness” as being limited to poets who have experienced trauma first-hand, and to writing from a confessional stance. Some may interpret Celan’s “Noone” as the oft-withdrawn Hebrew god, just as many read Lévinas’s ethical figure of the face as the uncaressable visage of a similar god. Yet, in my own readerly license, I prefer to read Noone as a multiple figure, not one but many partial subjects, beyond the overdetermined ethical two to the political three or more, something like a “they,” with the face of a human. Or a zombie, the always-already-dead figure Spahr employs in The Transformation to represent the subject in the “national education complex” (55). Or perhaps a Thing, in the psychoanalytic sense, the unassimilable, monstrous part of the human within us and beside us that some of us still feel drawn to attempt to communicate with, even if that communication is via “mad” affects.[7] “They needed to become monstrous in their heart […] That singular organ needed to be made bigger. They need to bring things inside them that shouldn’t be inside them” (Transformation 209). To bear witness to and with, to speak for in the sense of in front of, instead of in place of – “to think with others, to think with the traditions of the island, to think beside them and near them but not as part of them” (115). Not multiple essential subjectivities, but several partial subjectivities, constantly forming and unforming, never stable – perhaps “splintered,” as Spahr describes the subject in My Life. And yet, also always already connected to others. “This thing that entered their bloodstream changed them” (39). Such is the process of reading.

Another transformation that The Transformation seems to enact is in relation to Spahr’s ideas on identity and poetry. Spahr’s earlier thinking on My Life’s non-essentialist relation to multiple subjectivity has shifted into a focus in The Transformation on identity as politically constructed, and inferences that identity politics have a role to play among colonized peoples. Language isn’t innocent in The Transformation, as Spahr demonstrates that modernist notions of writing as a “foreigner in their own language” (99) and moving between borders of language have radically different connotations and realities in contemporary colonized spaces, especially given that English is now the primary “expansionist” language of western imperialism: “they were finally not all that sure that using fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on escaped any of the expansionism” (99). This story of “coming to an identity” as an ongoing colonizer, this “catalogue of discomfort,” shifts the speaker’s gaze on identity, while still avowing primary connections among partial subjects (22).

Spahr has written continuously on the themes of connectivity and co-poesis (co-making of meaning) in reading and other human interactions, as simply evidenced in the title of her book of poetry, this connection of everyone with lungs, and her book of criticism, Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity. As I was thinking about writing this essay, I was reading the theoretical writings of psychoanalyst and artist Bracha L. Ettinger, which have interesting affinities to Spahr’s work, and to the process of reading/undergoing The Transformation. Not throwing out the Oedipal triad with the bathwater, Ettinger proposes an-other primary formation centred in the common experience we all go through of coming to being in the body of a woman we don’t know, who is also being changed by the process. Ettinger takes pains to not essentialize this process, but instead uses the spaces of “co-poesis” and “differentiation in co-emergence” that occur in later-term pregnancy to think through and work through (in the Freudian sense) the threads of connection that are primary to human existence, beside and against notions of lack and castration and separateness that dominate Oedipal modes of thinking. I don’t have space to exhaustively explicate each of Ettinger’s terms, but she uses neologisms such as “transjective” and “wi(t)hnessing” to develop notions of subject formation that insist that we are always already connected to one another, partly through our common experience of connection in the womb. What she deems the “matrixial borderspace” is a web in which several partial identities (what she calls I’s and non-I’s) interweave, forming and unforming, consciously and unconsciously; never fixed, yet always straining towards the possibility of threshold. As Judith Butler notes, “The matrixial is what we guard against when we shore up the claims of identity, when we presume that to recognize each other is to know, to name, to distinguish according to the logic of identity” (Butler, “Bracha’s” x–xi).

In Ettinger’s idea of “severality,” she again takes pains not to essentialize this notion as multiple fixed identities. Similarly, Spahr focuses her analysis of My Life as enacting a space beyond essentialist notions of multiple identity, presenting a “shardlike autobiographical subject” (146) that the reader is actively involved in co-forming. Perhaps this decentred subject is also the subject of the poet’s novel, a forever refracted “they” witnessing themselves telling/reading a barely truthful, non-Fichtean story, but a story nonetheless, one that travails the expansive canvas of novelistic space as it enacts its working-through in relation:

They agreed to let the story they told about themselves as individuals be interrupted by others. They agreed to let their speech be filled with signs of each other and their enthrallment and their undoing. They agreed to falter over pronouns. They agreed to let them undo their speech and language. They pressed themselves upon them and impinged upon them and were impinged upon in ways that were not in their control. (206)

Just as Spahr deems My Life “a process-centred work that calls attention to the method by which the autobiographical subject is constructed by both author and reader” (147), so does Spahr in all her work call attention to the construction of the subject, in her interrogation of the indeterminate “we” in Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You, the doubled apostrophic “yous” in this connection of everyone with lungs, and the othered “they” in The Transformation. In all cases, the reader must confront and question their own relation to the construction of subjectivity in the process of reading. “What they meant was that they were other than completely autonomous but that they were not one thing with no edges, with no boundary lines” (The Transformation 207).

As an artist, Ettinger works in series (the paintings “come in crowds”), photocopying archival “found” images from the Shoah and other traumatic events, but stopping the photocopier partway through the machinic process, so that the photocopic dust forms aleatory blurred interpretations of the image, “between ash and pastel.” She repeats this process a number of times with the same image, then paints from “scanning” the photocopied images, in series that “fade out what the image should have become.” The viewer is also meant to scan across the images, seeing mutual implications within and across the series, feeling the intensities of partial objects, accumulated meanings in and out of time, just as the interrupted copy “stops time.”[8] This process relates to my experience of reading The Transformation (and My Life, and Gertrude Stein’s work, for that matter). Repeating phrases draw out emotion and subtle difference, while also drawing attention to time’s slips. As Hejinian notes in her classic essay, “Rejection of Closure” (and Spahr also highlights in her essay on Hejinian), “meaning is set in motion, emended and extended, and the rewriting that repetition becomes postpones completion of the thought indefinitely” (44). Yet, do I read every instance that Spahr repeats, mechanically, “avant-garde techniques of fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on,” or do I register the line as specific and cumulative as I scan by? This goes back to Butler’s resignifying that Spahr draws on to theorize the postmodern autobiography, how the subject and agency are deconstructed, yet we can “continue to use them, repeat them, to repeat them subversively, and to displace them from the contexts in which they have been deployed as instruments of oppressive power” (Butler, “Contingent” 14).

This process of resignifying can also apply to how affect is generated and processed in the viewer or reader. According to theorist Brian Massumi, “Ettinger considers it the goal of her art to ‘make affect transmissible.’ Her series are affective carriers of traumatic renewal” (213). In front of Ettinger’s “Eurydice” series of paintings, the viewer “looks back” down the lens of the German army photographer who captured naked Jewish women standing in line to be shot on October 14, 1942, at Mizocz, Rovno, Ukraine. We are implicated “in a gaze that cannot but kill again” (Pollock, “Aesthetic” 857). Similarly, in the face of The Transformation, the North American reader must confront the “difficult feelings” (220) attendant with their always-implicated role in the ongoing colonization on Turtle Island. One could say that Spahr turns the phallic gaze into a “matrixial” gaze that, rather than possess and cut us off from the witnessing event, “fragilizes” our relation to the trauma of history, so that the traces of connection thread into a constantly changing web, “metramorphose,” to use another Ettinger neologism, into the monstrous heart bloated by severality at the end of The Transformation. We are complicit in atrocities done “in our name” every day, but this doesn’t cut us off from our obligations; instead, our being impinged upon by others, the they, opens us to our response-ability, transjectively. Ettinger writes,

We are carrying, at the beginning of the 21st century, enormous traumatic weight, and aesthetic wit(h)nessing in art brings it to culture’s surface. Certain contemporary art practices bring to light matrixial alliances by confronting the limits of trauma’s shareability and the jouissance of the Other. […] aesthetics converge with ethics even beyond the artist’s intentions or conscious control. (Matrixial Borderspace 147)

It could be that what makes The Transformation a poet’s novel is its constant pressure on the reader to be involved in the content in a non-possessive manner. To be fragilized by the content and transformed by the affects it generates, rather than simply consume or be consumed. Transformed through thinking with, wit(h)nessing, into consciousness. As Spahr notes, “It didn’t end up as an autobiography because it isn’t a life story really, but it might be a […] somewhat true somewhat false […] memoir of an attempt to come to a political consciousness” (Rosenthal 313). A fictional autobiography, perhaps.

In an article on Ettinger’s process “from grain to screen to series,” Massumi writes:

The process starts with a machinic technique for the grain to self-express in collaboration with the artist’s hand. It ends with an expanded indistinction between activity and passivity, subject and object, intensively distributed across a plurality of elements, levels, and matters. This makes it impossible to assign a self-enclosed subject of the process that would be separate from it. There is no-one behind the process, no One, only “severality,” self-organizing between material-abstract surfaces. (210)

Noone bears witness as a “wit(h)ness with-out event,” Ettinger’s inversion of Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s famous iteration of the Shoah as an “event without a witness.”[9] Via the matrixial gaze, the viewer/reader/witness scans the iterations of the degraded, ghosted image and constructs meaning that is always just out of reach. Working through. Traumatic repetition. Like the process of reading a poet’s novel. “They agreed to no longer see relationship as a feedback loop of face-to-face desire. Instead they had to deal with a sort of shimmering, a fracturing of all their looks and glances. And it was because of this third Sapphic point that they implicated themselves in they” (The Transformation 206). We enter the image of women in line for the open pit through the gaze of the perpetrator. Our complicity accompanies us. “They are three points of transformation on a circuit of possible relationship, electrified by desire so that they touch not touching” (Carson 16).


[1] Publisher’s note to The Transformation, 226.

[2] Spahr points to Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet in her Afterword to The Transformation, 223.

[3] Spahr’s Afterword to The Transformation attributes the term “mediocre colonizer” to Aimé Césaire, but it is actually discussed in Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized.

[4] Janey’s Arcadia was published by Coach House Books in Fall 2014. The book on Israel-Palestine is Neighbour Procedure.

[5] “Resignifyng Autobiography: Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.”

[6]I am indebted to Heather Milne’s critical work on Spahr for the reference to Braidotti.

[7] I discuss the poetics of witness and “mad affects” in the essay, “Noone Bears Witness.”

[8] The parts in quotes come from an interview between Ettinger and Brian Massumi. See Massumi in Works Cited.

[9] Ettinger discusses “wit(h)nesses with-out events” vis-à-vis Felman and Laub in her essay, “Wit(h)nessing Trauma and the Matrixial Gaze” 109.



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—. Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2001. Print.

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—. “Noone Bears Witness.” Canadian Literature 210/211 (Autumn/Winter 2011), 260–264. Print. Reprinted in Jacket2 December, 2012: http://jacket2.org/article/noone-bears-witness.


BROOKLYN - MAY 17 2011: Canadian Poet Rachel Zolf in Brooklyn, New York.Rachel Zolf’s fifth book of poetry is Janey’s Arcadia (Coach House, 2014), an aversive, conversive reckoning with the ongoing errors of Canadian settler-colonialism. Other publications include Neighbour Procedure (2010) and Human Resources (2007), which won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Among her many collaborations with other artists, she wrote the film The Light Club of Vizcaya: A Women’s Picture, directed by New York artist Josiah McElheny, which premiered at Art Basel Miami 2012. She has taught at The New School and the University of Calgary, and has recently returned to Toronto.