Cornelia Barber in Conversation with Cecilia Corrigan

Cecilia and I talked about her explosively polyvocal book of poetry Titanic; poetic methodologies; abjection; intimacy; Epicurean balance; rebellion against the normal tired format of the poetry reading; her performance of the misconstrued ‘dumb blonde’; and the influence of all of it on developing a poetics, and a message. Cecilia is vivacious and blunt. Whether she is talking about Modernist methodologies, hilarious personal anecdotes, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer she carries in her eyes and speech a mesmerizing ethics of self-care and profound sympathy. Her radical sincerity, ability to laugh at herself, and her art, is a new model of feminism, one that enriches her own power and stability even in a society that devotes itself to totally unhinging the self-worth and groundedness of young women. In both her poetry and performance she destabilizes the preconceptions of what a girl should look like, sound like and think about, and through humor rebels against the economy of suffering that surreptitiously sustains our society.

Cornelia Barber (CB): So, you’re not affiliated with an Institution?

Cecilia Corrigan (CC): I’m affiliated with NYU, which is basically like not being affiliated with an institution cause it’s like Starbucks.

CB: What are you going to NYU for?

CC: Comp-lit.

CB: So, not poetry.

CC: No, no I’m not studying poetry— at all (laughter).

CB: Is that what you did for undergrad?

CC: I did a lot of that. I worked with Charles Bernstein a lot… He’s still my pal. Honestly I do kind of think that working with him got me out of doing just poetry, and into doing other things.

CB: Why?

CC: Well, I also took his graduate class and I think I connected more with his style of teaching undergrad. It’s just application of different methodologies and experimental stuff from the gambit of like Flarf to Dada to EPC.

CB: So, you were learning all these different styles?

CC: Yeah, and I had been really precocious when I was growing up and won some writing stuff and then like more— I think just cause of my temperament—I’ve always been pretty open to someone just upending the norm, but I was writing pretty traditionally and getting validated for that and that was good for me and it would have been fine for me, but I would have ended up on a different kind of track than I am on now. It lead into writing plays. I kind of figured out that I could do that.

CB: Was that kind of in the lineage of performance poetry or was it really like I’m gonna—

CC: No, I was directing other people (CB: Gotchya) My personality went through different phases. I was really outgoing as a little girl, good at learning new languages and meeting new people. I was aggressively willing to just throw myself into things. You know? I was just that kind of little kid and I had a very happy childhood in that way; a very adventurous one, a very not sheltered one, I mean sheltered in the sense that I was raised by academics and it was very, in some ways extremely, sheltered cause I wasn’t raised with popular American culture, you know my dad is a strict Adornian. That’s a joke he’s not that strict. He watches Breaking Bad.

CB: So going back to what you were talking about before about sort of childhood and then that translating into directing plays in Charles’ class, did you have a time in between those spaces, like an adolescence or just a time that was harder, where some of that adventurousness got lost?

CC: Totally. I had [a] horrible adolescence. Really difficult. (high five) So awkward, so uncomfortable, angry, just bad, bad, bad. And we had just moved back to the States so it was not a good time to learn about being an American kid and it was just weird and that just lead into, I don’t know, I was just super angsty and I was totally withdrawn and then when I was at Penn I hated Penn too. I think I would have dropped out if I hadn’t found support in some of the people and spaces there.

CB: Did you write through that time?

CC: Yeah, I was always working. I was always writing. I’m usually pretty crazy about getting stuff done—The plays and stuff I did were always more like, I just wanted to get away from Penn and I just started doing this Show House with my friend Manya and we were doing all this crazy, crazy stuff—noise bands and performance art. We would have these massive shows. I got into this scene that existed in Philly at the time. I don’t know if it still does, but [there] was a ton of underground music venues and activity, like three shows a night, all the time. Then I just ended up doing things in that scene and explaining them to Penn using them to get school credit. I guess I never really put it that way before. I mean I used to do independent studies with Charles. I think what worked well about his mentorship was that he was always kind of like “do what you want”…not exactly in a disinterested way. In an affectively disinterested way, where I could make my own artistic choices. I really hated the structure of the poetry reading… it’s so boring and so pretentious. It can be transcendent for sure. You know, I just didn’t like having to be so serious and I was surprised more people weren’t playing with the form. I was surprised more people weren’t bringing forms that have more stylistic or affective choices inherent to them.

CB: You wanted to write poetry and also have the performances be an extension of your performance art, not just mimic what other poets were doing?

CC: Yeah. But I do also think I’m kind of a polyglot for sure. Titanic is both like a garbage bin and a variety show of styles, and you know like it’s totally a show off thing too, like I’m showing off all the different things I can do.

CB: There’s a great quote from Felix (Bernstein) I think in ColdFront where he says your performance is a “hot mess versus a cool one”.

CC: Yeah that was a great comment—

CB: And he’s talking really about the lineage of female performance artists who take on these roles, like Cindy Sherman or Marina Abramovic, who are dramatic and their performances are pretty tightly held together.

CC: Both of whom have a lot of austerity in their person too. I’m more interested in Joan Rivers in the Whitney. (haha) That’s what I want. I want fucking Goldie Hawn on Laugh In as the fucking chief curator of MOMA. I swear to god, I’m just like why does everybody have to have a sad fucking face all the time?

CB: So why is that? Say more about that because that’s so— because being a woman in society, in New York City, in the poetry community, there is something that’s really seductive about, first of all the seriousness that you’re referring to, the old school gray suit seriousness, but also even in radical feminist community this kind of ‘internet talk’ girl speech—

CC: I would definitely describe myself as radical feminist without question. But I am also a materialist and I think you can’t debate your way into equality. You need to demand it. I’m not saying violence is the right method, but like yeah the violence of capitalism. I think you need to take things from men. You should.

CB: Do you feel like you do that in Titanic?

CC: Titanic is a book of poetry and poetry will never be a source of capital for me, but intellectually I’d say it was a way of getting a bunch of white men lined up and making them dance a little bit, and yeah I mean it’s interesting you ask that because “the love object” (a character in Titanic) is usually referred to in the feminine pronoun, but that’s partially because it’s also about narcissism, and it’s about the digitized other, which is always kind of the self, yet most of the other characters in the book are men because it’s a kind of reclaiming of the male space.

CB: One of the times I feel the most cathected to the book, and feel more typical catharsis, which is not exactly the main emotion I feel while reading Titanic (but do) is in the poem where you take on that crazy scene from Buffy (The Vampire Slayer) where she’s about to jump off the thing and dawn is there… (In the final scene of the fifth season Hell opens up and Buffy realizes that only her or her sister Dawn’s blood can close the fiery portal so the only way to save earth and Dawn is to sacrifice herself. Then she does a dramatic run and jumps off this really high tower into the portal.)


CB: And you’re playing her in that scene, and that scene is like very personal, I think probably to a lot of people. I remember watching it and crying when I was little.

CC: Oh, that scene, I can hardly watch it now and not cry. That was like such a huge moment. Right now I’m intellectually very interested in the question of the female hero and I remember once a friend told me “no one likes a messianic complex” but I don’t know if he’s right. Maybe he needs to hang out with more girls.

CB: Hahaha.

CC: That’s like a major archetype right now in pop culture and I think that’s partially because we’re in the midst of a collapse of an empire and we are that generation on the wave that’s going down. So there is less of an idea of the type of victory that might have been associated with tropes of masculinity or a more typical type of victory.

CB: Right. On the one hand you’re talking about radical feminism, and you Cecilia embodying that, and then on the other hand this dramatic female hero scene. How do you think a scene like that is embodying some of that ‘here I am, I am a fucking woman and I’m going to make you dance, reclaim my space’ or is it not that symbolically potent?

CC: Oh everything in the book is symbolically potent— to me at least the symbol is totally there and it is there in the impulse that’s behind the use of that scene in the first place. I understand the objects I’m using and I understand their valence. In terms of the structure of the book, it feels more like data or something. The one thing I am sort of resistant to in the phrase ‘hot mess’ is the mess part of it cause I do often work frantically and quickly then I’ll like edit things down very methodically—I guess I’m kind of like a modernist in that way where text is more material.

CB: I mean I think the quote itself— I think Felix was talking more about your performance than your poetry and I definitely think there is a huge difference between the two. I mean incredibly so, and say if I’m wrong, but it does seem that part of what you’re performing is a little bit of an ‘uncalculated entertainer’.

CC: Definitely. Which is so hard to do. Performing is something I’m more and more interested in. I have gotten into doing stand up and this is the thing I was gonna say before, when I was doing those plays and shows at Penn, I was doing a lot of screaming noise music and had been playing freak folk music—

CB: Do you have recordings?

CC: I’m embarrassed…oooohhh….I mean I think I would like the music now if I heard it, it was pretty. But I got really, I was very introverted, I was always sort of back and forth introverted and extraverted, but I saw myself as so socially anxious and I would like have episodes or whatever…

CB: Like anxiety.

CC: Lots of anxiety and lots of feelings of woundedness.

CB: Self doubt.

CC: Yeah lots of self-doubt. Anyway, so in these plays I didn’t want to be on stage. I was always interested in working with artists I already knew rather than actors and would write stuff for them. I’ve always loved Carol Churchill and my mom is a theater scholar and actress. I was in plays and stuff in high school before I got too neurotic to handle it. When I grew up we would always do Shakespeare plays in the backyard.

CB: I went to Shakespeare camp.

CC: Niiiice.

CB: For seven years.

CC: Hell yeah. Umm wow for seven years oh my god you’re so lucky. What was your favorite role that you played? Did you guys do productions?

CB: We did scenes, not like full blow productions. But we studied it; it was a great place we studied it in depth—I don’t know what my favorite role is… probably uh Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet.

CC: Oh that’s the best role!

CB: Fuckin great.

CC: I sill identify with that character so much, cause he’s like a strong bon vivant. That’s definitely the type of character I feel like I play in the play we’re all in.

CB: Oh yeah, yeah I can totally see that.

CC: Except luckily I’m a chick so I’m not challenging people to duels as much, just trying to fire them down the road. So, I was doing those plays and then I got to LA and that was a really huge moment for me. Even though there is a gender gap and social anxiety I like the entertainment industry a lot and I can actually make money—I think we should avoid suffering.

CB: Mhm?

CC: I do. I really think that it kind of cuts both ways where you should avoid any extreme restrictiveness or extreme indulgence—I guess I’m kind of Epicurean or Lucretion in that way—uhh maybe cause I’m in my late twenties now I’m striving towards balance. I guess out in LA I realized that was a nice thing to strive towards. And when I came back I just valued certain kinds of validation less. I think that’s been increasing and increasing. I think it made me want to get over being like a ‘cool girl’ in whatever this space is we kind of occupy.

CB: You mean in the poetry community?

CC: I think poetry is maybe the finest point I can put on it… and obviously I want people to like me duh. Now I think of myself as more a writer/director.

CB: Which is not so different from the curating that goes into Titanic. You definitely have a directorial feel, like your moving parts around and putting things up against each other, playing with voices and directing a flow, a flow of things always, I’m not like “oh my god you wanna do that wtf?

CC: Yeah. I hope it works. What’s nice about Titanic is that it provided the constraint of a book and it did end up definitely being a narrative story for me and an arc and I did start to feel as I was working on it like it was a really pulpy, you know, tragic, sci fi horror slash love story, but of course it was also about language and one of the objects in that pulpy story is language…

CB:…And kind of the mathematical dissonances that seep into language and paranoid like sci-fiesque frames that are all around us that we cant really escape.

CC: Oh definitely. I don’t think I would write this book again because I feel like it was my big moment of my obsession with clues and pairing and all that kind of deep modernist stuff, just that deep cut Joycean in me that wanted to like, honestly I don’t even remember, but I like lost my mind; measuring, thinking everything is connected, there’s all these little portals or whatever, just like insane. I think what I’m working on now there is a different audience in mind and I don’t really believe in that methodology at all anymore in it’s being good for me.

CB: It’s a generous statement to admit that you let go of methodologies.

CC: Yeah, well you know how I was saying that reading the book was like “oh my god this part is so sad” almost like to me that book is like a TV show and I guess my dream is to be able to give that to other people and I feel like I have to learn a lot of new skills and get really good at them in order to do that.

CB: You want to make a more universal thing, whatever form that is, something that other people can completely get into?

CC: I think I’m at this point in my work right now where all I can see is how bad it is. I mean that’s not all I see and I know I’ve gotten where I want to be, but I think the format of live performance is frustrating to me because even though it’s something that’s gotten me into really good things artistically and professionally there is also the fleetingness of it that is so heartbreaking. The amount of psychic and spiritual, if you want to use that word, energy that goes into building these little vehicles and then you just crash them into a wall. So I’m just thinking more and more about how I can make my practice less about recurring breaks and make it more sustainable in terms of the objects themselves and the emotional experience of doing it for me.

CB: Do you feel like you have a message? Or messages? Is that a thing?

CC: Definitely. I’ve only recently kind of verbalized this, but I was at a conference recently talking to this really interesting guy, Joe Litvak, who is at Tufts and he works on the figure of the abject Jewish comedian and he studies this Lacanian rage behind the abjection—

CB: And the castration?

CC: Yeah, yeah, and the sort of invocation of one’s own abjectness as means of critiquing the observer or the observer recognizing their own abject qualities in themselves through his performance. I would say I’m interested in doing that for the figure of the dumb blonde.

CB: Hmmm…

CC: Not even necessarily dumb, just the kind of woman that can’t occupy the spaces of flatness we were discussing earlier, and I’m not, you know, I don’t want to make it sound like people with that flat affect are traitorous or something like that. I don’t like the kind of meanness that gets directed at people who are expressive especially female people. I am interested in that as a project. It has a long heritage in camp, I think,[and] it’s a little different because the drag I’m doing is more of this time.

CB: I wrote in my notes to something I was reading in Titanic, like one of the voices, ‘Conceptual poet voice,’ ‘philosophical voice’, and then one was ‘contemporary drunk Jean Harlow’.

CC: Awesome! Hahaha. Yeah totally. That’s absolutely right. Titanic is sort of a fantasy between drunk contemporary Jean Harlow and the love-object, someone more like Marianne Moore.

CB: Hahahaha. In like the future.

CC: Yeah in like a computer game…

CB: Let’s talk a little more about what you were gesturing towards before, the late twenties’ balance thing.

CC: I always feel like I have to answer to myself as a teenager. I think I would have thought a lot of the things I do now to make my life more calm were [I] like dishonest or bullshit or whatever, but I hadn’t actually lived in myself long enough to realize I actually needed that.

CB: Ugh I loooove that you’re saying that. That is so comforting, that is such an honest way to say that.

CC: Everything from like air conditioning to small talk, to eating meat. I was such a little bitch. If you take care of yourself you’re able to do more damage. I got into Lucretius through Lisa Robertson—her book Cinema of the Present is very Lucretian—I’m not going to try to embarrass myself by summarizing all his ideas, but he didn’t privilege the human experience over the natural experience or the experience of the structure of the world, and I have found that in reading him the whole project of thought has made me become more careful with the questions I ask and maybe forced me to go slower than I go at first, or want to go, in order to derive more lasting satisfaction from the process itself. It’s weird because it’s the kind of language I used to have an allergy to and still do in some ways cause it sounds too hippy dippy, but um I also do think that as a woman there is an imperative to fill space and make things comfortable all the time and making sure that you are saying what you want to say and that you are doing what you want to do is actually incredibly difficult and worthwhile.

CB: Well it’s almost like you are saying two things, cause on the one hand women, for other people, historically, want to make things comfortable and easy, but for ourselves we come from such a historical lineage of wounds and of oppression and energetically and in our bones we’re born with these kind of constraints that I think our generation, starting a few generations ago, are making our way out of, but it’s still inside us and it’s a fight, it’s a fight to be like “I’m going to take care of myself today.”

CC: Oh yeah, I think it’s crazy people want to pretend that things are over in terms of that kind of equality. It’s only been like a century that anything has materially or structurally gotten better.

CB: Lydia Lunch has this great line she says “pleasure is the ultimate rebellion” and she doesn’t mean hedonistic pleasure, or the digital Capitalistic machine pleasure, she means really quiet self-love and simplicity.

CC: Yeah that’s what I’m talking about. Yeah totally.

CB: I agree. I think it’s imperative for women—for all human beings—but for women to really find that self-care inside ourselves.

CC: Yeah. Yeah. Whatever that is, it’s really difficult.

CB: Do you feel like you—you write about the love object, and that recurring different heartbreak—do you feel in real life, does that ever get in the way of your writing/your performance?

CC: Yeah I definitely think that intimacy—I think I’ve been very lucky I’ve been in love a couple times I also think that intimacy is the site of so much upheaval and trauma—the Epicureans believed you didn’t have to fall deeply in love, you could have that friendly, you could have uhm love and sex, but you shouldn’t get too possessive and attached cause that would lead to strain. Personally I think I will always be a romantic. I feel like I’m only at the beginning of my life with that stuff too. It’s crazy to me to imagine how someone can make a lifelong commitment to someone else at this age. Obviously people have different experiences, whatever works for you. I think it’s a hard field to manage ethically and still be honest. I’m not sure it’s a field where there has ever been consensus about propriety.

CB: Actually Bell Hooks has this great book called All About Love which is just about that, about developing an agreed upon definition of love, not in a philosophical or abstract way, but in a really ethical way. She talks about justice in love.

CC: Wow. That sounds really good. Love is similar to art. I believe in the creative power, but making art is also kind of destructive for me, you know you grow something and then rip it off and it’s dead and you can never have it again, but other people can have it, it’s like a corpse you’re giving people. Titanic is all bout finding the figure of the muse, maybe I’m trying to point out being in love is always kind of about—I’m not the first person I believe this has been noted—in a psychoanalytic sense, in personal sense, it’s about finding yourself in another person and wanting the ultimate reflection of yourself and that can be such a source of energy— a kind of world building exercise. But it’s a fantasy it’s an illusion.

CB: As my therapist says “the magic always dies…”

CC: Yeah! I do also think I hope to find some kind of, I admire peoples’ ability to dwell in the sustained mediocrity of a love affair. Seems like it’s chill.

CB: Hard as fuck.

CC: I think I really like passions. Maybe that’s why I talk about balance or am so into it because I’m trying to temper my natural tendency towards excess and transcendent experiences.

CB: Ok so something I really like doing, it’s one of my favorite things, is bibliomancy—asking a question to the universe or whatever the fuck you believe in, asking the question out loud and then finding the answer through the book.

CC: That sounds fun. You ask the question first cause I don’t have any good questions.

CB: Okay. Okay um. Let’s see…I want to ask a serious question…ummm: what in the next few months is going to be the relationship between the aesthetic parameters between women in the poetry scene and the political parameters between women everywhere in society?

CC: (Reading)

He-I won’t say anything which anything can dispute…. Or if anyone does dispute it, I will let that point drop and pass on to say something else. / I-I understand but I don’t agree that it is simply a question of giving new meaning to words.

I don’t know if this is like a direct transcription, or something someone copied or remembered, but Wittgenstein had a philosophy class at Cambridge that Alan Turing took, and that’s something he said in the class. The answer is interesting in terms of the style of interrogation.

CB: Even the words themselves—also that it’s ‘he’.

CC: That moment in the poem he is like father figure/significant other of the main character and worshipped by other men, and also a sort of sentient human. That says it all. That does actually answer [the] question really well. How can I ask a serious question?

CB: It doesn’t have to be serious.

CC: All I can think of is….Am I gonna have a good summer? Hahaha.

CB: Okay this is Cecilia Corrigan’s question to the universe immortalized on Lemon Hound (laughter) Are you going to have a good summer?

Selena Gomez: What are you going to talk to him about?

CC: Hahaha. Perfect.


Cecilia Corrigan’s second show for the New York Performance Artists Collective, Cecilia Corrigan’s Secret Garden, is tonight, April 27th, at 7 and 8:30 pm at Whynot Jazz Room, 14 Christopher Street, tickets available here


photo credit: Lanny Jordan Jackson

Cecilia Corrigan is a writer and performer working in New York and Los Angeles. Her debut book, Titanic, was awarded the Madeleine P. Plonsker Prize, and was listed as one of Flavorwire’s 2014 Books of the Year. In addition to writing for television, film, and theater, she writes fiction and performs stand up comedy. Her work has been published in Bomb, Capilano Review, Poetry Project Newsletter, Third Rail, Adult Magazine, and Prelude Magazine, and is forthcoming in the 2015 edition of Best American Experimental Writing from Wesleyan University Press.






Photo credit: Lenny Simon

Cornelia Barber is a poet and Performance artist living in Crown Heights, NY. She has performed at Bureau of General Services Queer Division, The Cake Shop, Mellows Pages Library and Bard College. Her essays and poetry are published in Prelude Magazine, Local Nomad, Lemon Hound and forthcoming from Wild Spice magazine. She writes at the intersection of experimental poetics and contemporary female mysticism. This interview is the first in an ongoing interview series between her and other female identified poets.