What does it mean for the subject of a poem to embody selflessness; to face death with contemplation and elation; to strive to see our screwed up world objectively, but with care; and to rise to the occasion of an ethical poetics? Ana Božičević invited me to her lovely Lefferts Gardens apartment, made a superb breakfast, and as we sipped mimosas and laughed (a lot) we also got to the meat of these complex, paradoxical meanings. As an immigrant, and queer female poet Ana knows her context and knows that she can and should never totally rid herself of her “I”. But as a white woman deeply concerned with the racial politics of our time she advocates for others like her that the best way to contribute to the fight is to “shut up” and listen to the black voices who really need to be heard. Her poetry manages to see the world for what it is, with all its detriments, cruelties and injustices, but her transmission of such a world is spoken through a subject utterly committed to love. To quote Euripides, “Do you not see what a great goddess Venus is? She whom you can neither name nor measure, how great she is by nature from how great a thing she comes through?” It is an ethical act to let go of the self in order to recognize another person for who they truly are, and to accept their difference from you. It is also an ethical act to write a poem that sees the pain of the earth with affection and balance. So, how exactly are they connected?
Ana Božičević (AB): When you shut up everything else is heard. That is my attitude. I think it is okay for me to shut up. There are people that shouldn’t shut up, there are subjects whose voices need to be heard, but I think I personally am sort of better at receiving, processing and then maybe, you know, putting it out in, weirdly, as an unbiased way as possible. I strive for some kind of affective objectivity. Which is probably impossible.
Cornelia Barber (CB): Right. And it comes with its own set of problematics.
AB: There is no such thing as neutral.
CB: In your work I wonder about how your personal experience and specifically the personal experience of living through the Croatian war kind of effects the gesture (of shutting up) you’re talking about. How it maybe influences or inspires it, and how that connects with your sense, now, of living in America and through the desired objectivity of processing what’s happening here today.
AB: Definitely. Being a teenager and living in a country that is at war, it is definitely a way to shut you up because you realize really quickly the stable ground that you’ve believed in all your life is nothing but a sandcastle, so things are gonna change and regimes are going to rise and fall, and nothing is really certain. Especially when that (uncertainty) is attached to a negative experience, which obviously the experience of war is. You feel a loss of agency. You know, like all the mute refugees streaming over borders just sitting passively. You kind of have to become like that sometimes just to be able to withstand things. Right? So there is that voicelessness, but then I think of the maybe cliché need or call for minorities and refugees to find their voice, express their position – often those are exactly the people who can’t. It’s like asking a depressed person, “Say how you feel. Confide in me ” when they can’t even speak, you know? So I think in the US, what’s happening now with the re-emergence of racial issues to the forefront of our cultural consciousness, there is a population in the States who really live in conditions of war. Of course there is a need for black people to be more heard and acknowledged, and I, for example, as a white woman, although I am from somewhere else, still feel like I should shut up and just follow, support, understand. Help decolonize. I don’t really feel the need for my subjectivity to dominate at all. In my work, “I” is more like a promontory or a frame, “I am the frame.” I want my poem to be a reflection of something else.
CB: Do you think there is a relationship between what you’re saying about subject as frame, to the content of your poetry in which you’re often grappling with what poetry is, and is it dead? Is there a connection there?
AB: I mean I definitely thought a lot about the death of the author and so subsequently the death of the subject, and I even started writing my new book with the tentative title Epitaph, which changed and now it’s called The Joy of Missing Out, so that is going to be my next book. But the last poem in the book is a poem about the book being published after I am dead. So I decided to walk into the work, but by removing myself. It’s very strange.
CB: It kind of reminds me of, you’re obviously doing totally different work, but it reminds me of Trisha Low’s The Compleat Purge; her suicide, and injecting herself into a story in which fate has already been decided, and in her book it’s this repository—
AB: Yeah exactly. And I want it to be post death. Because people who are about to die or about to kill themselves rightfully command a lot of attention. (CB: Mhm.) And what happens afterwards? After you’re actually gone? To me that’s a comforting thought. That’s one thing I don’t have a problem with. I have a problem with earth and living on earth. I’m like what the hell is going on here? (Laughter) What is all this bullshit?
CB: Well it’s really upsetting being a human being, to some extent, and I think taking it all in, as poets and artists, but many kinds of people, if you’re sensitive and you absorb and you hold the depth of humanities grossness—it’s hard. (AB: Mhm. For sure.) But I think in your work, it shows amazingly that you can reference all that, see and experience all of that grossness, and yet there is something balanced. The frame is still balanced, and you’re not pushing anything down our throats as much you’re…allowing something else to come through in a way that is light, readable, accessible. You know? I think I could give your poems to pretty much anyone and someone could get something from them. Which is definitely not the case with a lot of experimental poetry.
AB: I like that. I like accessibility. I like to amuse. I totally don’t mind the poem being like a song or something. I don’t mind that at all. Despite the world being the way it is or whatever sometimes you work real hard, but you’re singing. What explains that? One time somebody tried to rob me and I started singing.
AB: And I think they thought I was nuts.
CB: Did they leave you alone?
AB: They did. But I don’t know what happened. It was almost like my Swan Song, like If I’m about to be struck down—
CB: And you didn’t think about it, it just happened?
AB: Yeah. I mean I was a little sauced. (Laughter) I think I was in my early twenties. I was sort of in a reckless mood, and somebody just came up, “put your hands up,” and that was my response. Maybe a conventional reaction wouldn’t have worked. Insanity defense.
CB: You’ve said in a couple different places online that you want to make work that inspires other people to write or that lets other people write and I think that goes along with everything we’re talking about, about this framing of self, and subjecthood; letting go; shutting up; singing—and you teach, yeah?
AB: I really like to teach…poetry.
CB: Can you talk about your teaching experience and also how it fits in with all this?
AB: Well I’ve been teaching at BHQFU. I taught with Sophia Le Fraga. And the students are just amazing. They’re artists from across the mediums and somehow they are trying to incorporate poetry, or what is poetic, and they’re just immensely creative. Because they don’t come from poetry and haven’t been taught the conventions of what the poem should be or look like or sound like, they just do their own thing, and it’s often so much more interesting than what someone coming from poetry would do. I am more of a poet’s poet, though I also make video sometimes, so it was just so amazing to see people in other media attack poetry, approach it, just own it, doing really interesting and fun things. This semester was poets’ theater, so they wrote poetic plays and I guess it was timely because the founder of the Living Theater (Judith Malina) passed away and the university is on the Lower East Side, so I’ve tried to make some connections between our poets’ theater and that scene that happened in the neighborhood. With what the Living Theater was doing (highly revolutionary, rebellious and experimental political theater) …but…what was the question? (Laughter)
CB: Umm…how do you want your work to be for other people and make them write?
AB: In this class it seems to me I’m there to facilitate, to give students a sense of permission, to make them comfortable so they can do whatever they want. No one is gonna try to shoehorn them or critique them in an unproductive way. In poetry my favorite compliment is when people tell me “oh I finished your poems and I went and I wrote” or “you made me feel like I could write….or write whatever.” That’s great cause I’m not interested in some cult personality for myself. I’ve never wanted to be some kind of IT chick, and what I want people to leave my reading with is not ‘OMG look at that person she’s amazing’, but more like, ‘Oh wow poetry is fucking amazing.’
CB: Do you think, and maybe this is too psychoanalytic, bullshit, or something, but do you think that being from Croatia and being an immigrant has something to do with that, or influences that drive at all because you have an internalized experience of some kind of othering—
AB: Like having experience in being other gives you training in effacement?
CB: Yeah…or maybe: does it open you up more—when you do have a platform or power— to relinquishing some of that power in the name of others? Partly because you know how it feels versus someone that just has a lifetime of inclusive privilege, and I’m not saying people who have lifetimes of privilege don’t engage with acts of selflessness, but it might be harder to sympathize or put yourself in the shoes of someone else.
AB: I was never really the go-getter immigrant, you know, it took me a very long time to start writing in English and then I could never settle into a particular thing. One thing that has been constant is that I have been writing and teaching poetry, that’s what I know how to do the best. As a parallel—all I’ve been thinking about this week is the racial inequality in this country, that letting go of any kind of privilege or sense of identity scares the shit out of people cause it’s the closest to death that you’ll come – or that you think you’ll come, because in fact it could be your rebirth and feed others’ rebirth.
AB: Imagine letting go of some aspect of yourself that you identify with and that you thought keeps you together. For example, for white Americans, thinking of themselves as this thing that has a value that maybe they should avoid or let go of the privileges attached to it, must be fucking terrifying. Though they absolutely have to do it, there is no other way forward but to start thinking about themselves critically and disassociating, refusing to accept the privilege that comes with whiteness, I mean, I don’t know if I am better prepared to do that because I am an immigrant, I am a big coward and often very scared, and I want comfort and safety, but I don’t know if that really exists. I don’t think that by reifying unexamined selfhood we can achieve safety.
CB: Especially when it makes other people unsafe.
AB: Exactly. Your safety at whose expense?
CB: There’s an interesting part of being female, that doesn’t get talked about as often, it gets talked about in domestic ways, and in the nuclear family and then dissolving the nuclear family, but not as much in emotional ways: it’s this kind of servitude and selflessness that can come with being a woman and bearing children and maybe it’s chemical, hormonal, maybe it has been historically instilled in us and that history has made us who were are, but there seems to be overarchingly a line of servitude that comes with being female, even now in third wave feminism. It’s almost like it’s still easier for women to give up their power in the name of somebody else.
AB: Well we’re more used to giving up our power.
CB: Right, and so in a way we’re now asking the people who really have power to do that as well. I’m wondering if (in terms of racial politics, identity politics, feminism) if we’re after an acceptance of that maternal drive, rather than trying to assimilate or equalize with men, if what we’re craving is really a society that is run by matriarchs.
AB: I can’t even imagine that kind of world. I mean we still inhabit a planet where mostly men kill and women give birth. You know this is what keeps happening (Laughter). The master is a tool. I’m interested in these basic facts.
CB: I love that because I feel like particularly in academia and scholarship you get caught up with details and you miss the basic facts.
AB: Oh yeah, you can become this disciplinary monster and disassociate from your and others’ physical condition.
CB: So what about women who kill? Somebody like Vanessa Place, who you worked with and have dialogue with to some extent, her thing is not exactly women who kill, but she does take on any number of (what society deems) cold, monstrous voices and uses those voices to create poetry, but she herself is a woman, lesbian, all of those things.
AB: (In a self-aware awkward voice) Women are killin it. (Laughter) Well, I was interested in her work because I thought she was immensely intelligent and then secondly I was struggling with subjectivity in the poem and the “I”: Am I supposed to talk? Am I allowed? Is there need for me? I think the conceptualists’ notion of subjectivity is somewhat strangely similar to the Romantic. I’m not the first person to point this out. The Romantic credo of how a poem is made is recollection in tranquility, so you’re kind of the vessel for the experience you’re going to process, you’re the beaker in how alchemically the world turns into poetry. Right? So ultimately despite Romantic individualism it’s not all about your subjectivity in the poem. And in conceptualism there is the whole idea of a vessel, a mouthpiece, through me other voices shall speak, so maybe not the universal voice, but the voice of you know…Joe45Detroit on Youtube. And through Joe…God. (Laughter).
CB: So do you resonate with that, do you resonate with that kind of vessel, mouthpiece thing?
AB: To some extent yeah. On the other hand I am definitely here, and I’m queer. Hahaha. So I can’t totally relax.
CB: Right, you’re repping your community.
AB: But my process (of writing) is very old school, I receive something, I hear words.
CB: I like what you said before in the kitchen about feeling—you named a couple different things as being just as important as intelligence—say that again.
AB: Well, different kinds of intelligence are really important and aren’t taken as seriously; feeling, intuition, memory. That’s the thing, when people ask me like ‘oh you’re working on a new project, what is your process like?’ And a conceptualist might be like, well I had an idea, went to this website and copy and pasted this stuff. I think what happens with them is just as mysterious: why some things are chosen and certain things aren’t chosen, curation versus creation…It’s just as interesting and subjective as anything else. But what am I going to say? ‘Well, I hear some things in a dream, and if I’m lucky I remember them and in the morning when I walk to work I look around and this song comes back to me’ – my process is totally nebulous and ridiculous. It’s more the Romantic process.
CB: It’s not a formula.
AB: It’s not a formula and it doesn’t sound very respectable.
CB: Or scholarly.
AB: Or scholarly or self directed and in that sense it is weirdly again impersonal. It is sort of this florescence of a subjectivity that is totally automatic. In the words of Nicki Minaj. Automatic.
CB: Right, not the Surrealists. Nicki Minaj.
AB: Haha. Right. So maybe it has more to do with automatic writing.
CB: Do you conceptualize your work? Because you have written online in a couple different places about your work, about what you’re doing and what you want for your poetry and obviously that stuff changes over time, if it stayed the same it would be pretty boring, but do you, when you’re not writing, do you conceptualize your work in your own way?
AB: Well I have themes and my own personal mythology. In this new book, I’ve been obsessed with Venus and the morning star. I’ve actually been praying to Venus for a few years with very strange results. Growing up my favorite book was Danica and Other Stars, and Danica means morning star, but it is also a girls’ name in Croatian. Then somehow I realized that book and the particular landscapes, it’s a picture book, actually correspond to my idea of what it means to be on earth and even what it means to be a poet. So it’s like one of those early influences and it had to do with freedom. The little girl falls asleep and either dreams or actually has a vision that she is in the sky and hanging out with the Big Bear up there. So she has this celestial journey, like Sandra Bullock, and then she falls back down to earth, like Little Nemo or something, the cosmic journey. An allegory of the artistic process. And then you tell the story when you come back. But then also maybe sometimes you go too far and you don’t come back. And then you’re dead. So there are themes in the (new) book: death, the subject’s death, but also those journeys and my own personal mythology, symbology. It’s more like HD.
CB: Your death in your poetry, the way you use death, I feel like in our culture and I’m not sure about the rest of the world, but certainly in America, death is this dark thing. It’s this dark, awful unknown that we glorify to some extent. We glorify through war and violent movies and through the military industrial complex and taking black lives, and we also kind of demonize it in this way where we’re totally scared of it, and we totally sublimate our fear of it through other means of desire and libidinal satisfaction in consumerism and pop culture, but the death you describe, there is something light about it. It’s more open. Do you agree with that?
AB: I mean contemplating death makes capitalism seem especially pointless.
AB: Why are we accruing all this shit for when you’re just going to go out the same way you came in. Someone told me once about a rich man being buried with his hands outside of the coffin, because he wanted people to see that he was leaving the way he came and the coffin has no pockets for cash. So yeah when you contemplate it, you get lighter about it and it makes you live differently. To me it’s just like the last laugh. Like after all this? You’re just… you’re… you’re gone. It’s really LOL.
CB: Right. It is really like a joke in some way. Right? (Laughter)
AB: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a joke. And I mean that’s cool. That’s fine with me cause being around forever would be hell and I’m fine becoming something else.
CB: And there is almost something about that that is comforting because it doesn’t take itself so seriously. It doesn’t take the big cultural ego of humanity and of society so seriously. But my question to you is do you think that gives way to a living that’s a little more kind and optimistic, or does it give way to as much patriarchy and war and ruining the planet, or does it not matter?
AB: I don’t know. I feel like I just landed here and I’m trying to figure out what makes these people tick. So I can survive. To me most things don’t make any sense whatsoever. I was just talking about patriarchy last night at dinner—it’s here, we have our fathers’ last names—it’s in the very basic facts of our existence. I spent a long time trying to understand the way things are, but now I spend my time trying to imagine a different way of being. For myself, as much as I can. So I can figure out how to live, and maybe I can fight and be useful, cause one thing for sure is that if you feel like you have nothing to lose and you feel comfortable with death and you feel like you’re okay with this being it, you can maybe put yourself on the line a little more.
CB: Take more risks.
AB: Take more risks, you’re not so scared about your personal property. I have almost studiously remained poor. (Laughter) Almost like how did I manage? I’ve been weary of having too much or wanting too much. I just always felt that if it becomes my focus some integrity would be lost. So I’ve lived differently than maybe how I was supposed to live in the USA. But not everyone needs to live the same. And that’s part of the problem here, everyone is expected to do sort of the same thing and not everyone wants to do so.
CB: Maybe you’re an alien. Do you ever think that?
AB: Haha. I’ve had a few mental breakdowns in my life where things seemed especially weird to me, like ‘forks: what are these?’ Or ‘leaves: why are there so many, who keeps track of them?’ Most basic things of the world become really bizarre. It’s estrangement, ostranenie. If you repeat a word long enough it’s going to become meaningless and sound nonsensical. If you look at the world long enough you see the atoms and you flip out.
CB: Do you ever flip out, cause talking to you now and in your poetry it seems like you can really handle all those subjects and the understanding of it in this way that’s pretty centered, light and doesn’t take itself too seriously. But do you have a process that’s more sad?
AB: Oh definitely. I’m pretty depressive. And recently I lost some time (at least “consensual time”) in my life because I got really depressed. Sounds silly, but it’s the suffering of creatures that really gets to me. I can’t really deal with it. So I try to do both: why people like The Smiths is because they write really happy sounding songs with sad lyrics, and I like that sort of thing, a combination of sadness and bravado, or maybe something that’s light in content, but has a very strict form or vice versa. I like to keep it balanced. For sure I’m dark as fuck, but I don’t think the world needs that from me right now. I’ll get into these moods when I don’t want or just can’t talk or correspond, days I can’t deal. But I am trying to be more of an activist again and I need to stop thinking so much about myself and my moods. Maybe my depression is not so important.
AB: I’ve been trying to put myself in perspective more. Am I depressed or is it the racist capitalist patriarchy that’s bringing me down? LOL.
CB: And that comes back to your poetry because in a way that has been your artistic struggle for a long time now; putting the subject in perspective and making something out of the world that is bigger than the subject. So there is a relationship between the life lived and the poetry that manifests because of it, but maybe they’re not always synonymous, maybe they catch up with each other, or overlap and then diverge.
AB: I don’t know what the relationship is between the work and the life in my case. I have no idea. Maybe they are the same things expressed as different elements, maybe one is a byproduct of the other; sometimes I think about poetry or art as the foam on the wave—the stuff that is generated along the way. But then also they seem to be the same thing to some extent.
CB: So there is this quote from Carrie Lorig on HTML Giant and she quotes you too
I think we know how to be in love with people and things, how to want them, to want what we see of ourselves in other people and things. “I’m so fucking tired of the sound of “sexy”/ of me being sexy, muse-body” (War on a Lunchbreak). To be loving though, is to give something, to transfer something over for absorption. Being loving is considerably more dangerous, more of a risk, and I understand it less, though I know I desire it more.
I’m wondering what you think about that in terms of your own poetry and maybe if this idea of being ‘loving’ not in a mushy gushy way, but in this just way is important to you and for your work? In your poetry is there a relationship between selflessness and lovingness?
AB: For sure. I mean, I totally have been praying to Venus. I was baptized but not really Christian, so I was like, who is the one god that is fly and stands for something I can get down with? So of course Venus.
CB: Cecilia (Corrigan) and I talked a little bit about this: a form of love and intimacy that has an ethics attached to it. It’s one thing to fall in love with somebody and have passion, and it’s one thing to have it in poetry or activism and have a point to make, but where are the ethics of how you make that point?
AB: Let me use an analogy of poetic camps or movements. We’re seeing people fight: this circle versus that circle of poets. I was interested in conceptualists, and some people thought I betrayed my camp – I’m supposed to be neo-modernist, or new lyric or whatever, why was I friends with those people? It became important to me to embody (at least in understanding) both sides of the argument, so poetics becomes not about polarity. Movements have more in common than they want to probably. It’s important to listen because your mind might need to be changed for your life or poetics to move forward, or make space for someone or something more urgent. And in a sense the same thing happens with love. It’s my life’s guiding principle, but also something that I can’t even talk about. To understand what it is to be another human being… Everyone is as important to themselves as everyone else. Everyone thinks we are the center of the universe. People say if only we could love everyone the way we love the one we’re in love with. And we do have the capacity to do that. It’s not a Christian thing for me. To understand that the other person is as important as you are is to be just. The two definitely have something in common. To what extent an author has an ethical or loving relationship to their subject, their reader, their material—it is interesting to think about loving language…
CB: Particularly when it has given us so much hell. Language is the source of so much of our societies’ dissonances.
AB: Oh yeah, yeah. In that sense saying ‘I’m a poet’ is another ideology. It’s the air that I breathe that I don’t think about, and sometimes I think wow, maybe I should just not write anymore. One of the reasons I kill myself off in the last poem of this new book is that I was thinking ‘well if I never wrote a poem again that would be a good ending.’ Maybe next I want to do something different.
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.