When I first read Ariana Reines’s third collection Mercury in 2011, I was blown away by the distinctiveness of her poetic voice and by the honesty of the writing. With its quicksilver cover, it seemed to make poetry a world in which we could take refuge, by turning you into a mercurial figure. ‘It is not easy to be honest’, as Reines writes, ‘because it is impossible to be complete’. I found it an exceptional book, the kind you yearn for without quite knowing what it would sound like (it sounds like eating a Hawaiian burrito with Joan Didion, like Didion might sound if she were a poet born in 1982 in Salem, Massachusetts, and also like love in an emergency – perhaps like this emergency that we’re living through now, and also like a bedtime story told to a child in 1942).
Fusing a cosmic lyricism with a blunt, voluptuous vulgarity, it is entirely its own. I was grateful to find people who cared for it the way I did – which is to say, that it has become a point of contact and a space of possibility for poetry in our violently political present. Because the risks of the work are real, it makes so much ‘avant-garde’ poetics seem tame and boring and beside the point. Reines’s work presents us with a new configuration of the relationship between transgression, confession and redemption and how they might mercurially transfuse our understanding of the possibility of voice and of intimacy. As well as a poet, Reines is a practicing playwright and astrologer. Her dramatic works include her 2014 collaboration with Jim Fletcher Mortal Kombat and The Origin of the World (2012).
JC: I’ve just been reading your wonderful moon report in ArtForum. Could you say a little about what we might expect from this astral turn of events and its ecological and poetic resonances?
AR: Uranus moving into Taurus is volcanic and earthquaking. It’s the planet of explosive and sudden change in the earth, and of the feminine: the beauty of your shining face; the wetness of the water; the fact that this table is flat, and that it’s on the ground… I think that one way to translate it is that it’s where the revolution is in the feminine. The revolutionary spirit – the Uranian spirit that brought us the democratic revolutions of the nineteenth century, and the late eighteenth century – moves us into the realm where the feminine virtues are where the revolution is. That’s why I feel like it’s a very strong invitation for us to listen to our own bodies, which is such a cliché but actually quite difficult to do… I think, moving forward, female entrepreneurship will be really huge. There are going to be, of course, major shifts in currency and value – that’s also what Taurus rules: lucre, wealth, money – and what we value. What is wealth, really? It’s up to us to redefine it – and obviously it’s ripe for redefinition.
JC: How did you come to write your recent poem ‘PILGRIMS’ PROGRESS’, which was published last year in Love Among the Ruins – an exhibition that touches on the impact of AIDS in the arts community?
AR: Last summer I was asked to write a poem about AIDS and my immediate reaction was to say no – that I had no idea how to do that, that the worst of the AIDS catastrophe took place before I came of age. I didn’t feel I could possibly do justice to something like this. But a strange confluence of… I guess of resonances… somehow made a poem possible. I had just visited the Yazidi temple in Tbilisi, built in 2014, eerily at the same time that Yazidis were massacred by ISIS on Mount Sinjar, which has been a sacred place to them for hundreds of years. I had finally set foot in Poland, which I had not been able to bear attempting – I was in Warsaw, the city where my grandmother’s first husband and parents were killed in the Holocaust – just long enough to walk across the city. I looked at the charming architecture and the chain stores and the handsome people and made it to the ghetto wall, hidden inside an apartment complex, and put my forehead on it and sobbed. My grandmother had survived because a false identity and job her husband had purchased for her kept her outside that wall during the uprising. I was reading Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind – it’s an indispensable book, about the relationship to AIDS and the first wave of gentrification in New York, which has now become a universal process. Because I was born in Salem, Massachusetts, where as a child I was taught that the Puritans who colonised the region had been holy pilgrims, after the fashion of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and because all kinds of pilgrimage fascinate me, and also because in order to write that poem I had to crawl, so to speak, from Tbilisi to Warsaw to Winslow, Arizona, I figured it was time I came out as a pilgrim myself, even if the poem had to fail.
JC: What are you working on at the moment?
AR: I’ve got a new book, A Sand Book, coming out in June next year which I started during Hurricane Sandy. That corridor of time – 2012 – was a year of a lot of upheaval in my life and in the world, but it was the beginning of a period of anguished and, for lack of a better term, religious experiences. During that period, I did a lot of performing and it was interesting because I was working in lots of different fields – there’s an overlap but it’s also impossible to carry certain kinds of experience of innocence into another domain. I wasn’t trying to work out how to integrate these religious experiences but that’s kind of what they became.
The shortest way I can explain it is that it’s about what sand means to us. Obviously sand is the most obvious metaphor for time that we have – it’s so obvious that it’s invisible. It’s also something that birds eat in order to digest so it’s sort of at this crossroads between the avian and notions of infinity. But it’s also a book about desertification and climate change and acquiring experiences of the divine through things we buy. It’s like this peculiar American situation. I think I’m describing the book very badly!
Another way to tell you about it is that in 2012 I was in Normandy after having done a performance with a spider in London. That performance – The Origin of the World – was weirdly a kind of initiation for me, and a few days later I was in France in a beet field in Normandy and I came upon these peacock feathers and I started having all these peacock visions – it was sort of like The Cow [Reines’s 2006 collection] – it’s so cheesy! What’s cheesier and more ornamental than a peacock! I started seeing the peacock and so I decided to follow it. Sand, birds, and notions of infinity – these kind of gestalt metaphors exist in Sufi poetry and show up in Chaucer, the metaphysical poets, in Lorca, and yet sand is so much and so little it seems hard to say anything ‘about’ it. It’s the background of the current ecological catastrophe. Whether in the form of Texan sand becoming a billion-dollar industry thanks to fracking, or a Jesuit image of eternity in hell that has always haunted me, sand is the eroding background of everything, the negative space. I’m attracted to negative space.
JC: How do you see performance affecting your work? I’m particularly interested in your collaboration with Jim Fletcher in Mortal Kombat.
AR: The whole game of collaborating with Jim is that we are equal, or we are trying to play with the notion of equality in a really similar way. I had always wanted to do a knocked-out, dragged-out fight theatrically – like in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a really vicious fight. What was attractive about performance was the thought about getting away from language. With my first collaboration with Jim, which was a smaller piece before Mortal Kombat, I asked him to give me the title and told him that I wanted us to create the text – to have it come out of our physical movements instead of writing a text and then adding our bodies to it. Then, with Mortal Kombat, I wanted the violence to be real. There was slapping and punching and kicking and he carried me around and we grappled. It was an exploration of the possibility – the idea – of a fair fight. What would that be like with opponents as unmatched as Jim and me?
JC: I want to come back to this idea of performance as getting away from language – your poetry is so attentive to the physicality of language, to the whole body as it is being written. Thinking with and against performance, what do you think poetry can do, as a form, in particular?
AR: I think poetry opens this space where you can be more precise and more courageous and more curious about your experience. It’s one of the things I love about it.
JC: Mercury offers such a nuanced and ambivalent understanding of how we inhabit gender and the violence that seems to be the condition of intimacy. It allows, I think, for a messy kind of feminism – it provides a holding space for all the conflicted experiences that emerge in the freefall and the violent folds of intimacy.
AR: What a lovely comment for you to make. I feel like it’s the privilege that poetry gives you – that maybe what if feminism was watching lovingly what happens to you in one circumstance or another and watching with a great sense of sensibility and sensitivity to what has happened before and to what might be happening now. I’m interested in history, you know what I mean? I read, I like living with a dense feeling for the other pilgrims that have passed before me. There’s a lot of men in my lineage so I think when I’m writing, I must inevitably be looking at how my experience resonates with theirs and how it doesn’t – and maybe that’s an ethics or something, or maybe that’s my fantasy.
JC: Your mother comes in and out of view in your poetry – both in The Cow and in Mercury – as an insistently present figure who seems bound up with this fantasy ethics, or ethics of fantasy…
AR: My mother is the bell jar over my existence. She’s the guillotine that’s waiting to drop. When I was younger I was more afraid of turning into her, as we all are, and then after I wrote my play Telephone, I was like, cool, I don’t think I’m going to go crazy, this is amazing! It’s a fated situation – there’s a reason why I agree to move around the world so much – it’s partly because it just sort of happened and partly because my mom’s been homeless since I was 18 and so my own home has always been under threat. I’m living as a pilgrim and I accept that journey – it’s certainly been the journey of this newest book. It’s like she’s a planet and I’m a planet and when she comes close, I have to respond. She gave me a lot of gifts and I recognise that in many ways I’m living out a great fidelity to what she gave me.
JC: There’s a politics of care and of hospitality in your work that seems bound up with this straying from and holding close to the maternal. What kind of holding space do you think the poem can be?
AR: The poem is so flexible… the poem is the most hospitable thing and it makes us more hospitable. Poetry is so weird because nobody knows what it is really and that’s the beauty of it. It’s so close to nothing, and yet, for those of us who are in it, it’s everything – and the trick is that you can stretch it, you know and, you can live in it and it’s a beautiful way to live. It’s a school for your whole soul, and it, too, can teach hospitality. It can even teach hospitality to your own self inside your own body. Maybe that’s what it teaches us first and, I think, you know, maybe one of the reasons that the best poets are women is because, I mean, at least now (times do change!), we’re used to living with our consciousness. If we’re in a household, we’re the householder – making the food, the clothing, the atmosphere, wondering how everybody is doing, making sure everyone’s OK…
JC: It’s so much work!
AR: Right, it’s so much work! And, of course, Woolf wrote about that so well – that sense of being needed and feeling the hunger for your care all around you and also feeling this enormity within yourself that you don’t expect or perceive that others would be able to receive or understand. We’re gradually moving out into this new space where we, as women – not just women, but queers and people of colour and differently bodied and differently abled people – have more room, and it’s not that we don’t still suffer or that our pay isn’t docked or that we don’t still get raped and sexually harassed and deformed and rendered into things, or that in the US the notion of reproductive health and basic physical sovereignty for women are not extremely controversial. Nevertheless we have much more space, culturally, than our mothers had – and this has forced an enlargement of the hospitality in literature itself, to realms of experience and ways of saying that experience formerly excluded. And I think that the people that we love and admire in literature are always enlarging the field of hospitality, extending that welcome, but it always begins with your own breath – with your own voice – and that’s what cuts poetry, that’s how it’s measured. And so it becomes a kind of theology in itself.
JC: Could you say a little about your experience as a translator of French?
AR: For me, French is like a kind of mother tongue. My mom made me learn it, so it’s my mother tongue in that sense, even though English was my first language. I wrote a lot of The Cow in France. When I’ve translated from French, it has always meant a somewhat melancholy yearning to perfect my very imperfect relationship to my quasi-mother tongue, and I guess, by extension, to repair my totally broken relationship with my mom. I guess I’ve also chosen to translate books that were incredibly challenging formally or conceptually, maybe because I’m attracted to impossible tasks. When I was writing The Cow France seemed like a country totally innocent of feminism, in spite of the great French feminists. Virginie Despentes felt like a miracle in those days.
JC: You’ve written a brilliant poem and an essay on the artist Carol Rama. Can you say a little about what she means to you?
AR: I feel very happy that she was still alive when I wrote that poem, and that I got to write a poem for a hugely great living woman artist who deserved oceans of tributes. Her work is hilarious, gut-wrenching, and deeply true and the fact that she continued to make it is utterly miraculous. There’s a great dignity in keeping fidelity to your path, especially when nobody’s looking. Of course, right before she kicked the bucket, the art world discovered her. On the one hand, this work that we do as women, as queers – as others – of retrieving miracles from obscurity is very important, but it is also enraging that a mechanism continues, till today, of shutting powerful women out of the conversation until they are old enough no longer to be distracting sexually or just dangerously complicated, dangerously huge.
Ariana Reines is a poet, playwright, translator and astrologer. She is the author of the poetry books The Cow (2006), Coeur de Lion (2007) and Mercury (2011), and the prizewinning play Telephone (2018). Her new collection, A Sand Book, will be published next year.
Jess Cotton recently completed her PhD at UCL and writes about poetry, affect and childhood.
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