"Humans are complicated, and I find that complexity—even as it pertains to murderous behavior or planetary sabotage—fascinating and repulsive in equal measure."
The latest book by Laura Sims, Staying Alive (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016), doesn't pull punches. The world is on fire, the world is ending, and it is highly unlikely we are going to get out of this mess. Yet, somehow, as Cormac McCarthy writes in The Road, there are moments of relief, even beauty. Sims renders the apocalyptic terrifyingly gorgeous, desirous even:
You were always a murmurous forest
But now you are
Referencing texts as varied as Bradford Angier's How to Stay Alive in the Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, the TV series Battlestar Galactica, and Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl, Sims's tone is one of both commiseration and warning: "Not simply torn between longing and safety / But torn." We want to forget. We want to start over, but we're not sure we can.
Claudia F. Savage In Staying Alive, you write:
And no one would help
The humans left
Not even the humans
And, yet, in your afterword, you recall pictures of the inanimate objects and empty places left behind in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, 25 years later: "I prefer these images of inanimate objects and empty places to the pictures of the animals; they allow me to project my own mourning for the loss of human activity onto the things themselves. You see, they attest, the world regrets your absence."
This excerpt speaks to your other book, My god is this a man, a favorite of mine, and reveals, if not a complete lack of faith in humanity, an extreme wariness. What do you believe?
Laura Sims Humans are complicated, and I find that complexity—even as it pertains to murderous behavior or planetary sabotage—fascinating and repulsive in equal measure. I suppose that explains the juxtaposition of the passages you've quoted from Staying Alive, as well as my immersion in the journals and letters written by murderers while I was researching for the poems in My god is this a man. I live, as I suppose we all do, with a spectrum of beliefs about humankind that stretches all the way from "humans are worthless bastards" to "humans are awesome and deserve redemption," and that whole spectrum drives my writing, which I see as mostly concerned with investigating the human condition and mind.
CFS Keeping with this idea of human dichotomy, you talk a lot about the notion of clean slates, starting over, living closer to the land:
When the culture passed over
We bathed in its light in its fear in its
Mountain stream. We left mountains
Of carts full of junk behind. We bade them
Without power, I wielded my body
I've lived in rural areas for a good portion of my life. Even with modern tools and the spoiled American lifestyle, that life can be hard. As a city person, do you feel like you are over-romanticizing something you haven't experienced?
LS Oh definitely! And I own up to it in the book's afterword by writing that "the life I've described… would mostly be wretched and hard." I call my own vision of the post-apocalyptic world "hokum," but still I can't help giving in to its pull. Probably, yes, out of ignorance—I've spent most of my life in and around cities. But it also comes out of a real hatred for the ugliness humans have wrought. It's a self-destructive urge of mine, I realize—the desire to sweep away the nasty cell phone towers and factories and wires blotting the landscape; those ugly places and things that help us live the coddled lives we (many of us) live. Part of the appeal of the simplified life feels separate from that impulse, though, and seems to come from someplace deep in my mammalian brain. Some kind of ancient pre-programmed nostalgia for a life I've never known, maybe? Regardless, it's highly doubtful I'd survive the harsh realities of a life lived in the woods or on the plains without my cell phone and bottled wine and grocery stores.
CFS And, yet, your spacious, incredibly open form, present in all your books, satisfies that desire for wilderness. Reading it is similar to that feeling you get after being in the woods alone. Rejuvenated, but also wary. Each page feels like surrender. Your space allows the reader to hide or take a much-needed breath before more chaos comes. Why these structural choices?
LS I think space is necessary for handling the heavy existential subject matter my books swirl around—necessary for me and the reader, as you mention. But I've never been intentional about that spaciousness—it has always emerged naturally as I write, revise, and rewrite. In fact, it tends to become more pared-down and space-heavy (or light?) as I revise. My newest poems, though, are more crowded on the page, and although they circle around the same general themes, they're coming at them from different angles and are stylistically quite different. In terms of constructing sections, I've learned to organize the material pretty directly. In this case, section one takes place during the apocalypse; section two takes place shortly after, for the most part; and section three is set some time later, when things have begun to shift and transform significantly. I hope it offers readers a suggestion of narrative or linearity—though the line is crooked, twisted, and broken as hell.
CFS There is a definite feeling of narrative, of being told a story that has been passed down as the story of a particular people. I recently read Chang-rae Lee’s book On Such a Full Sea and it had a similar quality. The idea of “we” and “they” telling the story of a people, a collective voice. I’m thinking of: “They bade us/ Weep and know shame/ They bade us be hard” and other sections of your book. This made the appearance and disappearance of the “I” more startling and gave it a kind of omniscient quality, rather than a personal one.
LS I’ve been wanting to read that book! I think many apocalypse/post-apocalypse narratives use that collective voice—or even if the book is narrated from a first-person perspective, that “we” is hovering in the air. How can the story of the end of a people, a way of life, and/or the beginning of a people, a way of life—or both simultaneously—not be told as a sort of myth, an origin story? In my own book, that “we” emerged naturally since I was collecting threads of narrative from books, TV shows, movies, essays, news articles—so the collectivity of the voice is quite literal. The “I,” as you’ve noted, is not particular or individual, really, but indivisible from the “we.” This could never be one person’s story—it is all of our stories, or it could be.
CFS Earlier, you mentioned the notion of ruminating on the full spectrum of the human condition. This idea of the collective voice also has biblical or sacred text vibrations. But the texts you referenced don't include any traditionally sacred or religious ones.
LS There was a point in my revision of the book when I did turn to more traditional sacred texts—snippets from the Bible, Native American ceremonial scripture, and so on. I started to emphasize the vaguely biblical feel of the book, to pull out and foreground the sacred myth-making, but ultimately I backed away from it. I wanted to let the human holiness shine instead: the pure holiness of humans recreating their lives in the wake of a literally awesome devastation of some kind. I didn't need to rely on sacred texts for that—though, of course, after a lifetime of absorbing the Bible via osmosis in our predominantly Christian society, I didn't exactly need to refer to it or other texts directly to achieve that semi-biblical feel. Most of the sources I've used emit those "sacred text vibrations" themselves—even the TV show, Battlestar Galactica! One of the main characters becomes something like an angel by the end; that show was firmly in touch with the divine.
CFS You write about how worrying about apocalypse feels like a grander, more global way of worrying about death. We are living in a world where many people are losing sleep at night worrying about the way war and violence in the larger international community feels more present in our backyards. Did this contribute to your writing of this book or has this always been an artistic concern of yours?
LS I think anxiety and fear have been central to most of the poetry I've written, and those feelings intensified after having a child. Becoming a mother left me feeling thin-skinned and constantly primed for disaster. I've become habituated to the feeling, and maybe it has lessened a bit as my son has grown older, but I am still easily freaked, and constantly imagine terrible scenarios. Some of them outlandish, others not so much. The state of the world certainly informed the book, too. I think anyone alive right now and creating in any way must feel that generalized anxiety hovering over and leaking into their work like poisonous gas… even if the world isn't worse than it used to be, we know more of the particulars of its awfulness than we used to. There's no escaping that knowledge or the sense of escalating doom it brings.
CFS Since having my daughter, I can honestly say I dream about death and violence more than ever. Having children makes us hyperaware and pretty neurotic. But, though you dedicated this book to your son, you wrote in an essay on the Harriet blog:
Now that I'm about to pass into middle age, now that I've had a son and want to hold tight to each joyful, exhausting, bountiful, maddening day, I've dropped all interest in darkness and doom. Except in my poems. Lately I've been writing about murder and apocalypse. Happy stuff. But I feel like I've learned, slowly and painfully, how to channel the insights gained from touring the abyss into my work and then get the hell out of there.
And, from the first page of Staying Alive:
Nonetheless. Will it
Ends and another thing ends
But you you
Fawn on the ground in the shape of your
Basest self. It's an infinite
Blur? The future
You manage to verbalize every terrifying thing we think about as mothers. Does this somehow purge you of these notions?
LS Yes and no. I would like to say yes, that I purge the terrifying things and then go about my business, but even after I've written them down, they still haunt me. Even when I'm verbalizing terrifying things, I tend to go broad. It's a subconscious form of self-protection. So, yes, there is a purging or a placing of these ideas outside myself and onto the page, but the ideas always circle back. It is true, though, also, that in my days since becoming a mother I've been more able to stay in the moment, and to feel more optimistic in general. I don't spend so much time dwelling on darkness. How could I, with my son's ebullient presence filling every day?
CFS Attention to signs and superstition is pervasive throughout your book. Do you throw salt over the shoulder?
LS I do! And I'm always looking for signs. At the same time, I realize the signs are (probably) meaningless, but just in case, I pinch salt, avoid walking under ladders, and so on. I know I tend to create that sinister atmosphere in my work, which isn't surprising because I'm enamored of it in other works of art—books, music, films, paintings. The Road is a perfect example. So is Stranger Things, the Netflix show I recently binge-watched. Writers like Peter Straub and Shirley Jackson are masters of atmospheric dread. Darkness hanging over and plumping everything… it's so rich! I could swim in it, consume it, revel in it. Even if things work out in the end, it's the promise of darkness I adore. Or—the representation of the promise of darkness. It's an escape, a way of reckoning with our various real-life darknesses, I suppose.
CFS Here in the Pacific Northwest we are 70 years overdue for an earthquake of over 9.0 magnitude. Six minutes of shaking, followed by landslide, followed by a 50-foot-high tsunami, so your book's description of apocalypse feels a little too close to home. It is something that survivalists here think about all the time and the average 20-something Midwest transplant doesn't think about at all. Why your obsession with death?
LS Is it only a 50-foot tsunami? I thought there was supposed to be a 500-foot tsunami after the great Cascadia earthquake, but I may be confusing reality (or realistic predictions) with some apocalypse action movie! I would attribute most of my obsession with death to my mom's early death from cancer, but I was anxious about death well before that. I remember sitting in class in elementary school and realizing I would die someday; I went cold and goosebumps sprouted up and down my arms. It may have been my first adult realization—that I would die and there was no escaping it. I try not to let myself linger in that kind of headspace these days—though I do write about a lot of death-related topics: illness, war, violence, murder, natural disasters, and so on. But it's also true that death is a huge part of life—death is life—so even though I joke about being a doom-driven lady of darkness, what I'm exploring is an undeniably central aspect of life.
CFS Destruction to achieve rebirth is part of epics across cultures. Kali in Hindu mythology, Noah or Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, the German Nibelungenlied. In the myth you created here there is no guarantee of rebirth in the corporeal sense, more just a sense of continuing.
LS Yes, well, even in the event of a full-blown apocalypse, there will be survivors—unless the earth is utterly destroyed, of course. And these survivors will have to rebuild their lives and find a way to move forward. The Mayans are a perfect example; though we talk about them as a "lost civilization," as if they vanished off the face of the earth, many Mayans survived the apocalyptic combination of invasion, disease, and dwindling resources that decimated their population. These survivors dispersed to other places where they went on living, making families, and adapting to new cultures despite all they'd lost and endured. There's a real beauty to that notion of continuity—instead of a dramatic rebirth, there's a timeless going on.
CFS Even though you only use a female pronoun once: "I grab her hair in both hands… Her genes & mine" and in the mention of a "she-wolf," I still thought about the notion of female epic. The ancient epic Inanna immediately came to mind, so did Alice Notley's Descent of Alette and Why God Is a Woman by Nin Andrews. These books imagine humanity as deeply flawed and menacing, but also allow that a woman can outsmart destruction, can create something new. The notion of "fighting evil" is turned sideways to become more about crafty recreation and change than using violence against violence. You rewrite the garden of Eden into something sinister:
Radioactive ambulances apples
In the garden
LS I've actually never thought of it as a female epic! I've always thought of the speaker(s) as sex-shifting or androgynous rather than female or male. I think you're right that the book shifts from "fighting evil" which dominates the first part, much of which was inspired by H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, in which humans fight aliens (though it is ultimately nature itself, in the form of disease, that kills the aliens off), to being more about adapting to the changes in the world and transforming, however painfully or strangely, in ways that allow for survival.
CFS Finally, to circle back to your afterword, I loved the discussion of your reading and process. What books fuel your imagination at the moment?
LS I've been inspired lately by Don Mee Choi's Hardly War, the novels of Anna Kavan, and Octavia Butler's chilling Parable of the Sower, as well as my friend Ken Calhoun's apocalyptic Black Moon. I've also been on something of a Barbara Pym bender, thanks to a rec from my friend Idra Novey, whose marvelous novel Ways to Disappear is yet another inspiration. Not a lot of poetry, as you see… I do read poetry, but I feel like I spend more time reading friends' manuscripts, poems here and there for class, and poems online in free moments, than I do picking up and delving into an entire volume. But I recently really loved Robyn Schiff's A Woman of Property, and Ben Fama's Fantasy. Whenever my Ugly Duckling Presse subscription arrives, I dip in and out of those books with great pleasure. Gro Dahle's A Hundred Thousand Hours is one of my all-time favorites of theirs. My writing (my poetry, anyway) is also deeply influenced by music, film, and TV. I'm working on a series of love poems for my favorite show, The Walking Dead. It's a far, far cry from the poems of Staying Alive—except for the whole apocalypse theme. I can't seem to stay away from the end of the world!
Laura Sims is the author of Staying Alive (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016). Her first book, Practice, Restraint, was the winner of the 2005 Fence Books Alberta Prize, and in 2006 she was awarded a US-Japan Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship. In 2014 she edited Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, a book of her correspondence with the celebrated experimental novelist. Her poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in Black Clock, Colorado Review, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Eleven Eleven and Gulf Coast. Sims has been a featured writer for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and a co-editor of Instance Press since 2009. She teaches literature and creative writing at NYU-SPS.
Arab-American poet Claudia F. Savage is one-half of the improvising sound-poetry duo Thick in the Throat, Honey. Her poems and interviews have been published, most recently, in Water-Stone Review, Denver Quarterly, and Columbia. Her quarterly interview series,"Witness the Hour: Conversations with Arab-American Poets Across the Diaspora," is in Drunken Boat. She is a 2015 Pushcart and Best New Poets 2016 nominee with her first book, Bruising Continents, out from Spuyten Duyvil in 2017. Her collaboration reductions, about motherhood and ephemerality, with Detroit-visual artist-Jacklyn Brickman, is forthcoming in 2018.