Caryl Pagel on the visionary poetics of “writing the trance.”
Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death takes place where scientific exploration, archival research, and poetry combine. When I read her work I’m reminded that all imaginative writing is a quasi-scientific experiment into the way meaning accrues. Here the poet puts forth a hypothesis of swerving, clanging syntax, and caesura. An inquiry is made into the void and something is carried back.
These poems continually find new gestures for entering the unknown, new schema for staring into a shadow until something almost nameable appears there. Her work gets at the heart of so much poetry: the desire to communicate differently, the desire to join the worldly with the other-worldly, to take what may only be glimpsed and pin it down and stare at it, to imbibe that energy and then leave through an open window. At the heart of this, I think, is the attempt to make the imagination real, to translate it from ephemeral to tangible. As such, these poems’ gift is twofold: as documents that we might watch and learn, and as an implicit call toward experiment as a means of writing and living—such that we might transcend like they do.
Looking at the interview we have compiled, I am struck by Pagel’s great, green hope for what words might do and her companion belief in literature’s ability to bring us into more contact with what we can barely know. We corresponded for a few months this winter and spring, and I was frequently afraid of stumbling in the attempt to keep up with her intellect, her reading, and the ways in which she synthesizes ideas across disciplines, genres, and whole centuries. But, similar to the speakers of her poems, she was a patient, friendly guide.
Jack Christian How did you get started working on the project that became Experiments? How did the book get its title?
Caryl Pagel I remember that the poem “Table Talking” came first and was written while reading a biography of William James that I found in the Provincetown public library, which led to an interest in the Society for Psychical Research—a late-1800s group of renegade scientists who investigated many of the ideas I was thinking about: apparitions, patterns of grief, clairvoyance, collaborative research, testimony as proof, etc.
The title is appropriated from an essay by Hereward Carrington, one of the members of the SPR. Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death suggests the extreme and crazy generosity of certain scientists (or artists) who commit everything, including their own body, to their life’s work (or in this case, literally, to death’s work). The title phrase also brings to mind W.G. Sebald and Sir Thomas Browne’s writing on burial, Japanese death poems, taxidermy, autopsy, telepathic testing, operating theaters, and ultimately that moment (in art and writing and love and life) where something transitions from living to dead—a moment ripe for experimentation and soul expansion and magic.
I like to imagine writing as a physical body of work born of the mulch of the mind, made of salvaging and re-harnessing old and unforgettable phrases, mistaken memories, fleeting feelings, ways of knowing, suspicions, and unanticipated association. In this way one might make a gift, or circuit, of death. There is Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade, Whitman’s “look for me under your boot-soles,” or Niedecker’s “Time to garden / before I / die— / to meet / my compost maker / the caretaker / of the cemetery.”
JC I like this idea of making a gift or circuit of the “death” of certain texts. I end up thinking of this as a function of what I call—or, what gets called—the mythopoetic imagination, and yet you are more interested in science and the language of science, the expansion and exploration of its practices. Do you or did you want to write away from the imaginary and confabulatory?
CP Well, much of science is imaginary, or hypothetical, even if it progresses by way of evaluation and the accumulation of evidence. It is also extremely collaborative. Science is a body of work that all scientists work on and toward, lending the discipline mythopoetic aspects. Researchers fabricate stories or taxonomies that evolve toward greater “truths” through collected observation. But we know that scientific findings are debunked, disproven, disregarded, or revised and that it is not a field of absolutes any more than story-telling, any more than the organization or palimpsesting of narrative fact in history, religion, and philosophy. Think of taxidermy or embalming or organ transplants: scientific procedures that finish in the fantastic. I know someone about to undergo surgery for which doctors are printing out a 3D replacement shoulder bone fragment. That’s medical technology and also only recently fathomable.
In the case of the SPR, these scientists practiced legitimate, scholarly research on apparitions, visions, post-death communication: all possible inventions of the imagination and outcomes of things that—we would now claim—can be explained by chemistry, pheromones, psychology, and physics. But what awesome mysteries, or myths, arise out of systems?! It is the employment of forms and (the illusion of) rationality that often spawns the greatest drama. This is a very Victorian idea, that the most conventional structures can result in scandalous and chaotic outcomes, that when there is no room for error each misstep, mistake, or messiness creates fireworks.
Consider the form of the ghost story: every detail must appear absolutely controlled, believable, and measured so that when the ghost materializes it can transform our sense of what’s possible regardless of reality. By rejecting the premise, by saying IT’S NOT REAL, we make it so. We envision the absence or impossibility of the thing into being. Like daydreams or nightmares or memories, these intangible experiences and exceptional perceptions are essential to the ordinary lives of humans and yet are often dismissed as only imagined. The border between fantasy and knowledge, credible and incredible, mind and body is so thrilling and thin and terrifying to negotiate.
JC In your poem "Archive," you write: "ours an archival / generation." I wonder how, and what it was like, to make art from archives? Could you talk about your process for making these poems?
CP Most of the poems in Experiments were born in formal dilemma. There are sonnets, elegies, fables, syllabic verse, surveys, field notes, and indexes. The archival nature is both thematic and structural. The “Botched Bestiary” series was written after reading Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am and Steve Baker’s The Postmodern Animal—a book dedicated to purposefully damaged, reconstructed, or altered animal bodies in postmodern art. I was thinking about the ways contemporary visual artists approach post-human or hybrid bodies and how collaging, reorganizing, and archiving create alternative shapes and interpretations of life. This resulted in an experiment of stitching together excerpts from other texts while replacing specific animal names. I wanted the process to be transparent, corporeal, visual—to leave a scar or mark.
JC Makes me think of Frankenstein, and also Jed Rasula’s This Compost, particularly where you mention the Whitman lines and “mulching.” There’s a Victorian, fin de siècle aura and energy to these poems. In what ways did you want to revise or update these notions in light of postmodernism, the twenty-first century, etc—possibly toward our post–millennial concerns?
CP Frankenstein, yes! I would attribute a fin de siècle energy to much of what I was reading while writing Experiments, including Hawthorne, Wharton, Poe, and Perkins Gilman. For me, I think, it was less of an updating and more of an attempt to reconcile certain contemporary artistic procedures with age-old questions, timeless horrors.
JC Also, would you consider these poems Romantic? I’m suddenly conscious of not wanting to box you in to particular terminology . . . but this is what a person does on the edge of what one knows.
CP “On the edge of what one knows” is the trance this book was written under! I love Romantic poetry, but am more influenced by our good old ’merican Transcendentalists and even more so by the mediums, clairvoyants, spiritualists, and visionaries (mostly women) who practiced story-based performance art during that same time period. Unfortunately this kind of work—part fiction, part psychology, part theater?—is predominantly documented through transcript and audience testimony rather than first-hand accounts. These seers created intimate literature-based transformation through careful scripting. A medium “translates” or “divines” (writes) telepathic and apparitional narratives or codes for their audience, creatively exceeding the perceived limits of language and logic. Shouldn’t there be a literary movement attributed to the visionaries?
JC When I was first introduced to you, you were teaching a class on documentary poetry. I wonder if you could say a little about how and why you designed this class and how the idea of documenting corresponds to your own ideas about poetry? Would you consider the poems in Experiments documentary? If so, how? If not, then what—is there another term you'd use?
CP I taught a class on documentary literature at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. My students were extraordinary. When I began teaching that class I had already finished writing Experiments, which I wouldn’t consider documentary per se, as it was the act of engaging with the challenges of that book that led me to the term. I was employing several documentary strategies, but it was only after the fact that I was able to recognize this. It’s an example of how a class came out of my thinking about process, and then what I learned from my students directly led to my next writing project—a collection of linked essays that are very much influenced by the conversations we had.
JC So, what is documentary technique to you? What documentary strategies did you employ in Experiments? What were some of the questions you and your students generated?
CP We did record a messy list of qualities, and I have my notes, which I’ll excerpt below, but I hesitate to place too much weight on this sort of definition. We prized the muddled, enigmatic liberty of the form.
That said, we decided that documentary works might be recognized by:
1) The “hand” of the artist: a relentless haunting of the subject by its creator in which the author announces their presence through mark-leaving, self-reflexivity, annotation, or other transparent structures. The author inhabits the role of interviewer, curator, instigator, educator, collector, and/or director.
2) Rawness, chaos, instability: methods are unpolished, unproduced, occurring in unedited real-time, candid, rough, and blurry. The style is slippery, associative, quick, and nonlinear. An audience will abandon expectations of perfection, purity, conclusion, plot, or chronology. Documentary works contain elements of multiple disciplines and borrow from other genres.
3) Research: the author is motivated to seek out further information or investigate accepted ideas, authority figures, or modes of knowledge. Research attempts to disrupt assumptions and concepts of permission or legitimacy by incorporating appropriations, sampling, and found material. The facts are well documented. The audience witnesses the research process as it unfolds, as well as moments of doubt, confusion, or failure.
4) Pointed purpose, physicality: documentary works are clear about their intent. Unlike straight journalism, they are not meant to be objective or impartial. Often the author means to demonstrate, educate, perform, prove, or collect something. They might expose, reveal, or aim for a reaction—documentaries desire to make something HAPPEN. They aim for real-world or physical consequences and rely upon the material (text) of the world.
JC Can you say more about what you’re interested in exploring in your linked essays? Give a preview?
CP The essays are weird, heavy, spirally things that twist together twice-told tales, coincidences, walks, happy hours, vacancies, apparitions, art, confusions, lady thinking, bad jokes, and places I’ve recently lived. The first was recently published in The Mississippi Review and would constitute a preview.
JC What does it matter if something is documented as opposed to imagined? In other words, what’s the intrigue?
CP It’s strange, right? To be honest, I don’t think it matters. Like most forms, it’s a way of grounding oneself long enough to launch. Perhaps, quite simply, I am looking for ways to recall the physical world, to de-apparitionalize, to tether myself to material so that I don’t drift away, and to work against my normal tendencies. And yet, like other genres that have appealed to me throughout the years—punk rock, ekphrasis, lyric essay, goth—the label loses meaning once you start to see the whole world through its lens. Maybe that’s where imagination takes over?
After all, what isn’t documentary? Are Dara Wier’s “Inside Undivided” posts? Is Please Kill Me, the oral history of punk? Is The Artist Is Present? Wisconsin Death Trip? Moby Dick? My suitcase? The Internet? Isn’t “documentary” just a way of involving the world and its matter in art—a counterpoint to so much navel-gazing? The form encourages a walk, a talk, an action, a book.
JC I think you’re exactly right. It doesn’t matter what gets called documentary because everything is, in this way of speaking, but I like the idea of the documentary impulse, and here for so long I’ve been wanting to call it a genre.
I want to talk a little more specifically about the poems themselves. Often it seems like you’re writing with a swerving compression:
a shriveled spine pressed to spine near rotten
dried and new but by what process?
Many poems, “Occult Studies” for instance, make use of roving caesuras, as in:
. . . We are a scientist We say: “You are not
your body you inhabit it” No name can contain this in –visible protest
In lines like these I’m aware your speaker is working against usual structures to get beyond quotidian experience. Earlier you mentioned the “attempt to reconcile certain contemporary artistic procedures with age old questions.” How much do you think about needing or wanting to make language move differently in order to get after what you’re after? Is it sacrilegious to ask how you write the trance?
CP There is the psychic/spiritual trance and the trance of writing. Maybe they are the same? If a trance is akin to hypnosis or mesmerism or even sleep—a sort of levitation, or distancing—then writing (rarely, but at it’s very best) and reading (all the time) create this condition in my body. I like the way Sven Birkerts writes about the metaphysical transformation that occurs during the act of reading in his essay “Woman In The Garden,” and I often wonder at the ways I will “fall into” this state without meaning to or, in other instances, be completely unable to create it.
The roving caesuras are one example of making language strange: they work as puncture or punctuation—gap or gape or stop or blank—as silence, stutter, and shatter. I imagine each lull as a ghost or hole in the surface. Also they split specific measurements, creating dissonance.
Poetry is one experiment that can change the way your brain works, or it is the name for becoming a medium between the spirits of language and the physical page. But who knows? Earlier tonight I was reading the introduction to Hereward Carrington’s Your Psychic Powers And How To Develop Them (1920), and he warns: “Do not ‘introspect’ or reflect too much on your own inner, mental conditions. You must learn to live outside your head, so to speak,—in the outer world. Do not constantly wonder what is going on within your own brain. If you do, you will surely lead yourself into difficulties later on.”
Jack Christian is the author of Family System, which was awarded the 2012 Colorado Prize.