Real Worlds and Dream Worlds: Amy Fusselman by Matvei Yankelevich

The writer on the space between poetry and prose, how fighting is like dancing, and the resonant symbolism of the idiophone.

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Photo Credit: Frank Snider

I met Amy Fusselman so long ago, we were very nearly different people. Yelena Gluzman and I were publishing (and writing much of) the Emergency Gazette, a broadsheet of “theater matters” we distributed freely to venues, cafes, and bookstores, mostly in the East Village and Lower East Side. Amy found a copy at St. Marks Bookshop (now history), and sent a postcard to the editors (“the Bros. Lumière”) about writing for us. We met for coffee. She seemed up for anything, and we were those kids trying to make something happen. Amy ended up on stage in a performance or two of Yelena’s making. She published a piece of mine in her blog (novelty!) “Surgery of Modern Warfare.” Collaboration was in the air, lots of walking-talking, accidental meetings, plays — sometimes we seemed the only ones in the audience. It was fin de siècle New York. The Gazette folded, the tiny theaters closed. A new city settled in around us. Amy went on to write about her visit to Yelena’s place in Tokyo in her book, Savage Park. We hang out once every month or two — everyone’s so busy! — at Le Pain Quotidien near Amy’s home in Chelsea, where our ever-branching conversations must seem strange fancies on the wing. We recently met to gab about the space resonating between prose and poetry on the occasion of her latest book, Idiophone (Coffee House Press), a meditation on art-making, addiction, artifice, artifacts, and moms.

Matvei Yankelevich There’s not as much sex in Idiophone as there is in Savage Park.

Amy Fusselman There’s less sex and more fighting.

MY There’s a lot of mom, which there’s some of in Savage Park, but it’s mostly yourself as mom. In here, it’s the rabbit-punching mom.

AF You have to get the mom out of the way to have sex.

MY I was curious about the way that you are working—and you talk about this explicitly in Idiophone—in genre. How it’s not essay, it’s not a short story, it’s not fiction, or poetry. Though Savage Park has longer argumentative passages that are essay-like, I already sensed a more aphoristic structure. Both books bring to mind Victor Shklovsky — the way he writes both memoir and criticism at the same time, and how he leaves a lot of gaps. You use a lot of parataxis — putting this next to that and then moving on. You write about The Nutcracker, and that ballet moves from A to B and then from B to C, not really returning, and none of those leaps really make sense.

AF Yes, my obsession with The Nutcracker wasn’t just about the spectacle of it, but also the narrative and its structure, which is so fantastic. And I love how people take it and twist it for their own ends and have their own perspective. I feel like it’s very matriarchal in a way.


MY What’s the matriarchal aspect of The Nutcracker?

AF In the sense that it’s mother-like—my experience of being a mother, certainly, is that you are used, you’re used to every end possible. And we do that with The Nutcracker—making every iteration of it possible, production-wise—and it’s a fantastic relationship.

MY There’s not much of the Christian tale or the birth of Jesus going on in The Nutcracker. It’s just all about dream worlds.

AF It’s the Christmas party—it’s the ritual, it’s the family, and it’s the heroine and her relationship to the horrible. I think that’s also why it struck me, in that she is a very powerful heroine. The climax of the narrative is really in the battle. The little girl finds herself in this scary and violent landscape and part of her just wants to cower on the bed and hide but she manages to pull herself together and throw her ballet slipper at the Mouse King, and in doing that, she enables the victory. She shows tremendous courage.

MY It’s her courage in this dream world, and her embrace of the dream world.

AF And her fear of the dream world.

MY Where is the fear?

AF Well, she’s transported to this world in which the mice become the same size as her and her beloved nutcracker also becomes the same size as her. The good and the bad—she’s dealing with them equally. And she’s terrified. This battle has emerged out to nowhere, and she’s in it, and she has no choice about that. I could relate to that with my own story about my mother.

MY Idiophone constantly moves back and forth between the battles of The Nutcracker, and the battles of daily life. And then there are dream battles—an altercation in a bar where your mother hits somebody over the head with a beer bottle, and then they run away, and then they get into a car accident. Then there’s the boxing class.

AF I love the interplay between boxing and dance and the idea of boxing as a type of dance, and fighting as a type of dance, especially when you’ve been through a fight a million billion zillion times, as sometimes one is wont to do with a family member.

MY You quote Annie-B Parson from an interview you did with her. She talks about the denigration of dance in theater, and her project of bringing dance back into theater as a kind of language.

AF Her view of herself as a keeper of the flame of dance, and of dance’s history as an unloved, female-associated art form is very moving to me.

MY You write about writing as a struggle that is bodily, and you write about your hands typing, and the piano keyboard, and I was thinking about how in Savage Park the body at play is really important, too, so is the risk of hurting yourself in play that is unrestricted, and in environments that are unrestricted. You also wrote about struggle to get over your own fears and rules in allowing yourself to play.

AF Right—Savage Park is about play, but Idiophone actually plays.

MY There’s no struggle with rules.

AF There’s just rule breaking.

MY There’s a lot of rule breaking.

AF I think part of it, too, with Savage Park, is that I was trying to pay homage to this space that was inspiring to me, but not wanting to write something that was really journalistic, or still wanting it to be impressionistic. With Idiophone, yes, The Nutcracker is a point of departure, but it’s not like I’m painstakingly trying to describe something.

MY To me it doesn’t feel like a book about The Nutcracker.

AF I take that as a compliment.

MY Can you talk about the title? What is an idiophone?

AF The idiophone that appears in the book is this particular object at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a 14-foot high slit gong that is carved from the trunk of a single breadfruit tree and it comes from an island in Vanuatu in the South Pacific. It’s one of my favorite things in the Met. It has prime real estate in the Melanesia gallery, it has a lot of space around it, it’s magnificent. It looks like a figure with a head that has these painted, radiating eyes, and it’s used as a percussive instrument to be beaten on, as both a celebratory ritual activity, and a mode of communication. It’s the quintessential vibrating object.

MY You talk about the slit in the idiophone as a kind of mouth that speaks for the ancestors. Of course, it’s carved like The Nutcracker, which incidentally also has a mouth though it’s for the cracking of the nut—which ties in to the “ball-busting” that reoccurs in the book. It seems to me you titled it Idiophone to refer to the way the book itself is a kind of resonating structure. It is a resonator. Things come back. I said earlier that they go from A to B and B to C, but it’s more like The Nutcracker’s music — themes reoccur, motifs or notes are struck again and again in a kind of looping. The book moves between real worlds and dream worlds very quickly, while the structure suggests a sort of textual body that is vibrating or resonating.

AF Yes, definitely. When I talk about the form, those staccato lines and that rhythm—that’s it. The piece is very rhythmic and that was part of the pleasure of creating it.

MY It’s kind of like you’re beating this thing over and over—

AF Yes. Which is also, of course, very sexual. (laughs).

MY That actually gets at my first question, which is about the movement even further toward aphorism and paratactic structures; the movement from the previous book to Idiophone helps define the why of this particular mode of writing. Do you think you’re going to continue in this vein? Or is it something specific to Idiophone?

AF I can’t imagine that I would repeat this structure for another piece. It feels very much like its own thing. But it’s also perfect for what it is. I hope that the book itself, which is very incantatory, acts as an idiophone in the sense that it acts like music. I hope it alters a readers’ consciousness the same way music does. The book is very slippery with what’s real, and it’s landing at a time when I think we are deciding what’s real and what’s worth fighting for, and I hope the book resonates with and contributes to that good fight.

Special thanks to Sarah Lawson for the transcription.

Matvei Yankelevich’s books include Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt (Black Square), Alpha Donut (United Artists), and Boris by the Sea (Octopus). His translations include Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook), and (with Eugene Ostashevsky) Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets), which received a National Translation Award. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is one of the founding collective members of Ugly Duckling Presse, and teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.

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