I don’t know if Andrea Abi-Karam remembers meeting me, but I remember meeting them. It was four or five years ago in a faded blue punk house off Market Street in North Oakland, and I found myself working hard not to stare. We didn’t actually start hanging out until earlier this year, a few months before they moved from the Bay to Brooklyn to become the publicist for Nightboat Books, but I continue to feel that same attraction: this is a person I should be watching. It’s interesting that an artist whose work often touches on state surveillance has this effect on people. A magnetic performer and fiercely ambitious poet, the self-identified “Arab-American genderqueer punk poet-performer cyborg” published The Aftermath (Commune Editions) in 2016 and has two new books on the horizon, both of which were selected through contests held by small poetry presses. I interviewed them about their latest work, EXTRATRANSMISSION (Kelsey Street Press), a poetic critique of nationalism, patriarchy, and gender embedded in an explosive and unapologetic trauma narrative.
Davey DavisReading EXTRATRANSMISSION gave me this sense of urgency and claustrophobia, a feeling of being totally trapped, not just inside the body, but in all these different systems. I kept thinking that this text is about complete freedom and also about complete capture. Is this something you were thinking about while writing it?
Andrea Abi-Karam It’s amazing that you picked up on that tension because originally when I was conceptualizing the book project, I took more of a wide-angle lens. I thought, I’m going to write about global capitalism; I’m going to write about large cities in general and how they physically get developed. I threw that draft away because it wasn’t personal enough. It was too large and wide and I wasn’t implicating myself in it. I was having a hard time developing a strong sense of intimacy between the “I” and the reader, or the multiple “I’s.” I was sick of formalism and sick of academics writing books of poetry that only fifty people in the world can fully understand. I just started writing these kill bro vengeance poems. I think vengeance is a form of poetry that isn’t done enough and I encourage everyone to engage with vengeance poetics.
DD Is there an actual tradition of vengeance poetics that you’re drawing from?
AAK People do it but it’s not an accepted tradition or something you get taught in school. You get taught Language poetry, you get taught New Narrative, you get taught free verse, you get taught sonnets, you get taught triptychs, all these pretty standard forms.
DD Do you teach vengeance poetry?
AAKI taught a class on vengeance poetics at Barnard during the summer. It was actually incredible because it was a class of high school students and teenagers are just much more in touch with their feelings than programmed adults. They were really into it and the stuff they produced was incredible. I presented a timeline that I call “the Poetics of Terror” that started with Homer/Sappho and traced different aesthetic moments in poetry that were contextualized by their social-political moment. It was really special.
DDGoing back to the idea of implicating yourself in your poetry, the idea of vengeance poetry comes through in EXTRATRANSMISSION loud and clear with repeated invocations of “kill bro/kill cop.” It expresses this concerted, violent instinct against others, but there are also moments of recognition for the policing force that exists within yourself. What do you do to kill the bro in your own head? I ask because I appreciated the honesty and acknowledgment of socialization and normalization, that even if you’re queer or a dyke or genderqueer, you still have this script of objectifying other people and whole classes of people, because that’s what’s normalized.
AAK I think it’s something that I have thought more about since taking hormones and getting top surgery. I definitely don’t pass—also not the goal—but navigating that definitely feels more important and these days, I’m more conscientious of my actions and my actions in language. Part of being trans, being an ever-shifting subjectivity, is having an awareness of one’s changing positionality in the power relations of what David Wojanarowicz calls the “pre-invented world.”
Just because people have various constellations of structurally oppressed identities, doesn’t blanket excuse them from problematic relational behavior. The acknowledgement in the book is intended as an ongoing reminder to kill the bro in your own head.
DDA fundamental theme of EXTRATRANSMISSION is the cyborg, and it got me thinking about the history of monstrous robotics in literature (Mary Shelley, Ambrose Bierce); about the difference between mechanical and digital AI; the differences between guns, drones, IEDs, tanks, fists. Do you distinguish between the mechanical and the digital as organizing principles?
AAK EXTRATRANSMISSION is navigating these two forms, these two different types of cyborgs, simultaneously. One of the characters is an Iraq War veteran who has PTSD and no memory of family members or events. She uses a PDA or an iPhone or a computer as her external brain. She looks at photos before seeing family members to make sure she remembers their names. That character is responding to the tools of violence in war—explosions, improvised explosive devices, and so on. These are things that cause brain damage specifically. The military makes a type of weapon, and each war has a different signature weapon, and so each war also has a different signature injury that most people come away with when injured. With the war in Iraq (and the War on Terror in general), people come away with brain injuries, invisible injuries. The soldiers who survive come home and need to be cared for, and so the medical industrial complex responds, and in this case it responds by encouraging people to become cyborgs because they can’t function with what’s left of their body. So there’s all this stuff in the book about still having to navigate the same world with certain losses.
The theoretical underpinnings of the work are inspired by Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times by Jasbir Puar and Significant Injury: War, Medicine, and Empire in Claudia’s Case by Jennifer Terry. They both untangle the biopolitics underlying the War on Terror, the queer brown other, signature injuries, and how the US military industrial complex and medical industrial complex work synchronously to generate the cycle of: fight, become injured, undergo medical/technological adaptation, re-enter the workforce. I became obsessed with the subject of Terry’s piece, carrying her around in my waking moments. Each “I” arises out of a tension with a power structure—the female veteran with the signature injury (military-industrial complex), the trans punk against the bros (patriarchy), the cyborg (medical-industrial complex), the horse (Veteran Affairs non-profit), the fawn (wide angle lens out to global capitalism and all of its unrestrained tensions). And, of course, things overlap; the entanglements stretch across this web of power. Polyvocality is blurry and slippery when the “I’s” are in conversation with each other.
DD It’s kind of like the Argo metaphor. At what point of subtraction from the original do you stop being what you were originally? At what point are you a new person?
DDAnd the same could be said about being alive and just having experiences. But the cyborg image takes that metaphor and makes it extremely real. Bits and pieces of your actual body. Accepting some moments, rejecting others.
AAK There’s struggle when one pulls the wires out. It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. The section in the book called “Fusion” depicts the cyborg’s conflicted desires to plug in, connect, and also reject the adaptation and remove the wires from within. The processes of overcoming trauma and adapting to new forms of the self involves body horror.
DD Like resisting the changes within your body.
AAK Yes. At the same time, beneath the text is my “I.” I was (am always) transitioning when I was writing this book. I switched my pronouns while I was writing this book, and so actually now when I perform it and I use the “she” pronouns in it, it’s this weird dissonance that’s actually very intense to perform. My own transness has arrived out of a reliance on the medical-industrial complex, surgery, hormones, metal on skin, just as the veteran’s functioning relies on the medical-industrial complex to give her a Personal Data Assistant in order to navigate relationships and logistics. Part of the critique and struggle around accepting technology as an adaptation also comes from living in the Bay Area and seeing the rapid gentrification and displacement effects of Silicon Valley on the long-term residents.
DD I’m also looking at EXTRATRANSMISSION in the context of the constant sexual assault reportage. The rape culture discourse is such that no sexual assault is real or believable and everyone keeps getting re-traumatized by having to revisit it in this search for recognition or legitimacy. These poems are just as erotic as they are violent. The phrase “eroticized” or “erotic resistance” keeps coming up for me. An erotics of resistance.
AAKI intended for the transformation of the cyborg characters to feel like a kind of erotic experience. But it’s also very literally violent and uncomfortable. I had a conversation with the dancer & performance artist Gesel Mason earlier this summer about gesture. I want to work more in the performance side of bringing my poetry to the stage, but I don’t want to overburden it with too many actions. She said this thing that really stuck out to me. She was describing a performance she did and said she was crawling on the floor because that’s what her body needed to do and that was the only thing that made sense for the work. The gesture becomes a necessity.
It’s returning to the need to implicate myself in the text or make it work. The text isn’t about me, but it is. And there are four or five “I’s.” This text is very polyvocal. Everyone contains multitudes, especially textual subjectivities. This polyvocality is an attempt to move the text beyond singularity, toward an expansive collective experience. Each of the “I’s” occupies a different formal register at its formation and they also blur into each other, much like Fred Moten’s idea of “consent not to be a single being.” I was faced with the question of, How do I write about the violence of global capitalism, it’s hugeness, in a way that leaves an emotional impact on the reader? I was coming up with the problem of scale and emotional flatness. When you hear about the death of one person, it’s tragedy; when you hear war death counts in the thousands, hundreds of thousands, the largeness of those numbers eclipses what that fully means. The book asserts a collection of slippery “I’s” as a way to translate the scale of violence into intimate narratives.
DD Why is it important that you implicate yourself?
AAK It’s important that I implicate myself in it; otherwise, what’s the point of writing if you don’t have a stake in it? Why bring it into the world? I see books as book projects because I’m not a lyric poet. I’m not working on a collection of poems; I work on projects. These projects try to tackle large political issues and bring themselves in conversation with other literature and art tackling the same issues. I have to be implicated in it because it’s necessary for the emotional register to work.