Claudia La Rocco is a poet and critic who at the same time is not a poet and critic. Her calling is to entwine these forms, leveling their useless distinctions to lay claim to another, more promising territory. Sharp eyed and nimble minded, she is one of the rare practitioners of the slippery art of presence, no matter if her attention is turned toward a stage, or a page, whatever points in between appear in order to pique her interest. Whether her subject is a contemporary dance performance or the confusions wrought by desire, her first question always seems to be “What is this?” Then she asks, “How can I see this for what it is?” One of the many things I love about her writing is how it records the particular flicker of her synapses, swerving between subjects, veering in many directions in order to find the sharpest views, no matter if fractured or fleeting. At her core, Claudia might be a passionate champion of misbehavior. She understands that thinking and creating are messy businesses, that opinions are facts of a different stripe, and that ideas rarely arrive whole or in manageable sizes. If that wasn’t enough, she is also a teacher, collaborator, and curator, propelled by a personal velocity that seems to whir at a speed that clocks somewhere between pirouette and cyclone. A collection of her work titled The Best Most Useless Dress has just been published by Paul Chan’s Badlands Unlimited, so she and I took this occasion to talk about how she writes through unknowing, how she negotiates the rights and responsibilities of form crashing, and the reasons why confusion might be the most truthful expression of all.
Jennifer Krasinski Which came first for you, poetry or criticism?
Claudia La Rocco Poetry, though when I was young my father called me “The Critic,” probably because I felt the need to comment on things there was no need to comment on. (laughter) But the idea of criticism definitely wasn’t in my head at that age. I don’t remember writing criticism until high school, when I wrote a movie review for class, and my teacher scrawled in the margins: “Have you considered a career change?” At that point I was thinking I would be a novelist (I was writing science-fiction!) and poetry was something that came in and out over the years. I was always playing with language and always, despite my ideas about being a storyteller, more interested in how language could get at our experience of time than in creating narratives and characters and the like. But it took awhile for me to settle into poetry as a sustaining creative force in my life.
JK So how did you find your way to dance criticism?
CLR After I graduated college, I was at the Associated Press covering mostly books and visual art, and one day my editor Dolores Barclay told me she needed a dance critic and asked if I would do it. I said something tentative like, “Yes, maybe in six months, after I’ve had time to learn something about it?” I didn’t know anything about dance at that point. And she said what any editor would say: “No. Baryshnikov. This Thursday.” So I reviewed Baryshnikov dancing in the work of Eliot Feld. It was embarrassing. I said a lot of silly things. But I’m so grateful she pushed me into the swimming pool like that—writing about dance has been one of the biggest gifts in my life.
JK Early on, when you “didn’t know anything about dance,” what were you paying attention to?
CLR All the wrong things. I was paying attention to myself and to my feelings of inadequacy, which as we all know makes for great criticism. (laughter) I was trying to capture everything. I would take notes on what was happening on stage, except at that point I didn’t know any dance terminology. So, for an arabesque penché for example, I would write “on one foot, leg up, tilts,” or some ridiculously inefficient and crude shorthand like that. It took me awhile to understand that dance was an art form like any other, trying to convey ideas, and that I should probably be thinking about what those are instead of thinking about myself.
JK So how did you go about educating yourself, filling in the blanks, and learning the language?
CLR I would sit in on rehearsals and interview choreographers. I watched dance films. I took beginner classes. I spent a lot of time at the Performing Arts Library and also reading Arlene Croce, Edwin Denby, C. Carr, and Jill Johnston.
JK You and I have talked a lot about the power of Johnston, lamenting to each other about how she’s one of the great American cultural critics who too few people seem to know about. I wondered, as a kind of ego ideal, what it was about her writing that changed the way you thought of criticism and the job of the critic?
CLR When I discovered Johnston, I think I was maybe resigned to the idea that criticism wasn’t cool and that it was just a day job. I had all these stupid ideas of how criticism had to behave; as a result I started to bifurcate my writing practice—criticism was my day job and poetry was something that happened after hours. Neither was very good. Reading folks like Johnston, I began to see that criticism is an art form that can move any way it wants. It’s a form that is actually perfectly positioned to be vulnerable and intimate—rather than to exist in some delusional “objective” realm or hide under some fake mantle of authority. You can fuck around as much as you like, as long as you understand that there are stakes, and that the stakes are pretty high.
JK Because criticism involves someone else’s work?
CLR I don’t feel a responsibility to anyone else when writing poetry. If I write a bad poem, I’ve written a bad poem. If I write a bad piece of criticism, there is potentially collateral damage. As much as I don’t like this idea of “the rough draft of history,” performance history relies to a degree on critics to document an experience. Cindy Carr, who’s another giant for me, said she spent something like a year going to performances in the East Village, simply teaching herself how to look. She would take copious notes, recording everything because she said she was so struck by the work; it gave her this big, big feeling, but she didn’t know why. The harder question to answer is not “Do I like this?” but “Why?” And so digging into that question becomes paramount for a responsible critic, so as to avoid ad hominem attacks and uninformed gushing and the like. Unexamined opinions are tedious, and they’re dangerous.
JK So what was the moment you either felt able—or maybe compelled or coerced—to “un-bifurcate” your writing practice, to integrate criticism and poetry? It’s terrible, but so many writers quarantine their own practices. I was at a dinner years ago, sitting next to a woman—a writer—who asked me what I did, and I told her I was a writer too. She asked me what I’d been working on, and I said that I’d just finished up a few art reviews, and she looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re an art writer,” as though I’d deceived her or something. It was so dispiriting. The irony was that I think any writer worth their salt should write in as many forms as they can. Needless to say, she and I didn’t have much else to talk about.
CLR I started to “un-bifurcate” at Arizona State University, where they have this really generous guest teaching artist residency program. I’d been going there a couple of years and one day I get an e-mail saying I had been nominated to give a lecture to the honors college during my next visit. That’s a lovely thing to read, or it should be, but I broke out in this full-body sweat because I hated giving lectures. Then I thought, Why do I hate doing this? I love giving readings, which is standing up in front of people and saying words I wrote. What is giving a lecture? It’s standing up in front of people saying words I wrote. So why did I find readings a charged, sexy, liberating, and subversive experience, and why did the idea of giving a lecture make me want to die? And I realized that it’s because I expected that a lecture had to behave in a certain way, that it had to be a narrative, start-to-finish thing that descended from a voice on high. I had all of these silly conventions clogging up my head. When I got rid of them, I felt free to muck around a bit, get lost. I ended up employing a collage structure, using rhythm and pacing and the sensual qualities of language as drivers. There was a video interlude and audience participation. The result, “Some Thoughts, Possibly Related, on Time, Criticism, and the Nature of Consciousness,” was eventually published in The Brooklyn Rail, which was a really generative journal for me in the years when I was trying to come out of the closet as a poet.
JK It sounds like you gave it the ballast of a lecture with the beating heart of a poem.
CLR I tried! I loved doing it, and the response I got from people was very encouraging. The process (never mind the results) felt really powerful and important. It gave me courage and permission to step back from my assumptions and press on.
So I have a question for you—this is a really irritating question, I’m sorry—but do you think it’s a quote-unquote good time for criticism and for writing? As opposed to the doom-and-gloom attitude of “everybody’s a critic, and there’s no money,” and this and that.
JK I think that living during the “collapse of publishing”—or at least the collapse of the structures that once upon a time allowed writers to earn a living doing their jobs—can also feel, when I’m in the right mood, like living in a moment of possibility. I look at all the independent presses and the incredible work coming from Ugly Duckling Presse or Primary Information or Badlands Unlimited, and I know that irascible texts and voices still have a home in the world. Like most writers, I’ve never made my living as a writer. I’ve always had to have other jobs, and although spreading your attention thinly over many things is exhausting, in some respects it’s also freeing. I mean, when I sit down to write fiction or criticism, what have I got to lose? The financial risk is practically negligible, so the stakes can be as high as I want them to be. That said, the politics of certain publications and a general disdain for criticism as an art form means that “the quality crit biz” here in America is—with a handful of exceptions—largely useless as literature.
CLR I think I’m in the lovely position of agreeing with everything you’re saying. There’s intensely good writing all around. Of course, there’s a lot of everything around these days, so you have to sift through to find stuff.
JK Who are some of your other influences—the people you found sifting through a lot of everything?
CLR Gosh, there are so many, and they’re changing all the time. Well, of course writers like Eileen Myles. I love her criticism and poetry, the way her politics and aesthetics mash up in both. A lot of my influences are artists and performers, actually, and they’re people I have personal relationships with. Ralph Lemon, for example, how fluidly he moves between forms and subjects while remaining deeply invested in certain themes—his work is dazzling. He remains just about my favorite artist to write about. Same with the choreographer Michelle Ellsworth, who I’m honored to be working with right now—her work is deeply generative for me. The composer and saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, who I’m also collaborating with, is a real inspiration in his dedication to his art, but also his easy way with it. The artist Patty Chang, how you feel an immediate intelligence in her work, but also something entirely mysterious and unwieldy—conversations with her always set my mind rolling in dozens of directions. And then the poet Elizabeth Robinson—when I met her a couple of summers ago, at Headlands Center for the Arts, I had that immediate feeling of: “Ah, there you are! I’ve been waiting for you.” And of course, Paul Chan; his mind, the way it moves, how generous he is in his thoughts and deeds. He’s a singular figure in my world.
JK How did you meet Paul and come to publish your book with him?
CLR A couple of years ago, he requested that I interview him. I didn’t know him, but we ended up talking for almost four hours. There was whiskey involved, and we ultimately sent the poor transcriber 40,000 words, only 6,000 of which, I think, were published in The Brooklyn Rail. Then I brought him to SVA to talk to my students a few years ago and said to him, “Doing that interview was so much fun. Could we do something else?” And he said, “La Rocco, I’ll tell you what we should do. I should publish your book.”
JK That surprises me in the best way, because I think most artists are either completely disinterested in criticism as a form, or resentful of it. Going back to Jill Johnston, she became very frustrated with artists at some point because they never responded to the craft and quality of her prose but only to her opinions. She found it dispiriting that she engaged with their work—trying to find a form that could relay the experience of, say, the Judson moment—but she felt they only cared whether she liked a piece or didn’t. Frustratingly enough, I find that to be largely true today.
CLR One of the reasons Paul doesn’t do that is because he writes, maybe? He might not agree with me on this next point, but when I read his essays, I think, “This is somebody who’s making art in language.” He talks about writing and art making as very different things, I believe, but his level of engagement with language, not just for what it can do, but for what it is, is deep. For me, it’s art. Reading him, I always feel that words don’t just exist to get him something or somewhere—they exist as material for their own sake.
JK How did you—or you and Paul—determine the form of The Best Most Useless Dress? This could have been a straightforward collection of your criticism and poetry, but it’s not.
CLR I’d published a lot of stuff, but it was all over the place. My writings were scattered, and so there were a lot of connections I wanted to make between the different types of work. How could I posit the reviews and poems and performance texts and images as not so different from one another? That’s not to say there aren’t differences. But my hope is always that it’s all unmistakably in my voice, even as that voice is shifting, and I want it to be clear that there’s a set of concerns moving across genres. When I’m writing, I’m not thinking, “I’m writing a poem, and so it’s going to do this.” The criticism I’m happiest with feels much closer to how I’ve approached poetry, and my poems feel strengthened by having spent so much time looking and trying to pay attention to performance.
JK You appropriate lines from yourself—from a piece of criticism to use in a poem, or perhaps vice-versa? Was it that you found certain lines had more breath and life in them—could spawn more thinking or a different text altogether?
CLR Yes, or I wanted to see how they would behave differently in different circumstances, and how the echoes would themselves make another set of meanings. Also, the writing I did for several of the publications—I don’t own the rights to those anymore, so there is something mischievously satisfying about, um, “borrowing” from oneself in that way.
JK Writers not owning their own writing is such a long conversation.
CLR But that’s how things go for us. Almost anytime you’re getting paid to write, you’re giving your rights away, yes? Although sometimes when you write a piece you’re not happy with, you think, Take it! You can have it! (laughter)
JK So do you see repurposing your own words as a way to take them back?
CLR It’s tongue-in-cheek, but there is some of that. “They Always Ask for Water” was the first piece I remember really just wholesale stealing from other things I had written. And as for stealing—of course, you can’t really steal from yourself. We all repeat ourselves all the time anyway.
JK Maybe texts should come in editions, like prints or photographs? We could write a paragraph that would come in an edition of three, for example: one to be used in a poem, then used again in an essay, then in a novel.
CLR Yes! Confession: “They Always Ask for Water” was also a desperation poem. The painter Garry Nichols asked me to organize a reading at a gallery in Brooklyn. I asked Cindy Carr to read from her David Wojnarowicz biography, and Ingrid Nyeboe, Jill Johnston’s widow, to read one of Jill’s pieces. And, because I am a glutton for punishment, I thought it would be okay to read alongside these heroes of mine. I was looking over all of my writing and hating it. I had no business reading next to these women—but the invitations had already been sent out. So I started pulling the darlings from poems and reviews. I did a reverse darling kill. I pulled all the stuff I thought was maybe okay, started grabbing stuff from The Brooklyn Rail and The Times. Even the title, “They Always Ask for Water,” is a line I took from my aunt, Patricia Ahearn, who’s a nurse. She once told me that when people are dying, they always ask for water—that really struck me, how beautiful and painful that is, somehow. And then I was pulling from found language in conversations, e-mails—anything I could get my grubby little hands on. I mashed it all together in a panic, and that’s how that piece came about.
JK One of the things Elizabeth Robinson mentions in her beautiful introduction to your book—and it’s something that struck me too—is how your writing enacts a kind of seduction. I wonder whom you’re trying to seduce and what you want from them?
CLR I think I’m probably trying to seduce everybody, but usually when I’m writing it’s for one person. With poetry, certainly there is a person who exists, who is on my mind. A lot of those pieces are for somebody, to somebody, after somebody. With criticism, I’m also writing for one person. When I write for Artforum, for example, I’m writing for my editor David Velasco, to have a conversation with him.
JK But if the intention is to seduce, is it to make people read? Or is it the seduction of another kind of attention?
CLR I once sent a couple of my poems to Linda Francis, a visual artist and a beautiful writer, also, who has a pretty heavy influence on my work. And she said something like, “Your writing is at its best when you’re falling into or out of love with someone.”
JK Writing that happens in that moment of ascension, or fall, always has a different gravity, I find.
CLR In a way that might be a little creepy or loathsome. I’m actually writing to the person and thinking, “Hey! Hey! Look at this. Check this out. Look at this underwear I put on for you,” or, “I’m paying attention to you and now I want you to pay attention to me.” Can I ask you the same question? Do you think about seduction, because I think there’s such a sexiness to your writing. It’s one of the things I love about it.
JK I don’t explicitly think about seduction, though there is quite a lot of role playing that goes on when I’m writing—sometimes stowing myself inside the text so it feels like a costume, and maybe then like a kind of come-on. Not to be boring, but I rarely have ideas of what or who I want before I start writing. Notes, images, half-thoughts, hunches, voices, spaces—yes—but never fully formed theses or narratives or readers. It’s only by putting words on the page that I can find my own mind and determine its targets, such as they are.
Since this is an interview, I want to read something you wrote in the poem “Just go for it, go for it”: “You can’t always trust the people you interview—I mean you never should.” Despite the obvious irony regarding our conversation here, I thought it was a beautiful way of talking about what we say, what we mean, and how we dissemble when we hold ourselves up to a listener/reader/audience. I wonder how you think about the negotiation of articulation and silence, of holding back or revealing, because these ideas come up throughout the book in different ways.
CLR I always push back against the idea that one needs to be reliable, that one needs to be trustworthy. You see these things more in certain forms of writing. I wish I saw it more in criticism. Joan Didion was important to me as a writer, early on, because she never lets you land. The women in her works can’t trust themselves, and you certainly can’t trust them.
JK In your writing, you often stop yourself in the middle of a sentence to rewrite the thought. You’re not afraid to careen, to quickly take us somewhere else. You’re not disingenuous, but you’re creating these spaces where we can know what we can know only when we can know it.
CLR I don’t like the idea of “One True History” or of a writer trying to get something down for posterity. When I write something that pulls the carpet out from under people, it isn’t intended to be aggressive or nasty.
JK You also pull the carpet out from under yourself, at least as a kind of performance. You unbalance yourself along with the reader.
CLR There’s the choreographer Michelle Ellsworth, who I mentioned earlier. Her current project contains, among many other things, this really layered and delicate research involving Greek mythology and modern surveillance in a way that is intensely informed yet non-didactic. One of the things I love about what she’s doing is that it doesn’t ever feel reliable. It’s so slippery. “Slippery” is a word I like, and an experience I like, too. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red—as a reader, you can’t trust it. And why is trust a priority? Writing is not about trusting in a straightforward way, it’s about being held in something, which is a form of trust that I believe in much more than needing to feel someone is being “truthful” with me. What does art give us, if not the opportunity, as makers and receivers, to say, “Okay, I’m along for the ride. I don’t know where this is gonna go, but … ” The only answer you can give, the only way to be honest, is to say “I don’t know.”