I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“Poetry is contested space, and the battles about what is allowed to go in and stay out are important.”
The title of Eleni Sikelianos’s latest collection of poetry, Make Yourself Happy, is a timely imperative for the new Dark Ages in which we find ourselves. Haunted by the 20th century’s dismal record of global species extinction and an uncertain world-historical future ahead, this book uncovers new forms of resistance to apathy and despair through a return to the etymological root of “poet” as “maker.” Whether Sikelianos is writing about making a paper globe, making a family, making a statement, or making yourself, she surveys the field of human endeavors to find new prospects for care amid precarious political contexts. Even her prosody shows us a way to live in contradiction:
…when it says yes
and when it says no make
is how to live.
In many ways, Make Yourself Happy also continues this Greek-American poet’s investigation into the Hellenic roots of our modern predicament. If we can trace Western notions of “happiness” and “the good” to an Aristotelian tradition of moral reasoning, Sikelianos’s book offers a kind of anarchic Nicomachean Ethics for the next generation. “This book,” Rae Armantrout writes, “is your invitation to the post-human pool party of the future.”
Srikanth Reddy Midway through Make Yourself Happy, I was surprised to find the materials for assembling a “DIY” paper globe. I haven’t yet worked up the nerve to cut the little origami projection maps out of the book myself—it would feel like literary vandalism—but I wanted to begin our conversation by asking you about this frankly astonishing gesture. Do you want, or expect, people to take scissors to your book and make a little world out of it in all seriousness?
Eleni Sikelianos Yes, I do want people to take scissors to the book! I imagine that only some will, which is probably also what I want. I’m curious about who, or maybe how many, are willing to engage with that directive. The conception of the cutout globes came about even before the poems did, in a half-dream state, with the idea that the poems would have to be destroyed in a full “reading” of the book. Literary vandalism is a good term, because part of what I was thinking about was the way we’re vandalizing species and environments. I wanted to make a work that allowed us to more tactilely experience that ravaging.
As you know, the section is called “How to Assemble the Animal Globe,” but we have to disassemble the book to assemble it. One of the things I was thinking about in writing this book is how writing poems—and maybe culture-making in general—has become a preservationist act. It feels very different from those outrider poets, 20th century and beyond, who needed to tear things down. Not that that’s not still necessary, but now we are also trying to save what we can. Lamentation and preservation are deep 21st-century needs. Poems have been and will be one of the most powerful ways for us to experience certain animals. Blake’s tyger burns in animal orangery in our minds. But it will be different to read that poem if there are no tigers left on the planet. (I say “if” to keep hope.)
Poetry happens in the mind but also in the body. The eyes have to move across the page, on the simplest, sighted level. They translate silence into sound, which of course has its own potent effect. What other ways can we involve the body in the poem? The more open the field of the page to the world, the more the reader’s body might engage. Poems have all kinds of dimensionality. They’re the original hypertexts, and “hyper” takes on various world-forms.
SR In a sense, this sort of literary world-making—as it’s worked out in the assembly of your paper globes—entails a collateral unmaking, or destruction, of the book as object, text, or commodity. It makes me think about the book’s final section, “Oracle, or Utopia,” where you project your speaker into a political dimension involving our speculative futures. That closing sequence feels like science fiction—and I mean that in the best possible way. How did you come to engage yourself in that work?
ES A few different things inspired that last section. Perhaps the most potent was a visit to Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona. It’s a huge glass vivarium, basically, in the middle of the desert, with a “technosphere” below ground to supply all the energy. The aim was to create a materially closed ecological system that replicated the major biomes on earth. There’s a mini rainforest, a tiny tidal ocean with a coral reef, a mangrove wetland, and so on. The idea was to study how earth’s systems could be recreated for future use in, say, space colonization. Initially, they locked some “biospherians” up to see if they could survive inside for a couple of years. The whole thing was a colossal failure in many ways: 19 of the 25 vertebrate species introduced went extinct, most of the pollinators died off (including the Sapphire-spangled emerald hummingbird, chosen specifically for its beak length and shape to pollinate the kinds of flowers in the sphere, and for the fact that its mating display didn’t involve big swoops—most hummingbird species would have smacked right into the glass ceiling and broken their necks). On the other hand, a fair amount was learned (about carbon exchange, for example). There were some scandals along the way, as humans closed up in small spaces together tend to get up to hijinks. One of the hardest things to manage in these closed system experiments is the ethnosphere.
In a terrifying twist of history, it has recently come to light that Steve Bannon was involved in managing Biosphere 2. Although it wasn’t the only inspiration for this section, I might have written a very different poem had I known that or who Bannon was five years ago. He was already preparing for environmental destruction, thinking about where he and his rich friends could go. His involvement underlines what we already know: worlds will not go well when this guy is in charge.
When writing that section, I was trying to understand the notion of autopoiesis (describing an entity capable of creating and maintaining itself), and thinking about resources in circular systems, like our own—both running out, and the waste products. Two of the salient problems for our current and future ecological systems are resources and waste management. What if happiness itself is a resource with waste products?
SR On the subject of genre, the book’s title—Make Yourself Happy—invokes this much-reviled “sub-literary” commercial genre, not without irony, but it also allows you to think through the relations between autopoiesis (“make yourself”) and something like Aristotle’s philosophical sense of “the good” (i.e., happiness). Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is, in many ways, a self-help poem—or a poem that shares your concern with the care of the self—but it’s also an irreverent critique of the genre formations within the dominant literary culture of Whitman’s time. How does this complex of concerns—self-help, autopoiesis, happiness—come together now, in retrospect, for you as a writer now that you’ve finished the book?
ES What do we mean by self-help? I don’t know, but I do know that poetry helps me all the time, to remember and question what being human is, to feel the articulations of where it might be in space, in relation to other living and nonliving things, to the political, the whole proprioceptive range. The poetry that most draws me tends to allow me to feel what’s at stake, which is both pleasure and pain.
We resist the self-help genre because it often ignores complexities of the world-problem. If you’re helping yourself, what happens to the Other? I spent many years vehemently rejecting the notion of poetry as therapy. And I still do, because above all, it’s an art. But, at its most potent, it also does make things happen—it changes the writer and the reader.
I am definitely for claiming poetry as a space that does things. I am for claiming poetry as a space for most things we think it shouldn’t or doesn’t do. Poetry is contested space, and the battles about what is allowed to go in and stay out are important. For example, there’s been an anti-didactic sentiment in the so-called experimental American poetry community for a while, and I understand where it’s coming from. Maybe at our most generous we could say it’s coming from an anti-hegemonic stance. It seems cousin to the ban on epiphany, which might be linked to the late 20th-century obsession with the materiality of the poem, of which we still feel the remnants. I am for that, but I am also for allowing things to appear out of the nonmaterial world.
One of the forces behind the poems in the first section was a desire to reclaim the pleasure of the poem, the hedonistic experience of sound and light and movement as they rush through language, in that sensorial buoyancy that, for me, is singular to poetry. To celebrate and to sing. (Whitman and I share a birthday, by the way!) We are living in an era when we have to reflect a lot of darkness, when the poem needs to work through a lot of calamity. Anne Waldman has recently referred to Agamben’s notion of looking into the darkness of our times, using darkness as a generative rather than a privative space. That’s important. But I wanted to rekindle that space of joy in the poem, for myself. But then of course Hedon gatecrashes and smashes up Eden.
Poetry is an original anti-growth movement, plowing back into itself, surviving “in the valley of its making,” to quote Auden. It is an original autopoeitic art form.
If poetry isn’t allowed to be self-help, how will it survive?
SR I’m beginning to see how you “leverage” genre—science fiction, self-help, and so on—to expand our sense of the various categories we live in and through. If unhappy people read self-help books to live more pleasurable lives, your remark about pleasure and pain makes us reimagine what self-help, or autopoietic care of the self, can do—namely, aid us in the apprehension not only of pleasure, but of pain, too. There’s so much exuberance to your prosody throughout the book, but we also find strangled, tortured forms of utterance, too: “spine lost its e might lost it y for lost its m at the nd of tim / spin th carousl round // again.” Can you say something about form and pain, or negative forms of affect, in this work?
ES The bit you quote from was very specifically inspired by an example cognitive scientist/linguist Steven Pinker gives in which we can still make out the meaning of a sentence even without the vowels. (He writes, “Thanks to the redundancy of language, yxx cxn xndxrstxnd whxt x xm wrxtxng xvxn xf x rxplxcx xll thx vxwxls wxth xn “x” (t gts lttl hrdr f y dn’t vn kn whr th vwls r).” His point is about redundancy in the English language—that we don’t need all that stuff to understand what’s going on. Written Arabic is an abjad—it operates without vowels. So I wanted to try it out in English, and what I felt was not condensation but loss. That is the affective part of language that linguistic theories seem to have a harder time touching.
How much can we still mean when we’re missing vital elements of the biosphere? In the most horrible thought experiment, you could say that all this “extra” stuff on earth is redundant, too. Some people do seem to think that way. So, we could mine out all the e’s and destroy all the pink river dolphins, and still make sense of the sentence and the world. While I find the recombinant possibilities of language (and genes) beautiful and moving (“for lost its m”), in this instance, I was thinking about the profound shift in meaning this loss represents. I love Gertrude Stein’s “The sister was not a mister. Was this a surprise. It was.” I love it for the way it speaks not only about gender but also about the small shifts in vocalization that change everything.
I’ve always loved fucking with grammar, how it changes the feeling of language, and I love it when other poets do it effectively. (A Bernadette Mayer line I swiped for the book: “And language the false start to love is”: that phrasing bodily enacts meaning.) Yopie Prins’s book Victorian Sappho alerted me to the term anacoluthon—when a phrase changes or jumbles syntax mid-route, and it could also be extended to shifts in meter or letters.
When we think about animals that have gone or will go extinct, many of us tend to think visually, but there are also the languages, songs, and all the little sounds each creature makes as it moves through trees or grasses or over sand. When we lose them, there’ll be a shift in our audioscape. Very moving to me is the sound of the baiji, or Chinese river dolphin, last sighted in 2007.
The sound is high-pitched, like someone rubbing a window with a dry cloth, and can sound pleading or vulnerable. But we are losing species’ sounds even when we haven’t yet lost the species itself. Hawaiian crows (‘alalā in Hawaiian, meaning “cry like a child”) were on the brink of extinction but were brought back in a captive breeding program. Because the ‘alalā no longer exists in the wild, its vocalizations (some of the most varied of the corvids) have changed. In captivity it has lost its predator warning, the alarm it sounded in response to the Hawaiian hawk.
some crows lost their caw
their predator warning
(their predators were gone)
we lost some vowels
down in the bowels, the organ-chambers where meaning
rounds itself toward night, a light
So, these are the things that forced the vowels out of that part of the book.
I also wondered about the loss of names for animals when one culture takes over another. That didn’t have as much play in the book, but it intrigued me that in the Norman conquest, say, we lost quite a few words for body parts, including words for face—which comes from the Latin root facia, also meaning form.
SR ”Art is a revolt,” André Malraux once said, “a protest against extinction.” Your remarks about loss—of biodiversity, of animal languages, of vocalic depth in human utterance—make me think of your book as a kind of literary protestation, but also as a meditation on “revolt,” both personal revulsion and political revolution. When the politics of revulsion governs collective life (not only in the US but in countries like Greece and elsewhere) and when personal revolution—”make yourself happy”—feels increasingly suspect or unsustainable as an enterprise today, what’s a body to do? Your poetry makes me feel the force of the problem. The imperative title of Make Yourself Happy invites us to rethink our relationship to utopianism, the Anthropocene, and the politics of affect. What do you anticipate, in your own writing, or in the work of other artists, by way of response to these problems in the years to come?
ES It’s critical for artists to keep confronting the many excruciating situations we face—to protest, revolt, shout. But it’s also important to remember transport, humor, and beauty. If we lose sight of those things, we’ve lost sight of art, that mark on the cave wall that makes gorgeous fanfare of our better nature. I think it might be more important than ever to remember to inscribe dreams and joy.
Speaking to Greece specifically, the dire situation there has made folks more attentive to poetry and art again, a focus they’d lost when they were riding the wave of European capital. So that’s something to remember. We need poetry and art more than ever when times are dark.
I’ve been working on a poem that revels in all the work other animals did for us, phylogenetically speaking. Jellyfish were the first to invent eyes, for example. Refuge comes to mind as a way to describe the poem, in this case refuge from the Anthropocene, by honoring all the creatures who did the long, hard work of evolution before us and whose efforts we benefitted from.
I’ve also been thinking about the poem as potential refuge from search engines, surveillance, fact checking, and marketing data. Affect, dream, memory, as carried in a body—all these things dear to many poets, and which are thus fairly impenetrable to targeted surveillance—are sites of resistance. The more they get crowded out of daily life, the more precious they might become to us.
Srikanth Reddy is the author of two books of poetry—Facts for Visitors and Voyager (both published by the University of California Press)—as well as a critical study, Changing Subjects: Digressions in Modern American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2012). He has written on contemporary poetry for various publications, including The New York Times, The New Republic, and Lana Turner. The recipient of fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Creative Capital Foundation, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Reddy is an Associate Professor in English at the University of Chicago.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee