The Energy Between Words: Emmalea Russo Interviewed by Ariel Yelen

The poet on the physicality of language, making a process to mess it up, and curiosity as optimism.

G Cover Small

Emmalea Russo’s G (Futurepoem) is a book about construction and destruction—a garden and a relationship zoom in and out of focus while language is moved around and often out of the way completely. In G, Russo attempts to rectify diverse intuitions of the self and she doesn’t let any part of the self off the hook, be it illness, a lover, or a weed growing in the garden. In one way, the letter G is treated as a physical being, in another, G has a kind of spiritual essence that transcends the physical. Each letter and its placement on the page affects the body, makes us stop and hold the book out in front of us as though it were a painting. An X alone at the very bottom of a page can make our stomachs drop. Russo’s influences are similarly expansive, ranging from Carol Bove to panpsychism. Like the I Ching, which is referenced throughout the book, G can be entered at any point. Unlike the I Ching, G is split right down the middle, with small blocks of text on the verso side, prose blocks on the recto, culminating in an essay at the end. Lest we get solely wrapped up in a profound sense of mysticism, it’s important to remember to enjoy the humor which, though quiet, emanates throughout.

—Ariel Yelen


Ariel YelenThe writing in G feels to me like it takes place in a trance or fever-state. It’s as if a current of electricity is flowing through everything, sometimes short circuiting, but never stopping completely. The letter G is constantly changing, and it carries suspense from page to page. I’m curious about that electrical current. What did the process look like?

Emmalea Russo It was a long, strange process. I started in 2012 and the form was very different. I wanted to write about making a garden, being in a relationship, and the creation and destruction that comes with those endeavors. The relationship in G is the electrical current that moves the text while the books and art I was thinking about at the time—Carol Bove, Alfred North Whitehead, Kundalini yoga, panpsychism—also come into the work. I wanted to transmit energy and the words were almost getting in the way.

I was really irritable for a few days and I woke up one morning and thought, Holy shit, I know what I need to do with G! At a coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, I went through and translated or re-interpreted everything I had written. That eventually became the prose on the recto side. I sat with that for a few years.

Then, in another feverish state, this time at the beach, I went back and did a third translation, and that became the essay at the back of the book.

AY Wow. So the left and the right side are different translations of the same thing, running alongside each other?

ER Yes, kind of. The text felt impenetrable, and I knew I wasn’t done. It had been years since I’d made those text blocks. I didn’t necessarily remember what the underpainting or underpoem was, so I was looking at them in a new way. It was an intuitive translation or interpretation, as if I was the speaker in a different state of mind, or the speaker outside of herself, or even the environment thinking about the speaker and G.

AY That’s incredible.

ER I thought, Oh wow! That’s what needed to happen. Now I’m not mad anymore.  

Unnamed

Photo by John Russo. 

AY Your handling of the letter G and other letters is so expansive. In one way, G is a physical being in the world, and so the letter is a way to explore the materiality or physicality of language. In another way, G as a letter and a being in the world has a kind of spiritual essence that transcends the physical.

ER Totally. I started to use G as a stand-in or composite for the lover, the garden, the ground, and then it seeped into other letters. I’m always resistant to writing, partly because I want to be using my body, and I’m very restless. Like most people, I’m trying to reconcile the mental and the physical. When I started to think about language as a physical thing, it became easier.

I began by thinking about G as both ground and figure. Especially in romantic relationships, it can be difficult to really see the other person and the other merges with the surroundings and then everything is a mirror. It’s this idea of recognizing that the other person is you.

AY You write:

Things slant the way things slant when a person becomes a person’s ground

No one’s put it like that.

ER (laughter) I’m just mystifying codependency! The speaker is using language as a life raft, as something to orient her. But she’s also interested in hanging out in the conflation of self and other.

What are the energetics of what we think we’re saying? I wanted to be in that eerie moment where the self drops away and you’re not sure if it’s good or bad, but it’s definitely confusing. I wanted to press pause on that and let G exist in that space.

AY Yes, G definitely exists in that paused and almost hyper-zoomed in space. But also, there’s movement, change. A garden is being cultivated; things are manifesting. I wanted to ask about this change that occurs and particularly how at the center of the book there is a kind of urgency toward not just finishing a cycle, finishing a garden, but also healing.

ER I think that’s probably true. It’s a trippy coming-of-age alphabet book. The speaker thinks, Yes, I want to heal, but this thing that’s happening to me is interesting, and maybe this person can heal me or maybe if I stop using language I’ll be healed. It’s optimistic.

AY What about it is optimistic?

ER I guess G is dark, but it’s curious, and curiosity is optimistic because it’s about growth. There is also a hopeful desire to go back into my past and turn it into something concrete or put a stamp on it from the future. I wanted to record that area of eastern Pennsylvania, hex signs, magic, hard work, and a landscape getting imbued with the weirdness of the relationship.

AY For me, G calls forth Inger Christensen’s Alphabet in the way that Alphabet and G use a kind of process to reveal things about language. Also, Rosemarie Waldrop’s Gap Gardening—how the logic of the syntax is also informed by a process, and so it has these moments of ineligibility.

You write: 

The O in June how easy to feel the season won’t end and to become the G of open ground because hover so gravity completes.

This sentence makes me stop and examine it visually.

ER I was probably reading both of those books around the time that I started to write G, and I love them. I like the idea of creating a process and messing it up.

AY How?

ER By allowing the logic to drop off or creating an internal logic based on whatever the text wants. You said that certain sentences in G become visual. I stopped writing for a while and was making visual art instead. I feel relieved when something can be interpreted both visually and analytically. I like to forget what a sentence is supposed to look like.

AY Oh my god. How do you let yourself do that? And can you say more about what comforts you when the language becomes visual?

ER (laughter) The answer to both of those questions is that my thinking is really informed by having epilepsy. It has a direct impact on my work and it’s funny that you say your reading felt electric because that’s how my brain feels sometimes. Literally. Epilepsy is kind of hinted-at—I say a “nervous disorder” or “my condition.” You can’t see epilepsy except in these dramatic bursts, and that can be both curious and frustrating. Experiencing seizures and writing cancelled each other out because I was like, Fuck, there are too many invisible things going on. I just want to use my hands and be in my body.

AY How do you forget what a sentence is supposed to look like?

ER (laughter) That’s really aspirational! It’s maybe impossible. But after a seizure, I don’t know what language is. I forget everything. Those moments can almost feel more real or primal because I can’t translate what I’m feeling into language, nor do I know that I’m supposed to have that capacity. It’s disorienting, but there’s a layer of truth, which is maybe why I’m drawn to the fragment.

AY How do you feel like the fractured experience of it plays into this work? There are strings of letters that are reminiscent of code, references to virtual ground, and glitches.

ER I didn’t want to write outside of contemporary life. The verso pages are more digital and the recto pages are more actual ground, but they conflate. Working in virtual space isn’t so different from making a garden. Well, it’s entirely different. But I was thinking of hitting the delete button, for example, as similar to the act of pulling out a weed. I always write on a computer, partly because it’s easy to rearrange words and letters, use symbols, caps lock, and so on. It would have been very hard to make G with pen and paper, and I wanted to be transparent about that digital necessity. When I’m writing on my laptop, there are lots of distractions. The ding of an email or the desire to Google something or whatever. The speaker is trying to stay grounded, to get centered—but the internet gets in the way. Those are the funny parts. To me, anyway.

AY I know one of your influences for this book is the I Ching. Is there a formal relationship here?

ER I was thinking about the text blocks on the verso side as they relate to the I Ching because I feel like they can be shaken up and read any which-way. I wanted it to be a reading experience where you could conceivably jump in wherever and read it in any order that you wanted.

AY As far as merging the senses goes, panpsychism says that everything has a kind of human consciousness. In my reading of G, I experienced a kind of anticipation that, while this garden is being cultivated, some kind of new consciousness is also being cultivated. The “rock consciousness” you write about.

ER Something really present in G, I Ching, and Eastern philosophy in general, is the idea of masculine and feminine energies—not necessarily relating to male and female. It’s a lot of work to keep nature’s wildness (the feminine) out of something human-made or constructed (the masculine). The speaker is torn between working on the garden and wanting to watch nature take over. I like the possibilities that panpsychism creates—that everything has a consciousness. The rock has a promise of energy or potential energy and G is written from or towards that buzzing or auric quality that’s present in a heightened emotional state. I wanted to freeze-frame that mechanism and play.

Ariel Yelen is a poet and visual artist living in Brooklyn, New York. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Conjunctions, BOAAT, The Felt, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Rutgers-Newark and is the Associate Editor for Futurepoem.

Related
Amina Cain & Renee Gladman
Af Klint Swan

Lingering with a moment, operating in the dark, and moving through membranes.

Dwarf by Steven Henry Madoff

As if the Dog Star and gaseous bodies, ice bodies,

Two Poems by Xandria Phillips
Tulsa2

we consummated our marriage / on a bed littered with sour faces / of dead presidents, liberated livestock / sweating through the dollars.