As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
On the poetics of mysticism, spirituality, and the maximalist approach to religious language.
Janaka Stucky’s new book of poetry, Ascend Ascend (Third Man Books, 2019), is a mystical epic in which visionary experience continually emerges from life in the world. Stucky leads a storied existence: in the literary world, he’s known as the publisher of Black Ocean and an ecstatic performer. He’s also the author of a previous full-length book of poetry, The Truth is We Are Perfect. In his new collection, Stucky’s linked meditations cycle and strain toward insights that flourish in language and reach beyond it, toward the possibilities of premonition, transcendence, dissolution, and dream. Through fractured prayers, incantation, and lithe entreaties that refigure spiritual conventions, Stucky suggests that revelation is pragmatic, inexhaustible, and vital to questions of identity and community. We corresponded by email about his devotion to visionary poetics, the role of performance in his work, and mysticism’s relationship to mundane, material realms.
Zach Savich In a recent essay, “Poetry, Like Witchcraft and Magick, is an Act of Transformation,” you state, “When I write poems, I am a saint. I am unattached from the body of the world and living only in its breath—and every passing moment in between each breath is an immortal joy.” Could you say more about this relationship between writing and “the body of the world”? In your poems, do you feel like this is the same as “the body of the self”?
Janaka Stucky I’m not sure if it’s even possible to separate the body of the world from the body of the self, because both are always acting upon each other. Likewise, we are perpetually struggling against the tyranny of both bodies. “Detachment” would be a kind of hopelessness or disinterest, while I see “unattachment” as akin to the Zen-like “non-attachment” that people might be more familiar with; it is a way of being in the world, but not of the world. When I speak of sainthood and unattachment, I’m speaking of the end of that struggle but not the lack of that struggle. It’s not that through writing I realize some sort of political or corporeal autonomy. Rather, in the moment of the creative act, I am suddenly only aware of the immediate, immortal now—and that in itself is a kind of freedom. And then, having had that moment, I am reminded once more of its possibility, and I can move forward through the mundane world until the next such moment. In that sense, it’s a permanent freedom, no matter how brief the moment itself, that I continue to carry inside me.
ZS The book begins “Blessed is the lotus.” How do you see the book’s relationship to inherited symbols, figures, language?
JS To explain the book’s relationship to the symbols it employs, it’s important to explain my personal relationship to them. The book was written from states of meditation and trance, the language and symbols that it articulates emerge from my subconscious—or are even willfully brought forth from my unconscious in a kind of lucid dream writing. When I go back and reread them, they surprise and delight—or even, sometimes, mystify—me. My dominant cultural and spiritual upbringings were as a Jew and Hindu, respectively. We have seraphim from the Torah alongside lotuses and marigolds. I wrote the book in a location that had a beehive on the property, so flowers and bees feature prominently throughout as well. I then take all these established types of imagery and combine and recombine them until they begin mutating over and over again to form new, almost absurd—yet somehow still divine—images: “a wingless sword anointed in the violet puss of stars,” or “the black honey of my circumcision.”
In some ways this mimics the traditional, Kabbalistic approach to language and the Torah—which saw the letters and words as raw material, independent of all definition and containing an inherent power unto themselves, a logos absent of semantic meaning. The medieval Jewish mystics would combine and recombine the names of God into new, unutterable sequences to achieve their mystical ascensions.
The repetition of structural equivalents over an extended duration holds a trance-inducing function by leading beyond semantic values and inducing a kind of suspension of consciousness. At the same time, it can heighten or sharpen semantic meaning because with each repetition it becomes more encompassing. As I shred the established natural and mystical worlds through this kind of maximalist approach to religious language, the poem itself becomes scripture—which is ultimately my goal. The poem is a form of radical worship in its immediate and direct yet unutterable semiosis—anti-patriarchal, anti-hierarchical, anarchic, and free.
ZS Do you think that any language generated through this process would “become scripture”? I’m thinking of an interview you did with Tobias Carroll, in which you noted that your process helped engender a “natural, spontaneous, agendaless kind of art,” and yet I feel a continual, capillary strain toward ascent in the book’s repetitions (“Of all living things ascending / Ascend I ascend”).
JS You’re honing in on a great moral trap and on a great philosophical question. Is it enough to simply generate consciousness, or should it be directed too? And if you do attempt to direct it, at what point does that direction detract from an other’s agency? I suppose I can’t claim to be purely agendaless, or—to interpret through a lens familiar to players of Dungeons & Dragons—“true neutral.” If we think of the moral axis having chaos at the far left and order at the far right, with good above and evil below, you could probably place me in the upper left “chaotic good” quadrant. Another way of saying it is that I’m an optimist—which I think is a necessary quality in any anarchist.
I believe that if you truly awaken an individual, if even for a moment, that the experience nudges them upwards, that they begin their own, individual path of ascent—even if they never get much further than that. And I believe that moment of awakening can happen through art, through poetry. That awakening experience can still take the form of a crisis and can be accompanied by terrifying visions, even psychotic breaks—in fact it is usually both agony and ecstasy, dread and awe. But the intent has to be there in the creator as well, because art is just a vessel for energy and intention. Art is a map for the audience back into the consciousness of the artist, of the creator. That’s what I mean by poetry becoming scripture—art as a variety of mystical experience, and religion as a genre of art. The faith in the individual to navigate their own experience is what separates the artist from the clergy, the guru, and the politician.
ZS That faith feels thrilling, line by line. It’s like the book keeps staring farther beyond the field of vision. You’ve been performing the work extensively. Do you feel like you re-live the book’s composition in performance?
JS Oh, I definitely not only re-live the state of consciousness of the book’s composition when I perform the work, but also expand upon it. I believe that to be true for the audience in certain ways too. From the perspective of art and cultural critique, the audience completes the work, whether that’s in reading it or hearing it read. From a quantum perspective, I see the energetic state of the ideal material translated from the substrata into the strata as the intention manifests in a poem. The poem then acts as a conduit back into that altered state of consciousness for anyone reading or experiencing the poem—as they follow the current from the material strata back into the energetic substrata. From a mystical perspective, the most potent magic is performance. My friend Peter Bebergal wrote in his latest book, Strange Frequencies: “Whether initiated by the shaman, witch, or magician in a chalk-drawn circle, it is in the performative moment that our consciousness is altered.” So for the poet there is also this opportunity for the performative moment—through recitation as incantation, turning the reading of a poem into a lyric ritual.
When I started my last book tour, I realized I needed to find a way to stay true to the place of origin of my poems and allow myself to enter trance in their reading as I did in their writing. In this way the performance of the work is also a moment where we can collectively become true to ourselves in an intimate way peculiar to the aesthetic experience. That moment of transcendence through art is a moment of freedom. And yet, because it is completed by the audience it is of an ever-changing tenor, from performance to performance. Sometimes I’m performing and fill with so much euphoria I’m almost grinning, and other times I have literally wept—sometimes both in the same performance. Likewise, at every stop so far on this tour, someone has come up to me to share their own experience of crying and laughing during the performance. On the one hand it’s wild to think of this happening at a poetry reading, and on the other hand: why should we expect anything less from one?
ZS The phrase “the Great Shame” is central to the book’s final movement. It has to do with language, among other things:
Here every word
Every letter is an ark
Within which I shudder divining
The Great Shame to be
Its dreadful core
This “Great Shame” feels very different from “shame” as it’s often thought of. How do you see it—as a character, as a concept?
JS The primary artist in this arena for me is Jean Genet, who has been hugely influential on my art and in understanding my own queer identity and sexuality. I first read him in my late teens and have been in love ever since. Originally, I had actually planned for my next book to be a book-length elegiac love poem to Genet. I still hope to write that one day, and perhaps do a new translation of his collected poems too. What moved me—and continues to move me—in Genet’s work, is the place of power he finds in being an outcast. The lower he descends, the higher he ascends. “Saint Genet,” but sainthood through theft, heartbreak, and prostitution. I am interpreting that through my poem as “The Great Shame,” which I use as a stand-in for “The Great Name,” meaning God, or whatever you want to call the mysterium tremendum.
That paradox of the sacred and profane feels true to the very core of human divinity. You don’t transcend by means of avoidance; you transcend by passing through. Language of course plays a big role in this. We are in a wave of understanding around personal pronouns, for instance. The inadequacy of language. The oppression of language. The ways in which language has constructed our identities and notions of shame and power, and the ways in which we too can explode those same ideas with language. Through the “Great Shame” I embrace a radical, intersectional divinity that is as social, artistic, and political, as it is spiritual.
ZS What would you say to readers who worry that this approach neglects more direct treatment of daily life, of its material reality?
JS I’d say that if your primary interest in poetry is in its address to the details of the mundane world then this is not the book for you—and by mundane I don’t mean “boring,” but simply terrestrial. You’d be better served by, well, probably most of the rest of contemporary poetry being written today. Which is not to say that there isn’t value in that treatment, and even that my work doesn’t address material reality—my last book was a book of longing and love poems, though also concerned with the dissolution of the self in its own way. However, my address to material reality is indirect rather than direct. I’ve been an anarchist and activist in the material reality of life for over twenty-five years at this point. I’ve gone to protests, engaged in direct actions with black bloc groups, squatted properties, been thrown in jail, brutalized by cops. And now that I have a family and aging parents to take care of I engage in less physically dangerous ways through working with others to organize, and donating to causes concerned with justice and advocacy.
There are myriad ways to engage in changing the world around us, whether your concern is political, social, or environmental. Politically, we have allowed the worst of our kind to hold the most power—but that was preventable, and we can undo it, despite the centuries of entrenchment. Even with the looming climate crisis and dissolution of civilization, which could happen within our lifetime, we have emerging technologies and options at hand to remediate our own destruction. So the problem isn’t the means, but the will to do it. In my own experience, when we seek that will from a place of anger, or a focus on the mundane details, it is not scalable and it is not sustainable.
We burn out, sometimes quite quickly, because that is not a regenerative place—it is exhausting. If, however, we come to the spirit of change from a place grounded in our own power and a personal understanding of transcendence that we can return to simply by sitting still, breathing, and experiencing not only our world’s potential and capacity for change but it’s always-already changing nature—then we can be regenerated daily. The generative engine for change inside us is fueled—among other ways—by the power of art, by poetry. The spirit and the body are not separate, they feed each other. So by that standard I do consider this approach in my work a treatment of our material reality—in fact, it is its only concern.
Zach Savich is the author of six books of poetry, including Daybed, and a memoir, Diving Makes the Water Deep. He directs the BFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and co-edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.