Not So Blank at All: Dennis James Sweeney Interviewed by Erica Trabold

Cover with white Antarctic ice breaking

Dennis James Sweeney’s writing life has taken him all over the globe, from Taiwan to Malta, from Ohio to Colorado, and from coast to coast in the United States. When I met Sweeney in graduate school, I admired the way his work was similarly in motion, crossing genre lines and back within the scope of a single paragraph or sentence. In Sweeney’s debut collection of hybrid narrative prose poems, In the Antarctic Circle (Autumn House Press), his writing travels even further—to the boundaries of the known world and its most inhospitable continent. 

This bleak setting becomes the place Sweeney’s characters (and Sweeney himself) grapple with the unsettling realities of whiteness, exploration, exploitation, and loneliness, both literally, and metaphorically. A series of prose poems grounded only by GPS coordinates intersect pages “left intentionally blank.” Poet Yona Harvey selected Sweeney’s manuscript as the winner of the 2020 Autumn House Rising Writer Prize, and individual poems from this manuscript have been published in venues such as Juked, Passages North, Territory, and many others. Reading In the Antarctic Circle is like following an incomplete map. With wind and snow in our eyes, we often end up in places we hadn’t imagined we were going at all. 

—Erica Trabold

Erica Trabold Where did the idea for this book originate? I suppose I may be asking, why Antarctica?

Dennis James Sweeney I started writing about Antarctica immediately after a breakup, on a bus from my newly ex-girlfriend’s apartment in Portland to my apartment in Corvallis. It was a summer when I knew I was headed for a break, or some kind of vacancy, and because of this suspicion I had made sure I could fit everything I was living with in my bicycle panniers. So, when I left my girlfriend’s house after we both realized it wasn’t going to work, I could bike to the bus station and take the bus back to Corvallis.

I wrote the first couple of Antarctica coordinates on the bus ticket, in black pen. I still have that bus ticket somewhere. I had cracked open a little, now that I was on the highway leaving a person’s life that I had been a big part of. I began to let words out of me, and this vast white expanse was what came out.

When I got back home, I was alone for a long couple of months. Very alone, although it’s not so different from what many people are experiencing now. Antarctica—an imagined one, not the real place—kept calling to me, for reasons I didn’t understand at the time. The images of snow and ice, of a breadthless white continent, felt like they had this energy to them, a gravity.

They kept pulling me in, one phrase at a time. So I wrote them while standing at the kitchen counter, as I remember it, over the course of a few months.

ET At what point in the writing process did Antarctica become a kind of metaphor for whiteness? Was that always your intention, or did the connection reveal itself later? What is it about whiteness that called out for your response?

DJS I think most white writers are writing about whiteness, whether intentionally or not. I certainly was, at least in part, while riding on that bus. My loneliness tapped into something that had been living in me for much longer, which was a feeling of blankness I had grown up with. That blankness was rooted in the assumption that I was the default, as a white boy in a white community in a country that is deeply rooted in white supremacy. To imagine I was simply “a person” was an enormous privilege, and it also led me to feel hollow, because I had never thought about who or what I was.

It took a long time to get to the point where I understood that. I believed these pieces were about isolation, about loneliness, about the unnameable terror of confronting oneself on a vast white plane, but because I had seen so few white writers acknowledge their work’s relationship with whiteness, I had a hard time grasping this part of my writing. At the same time, I couldn’t ignore the coordinates’ unsettling white imagery. Where did it come from? I was a little scared to understand what I was saying.

The change came when I began to study Antarctica more seriously, which took place when I was well into organizing the coordinates into a book. Toni Morrison’s interpretation of the ending of Edgar Allen Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was central to my understanding of the resonances of the continent, especially for American writers. To make a long story short, Antarctica takes on this implacable, uninterpretable horror for Poe, one that was echoed later by writers like Herman Melville (the whiteness of the whale) and H. P. Lovecraft (the shoggoths in At the Mountains of Madness), and satirized wonderfully by Mat Johnson in Pym. As I explored these works, I began to grasp that my vision of Antarctica as a cold, blank continent where characters come face to face with themselves was inextricably bound up with whiteness as a racial construct.

It became clear that narratives of the continent, from Poe’s to those of Antarctica travelers like Apsley Cherry-Garrard, usually were about their own whiteness, in ways that certainly were not clear to them. They were about colonialism, scientific domination of the natural world, and explorers’ desire to substitute exploration and discovery of the world for self-examination. Poe’s approach to the continent is more literary, less “scientific,” but it captures the alternating horror and attraction that drive these visions of Antarctica.

As I learned about this legacy, I realized I needed to be as honest as I could about the ground my work was exploring as it wove among tropes of whiteness, blankness, and coldness. The poems grew out of a feeling I didn’t yet have a name for; in grasping the poems’ geographical and historical situation, I understood their deep relationship with these legacies of exploration, these idealizations of the continent.

The work of this book, I hope, is to examine the fear and discomfort at the center of those legacies. It is to unobscure Antarctica’s problematic inheritance and my own, as a white writer who is still trying to navigate that expanse in myself.

Photo of white cis man with long brown hair in front of a wall of plants.

Photo of Dennis James Sweeney by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint.

ET Can you give us an introduction to your characters? What specifically have they inherited, and what are they looking for? How did they end up here together?

DJS The book is built from a few different stories. In the central one, a man named Hank and the unnamed narrator are living in Antarctica, trying to make a domestic space together. They’ve survived, as nine others didn’t, when they were dropped off at the edge of the continent. Now they have to navigate the endless expanse with the terrifying prospect of never leaving it or each other.

In the second story, which is italicized and frames the above story, an unnamed narrator ends her marriage as the result of the Antarctic freeze in her husband’s temperament. After their divorce, she travels to Antarctica and stays for two silent years, after which she wanders into the snow and finds the text of this book.

In a way, there’s a third story, too: the one I’ve been telling you about past approaches to Antarctica. This arises in the quotations that precede each of the five sections of the book, drawn from Morrison, Poe, several critical writers on Antarctica, and Antarctic explorers coming up against the limits of their own idealization of the continent.

It is the weight of this idealization that the characters in In the Antarctic Circle have inherited, I think, and the weight of their selves in relation to it. Instead of trying to cross the continent, however, or otherwise trying to conquer it, they have to live there. This is the task that is so frustrating for them, and that I hope pushes back against the old stories of Antarctica. Hank and the narrator have to stay still. They have to confront these narratives.

What they find in doing so is that Antarctica is not a world apart. Though it is often treated as a tabula rasa, as Lize-Marié van der Watt and Sandra Swart call it, an ostensibly blank slate of self and landscape, that slate is actually not so blank at all. Or maybe it is blank, but this blankness has terrible textures—which the narrator is increasingly troubled by, being unable to escape from them.

ET I like thinking about these characters and this landscape, or any character in any landscape, as “not so blank at all.” We are always in conversation, whether we realize it or not, with the histories, literatures, and baggage of the places and the people we have been. This leads me to thinking about hybridity, how you’ve really mirrored that complexity in the book’s form. As a writer, how would you describe your interest in cross-genre work, and how do you make decisions, for this project and others, along formal lines?

DJS My students and I have been talking recently about how hybrid forms make room for stories that do not fit into the provided categories of experience, as Jenny Boully suggests in “On the EEO Genre Sheet.” Insisting on the boundaries of genre is like insisting that a person identify themself as a member of only a single race; problematizing genre categories is an essential tool for recognizing the complexities of experience and identity.

These are analytical conversations, ones where I often end up treating writing as a series of decisions. But my students wonder whether they have to be this intentional about the form they write in. Do we really have to decide what form best fits the content? When you write, they ask each other, Don’t you just write?

I think my students have a point. My hybrid work always begins with a feeling, then morphs into a form that can contain that feeling, then breaks that form when I start to press against its edges. The form is always shifting and growing, but it’s not because I have an intellectualized relationship to it. These decisions happen in my body rather than in my mind, so they’re not really “decisions” at all. 

After I worked in the form of prose poem coordinates for a while, for example, I started to feel like there was something outside of them—someone watching, or telling, or inhabiting the narrator. So I zoomed out and found myself in this strange italicized world, one that is more “realist” but less distinct, which gave rise to the sections that frame the book. Even then, the form could not contain everything. So I added the framing quotes. Finally I came upon the pages that declare, “THIS PAGE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK,” “LEFT BLANK, THIS PAGE FREEZES OVER,” and “THIS PAGE IS A CONTINENT, THIS PAGE IS A DOOR.” To me those pages are almost like a pressure valve for the work.

What I believe about these motions through form matters less than what I feel. Here’s what I feel: Cross-genre work, with the shifts and spaces it allows for uncertainty, makes room for the uncontainable experience of living in a body. It makes it easier for me to be honest. It abdicates control.

ET In the Antarctic Circle was awarded Autumn House’s 2020 Rising Writer Prize, selected by Yona Harvey. What did it feel like to find an audience for this book that understands and appreciates your writerly intuition and cross-genre sensibilities?

DJS One thing I love about Yona Harvey’s poems is that they feel like points in a much larger conversation, events of language that distill the images of a past and gesture toward a future for seeing them newly. When I read her poetry, I feel like I started reading it long before I encountered the first word.

My hope is that the coordinates that constitute most of In the Antarctic Circle have a similar feeling, as if they are data points pulled out of a much larger expanse. Territory, whose web design I am always in awe of, represented that visually, constructing these vast spaces between instances of text. I was so grateful that Yona, as well as Maryse Meijer, Julie Carr, and the editors who published many of these coordinates early on, were willing to engage with these wide in-between spaces. Their insights about the book and their encouragement have been such a gift.

This book got rejected a lot, as many books of poetry and cross-genre writing do. I can see how its formal in-betweenness, its images of whiteness and its self-excavation, might have been difficult to take on by a publisher. And so to have Autumn House publish the book, and to be able to share it with people now, has remade my relationship with the book. It changed me to know that these off-kilter forms, these ventures of language, are not as alone as they sometimes imagined themselves to be.

It’s a weird thing—trying to make community by going to Antarctica. I want to talk about this book, I want to meet people through it. I’m still writing about the continent, but where I want to be is here.

In the Antarctic Circle is available for purchase here.

Erica Trabold is the author of Five Plots, selected by John D’Agata as the inaugural winner of the Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize, and Dots, winner of the Ghost Proposal’s 5th Annual Chapbook Contest, forthcoming in 2021. She writes and teaches in central Virginia, where she is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Sweet Briar College.

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