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
The artist and poet discusses his childhood as a first-generation Palestinian immigrant, the formation of selfhood in preadolescence, and the psychology of drifting.
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AS DEEP AS I COULD REMEMBER, AS FAR AS I COULD SEE was my portal into the work of the artist and writer Tarik Kiswanson. I was drawn to the title and attended the final performance of the piece during the Performa 19 Biennial in late November 2019. I entered the US Custom House in downtown Manhattan before the performance began, and not too long after, eleven eleven-year-olds dressed in crisp cotton gowns and tunics entered the space. Some spoke in whispers, and you had to move closer to hear their words. Others approached individual audience members and spoke directly to them.
All the while the lines they recited looped and overlapped, creating a choral thread through the space. The performers seemed keenly aware of each other, even when their backs were turned to one another. Their nearness existed in spite of any perceived physical distance and remained constant throughout the performance. By the end, that closeness and insularity was finally mirrored in their physical composition, as the children formed an unbroken, single line with their arms carefully draped over one another.
In the interceding year and half, I would occasionally look back through the handful of photos I took during the performance. While it felt futile to try and capture the polyphony of sounds, the textures, and the magnetic presence of the performers with a phone camera, I wanted to return to Kiswanson’s ways of animating a text and of creating an amplified choral moment. I wanted to remind myself of how the writer can fade into the background; and of how to work with children as collaborators where trust, slowness, and attention are embedded in the relationship.
At the end of the performance, I went looking for Kiswanson, but I couldn’t find him. Of course, he was there, but his presence was so light. The performers at the center of AS DEEP AS I COULD REMEMBER lingered, now giddy eleven-year-olds celebrating their fifth and final performance of the piece. There was something telling in how invisible Kiswanson could become. I wanted to know more about that, about the text at the center of the performance (a poetry book of the same title), and about his own experience presenting this work in a US context after having shown it at Lafayette Anticipations in Paris.
As fate would have it, this February we finally got a chance to have a conversation over video call and email to talk about these lingering questions and more. Kiswanson’s work exists in interstitial spaces, but the interstitial isn’t cast as a smaller action between two larger ones. It is where it all unfolds. He animates these spaces and peels back the friction at the seams. There is a good claustrophobia in his work—you are inside it, and it is inside you, and then a third force field emerges from within that chamber.
Asiya WadudYour performance AS DEEP AS I COULD REMEMBER, AS FAR AS I COULD SEE had such a profound impact on me. I saw it on the last day of Performa 19, and if I had known about it sooner, I would have gone consecutive days in a row to see how it changes each time. I was looking back through photos from the piece, and literally the next day BOMB emailed me about the interview.
Tarik Kiswanson I’m glad you got to see it. Personally, I don’t like to have any video recordings of the performances; I like that they remain ephemeral happenings, only to be experienced live. It’s not taking place on a stage in a theater; the children are everywhere. You are in the middle of it, and they reach out to you. There’s a fluidity to it that just can’t be documented in video.
Some parts of the performances are scripted, but a lot of it isn’t. The poetry is there; each preadolescent represents a chapter in my book, which carries the same title. But in the choreography there is space for improvisation. How the performers disperse and who in the audience they reach out to is completely in their hands. This constantly modifies the performance as the acts unfold. Often, toward the end, when I observe their devotion, it feels like they own it completely. It’s beyond myself and often beyond what I imagined possible.
AW I was so transfixed by the focus of these young performers. Clearly you had worked with them in this refined and delicate way. But then as a presence, you were invisible. What is the process of transmission like when you are working with children? How do you convey a landscape of feeling so that they can understand and inhabit the emotional terrain that each piece should carry?
TK I’m not sure if transmission is the right word. I’m not teaching them or giving them something that they don’t already possess. I’ve developed specific exercises when working with preadolescents. Some of them are related to text—reciting and writing—and others are corporeal. That striking, captivating force is already there embedded in them. I just help them bring it out. It’s hard work because you have to strengthen their self-confidence and simultaneously encourage them to stay fragile and honest. When I first wrote the book, I was very inspired by conversations they would have with me or with each other. There have been times when I explain a certain act, passage, or choreography, but the child takes it to a whole different level. That’s where the work becomes collaborative and deep—it’s in that space of improvisation and appropriation that the performance comes to life.
I tend to make myself invisible when the performances are on. When I think about authorship, what place I have in all of it, it’s a collaborative one. I like to disappear in the audience. I know my presence is important for the performers, so I am there, but I don’t want to influence or be a reason for a change in their behavior. It belongs to them at that moment. Through them I try to convey thoughts and feelings that we can all relate to. Thoughts that also defined my own childhood and preadolescent years.
AW What was it like for you during those years between age ten and thirteen?
TK I grew up in Sweden at a very specific moment in time. My parents arrived there in the early ’80s after being exiled from Palestine to Jordan. There were still many cities in Scandinavia that were just beginning to experience the great flux of migration that was happening all over Europe. You had a lot of refugees arriving from other places like Bosnia, Syria, Vietnam, and Iraq. I grew up in social housing in the suburbs of Halmstad, a small city on the southwest coast of Sweden. My family’s name was transformed from Kiswani to Kiswanson upon arrival to facilitate integration and help them find work. Obviously, I was growing up in a community that was predominantly white, blond even. (laughter) But it was also a community that was slowly coming to understand what migration meant. It was an interesting moment in time.
As a child you don’t quite have a clear notion of what the self is; you consider everyone equal. When you’re ten, eleven, twelve years old, you start to become aware of your own singularity, your own trajectory and that of your family. Of the things that make you different from others. For me, those were years of great realization. I realized we spoke Arabic at home when everyone else spoke Swedish, that I was not white and why I wasn’t, that we were part of the lower class, that we couldn’t afford certain things and why we couldn’t afford them, that we were alone (my grandparents and the rest of my family stayed behind).
I was already writing during that time. It was obviously not great writing, but I was trying to make sense of things, trying to understand what I was experiencing. It wasn’t easy growing up in such a community, but it would profoundly shape my discourse and of course my writing to this day. I think the initial reason for me to work with preadolescents was to dive back into that age. The moment the singular mind is shaped. The birth of the self.
AW Alongside my own writing practice, I teach poetry to children, and I often feel that way about my students. When I enter a classroom of children a certain age, I feel myself inhabiting that age again. It’s so easy to channel, and to remember my younger self.
TK For me, it is also about exploring a different way of perceiving, experiencing, and sensing the world. You’re hypersensitive at the preadolescent age. There is a certain depth to that age that I find profoundly moving. I’m not looking at the child as this innocent being. In fact, I am always surprised by how much knowledge they already have at that age, and how aware and connected they are to the world and its many problems. Much of that knowledge comes through technology and connectivity. When I am working with them, I am focused on their approach to the world, how they pay attention to certain details that adults just don’t, how they use language and speech to formulate their thinking and understanding of the world.
AW Listening to your sound piece Vadim (2018), there’s the young boy, Vadim, and his voice, his words, the physicality of his language. There’s you, and your voice, your words, the physicality of your language. And then there’s something else that happens, chorally, when both of the voices are together. Vadim reminds me of The Condition of Secrecy by Inger Christensen, this collection of short essays, six or seven pages each, that also has this quality of floating just above our heads. In one of them, “The Naïve Reader,” the first line is, “When I write poems, I sometimes pretend it’s not me but language itself that’s writing.” That’s how I felt listening to you and Vadim. There’s this other, third entity.
TK It’s interesting that you say this, because when I present that work, I often speak about a separate third entity, that is simultaneously in the space as the sound piece is playing. It’s not just him and me anymore but something else is simultaneously being created. Language is taking a life of its own. This happens by the way the composition is built up. There’s an open overlaying of voices. When the work is installed in a space, the four channels pull you in different directions. The voice of Vadim inhabits all walls, and multiple dialogues are taking place simultaneously. There is a multitude of comings and goings. As if there were several readers reading synchronously.
AW How did you meet Vadim?
TK I met him in Paris while doing castings for a performance. He was eleven, and his parents had moved to France from Romania. I thought he had something quite extraordinary, an incredible clairvoyance. Vadim was very lucid.
I asked his mom if it would be possible to start working with him. I didn’t know at the time that the fruit of our many discussions would become a 24-page poem titled Vadim and, ultimately, a sound work.
During our time together I would ask him questions, like: “What is your oldest memory?” “What is a memory?” “Can you remember your birth?” “Why do we not know when we will die?” “How does it feel in your body when you switch between languages, between Romanian and French, or Romanian and English?” Or, “How does it feel to rub your finger against a rough wood surface?” “Why does it hurt?” et cetera. I would also ask him about trivial things like, “How would you feel if someone were to forget your birthday?” to open up a discussion about forgetting and forgiveness.
AW In the text of Vadim, you write: “Badly. To always repeat the same mistake. To never learn from the past. To consciously repeat the same mistake over and over again. To not listen to what others say. To see what’s right and finally choose to consciously make the wrong decision. To choose to do something bad even when you know it’s not good for you.” These words stay with me, the idea of choosing to do the wrong thing, and what that might look like.
TK That was based on a discussion with Vadim, as I was trying to understand the basis on which we make decisions for ourselves. What does it mean to do the right thing? What is the right thing? And who decides what the right thing is? Why do you decide to do something that’s bad for you even if you know that it’s bad for you? I was trying to get at the question: What do you base your choices on? It’s also about contradiction and freedom of choice. Through contradiction you experience something that is perhaps vital for your development as a person.
AW I’m drawn to this idea of how we make ourselves. How do we shape notions of selfhood? And how does this get built in childhood?
TK Yeah, and how does it continue to transform? The book AS DEEP AS I COULD REMEMBER is an exploration of the human condition. The writing is built on fundamental questions like, What is the self? And what are the things that make us into who we are?
In the part of the sound work that you quoted, when speaking to Vadim, I was trying to get to the root of how someone at such an early stage in life apprehends how things have been predetermined in society as good or bad. He acknowledged these notions as being ultimately very subjective, but also identified the importance of letting the bad in—to learn from it and let it participate in his becoming as a person.
AW Right. To understand the long feeling of it, the repercussions.
Toward the end of Vadim, Vadim says, “Be here or even better, be nowhere.” I’m curious about what is animated in the space of nowhere for you and for Vadim. What does nowhere look like, and what happens inside it?
TK The poem ends with this phrase because it finishes on the realization that if we are “nowhere,” there is no need to choose. To be nowhere is to free oneself from conventional ways of thinking and identifying. To be “nowhere” is to be from multiple places. When declaring “be nowhere,” Vadim is also saying, “I embrace being from everywhere.” I wrote that sentence in response to a discussion I had with Vadim about what it means to always feel slightly out of place, whether it be in the often-visited home country of our parents and grandparents or the country one is born and raised in.
AW Are you still in touch with Vadim?
TK Sometimes. But I have come to accept that these extraordinary encounters are fleeting moments in life. It’s difficult; you create these deep collaborations, and then one day it ends, and they continue their coming of age without you. The children I worked with in 2017 would be sixteen now, in the midst of another transformation.
AW They’re different people.
TK Most probably. Preadolescence is the age of openness; adolescence is when we go into ourselves. It’s an age when you’re extremely vulnerable but also open and forgiving. When they are performing, they have so much tenderness toward each other.
AW That’s really the word that keeps coming to mind: tenderness. Tenderness is also fleeting. I keep thinking of this Glissant quote: “The world’s poetic force (its energy), kept alive within us, fastens itself by fleeting.”
TK Like so much of his writing, that’s beautiful. In my work he is a father figure of some sort. His thinking was fundamental for me as a student and still inspires many of my works. I am often thinking of other specific words that constantly come back in his writing. Like weave, opacity, transparency …
AW Can you talk about your relationship to the word drift? Conceptually, drift seems to frame much of your work, not just in terms of migration and movement, but also in the sense of
“I have drifted in my thinking.”
TK To drift is to be unbound, whether that’s physically or in terms of thinking and writing. We often think of drifting in the realms of dreaming, but for me it’s very different. When I write I’m in a very lucid state. There is a clarity of the mind that allows me to bring words to paper.
Being a “drifter” has rendered me at once detached from many things and simultaneously profoundly interested in what constitutes life, what it essentially means to exist. What is a body? What is heritage? And what is time? Those ontological questions have always been at the heart of my practice as an artist and poet. Travel and collaborative works have allowed me to better understand the vastness of the human condition, to explore its depths. To zoom into the particularities and fragilities of life and then zoom out again and participate in the vast and violent flux.
AW I’m interested in the ways that language moves in your texts as well. I’m thinking about the word breath and the ways in which it appears throughout AS DEEP AS I COULD REMEMBER. We see it multiple times, as you return to it again and again. As this single word finds its movement, the language creates this reverberation. It makes quarter turns, slides into a new place, but not before it repeats itself and insists—almost incants. How do you know when you should stay with a word or an idea and when you should propel yourself?
TK I would compare it to entering and exiting different physical spaces. I’m moving between conditions and contexts, opening and closing doors, moving between rooms. When I feel like there is nothing more to describe or feel in a particular space, I leave.
But then there are some words that I have to insist on, words that need to be heard several times. Words that need to be transformed through repetition. Often, that’s to highlight and amplify a certain feeling or action, but sometimes it’s also a way of canceling a word out, repetition as a sort of exorcism. To detach the word from what it signifies, to transform words into notes, and let their orality become the most important thing.
AW How do you know when a certain line or word will have a deep enough resonance to bear repeating?
TK It’s highly visceral. I plunge, I resurface, and I dive back in. Most often I am guided by an urgent desire to write. A rhythm emerges. As poets we are also led by the sound of the words we use. By what the word does to the ear, the sharpness or the roundness of a word. The sound of a word can change the entire direction the piece is taking.
In AS DEEP AS I COULD REMEMBER, I put a system in place for how the eleven chapters would be arranged and unfold. Each of them would consist of twenty words, twenty poems. And these same twenty words come back in each chapter at the same place. Take for example the word breath. Using the word in all chapters resulted in eleven poems about breathing. In one chapter, I wrote about the panic of losing one’s breath; in another chapter, I wrote about the transformation of oxygen to carbon dioxide when breathing; in another, I wrote about what it feels like to hold one’s breath for as long as possible. The performances are a polyphony of spoken words.
AW Liminality and in-betweenness are the chronic conditions in your work. How do physical spaces marked by their liminality—your work Vestibules (2016), for example—guide your thinking about what is possible or attainable in a liminal state?
TK I’ve always felt that my sculptures are the materialization of what my writing can’t attain. I create works in which you are sent back into yourself. Vestibule is an interesting word. It’s the name of the organ in the inner ear channel that regulates our balance. Without the vestibule we would be in a constant state of instability. Falling down, walking on our heads. But vestibule is also a word used in Roman and Middle Eastern architecture to describe a specific space within a household. A space in-between, an antechamber where one does not linger but passes through to get to other rooms, other vaster spaces. When entering one of my Vestibules, you see your reflection fragmented on hundreds of metal strips. Light penetrates through the slits. You see yourself infinitely. When activated in a performance, the strips open up like the skirt of a whirling dervish. When inside, you lose your bearings; reality slips away. All senses are troubled by the vibrating, trembling metal, and the resonance becomes music for meditation. A lot of my work is about reflection, fragmentation, and multiplication, which parallels my mode of writing. If my sculptures are considered as a cosmology of form, the words are the scaffolding on which they rest.
AW So who do you read? What texts are you drawn to again and again?
TK There are many I could mention. Someone who has always been important is Etel Adnan. Her poetry is so specific and personal but also universal at its core. It’s what I have always aspired to do with my own writing: to use my own story and experiences as a starting point to attain feelings that transcend myself. To write about things that many can relate to.
Adnan’s texts have an inhabiting quality. Her work circles around fundamental and profound themes that concern us all to some extent, and at the same time I can feel the rootless individual that floats behind the lines.
AW I agree. You both have this focus that is constantly narrowing and widening.
TK Though from different generations, I think that her biography and my biography have made us both into people who are able to zoom in and zoom out. We were born with a notion of vastness, living far from our roots. I know that, like mine, her life is marked by many displacements. I have often felt that we shared an ability to step back and observe life from the outside while intimately taking part in it. That is the mode in which I have developed my writing—going in close to observe the most intimate, and then, two lines later, stepping back and being in an openness.
Something else that links Adnan and me is that we’re both writers and visual artists. I’ve always been drawn to people who, like myself, are making work between different disciplines.
AW And I think that openness also presents itself on the pages of AS DEEP AS I COULD REMEMBER in the amount of silence or white space to breathe on the page. That’s something I find in Adnan’s work, too. Also this ability to play with past, present, and future so that there’s this sense of timelessness. Where are we in time? The question keeps emerging.
TK I need that sort of timelessness. I like stripping the sentences from any indication of time or place, plunging the reader into a timeless text. I often do so by using all grammatical tenses simultaneously. Past melds with the present, and the future is playing in reverse. “Saw, see, seeing, I still get to see day turn to night.”
There reigns an uncontrollable flux between my life as a writer and my practice as an artist. Information constantly drifts from one discipline to the other. When all windows are open, things can pass freely.
Asiya Wadud is the author of Crosslight for Youngbird, day pulls down the sky / a filament in gold leaf (written with Okwui Okpokwasili), Syncope, and No Knowledge Is Complete Until It Passes Through My Body (Nightboat, 2021). Her work has been supported by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Danspace Project, Mount Tremper Arts, the New York Public Library, and others. She teaches poetry at Saint Ann’s School, Columbia University, and Pacific Northwest College of Art.
Originally published in
Our spring issue features interviews with Tiffiney Davis, Alex Dimitrov, Melissa Febos, Valerie June, Tarik Kiswanson, Ajay Kurian, and Karyn Olivier; fiction by Jonathan Lee, Ananda Naima González, and Tara Ison; poetry by Jo Stewart, Farid Matuk, and Joyelle McSweeney; a comic by Somnath Bhatt; an essay by Wendy S. Walters; an archival interview between Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince; and more.
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