Whether one wants to or not, as a city dweller one develops a certain unintended intimacy with their neighbors. In the close quarters of New York City, unless you have great walls, you often become acquainted with your neighbors’ musical tastes, the hours they keep, and even the sex life they may or may not have. Rachel Levitsky’s innovative, smart, and beautifully designed new book Neighbor (Ugly Duckling Presse 2009) illuminates this odd relationship between urban neighbors through a dated log of poetic entries.
Rachel Levitsky’s first full-length volume, Under the Sun was published by Futurepoem books in 2003. She is the author of five chapbooks of poetry, Dearly (a+bend, 1999), Dearly 356, Cartographies of Error (Leroy, 1999), The Adventures of Yaya and Grace (PotesPoets, 1999) and 2(1×1)Portraits (Baksun, 1998). Levitsky writes poetry plays, three of which (one with Camille Roy) have been performed in New York and San Francisco. Her work is published in magazines such as The Recluse, Sentence, Fence, The Brooklyn Rail, Global City, The Hat, Skanky Possum, Lungfull! and the anthologies, Boog City (vol. I & II), Bowery Women, and 19 Lines: A Drawing Center Writing Anthology. Recently her work was translated into Icelandic for the anthology 131.839 Slög Med Bilum by Eiríkur Örn Nordahl and into French for the Paris journal Action poetique. Online poetry and critical essays can be found on such sites as Narrativity, Duration Press, How2, Web Conjunctions, and is forthcoming in DWB, in the 2010 issue of the Dutch language magazine, “The Empire of Women,” which she is also guest-editing with Jan Lauwereyns. She has taught poetry workshops at Woodland Pattern, Naropa University, Poets House, the Poetry Project and the Pratt Institute. She is the founder and co-director of Belladonna, an event and publication series of feminist avant-garde poetics. In 2008 she was the poet from the United States invited to attend The Tokyo Poetry Festival and throughout 2008-2009 she served as the CPCW Fellow in Poetics & Poetic Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. She currently teaches college courses in two prisons in New York State.
The following is an interview with Rachel Levitsky about Neighbor:
Susie DeFord Your new book Neighbor speaks to the close-quarter paranoia of city dwellers. What gave you the idea for this book?
Rachel Levitsky Actually this book is in several ways a sequel to the book I published before it, Under the Sun (Futurepoem 2003). Formally and content-wise my work considers spatial relationships as an ethical field. Under the Sun considers the geometry of a two, a romantic two though its two central characters are mutable. Only after UTS was written and released did I recognize that there was a consistent third position/character… the neighbor who is like Waldo or the troublesome spying assistants in Kafka’s Castle, who are always, and intentionally, making matters worse for their boss, while absolutely meeting all expectations for their role as assistants. This neighbor/assistant/Waldo character is distinct from the abiding presence of the romantic other which is closer to an unreachable alter ego of the self. I became interested in the urban other/neighbor’s social function. In fact, last year there was an interesting article published in New York Magazine which points to the pleasures and satisfactions of living alone in cities in which social conviviality is readily available. This article debunks the myth of loneliness associated with urban anonymity and single life. Neighbor is a constant and familiar presence. Since it was clearly something I was tuned into in my poetic imagination, I went with it, though it was a little embarrassing to do so; I knew my play with subject position with its turns from third person to first person singular, a practice I engaged as a part of the project of challenging the notion of neighbor as the other/not-lover/enemy (this is from Freud’s discussion of the neighbor in Civilization and its Discontents “Not only is the stranger in general unworthy of my love, I must honestly confess that he has more claim to my hostility and even my hatred.”) would make it all seem like raw confession. Which of course it is and it is not, “How is it far, if you think of it?” to quote Ezra Pound; or, to paraphrase Olson: it is as far as it is, so one must move toward it to find out how far is far and then one is no longer so far. So I was putting my body on that line or at least I was casting my first person pronoun into the fray of challenging understood boundaries. I’ll say more about that later on in response to your last question. One last thing… a friend’s shrink told my friend that neighbor is the second only to lover as the most talked about/obsessed upon area of concern in talk therapy.
SD Did you live in the same apartment the whole time you worked on the book? Do you still live there? What are your thoughts on how place influences writing?
RL Yes, I lived in one place and I live there part-time now. This is perhaps the books’ one and only singularity—at which desk in which room it was written. In the book, I point out that the neighbor, read as a single character, is in fact many (each and every) genders and sorts and across historical time and imaginative realities. Although my neighbor was written in that particular room, many of the stories are imported from other locations, from conversations, from memory, many from the huge pre-war building I had just moved out of, where I’d lived in a studio in the very back, on the 6th floor. That place was small and so in fact much of the previous book [UTS] was written in the Botanical Gardens, while the new place was big and so I stayed inside a lot more; and it was a more porous building than the pre-war building, with a lot more windows so more of what was beyond my apartment was audible, visible, sensible.
With help from my parents, I purchased this site of writing that I speak of in 2000. I’m certain the shift to ownership altered my relationship with the neighbor, and this shift in part writes the book. I think owning a place made me less skittish, since as an owner I was less vulnerable. For example, although I was robbed immediately upon moving into my new place (my computer of all things) it was very different than when I’d been robbed in the early 1990’s. Twice! Two days in a row! My roommate and I figured out it was being perpetrated by the landlord trying to get rid of us because we were attempting to battle his slumlordy ways. We lost.
In 1995 when I moved into the neighborhood it was mainly African American, Caribbean American, Jewish, Lubovitch. Class-wise it ranged from poor to middle class. It was one of those neighborhoods that had the standard necessities: grocery, laundry, car service, botanica, bodega, bar, tailor, church, barber shop and beauty shop, take out (Chinese, Caribbean), postal store. My experience of my neighbor was that folks hung out in front of buildings and on stoops and there was lots of passing conversation and recognition. I came to know many of the people in that building. We fed each other’s cats. When my neighbor became a mom, I’d sometimes watch her kid for a few minutes while she picked up her laundry. I think that one of the things that doesn’t get enough consideration in the conversation about gentrification is how the intensification of bourgeois commerce and consumption (caféwinebarlittlefrockboutique) interrupts the non-pecuniary interactions on the street. And though this kind of development is only really picking up momentum now, and though I have antipathy toward it, I belonged to it, to this massive and unpleasant shift in relations and territoriality.
SD Have any of your actual neighbors read the book or had reactions to possible references to them in the book?
RL Several of the characters have vacated the premises, but I don’t think me writing about them has caused this. But many are still doing what they do in the book.
SD You allude to possible psycho killer neighbors quite a bit. Did you have any personal experience with criminal neighbors? Or were there any particular news stories you followed that led you to contemplate this?
RL The actions of murder, suicide, robbery, and assault, sexual and otherwise, are all real events that happen in my neighborhood as elsewhere. I reject criminal as a class of person, as a means of identifying people, but certainly I am part of the environment in which relationships are shaped by the presence of our criminal (in)justice system and class, race, gender, so that the cops, for example, will ally with the man who is acting violently with his wife because such violence is framed as more legal than not. I have also been harassed by cops on the street who thought I shouldn’t be living in the neighborhood. I don’t mean to trash cops rather, as a poet I’m interested in the contradictions in the system of state control, and how it and the media reify the categories of victim and perpetrator which I understand as a rigid binary that is part of that control. This can be one way to think of gentrification, as a violence, that may or may not be met with a violent reaction or when the police systematically brutalize young men in certain neighborhoods. But the binary, innocent victim : monstrous criminal is so gripping that it is how the media spins nearly every situation. Many of the stories were, yes, clipped from the media. In 2002 the Central Park Jogger case reappeared in the media both when the convictions of the five who did the time were overturned by the a confession and positive DNA proof that there was one man, Matias Reyes, was who committed the rape, and later when the Trish Meili released her book I am the Central Park Jogger. This new media on that case shows up in the book.
SDThe various rooms and numbers at the tops of your pages seemed an interesting way to organize the writing. I understood the rooms but was unsure about what the numbers reflected, at first I thought dates but then the numbers went too high. Can you speak about this?
RL The numbers are dates ordered as YYMMDD. It was an easier way for me to log the files since the book was written over several years. Sometimes the writing occurred on more than one day so those pieces have two logs.
SD Neighbor linguistically and structurally made me think a lot about architecture. Do you have an interest in actual architecture or merely poetic architecture?
RL I do have an interest in architecture but thinking back over my reading history and dates I feel like the bulk of my architectural reading has happened since beginning to write these poems so I would say that the book inspired the reading of architecture and not so much the other way around. Rem Koolhaas, Liz Grosz, Beatriz Colomina, and Walter Benjamin have all become really critical for the way I think about cities and buildings. I love Delirious New York–how Koolhaas makes up a category for every NYC gesture. And I love Grosz’ discussion of nature and culture, examining how ‘proliferation’ in cities, of things exceeding their bounds, implodes the categories as distinct—since both ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ proliferate. Colomina examines the shifts in public and private especially toward the gendered female body as a private form that exists in the public sphere by accepted acts of enforced exposure in art, film, media. Walter Benjamin’s writings on walking and cities and phantasmagoria are endlessly rich especially at this time when the mob is finally being successfully harnessed by machinery and speed and tourism. That is where my reading is going now, into theory about automation and speed. I took a trip to Tokyo last year for a poetry festival and I’ve yet to make sense of the scale of building there, the movement of the masses through these enormous enclosed structures. I am trying to consolidate my thinking about space and speed and enclosure in a prose novella called “The Story of My Accident is Ours.”
SD There are four different sections of the book each with a bit of a different feel to them. Can you speak about how these sections play off of each other?
RL Most of the systems and patterns that I began with, I mixed up and finally, after enough reorganization of the pieces, there was an accidental feel, a randomness to the ordering so I guided myself more literarily, in a kind of analytical progression, less chronologically, in terms of the order of being written. Rachel Zolf help me order the poems with an eye for both visual and contextual flow. Zolf has a book coming out in the Spring that is called The Neighbour Procedure, which responds directly to the problem of Israeli occupation, the eclipsed stories of Palestinians in that drama, the acceleration of violence against Palestinians and the struggle for liberation via the building of the barrier, the Gaza invasion, and other historical and recent developments. At one point I considered taking some of this on but it was too big and too much of a stretch on the scope of the project I’d laid out, so it’s interesting to be in dialogue with Rachel.
Anyway, the section seem to go like this: the first reads to me as general and theoretical introduction, the second gathers around image/media/story about neighbor, the play opens the third section to dialogue , and finally the last section, which is the most prosy is aptly titled ‘the desire of the writer’ and is more inwardly focused.
SD Perfect California: A Family Affair is a poetic play. How did you come up with the idea to write this? How did you feel about the seeing your play performed? Is this any different than “letting go” of the work for publication?
RL In my perfect world as a writer, 25-50% of what I would do would be poetry plays and collaborative performance. My real life makes that kind of production difficult. I had begun the play during a stay in California—I was there for a performance of a play, Reduced Tuesday, which I’d co-written with Camille Roy. I was probably inspired to get into it because of being in that particular formal atmosphere. When I heard that Lee Ann Brown, Tony Torn, and Corina Copp were putting up a poetry play festival at the Ontological Hysteric, I nabbed the opportunity to dust off and finish what I’d started two years before and I submitted it for the festival. Producing it with stage actors was really weird. The group I worked with advanced theatrically but acting tends to be more literal than we poets are used to, e.g. in the text, I make a point of de-gendering the characters, but that is easier to do on paper than with speaking, [to] physically present bodies. I thought Brian Snap and Feed the Herd were really open to the weird poetry aesthetic and did a great job.
SD You write on your acknowledgements page about having trouble “letting go” of the work. Can you speak about this?
RL Yes, in the Acks I say how I was mostly finished with the text several years ago but had trouble ‘letting go’ which riffs on a joke I make in the piece called “Framework” (84) about bowels and vowels and how I taught my then-students the potential dangers to not being able to distinguish b and v or as they call them long b and short b.
What I set out to do I of course did not (“poem never finished only abandoned”), but for a while I felt I could do more linguistically to smash the neighbor lover binary. But I faced real barriers, real intransigence in the concepts as supported by the buildings and institutions right there on the corner. If it weren’t for Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich… who really have been heroically committed and patient, I do think a writer is only good as their community/conversation with others, and these two were aware of and encouraging of this work from the beginning. In fact the first piece of the work, which did not get in the book is “Car Alarm” which Matvei probably published in around 2002, if not earlier, in a little magazine called Fell Swoop, that comes out of New Orleans—he guest edited a Brooklyn version call Brooklyn Swoop (or Stoop, I can’t recall and have no access to my files right now!). I was always nervous about this work, like I said it made me feel exposed even as it is as full of artifice as any piece of writing, so having people validate it as work that has a life outside of me has enabled me to let it go into the ethers.