Bookforum talks with Quinn Latimer

Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems BY Quinn Latimer. Sternberg Press. Paperback, 248 pages. $.
Cover of Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems

In the pages of her recent chimeric collection, Like A Woman, poet and critic Quinn Latimer offers essays, poems, lists, and missives penned since 2010. The result is a critical memoir interleaved with texts on a pantheon of women artists and writers including Etel Adnan, Chantal Akerman, Hannah Arendt, Ingeborg Bachmann, Marguerite Duras, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf, and the writer’s mother, Blake Latimer. Together, these contributions reflect on (and demonstrate) critical lineage and influence, just as they consider the boons and failings of feminisms. Along the way, Latimer reckons with such mercurial topics as language and image—their dialectic in the work of Moyra Davey, for example; displacement and belonging, starting with her own, as she has lived between Basel and Athens, and also including that of the German exiles living in her hometown, Los Angeles, in the 1940s. She also offers a bluntly personal take on the complexities of the art world and its economies, its utopic and myopic aspects. In observations that are by turns surgical and invitingly vague, Latimer is peripatetic, traversing genre, subject, and geographies. Aptly, Latimer—the editor of publications for documenta 14—and I met on a moored boat. Last week, we corresponded about her new book.

AGL: What was the logic of the way your texts are sequenced? How did you consider formal resonances and contradictions, the echoes of ideas that ping pong throughout, as they reference earlier or subsequent texts?

QL: I was considering space and time in an autobiographical sense: The book begins and ends in Athens, where I currently work, while the middle largely takes place in Switzerland, with flashbacks to California, where I grew up. In terms of form, I tried to create a rhythm between essays and poems and the more hybrid texts that encompass both. In my prose, I’m always aware of alternating long, lingering, additive sentences with lines that are shorter, harsher, more compressed. I ended up considering this as I structured the book: it seemed important, finally, to break up the sequences of critical and personal essays with my shorter lyrics. At the level of idea or subject, I kept thinking about the refrain. I liked the idea of certain concerns or images coming up again and again—it seemed an honest way to approach my obvious obsessions, the way they move from meaning to cliché to meaning again.

AGL: The term “obsessions” seems so loaded. Where we might casually use it to refer to our interests or objects of study, it also connotes a disturbance, a lack of control. It feels darkly feminine, too. Like, Single White Female or Fatal Attraction

QL: I think there comes a time when one is looking over their writings or is putting together a book and its bibliography and the sheer insistence of one’s concerns—our slightly addled compulsion to circle the same ideas—becomes alarming. Who said that we keep writing the same book, in any case, over and over? Poets often employ certain words too much; I definitely do. Likewise, critics can mine different subjects for the same material. Which could be construed as a kind of stalking. Particularly when the pursuer, or writer, is female—someone who is only meant to be passive and the pursued.

AGL: You’ve referenced Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of the refrain—a marker of territory, or a form in which to organize or relate to chaos. Could you talk a bit about how this concept emerges in your work as lists and repetition? I’m reminded of Joe Brainard’s memoir I Remember, and the way the constraint of repetition coaxes out latent associations or expressions.

QL: I’ve always been taken by Deleuze and Guattari’s image of the child singing to himself in a moment of fright—the song-like refrain he sings being shelter, being form, being order, being the beginning, more darkly, of territory. And then that command of Deleuze and Guattari’s, at the end of their chapter on the subject: “Deterritorialize the refrain.” Ironically, I started thinking about the refrain—and chorus and litany and repetition, more generally—after I moved to Europe and began doing performances of my writings to contemporary art audiences that were often not familiar or comfortable with literary readings, or whose grasp of English was not strong. I couldn’t give them the spectacle per se, or total comprehension, but I did want to give them something—something they could grasp, hold onto, feel. When reading out loud, narrative and repetition and rhyme can do this work, offer this gift. Of entrance, maybe. Or engagement.

AGL: So you are using the refrain as a gesture that provides shelter, or order, to your reader, or listener—but do you also find that it occupies a similar role for you? That is, does the writing of—and through—the refrain help you to navigate irksome or uncomfortable ideas? And moreover, what does deterritorializing the refrain mean to you, especially in a contemporary art context? There should be something like a Rorschach test for Deleuzisms.

QL: For me the refrain is a small song of protection—which I enact as needed—as well as a kind of silencing. It can be a kind of drone or trance. Words used as a vessel: empty, full, empty, full. It can also be, though, a call for engagement. A call that needs a response, another voice. In Jewish prayers, amid all their pastoral lyrics, there is often this call-and-response structure; in the language of civil rights and street protests too. I find it very beautiful. I was recently talking to the Greek writer and architect Aristide Antonas about the refrain in the context of language and urbanism in the post-democratic city. There can be an emptiness to the refrain in which it signifies only its own sequence of words and sounds, repeated. In that repetition, the same sequence of words—their easy memory, inevitable syntax, pop incantations—begin to mean radically different things, then nothing at all, then something again. All because they are in someone’s mouth (or head), over and over. Last year I couldn’t get Nicki Minaj’s chorus in Rae Sremmurd’s “Throw Sum Mo” out of my head. As she drily repeats those three monosyllables over and over—brilliantly bored—their meaning becomes something other than simply telling men to throw more cash at the girls. The words are mined, they become rocks, in the form of syllables, thrown at the guys, at the whole system. To deterritorialize the refrain is not really the goal, but it speaks to displacement, to dispossession, to the loop between relations of expression and relations of territory, to the authoritarianism of language. And it speaks to the conditions of technology in which we live and work—for me chiefly in the contemporary art context—which is also not necessarily a good thing.

AGL: What are your thoughts on the status of art writing? I’m thinking of a line in “Tongue Pictures”: “The critic liked it / Because without a subject he could not / Criticize it.” I’ve noticed a trend in contemporary criticism that might be described as writing alongside a work, rather than sizing up its strengths and weaknesses—to augment or contextualize rather than evaluate. How do you situate yourself among works in your critical writing?

QL: That’s a throwaway line by John Chamberlain that I’ve always loved. Maybe because I’ve always had trouble embodying the traditional authority of the critic—being able to evaluate and finally say: this artwork has value and this one does not. I don’t really believe in it—or in flat estimations of aesthetic value, in any case—and I feel like a charlatan whenever I attempt to write criticism in this style. I like playing with such critical authority and rhetoric in my poetry, though. I do think a lot of contemporary art criticism—even that which is in the stated style of writing alongside of—is written with the aim of evaluating worth, along the established mores of the art market. Paradoxically, it often does so without much rhetorical style. It takes its role as taste-maker too seriously, perhaps. And its writing less so.

AGL: Speaking of style—could you talk about your use of the poetic apostrophe “O”? In “Name of a Magazine I Will Never Read,” for example: “…O reader, O / Lover, O someone’s simulacrum . . .” It’s so formal (in both senses of the word) and sometimes contrasts (occasionally immediately) with more colloquial or harsh language. It’s a gesture that seems in keeping with your interest in the promiscuity of language and image—versioning, appropriating, remixing—online, and in the context of new technologies, but also in a flattening of hierarchies. This is to say you embrace the omnivorous approach . . .

QL: The “O” is a hangover from my undergraduate and graduate studies in poetry, probably. But I’ve hung onto it, somehow. I like that the “O” forms a mouth on the page—a mouth that is omnivorous, and formal, and promiscuous, and female, and hysterical, and ironic, and all the things you list. I employ it too much, likely, at once ironically and very, very sincerely, which is how mouths operate, I think. The “O” is a mouth you can’t shut.

AGL: I love that—the “O” as consumer, conveyor. It’s quite sexual, too. But also, this “O” is traditionally a call to one who cannot respond. It struck meand this may be a leapthat the first person “I” and this “O” together make up the digital binary. Your writing often addresses the constraints or conditions of the technology you are using, in many cases the ways in which it contours our relationships, research, language.

QL: That’s so interesting, and probably totally true. The “O” and “I” are, for me, quite simply gendered signs or marks. Digital or other. To me, the “O” skews female, with its implication of openness, hysteria, contamination, exclamation, and—at the same time—a kind of muteness. The “I”—sober, erect, definitive, comfortable in its authority to speak and construct the world—is “male.” This gender binary is embedded in how we speak, how we write, how we code, technological or otherwise. Little escapes this binary, no matter how hard we try.

In my book’s last essay, “Signs, Sounds, Metals, Fires, or An Economy of Her Reader,” which is, in part, a close reading of the poet and philologist Jesper Svenbro’s incredible book Phrasikleia: An Anthropology of Reading in Ancient Greece, I talk about this binary of language, and of how surprised I was to learn that to the early Greeks, language was not this economic duo but was actually figured as a trio. In the patriarchal equations of archaic and classical Greece, oral language ruled, and the writer was figured as the father. His—voiceless—daughter was his writing. Her “reader” would be her husband. He would give her a voice, and thus proclaim her father’s fame—via language—audibly. The men used the woman as a kind of mute conduit in order to relate, to exchange. And yet she was writing.

Conversely, in Anne Carson’s famous essay “The Gender of Sound,” she discusses a kind of shriek exclusive to women, the ololyga. Part of female rituals—childbirth, women’s festivals, and female sacrifice, when the girl’s throat is cut—ololyga signifies nothing but its own sound, as she writes. In Carson’s classical translations from the Greek, moments of ololyga are often indicated by a bunch of uppercase O’s and I’s. It looks like, reads like, code.

I am suddenly thinking about Trump’s tweets of the last weeks, years. In them is always suggested the same image: the hysterical “O” of some professional woman’s mouth or face or genitalia. For him, it appears they are all the same thing, we are all the same thing, all the same “O.” That’s the code or sign he reduces us to. And there is always blood or a female voice—that awful sound—gushing from it.

AGL: It seems one response to the recent rearing of misogynistic politicians is an interest in so-called confessional literature, particularly by women. There is something of the confessional in your book, too. What does this mode offer us now?

QL: I don’t know. Language—and misogyny—is about control. There is likely something about temporality and necessity and resistance here, about the need to read and write language that attempts to approach or approximate the real. When the language of public life, political and social life, has become so polluted, so oppressive, perhaps the language of “private” life—its written record—becomes a refuge. But I think literature of similar tenor—self-reflexive, essayistic, postmodern, engaging a kind of radical realism, maybe—is often described in diverging ways depending on who wrote it. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” books would probably have pink, beach-y covers and be called confessional were he not a white man from Scandinavia. I do think we are in the midst of some moment—white, patriarchal, genocidal, ecocidal—in which empire’s making a desperate attempt to hold onto and reinvest in its long colonial work. Social, economic, and political gains made by women, people of color, and the poor in the twentieth century are being systematically dismantled everywhere, and there’s a resurgence of land exploitation and resource expropriation at the exact moment that our planet is pretty clearly transforming (climate, extinctions, etc.) darkly. Thinking of your question, there are two quotes I keep going to: “Young women are afraid to speak, let alone write. When I witness their fear, their silences, I know no woman has written enough,” bell hooks wrote once. And then this line, by the poet Brenda Hillman: “Between earth / & its noun, i felt a fire.”

AGL: Susan Sontag wrote of philosopher Simone Weil, who you conjure throughout your book, as a “person who is excruciatingly identical with her ideas”—someone who, perhaps, was rigorous in her ability to collapse, in her work, earth and its noun. You write of her in an essay about your mother, where you also remind us that books are themselves technologies that reveal and conceal.

QL: Yes. My mother was a frustrated writer—I wince as I say that, it is such a cliché. But everything in her life was predicated on language and being a woman. Poverty too, and that which often goes with it: mental illness, addiction. Despite our closeness she was difficult for me to understand, in some sense—more so now that she is gone—and I often find myself trying to read her life through the women writers and thinkers and artists she favored and tried to model herself on. The big book of the collected writings of Weil in my bookcase was her book; I came to so many of those I read and write about through her. Weil’s strange acuity—her odd, exemplary life and thought—is a kind of code in which I try to decode other lives, other lines of thinking.

AGL: I want to ask about the ways in which you address feelings of guilt and privilege, which are variously conceived in the first few texts in your book. You wrote some of these while you were working in Athens on the publications for documenta 14. To what extent did that experience encourage this expression, or make it necessary for you? Has your thinking about your work there changed at all in hindsight, particularly after the opening in Kassel?

QL: To work in Europe during the past decade, and particularly in Athens more recently, the privileges of my blue American passport, my fluent English, my white skin, are overwhelmingly apparent. They structure every interaction I have. I’ve watched, over the past few years, as national borders across Europe and the Schengen countries began to shut, as anyone brown or black was pulled off my train or flight, as the Aegean and Mediterranean became a grave for those deemed unable to pass, as my neighborhood in Athens began to fill with squats of refugees, mostly women and children from Syria and Afghanistan who survived the wars and their journey here but are now stuck in total limbo, unable to work, unable to leave. For those of them who will actually make it out of Greece, I wonder how many generations it will take for life to become something other than a matter of discrimination and survival. My great-grandmother was a child refugee, without papers, who came to the US on a boat, accompanied only by another girl. No one knew her birthday so they celebrated it on Christmas. Displacement and dispossession—some of the subjects I’ve been working on for documenta 14—are encoded in my history, my body, as they are in so many. They are also our O’s and I’s. My book attempts, in part, to consider this field of privilege, trauma, poverty, violence, and assimilation, and the role of art and language within it. I think the litanies and lists that end some of my texts are an attempt to construct a lexicon of terms that determine that world. It’s a subjective and totally indefinitive set of terms, but it is an attempt—perhaps at reading power through resistance to it, perhaps at something else.

Annie Godfrey Larmon is a writer and editor based in New York.