Poetry is a bad drug of choice. The endless toil of many poetry books, many, many poetry readings—the ratio of interest to noninterest—is usually not in your favor. But the electric jolt of good poetry is incomparable. That dense moment of unpacking the human cosmos, in little lines of words, is the premier secular access to the divine.
And for this, Anne Boyer is your best bet. She’s a purveyor of jolts, and her insights linger long past their revelation. The world is so much more complicated and simple than we ever imagined. Her poems take on the structure of an essay or a lecture, but her ideas always vibrate outside the lines.
She is a staunch communist, but never the elitist communist intellectual. Boyer has become a trusted voice in communist writing by eschewing pretentious frills and whittling communist ideas down to their central, glowing ember of truth: recognizing our shared abundance and innate desire to help one another.
She is a light. She is a witch. She is an ocean.
And I’m not the only one who knows this. Garments against Women earned the 2016 Community of Literary Magazines and Presses Firecracker Award, and after publishing A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, she won the 2018 Cy Twombly Award for Poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and the Whiting Award in Nonfiction and Poetry. Her book on cancer and its ontology, The Undying, was published in mid-September 2019, and she is currently working on her first book of fiction.
Our conversations were bookended by Anne’s yearlong move to the UK for the Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellowship at the University of Cambridge, where she planned to teach a workshop and write. An hour before speaking with me, Boyer had gotten her visa approved and couriered to her. This was the first time she would move from the Midwest (she grew up in Salina, Kansas), and the first time she’d live away from her Kansas City Art Institute students and her daughter, who left home to attend college last fall. Part of the interview took place in June 2019, days after her return to the US.
I. “THE ‘YES’ WRAPPED IN THE ‘NO’”
THE BELIEVER: “No,” the first poem in A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, reminds me of Bartleby, the Scrivener, who goes to work one day and says, “I prefer not to,” which becomes his new philosophy of life. Were you influenced by this?
ANNE BOYER: I teach a class called Literature of the Absurd, and we begin with Bartleby and ideas about alienation. We also read Camus. So we began to trace the “no” wrapped in the “yes” and the “yes” wrapped in the “no” as concepts. Sometimes I develop my ideas for what I want to write through teaching something again and again and having conversations with all the brilliant people that end up in my classroom. Although I did find something in my notebook from when I was fourteen in which I tried to write a poem about how beautiful the word no is, so apparently I’ve been working on it for thirty years.
BLVR: Tell me more about the “no” wrapped in the “yes” and the “yes” wrapped in the “no.”
AB: In a letter to [Nathaniel] Hawthorne, [Herman] Melville talks about how the “yes” is a disguised “no.” But in my essay, the “no” is wrapped around the “yes,” so it’s preservative. To refuse is to preserve what is better about the world. So that carapace of a “no” preserves the true and enthusiastic “yes.” Nietzsche has this thing, amor fati, in which his hope is to so embrace fate, to so embrace his destiny—like the suffering and the ugliness as well as the goodness—that eventually he is a complete “yes,” an embodied “yes.” Which is funny, because we think of him as a philosopher of “no,” ultimately. So there is a push-pull between the two.
For him, yes is the refusal to consider any minute of one’s life a bad one. We’re supposed to imagine all these elements of our experience as forbidden or diminished or degraded, and for Nietzsche the ability to be embodied as the pure “yes” is the ultimate refusal of the social norm. Inside of my essay, the “no” serves as this invisible armor around a deeper mystery, which is what we can truly love, what we truly want to say yes to.
BLVR: I was also thinking about “no” in terms of political refusal. Do you identify with a specific political party?
AB: I am definitely a communist. I believe that the world should be for the people and we should hold the world in common because it already is a common world. We shouldn’t believe the lie of property. Eight people own the same amount of money as the poorest half of the world does, but in fact they don’t own it; it’s ours. It’s labor that creates the world, and the people who think they have it have it wrongly.
With politics, what we’re given are the available choices, which are not sufficient for the historical moment. My dad always told me that when someone gives you two choices, an either-or, they are always lying. Two choices are always a lie. In politics we’re set up into this limited number of choices, which is deceptive. So in that, too, is the power of refusing things and saying no to them in the effort to get toward something better.
BLVR: Do you think we’re moving toward a more communist or socialist world?
AB: I have no idea.
BLVR: Maybe it’s just because I’m living in New York, but I feel like Americans right now are more interested in communism and socialism than they have been in the past—realizing that they’re not only plausible but essential.
AB: Absolutely. Planetary survival depends on us moving out of capitalism. If we want to exist, we have to make the change. And I know that my daughter and her high school debate team were incredibly friendly to socialism, communism, and anti-capitalism. I had a few friends like that in high school, but it certainly wasn’t something they discussed with real possibility and fluency. So I hope we are set up for that. I do think that as we are pushed further into crisis and further into insecurity and deprivation, people will begin to realize that what we are given as the status quo is unworkable and that we have, as a possibility for our species, something better.
BLVR: I have seen you say before that “humans can be quite cute if you let them,” and you have also tweeted that “Capitalism makes our souls suspicious & narrow.”
AB: It does!
BLVR: Yes, and I love that because it’s a great way to naturalize communism the way that capitalism is naturalized by conservatives and libertarians who consciously or unconsciously invoke The Selfish Gene, and speak about capitalism in this fated way that supposedly maps onto Darwinian evolution. I just really like how you are showing that we are actually trained in that scarcity mind-set when we are probably more inclined toward helping one another and fostering a lifestyle of abundance.
AB: Here’s an experiment I do. When you’re in a large stadium—I went to a Miranda Lambert show at a football stadium the other day—imagine that each one of those people is a baby. They don’t know how to use the bathroom or wipe their noses, and yet they have stayed alive. More than one person has kept them alive; there was incredible cooperation. Each grown person, each grown human being, represents ambulatory, irrefutable evidence that we know how to take care of one another and that we have something more in us besides the narrow, selfish, competitive world that capitalism creates for us. It goes back to the animal model too.
One of the tricks the world plays on us is leading us to mistake our historical circumstances for natural ones—to consider as natural states the shape of the family, or the way the economy functions, or the way we learn to treat one another. Or even feelings—to imagine that arousal is true and natural in and of itself, rather than a natural process that reflects a greater social structure. So I think it’s this mode of noticing all the things that are contrary to the narrative that capitalism is the most natural form of existing, because we can find that evidence everywhere. We can find tiny subversions and large subversions. There’s probably not an inch of earth on which some kind of rebellion hasn’t taken place. We have within us all these marvelous capacities, and it’s the structure of society right now that can fool us into despair and resignation.
We are mentally blocked because we face an onslaught of ideological training. I try to talk about these things in noninflammatory ways with people that I encounter in my everyday world. It seems to me that the world and its bounty belong to the people that belong in the world—a common-sense idea. If you take it outside the realm of political identification and move it into the realm of common sense, it’s very rare that you find someone that is an ardent advocate for the mode of living we have now. I think most people have realized that this isn’t working out.
One of the things I always try to do is make it clear that to be a communist or a socialist, you don’t have to be a Marxist intellectual; you don’t have to be an intellectual at all. You don’t have to have read extensive selections from the Verso catalog, you don’t have to have special jargon, you don’t have to engage in debates all night on Facebook in order to have these beliefs.
I think what happened is that there’s this holding of these collectivist possibilities by this narrow group of people, and that put me off. Only my stubborness, my attachment to these notions—even if I felt as if they belonged to someone else, belonged to some elite person, which is totally nonsensical, given what they are—only my stubborness and my fuck-you-ness allowed me to hold on to them.
II. “VARIOUS EGALITARIAN IMPULSES”
BLVR: How was your Cambridge experience?
AB: Part of the nature of going to Cambridge wasn’t simply going to a different location from that which I had been familiar with. It was also going from being a person who has spent her whole life in the region in which she was born and educated and moving not just to a different country but to a place that existed explicitly to reproduce the British class system.
It was very difficult for me to learn how to behave inside the class system at Cambridge, which exists not only to reinforce the customs of the British upper classes for the people who are born into them and educated in the UK’s private schools, but to take the brightest people who weren’t from those classes and to teach them how to behave like members of the elite. So even the students had people who came to clean the rooms each week, and the students learned how to live with butlers, porters, and gardeners—all the things someone would have at a British manor house. So I was put into that system and I was too old to learn to acquire whatever it takes to be OK with being served and being somebody who doesn’t take their own plate from the table or clean their own toilet. The adjustment to a life in which I had to acquire the helplessness of the upper classes, which Cambridge seems to demand of its students and faculty, made me depressed and increasingly alienated.
You live behind these gates and walls guarded by porters, and you have cleaning people come in a few times a week to clean your place—it was very hard to get used to. In the first rooms I lived in, there was this cleaning woman from Poland in her thirties who was always wearing feminist T-shirts. She was very cool and is someone I think I would have been good friends with under any other circumstances. She saw that I had a tarot pack in my room, and one day she asked me if I would read her tarot and tell her fortune. So we sat down together over the cards and discussed her life. And at that moment I realized that we had probably done something that no visiting fellow and cleaning person had ever done in the history of the old and conservative Cambridge college I was living in. There was this kind of structural prohibition built into our relationship to each other. I was thinking I would take her to one of the formal dinners that the college has, but I realized that would put her in an awkward position and would seem to be this performative and ineffectual disruption of the class system. It wasn’t something that some American, with my various egalitarian impulses, was going to be able to change; the nature of this institution has been going on for centuries in the same way.
But there we were both people inside of that system and inside of that relationship to each other. This wasn’t our place; this wasn’t our structure. We both came in from the outside, and we were both brought there to sustain this system, even though neither of us had a stake in maintaining it. Neither of us had the power to undo its enduring quality either.
BLVR: It’s interesting, looking at the different forms of outsider labor from different countries between you and the woman you befriended. You’re both brought in from outside the UK to fulfill a re-entrenchment of the British class system, but on different terms. Do you think this experience is reflective of Brexit and what’s been happening recently in the UK?
AB: It at least points to the contradictory nature of the issues over borders. Cambridge and other elite institutions need open borders so they can get the brightest people—they need to have the top scholars in order to maintain their reputations as top institutions. And then they also obviously depend on low-wage immigrant labor to sustain the class system—they need to train people to be waited upon and to be passive. So borders require a kind of openness in the interest of the upper classes. Corporations need open trade in order to have cheap manufacturing; employers need to have labor pools they can adjust, manipulate, and exploit for the interest of profit; information economies and institutions need to be able to have the brightest workers. All of these things demand an openness of borders. At the same time, part of the way political power is strengthened is by fomenting Islamophobia, racial supremacy, fear of outsiders. They promote closing the borders so the free movement of poor and working people is thwarted and fear is fomented around perceived cultural threat, around difference in any kind of way. This is all to create political power, while the borders need to be completely open for the flow of global capital and for this intellectual class.
People are not just kept from entering; they are detained in horrific conditions. They are being imprisoned, blocked, and punished for trying to move. Countries are going to extreme measures to obstruct the free movement of individuals, while at the same time there is this hyper-acceleration of the flow of people, ideas, and goods in the interest of the upper classes. The upper classes get this total freedom of movement while poor and working people are thwarted at every turn or manipulated; their movement is allowed only if it serves more-powerful people.
BLVR: You’re right. There is this intractable contradiction to it all that in the end keeps pushing toward more and more inequality.
AB: The experience of Cambridge for me was this sense of profound unfairness. These people who grow up in this system and go to Cambridge and Oxford are going to be in charge of the press and the government. They are going to be the rulers of a place, and everyone else is just shit out of luck. There is an immovability of class relations that can never be breached.
Nobody at Cambridge was pro-Brexit, because they understand that they need to have this flow of intellectuals, they want to have their croissants from France, they want to have their vacations in Spain, they don’t want these things taken away from them. And so it’s not a kind of brute xenophobia or protectionism, but there’s a different kind of conservatism that’s built into the structures there that is greater, longer, and harder than the questions around Brexit.
III. “THESE ACTORS DON’T HAVE CANCER.”
BLVR: Tell me about The Undying.
AB: I began it the week I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, in August 2014. I had just turned forty-one, and my life was finally stabilizing, going really well; I felt incredibly vibrant and healthy, and then in just a matter of days everything I knew to be the case was no longer the case. They were telling me I was this sick person who, unless I got this really aggressive treatment, would not have very long to live. I wrote during the treatment because I didn’t know if I was going to live or die and, more so, because the treatment for chemotherapy causes brain damage, memory loss, and loss of words. So each time I would go in for treatment, I didn’t know which part of me would be lost. I wrote thousands of words’ worth of journals during treatment, and afterwards I knew I was going to live but was dealing with having become disabled and mutilated from treatment. So one hundred thousand words were condensed and condensed and condensed into forty thousand words, into a much smaller prose work that relies on those documents that I wrote during the time but that doesn’t really reproduce them. It became something else; it became something that moved beyond the narrative of my own experience into a larger exploration of how to know. And especially how to know when your capacity for knowing is completely wiped out. And this ideological onslaught that breast cancer brings. You’re drugged up and scared. One thing I’d always had going for me is that I thought I was pretty smart, and then I was drugged up to be so much duller and I still had to know what the truth was, like what treatments to get, what gave me cancer, what was the relationship of my cancer to the rest of the world, to gender and the economy and race. I desperately needed to know, and I didn’t have a capacity to know. So the book, I hope—beyond being about illness and disability and pain and exhaustion—what I really want it to be is an epistemological thriller. A book in which the notions of how to know and what can be known drive it forward.
BLVR: It’s interesting to think about how you’re not only isolated from the world because you don’t know what’s real, but you’re also isolated from your body and your faculties, so it’s this double isolation.
AB: I’ve been through other things that are supposed to be traumatic, but there is nothing that was ever as alienating to me as the experience of cancer. And I had friends who took incredibly good care of me, so I was in this ideal situation in which I was getting a lot of love, and I still felt so alone and so desolate. The entire world eventually became structured along the lines of cancer. There was nothing else. Everyone I saw just looked like a person that didn’t have cancer. I would go to a movie, and the entire hour and forty-seven minutes, all I could think was: These actors don’t have cancer. And they might even have had cancer! But that’s the experience in which there’s just nothing left.
In the book I switch between two rectangles, the bed and the screen, which are the two dominant shapes of illness right now. Cancer has this abundant screen life, this data life. You’re either staring at your screen or you’re in the rectangle of your bed, and you jostle back and forth between the two rectangles. If I had a book trailer for it, it would be four minutes of just bed, screen, bed, screen.
BLVR: Have you read Christopher Hitchens’s Mortality?
AB: I did not, but I did try to do a survey of illness literature. There’s this really fantastic episode of The Smurfs in which Poet Smurf can no longer write at the time when all his friends have gotten really into poetry, and he’s become very popular and poetry has become very popular, and they come to him to make up these words, but he can no longer write. So he goes to the Valley of the Wildebeests, and they’re going to eat him unless he can make the princess cry. But he cannot write the poem to make the princess cry, so he goes off to die. As he goes off to die, he has one more poem he wants to write, and it’s for his friends. He writes this last poem, puts it under a rock because his friends are always lifting rocks, and a wildebeest finds it, it makes the princess cry, Poet Smurf’s life is saved, and when he goes back, poetry is no longer important to the Smurf village. So I had this sort of feverish, drugged-up night of my illness watching that episode of The Smurfs about mortality. I also went to see La Traviata, and there was the whole third act about Violetta’s death. Also, there’s this 1980 movie called Death Watch. So I didn’t read Hitchens but I did watch The Smurfs.
BLVR: The Smurf thing sounds more interesting than the Hitchens.
AB: [Laughs] Well, death and writing can go a couple of ways. In John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, he showed off to God as he was going to die, and it’s probably a good thing he didn’t die, because God would have punished him for his hubris and for being such a great poet and writing such a great book. He needed to get a little more humble. So sometimes it can turn into the very best thing—the last breath sings the best song—and other times all of our vanity and pride can flood into those moments. And as I looked through my journals, I had to do a lot of thinking about what kind of lies I was telling myself in my writing during that time and try to wrinkle them out. There was one edit where I went through the book sentence by sentence, saying: Is this true or did I just think this was true? Where have I fooled myself, and where has my vanity or personal downfalls come into the writing?
BLVR: Maybe the pride and vanity at that moment is a desire for immortality.
AB: Absolutely it is.
BLVR: And that’s related to a fear of dying, which is completely normal.
AB: In the book I talk about early death and the punk-rock appeal of it, but when you get sick, you’re like, Take this back. Never mind. I just want to die old with my friends. I talk about these two paintings: Cleopatra by Artemisia Gentileschi versus this old Flemish painting.1 Cleopatra is just super sexy, and the other painting I talk about is just utterly terrifying. So during the process of being ill and contemplating mortality, as much as I was into the idea of: Oh, I could write this like Cleopatra, I had to pull back and see if that’s true, and no! That’s not true! So I had to adjust for that vanity.
What I try to do in my writing is that if I perceive my own weakness or my own occluded vision or some moment in which I am not up to the task of discerning some truth or seeking an idea, I just include that in the writing. I just include in the writing an admission of what I can’t do. I don’t ever want to be a writer whose writing presumes to have all the answers or to speak authoritatively on anything.
BLVR: In A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, you also mention The Magic Mountain, another book about sickness.
AB: Yes, it’s a novel about time and illness, and it’s really fantastic. It’s a novel that only Thomas Mann is skilled enough to write in which nothing happens and there’s this ongoingness of being ill. In the canon of sick-person literature, that and the John Donne are two of the most impressive and rich reads.
BLVR: What do you think makes them unique?
AB: It’s just two great writers writing about a difficult subject with complexity. In the book, I talk about Virginia Woolf and her claim, in her essay “On Being Ill,” that there’s no great literature on being ill, and I say that all great literature about being ill makes a claim that there’s no great literature on being ill—because it does! Part of this wonderfully bizarre aspect of pathographies—illness books—is that everyone thinks, Why has no one done this? So I try to not to do that, but at the same time, the whole time I’m writing, there’s this idea in my head like, Oh, I am being unprecedented. The state of being unprecedented is the dominant myth we tell one another.
Except another thing my book draws on heavily is a second-century Greek orator named Aristides, who wrote this book, Sacred Tales, about his years being a sick person and sleeping in the sacred temples to have prescriptive dreams to heal himself. So the whole time I’m telling myself that I’m unprecedented in writing this book, I’m also writing about a book about a second-century orator who’s writing his own unprecedented book about being ill, and what you can believe and how you tell stories about it.
BLVR: If anything, I think believing you’re making something unprecedented is the feeling of writing in general. But maybe with illness this feeling is more concentrated.
AB: There are aspects of illness that feel kind of resistant to available narratives. So there’s that going on. But when the really good writers get into it, absolutely fantastic work can come out of—and has come out of—illness, like Magic Mountain or Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. And the whole time I am announcing to myself that I am unprecedented, all I really want is for my book to be on the shelf next to those. I have the dream of: Can I write something that will nestle closely next to John Donne or Thomas Mann or Virginia Woolf or Susan Sontag?
BLVR: What’s been on your mind lately?
AB: Well, right now I’m trying to write a novel, which is a completely new thing for me. So that’s been on my mind a lot lately, because—talk about vulnerable and not knowing what you’re doing. I’ve gone into this mode where I am like a child trying to write and to figure out how extended narratives work, and how novels work, and how to get one into the world. It was supposed to be my reward for finishing The Undying. I slogged through it. That book made me miserable to write, because I would develop pain in my body as I wrote it because I was recollecting the pain and the sensations of cancer treatment. So the entire time I was writing it I would say, I will write a novel and it will be my reward and it will be so low-stress; it will be like playing with dolls; I will just use my imagination and it will flow freely and I can have so much fun with it and it will have no allegiance to lived experience; it will just be my pure fantasy game that I’m playing with myself. And instead I ended up writing a novel that seems to have a greater allegiance to truth than anything I’ve written before this, and it is not nearly as playful as I anticipated writing a novel would be, because every day that I wake up to it, I wake up to my own inadequacy as a writer. So we’ll see.
BLVR: I’ve been reading your email newsletters, and it seems like you have a complicated relationship to fiction. You wrote, “It is ridiculous, also, to spill out one’s secrets about oneself, to compulsively offer one’s thoughts up to an unvouched for anyone.” Which is such a great way to think about it, but then fiction, as you’re saying, also offers a way to go deeper.
AB: That’s what I’m learning about, going deeper and containing more. You have to think about the tissue between things. Like the way people move through space. In novels, which never happens anywhere else, somebody has to move from one room to another room. So there’s all these prepositions, extra conjunctions, dialogue. Dealing with all these parts, tissue, ligaments, as opposed to poetry’s beautiful condensation of experience, or the essay’s allowance of the body of thought to carry the spirit of the thing. So fiction is allowing me to go deep into the way we understand experience, but it’s also an utterly vulnerable feeling because I am not an expert at writing fiction.
I’m reading fiction differently from how I used to read it and trying to be more patient and generous. Before, I read fiction and I wanted it to make me feel whatever I was supposed to feel, and I didn’t read it nearly as critically; I wasn’t pulling it apart to understand how it works. But now I do. I think that the best fiction writers are the ones who know how to use the necessity for that tissue to their greatest advantage. They don’t see the burdens of fiction as burdens but as opportunities. So that’s what I want. I want to figure out how to do that.
This has been my Balzac summer. He’s so good, which is not news to most people. He’s the one who leaves nothing to waste. In Cousin Bette he cites the year a piece of furniture or a piece of home decor came from, and these become fantastic historical markers for furnishings. Other people would just describe the furnishings, but instead the reader gets the weight and expansion and relationship to the people who have the furnishings. You know the restaurants that promise to use all the body parts? Cousin Bette is the snout-to-tail of novels. So he’s been a great study for me. He’s a writer who can use every single word and necessity toward a greater end of understanding and truth and amusement. He manages to do all that and be laugh-out-loud funny, or terribly sad, as necessary. So this is what I’m studying and hoping to learn.
BLVR: This reminds me of Tolstoy too. You have to spend so much time reading Anna Karenina because every detail is meaningful. Every detail, if you’re paying attention, is illustrating something about the characters. I remember one of the characters is interacting with a bee and it is actually illustrating some larger character point.
AB: The best rule for understanding fiction is to note the bee. I’ve already written thirty-five thousand words this summer. At first it just came out like honey dripping from my fingertips, because it’s apparently just been something I’ve been waiting to write forever. But after that initial rush, it is now a more careful thinking about how it works and how it will be, structurally. It must be engineered. I can’t have it collapse on everyone’s head!
BLVR: I’m excited to read it. When does it come out?
AB: The Undying comes out in September 2019, and I’m not sure when the novel will come out, because I still have to finish it and get it all squared away in terms of publication. I think it will all go to plan, and I really hope it does, because the novel has a joy to it. It takes place in the ’90s in the indie-rock scene in a college town in the middle of Kansas, so it has this youthful rebellion and joy, and I’m allowing myself endless amounts of nostalgia. I don’t care. And because The Undying is really sad and hard, I don’t want to leave that book in the world without a chaser. I want one to come out and be sad and hard and heartbreaking, but then the next one will just rock. There are hard things in it, but it will be about a moment in which people felt in control of their art and way of living, and they loved one another and made music together. So I keep pushing away at it every day. You would probably have to tie my hands up for me not to keep writing it every single day as much as I can.