An Interview with Poet Lucy Ives
While Lucy Ives went out for a snack, I lay down on the couch, first checking my phone, then reading the first five pages of Susan Howe’s Sorting Facts: or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, in which she calls poetry “factual telepathy.” Howe sees poetics as a way of conjuring facts, that history isn’t the product of reliable sources, but a process of posing events, batting them around, dressing paper dolls in fact costumes, dragging an information magnet through the streets.
Ives had just finished teaching a companion class to her latest project and installation, Real Allegory, which ran this spring at Flying Object, in which she attempted to call into question commonplace distinctions between historical and literary description and interpretation. Below you’ll find a document of and about a ‘real’ historical event, a conversation between Ives and me on an April evening that became an audio recording, then a transcription, then an edited transcription, in which I chose what I deemed to be the ‘significant’ moments, in which I spruced up all the times I sounded like an idiot. Does this mean the facts are lost? Did I trace over the facts? The historical record inevitably rewrites the world, willingly or unwillingly imitating it, splintering it into fabrications, each one a script for multiple potential reenactments.
— Patrick Gaughan
I. YOU CAN SPEND ALL OF YOUR TIME IMITATING THE WORLD
PATRICK GAUGHAN: I was reading Tropics of Discourse this morning per your recommendation and could see why you were into it: Hayden White’s ideas of historical narrative as being composed of metaphor and other literary tropes, as opposed to successions of facts.
LUCY IVES: I think he’s coming out of a poetics tradition, and that’s a key term in my project: poetics. I wanted to be able to think about poetics outside of literary texts, to see if literary logic could exist in other kinds of environments. “Narrative” and “Description” can be literary, but they don’t have to be. I wanted to understand, “What would a non-literary poetics be?” Because I think when we talk about poetics, that’s actually what we mean. Or when you use that term, you mean something that isn’t exclusively literary. Sure, there’s poetry and there are certain conventions associated with it, but the notion of poetics can exist outside of a literary space.
PG: So you’re saying that literary tropes and styles are linked to not only art but also history?
LI: I think White’s enabled me to find ways to consider this idea. I’ll be in conversation with someone who isn’t a writer, let’s say a photographer, and they’ll be making claims about an image or a brand, they might be interpreting it, and I’ll find myself saying something like, “You’re engaging in literary analysis right now. The way you’re reading this is literary and it’s actually only literary, it’s not like there’s some special mode of interpretation that belongs to photography, it’s that photography is in some sense borrowing certain kinds of rhetorical analysis from literature,” and it’s interesting to see what people make of that, because they often feel excluded from literature!
PG: Who does?
LI: Certain people feel contemporary literature is not “for” them. That literature is a thing happening in another world and that it belongs to other people. And yet they use literary thought. Their suspicion and paranoia about images, for example, or certain modes of design, is a literary kind of suspicion, a literary paranoia.
PG: To whom does description belong? Is it purely a literary thing?
LI: Well, if you believe Levi-Strauss, it belongs to writing, and then there’s the question of to whom writing belongs, but I’m pretty sure on some significant level description has, for a long time, been most obsessed over by literature. I don’t think, for example, that description is the best friend of philosophy, because philosophy hasn’t taken very good care of writing. This is very gossipy sounding, but other disciplines pay lip service to concerns about what writing is or what it does, but inevitably they just want to be able to say the thing.
PG: That writing is just a vessel.
LI: Exactly. One synonym is as good as another.
PG: Or that writing is style-less, just a way of conveying. There’s this Bruce Hainley book I was reading about the artist Sturtevant. It’s two essays, but arranged such that one’s on the left and the other’s on the right. One’s about her reperformance of an Eric Satie piece, the other’s about her version of the store of Claes Oldenburg. Two essays, different subject matter, cross-cut for a hundred pages. It’s nonfiction, but fed through this bouncing back and forth device, which is a literary device.
LI: It also gives you license to think about a lot of things outside of her work, and also maybe to experience her work more fully. Speaking of Sturtevant, imitation is also interesting because literature may be the only space where imitation is basically free to develop as intensely or deeply as it might like to. In other kinds of writing, you’re not supposed to describe something too carefully because the description should always be in service to whatever professional point you’re supposed to be making. But in literature, you can spend all of your time imitating the world. (Of course, I’m not guaranteeing that anyone will read what you write if you do this!)
PG: Imitation not in the sense of imitating someone else’s style, but imitation of the world?
LI: Yeah, the world, so-called or whatever it may be. I’m indicating mimesis here. And in literature we can certainly imagine forms of imitation that might occur without our even defining what the specific objects of imitation are. These objects can be discovered in the process of imitating. This is, for example, what literary experiment sometimes is.
II. THE INCIDENTAL IS WHERE HISTORY REALLY IS
PG: Where’s this image from, US Weekly?
LI: Yes. It’s a bizarre ventriloquizing of Kim.
PG: Right, because it says, “My butt won’t stop growing” exclamation point.
LI: It seems like some kind of horror thing: “My butt won’t stop growing!” There’s some other agency there, apparently. But it’s also totally meaningless. Central to my project is the idea that there is literal speech, but unless we’re convinced of it, we won’t believe it. We can’t believe in the literality of speech unless we already believe it’s literal. And what will convince us that we already believe some speech or writing to be literal? Most often this has to do with genre, like if we read a book that says ‘Nonfiction’ on the back of it.
PG: And to some people, if it’s in a magazine, it’s true. Eh, is it more ‘true’ if it’s in a magazine? Maybe I’m not giving people enough credit.
LI: This image of Kim Kardashian is a totally stupid image, but it’s such a stupid, almost automatic or knee-jerk image that you can’t help but think you’re looking at something real, actual. It seems like an utterance that’s destined to be an index of our time, in some future; it will read as stylized, as symptomatic of our contemporary obsessions and errors. Conversely, I also have the sense that because we know the category of nonfiction exists, we often play with it for other ends. I’m really interested in thinking about how historical texts might, of course, have goals that are similar to literary texts, goals of persuasion, let’s say. And that literary texts might, at base, wish to be informative or critical, but they are troubled by seeming to have no referent.
PG: So, for example, literature is less trustworthy because it doesn’t have sources?
LI: In nonfiction, there’s always a referent. It’s what that genre is founded upon. But if I’m writing endless paragraphs about a cereal bowl that doesn’t exist, it doesn’t serve any particular purpose, and it becomes literature instead of something else.
PG: Since you’re not a Kardashian, no one cares.
LI: Yet I should also say that everybody has become obsessed with this idea that the incidental is where history really is. Because if you try to talk about monumental, huge things, you inevitably fail.
III. WALKING AROUND WASN’T ENOUGH
PG: So let’s get into this idea of what constitutes a historical event. I listened to an interview with this NPR reporter, Robert Smith, who’s been doing five-minute radio segments for twenty years, and he said, “There is no news.” There is no such thing as news. The earth is just going around and happening and when he shows up, he creates a story based on who he talks to, what information he gleans, and then he slaps an arbitrary beginning and ending on it, and then it becomes news. To me, history’s the same thing. History only happens when someone stops the world, picks up a few events and points-of-view, does a little Rubik’s cube action on them or polishes them up, and then it’s history.
LI: That certainly makes sense to me, but I also think that’s only one version of what happens when we make claims about what is the case. And as much as he’s saying that there’s no news until he gets there and presents a point of view, there are things that happen. There are crimes, these things really occur, and there are different ways in which they’re relayed. In any case, going back to gossip, people are going to talk no matter what. It’s not within one person’s, or even a government’s, power to determine how that will occur.
PG: I was thinking about events versus documents of events yesterday when a student of mine presented about 9/11 conspiracy theories, fourteen years after the event. She was probably six or so when it happened, so everything she’s ever heard about it could be classified as news, but seemed more like conspiracy or metaphor.
LI: An artist, Francis Alÿs, who is Belgian by birth, emigrated to Mexico and did a project for which he made little metal dogs; they don’t really look like dogs, but these little metal things with wheels and they’re magnetized, and had little cameras on them and the project was that he would walk around Mexico City pulling the dog on wheels by a string, taking video of the route and also collecting pieces of metal. He’d walk around all night.
PG: How big would it get as he’s accumulating these things?
LI: It got bigger, yeah.
PG: So big you couldn’t even pull it? Like this big?
LI: Maybe not that big. I saw an exhibition displaying the dogs on a shelf, as a little portable TV played the videos. And there were other types of ephemera tucked under plexiglass on an accompanying desk; some of them were tabloid pages about people who magnetized themselves, and there were also drawings of the routes he took around the city. He had immigrated to Mexico City.
PG: So it was as if he used the project as a way to familiarize himself with this new place.
LI: I think that’s true. And also to gather things, to learn more than you could learn just by walking around. Walking around wasn’t enough.
PG: It’s funny that he’s literally picking up pieces of everywhere he goes. Instead of me remembering what I do, the world is sticking to me as I move through it.
LI: You’re not always choosing what you take.
Lucy Ives is the author of four books of poetry and prose, including the novel nineties, which has recently returned to print. She is the editor of Triple Canopy and teaches writing at Pratt.