An Interview with Karena Youtz by Rob Schlegel.
New Work for the Soul in Another State
I first met Karena Youtz in 2007 when she read in the New Lakes Reading and Performance Series in Missoula, Montana. After being introduced, she stood at the microphone and looked down at the poems she was holding. “I need to get inside these,” she said. She closed her eyes for at least thirty seconds. When she opened them and began to read it was as if Karena disappeared and all that remained was the poetry.
A year later we met again when Brandon Shimoda and I took a road trip to record poets for our weekly radio show. First stop: Boise. At the recording party Karena hosted, poets drank beer and wine and read for us in the living room. Karena’s beloved Catlington brushed against our legs.
In 2009 I moved to Iowa City. That fall, Privity Press published Karena’s, The Shape is Space. To celebrate the book, my wife, Kisha, and I invited all of the poets we knew in town to our house. Thirty of us sat on the living room floor and took turns reading aloud the entirety of Karena’s book.
Here is an erasure of the note Karena sent from Boise when she heard what we were up to.
The following interview occurred shortly after the publication of Karena’s second book, The Transfer Tree (1913 Press).
RS:Kisha is asleep on the couch. She’s wearing a gray hoody (hood cinched tight around her head). I’m wearing an identical hoody. They were gifts from my mother. She thinks Kisha and I are old enough to wear matching clothes. Right now, I’m thinking about how to approach THE IMPOSSIBLE INTERVIEW. Impossible because there is no way an interview can possibly illuminate what is already illuminated (you, and your book The Transfer Tree).
KY:If you and Kisha already are wearing the matching hoodies, was your mother wrong? I am so happy your mother gives you matching clothes; it’s really delightful. Kisha is that much a part of the family. For the book, two writer friends have interviewed me on local radio. The first one was a little bit articulate on both our parts, though not what I have ever thought to talk about. The second one was whatever question, then me saying, “I like trees.” Of course you know that whatever question you ask is yours and I would want to be in conversation with you. My heart considers this an exit interview from the bustling, contemporary world of poetry. I don’t really belong. I certainly don’t have what it takes. I am so lucky and happy that 1913 asked me to make a book and then published it; the interview could also help show gratitude for all of the work and resources Sandra and Ben put into the book.
RS:The sense of guilt (too strong a word?) in these lines from “Public Fruit”: “The purpose/of this life/is to see directly,” and these, from “Purple Tree”: “Skimming the index of the Book of Day/he finds no precedent and here gives/extreme permission/to lift the eyes...” reminds me of Oppen: “Because I am not silent, the poems are bad.” As you probably know, Oppen’s literary life included over twenty years of “silence” during which he apparently stopped writing.
KY:This constant sense of guilt, of failure…I’m not going to start to add up my actual sins (too many), but the imagined ones, the guilt of not belonging, of not having resources and not making connections. If the Calvinist doctrine of election were actual, my life has proven I am not chosen. For mercy rather than each toll being tallied, each wage counting towards death, I retain a sense that some people are chosen, but not me. The guilt of not being good enough, of the many real and relative failures continues to hurt, but in the poems you mentioned, a figure enters who tells the speaker to leave the trials. And she does. That miracle can happen in art. The effects of her actions and feeling of lack of worth still occur, but she is free of the trials and has to answer only to the person/figure who does not judge her. She wishes for union.
There are many interpretations and possibilities. You and I have both gone with the missed chance for union, for connection, as the possible loss (why sin might be a problem). The split into the need to be seen: I am assuming that being seen would somehow allow recognition of the fact that each being’s longing for union is valid and might be met.
For me this goes directly to silence. States of union remain unspoken; speech, like any body, is a natural and apparent division. I don’t want to problematize language in particular or the self in particular, “Because I am not quiet, the poems are bad,” said Oppen, but I would say that any feature of reality that is getting special pressure or attention or neglect is going to mess up poems. And I want to say poems can lack aesthetic value, but are not to be examined for moral badness. My feeling is that moral corruption automatically destroys aesthetic possibilities and extension; the actively bad (harmful) person can never risk (self-) discovery. That’s not the kind of guilt we’re talking about; we’re talking about when we and other people actually want or choose or hope to stop missing the mark and experience union.
RS:I recently taught a Victorian Poetry course, and many of my students explored ekphrastic poems by the Pre-Raphaelites William Morris, Dante Rossetti, and Algernon Swinburne. (Don’t you lovehate the name Algernon?) So when you say poems can lack aesthetic value, but are not to be examined for moral badness, and that your feeling is that “moral corruption automatically destroys aesthetic possibilities and extension; the actively bad (harmful) person can never risk (self-) discovery...”, I am reminded of the late-Victorian Aesthetic/Decadent movement and its practitioners. I wonder what you mean by “actively” bad/harmful. I think I have a sense for what you mean in the context of one person “actively harming” another (physically/emotionally), but I also wonder if that includes an individual’s active self-harm (like giving-in to one’s extreme, unhealthy vices).
KY:The name Algernon conjures Flowers for Algernon and I guess Swinburne was being conjured for that story and book. There’s such sadness to that story, intelligence discovering and wishing to surpass its limits.
I think the question of something like a Decadent “movement” is relevant because there is the sense of art being active or reactionary to/with social constructs and mores. Aestheticism’s Wikipedia page creates the false separation between aesthetic concerns and social ones. By actively bad/harmful I mean randomly punching people in the face, harming others and the self, physically/emotionally. Whatever self-deception and self-justification corrodes the integrity of any person’s awareness—my anecdotal experience is that run-of-the-mill, violent jerks can rarely admit what they’re doing even within their own cognition—also destroys aesthetic sensibility is my thesis.
As far as self-harm goes, I don’t think I could determine what constitutes that (except to me). Some vices (that word makes me think of a kind of vice grip on the attention) they must be really charged areas of the psyche. Who but the person “giving-in” knows whether it is harmful or neutral or helpful to enter these territories? And of course the huge questions of the subtleties of what is helpful, neutral, or harmful and to what? to whom? We have to try to answer these, but it’s difficult and individual after following some of the ten commandments and the golden rule.
For a long time, about seven years ago, I heard the constant screaming of many voices sometimes overwhelming my sensory impressions. The silence of victims and perpetrators is due to oppression and repression. Possibly the people with dominant voices who are hurting others on purpose are in the most extreme form of suffering, people whose voices or statements of being have turned into weapons.
There is also the gentle stopping of speech or no need to speak. There is inner stillness, waiting. Not for anything, no reason, no result. There can be quiet. Quiet not an overlay above forced down (mostly unknown) response, but a foundation.
In many senses reading and writing poetry has been the largest part of my life where I felt fullness of existence. Carl Jung said something along the lines of love between people being the impossible subject or consideration, the deepest mystery and I invoke that. But I do feel the pull of the silenced, of the messed with, of the dead. I feel fidelity to those who cannot speak. Alice Notley takes up these voices and becomes their cipher. I completely trust her to write the needed poems. I trust you.
RS:In The Transfer Tree you write:
“Needed motion requires the opposite [of ideal]
what is experienced”
These lines have me thinking of Walter Pater’s “Conclusion” to his book The Renaissance: “Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, --for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.” Pater continues: “A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?” And in the next paragraph, he writes (a bit more famously): “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life...” which has me thinking about our discussion of Calvinism/winning. Do you think that “success” can finally be realized if only we were “present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?”
KY:The section you quoted from The Transfer Tree remains hugely problematic for me since the text fact of “the opposite/being” is one I hope is constantly included. It’s a didactic poem and it really is trying to say, among so many conveyances, your experience is vital. Your own experience is vastly more important than this or any book. I thought about it for a long time, why I would want to share this book, and I hope that anyone who reads the poem can accept (even possibly explore if that is what the being requires) their own multiple and unknown facets of existence, all the experiences. As objectively as possible (I can’t imagine there is even a measurement small enough for the abstract quantity of human objectivity) observe both inner and outer realities. It is an invective to settle down (or ratchet it up) and to try to find out what we are. The reason I use the words “religion” and “ideal” is because these projective realities often wind up as constructs one might attempt to fit life into rather than simply observing what is happening and creating or living from felt/sensed experience. Of course, it’s all mixed up together and ideas and religions are part of reality too.
As much as I am pushing on experience, Pater’s quotation reminds me of William Blake’s contrasting of Innocence and Experience. “There is nothing behind phenomena, they are themselves the meaning,” is a translated quotation from Goethe that I wrote on a sticky note years ago and stuck to the doorway of my room. I feel like my temperament shifts more towards a possible sensory clarification, the conscious return to the place where our experiences do not get (unconsciously) packaged up as prejudices and overlaid on everything that is going on around and within us. I don’t consider whether I am “present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy” (Pater) because that sounds exhausting, me able to determine the quality of my attentions, moods, and experiences and heighten each encounter. The gem-fire of this ecstatic success is mostly not available to me in life. I am averse to defining success that way because I will not achieve it. Plus, on some level, it sounds like a goal of pleasure, that it just feels good.
I have a long personal history of resenting the abstract value given to the present moment because that is not how an organism survives in this society. However, obviously my ideal would require serious amounts of attention and presence. There is so much precariousness to existence/subsistence. What a luxury thought is, what a luxury art is, I don’t seek ecstasy because I don’t have stable and long term enough access to its precursors. So, YES, for me art is a way to a possibility of vital presence. I move painstakingly and slowly from moment to moment of creation and I am deeply immensely absorbed in this process. To me, it is nothing short of a miracle that I can enter this space where my being begins to function, related and alive. Art is where my senses start to open up and engage. To me, that is miraculous because so much of my functioning is conditioned and even shut down. I blank out so often. In poetry I like to imagine I am making accurate poems that actually have to do with aesthetic requirements and felt experiences.
I realize how much I am over in the corner of subjectivity. Like many people, I grew up in an abusive environment. There’s this need of violent people to be dishonest, I guess to protect themselves from the law and social approbation, so on top of unspeakable acts they set up series after series of threats and lies in an obstacle course that never allows a child to understand/speak the truth or to accomplish even the most basic forms of what is called “reality testing.” A reliable sense of objective reality is still not available to me, but when I was a child and into my 30’s I had a mild dissociative disorder that made my imagination the realest place I could find. When the imagination asked to take over my life, I allowed that and not so strangely, over many years, it brought me closer to reality (the whole continuum not just rational-material) rather than further away. In my case and I think for many people the imagination wants reality, possibly even truth. The ego and entertainers want fantasy; there’s nothing wrong with that it’s just a different goal.
RS:Oscar Wilde writes that lying; the telling of beautiful, untrue things is the proper aim of Art. I wonder if this kind of “lying” could, in fact, be “harmful” to others.
KY:I was just able to hear Maggie Nelson read from her book The Art of Cruelty. She has a long section called “The Brutality of Fact” on truth and fact and art’s relationship with truth that is very articulate and nuanced. I would again return to intent. What about Midsummer Night’s Dream? In Puck’s final speech either there can be a good, friendly feeling about what has just happened and any harm from being deceived in this manner shall be repaired (in itself the act of pardoning mends the harm) OR an audience member can take offense and call Puck a liar. There is good-hearted, levelheaded agreement required. So what is the intent on both the artist’s and the audience’s part? Hopefully not social experiments or other compulsions.
RS:Toward the end of the book, you often use the word/homonym “space”. “Into/all of space an/uncentered universe...” “I want/space/unlimited,” then on the same page “space” is used as a verb: “I space out The Feast/of World Annunciation Day.” Through all of this accrual, “space” becomes a kind of trope. So, of course I am also thinking about your first book The Shape is Space.
KY:During “World Annunciation Day” if it were real I guess the world would become divine (transcendentally, evenly, unmistakably meaningful and kind?) (I’m referencing when the Catholic church agreed about Mary’s annunciation allowing the female also to be divine); it’s a joke about how people want the world itself to be redeemed as a somehow reasonable or acceptable place, which it obviously is completely not [Rwanda 1994; homelessness; no consistent source of drinkable water for one billion people; polar bears and all other animals becoming extinct; etc etc etc etc etc].
So these spaces accrue, that’s a good word for it. Since I cannot create experiences, the spaces gather, really the infinite space[s] necessary for the possibilities of all experiences esp. all experiences I can never have or understand. With the exception of a person depending on me in some manner, I would not try to make another’s experience, but a shared space in which to witness, to listen, to care, to respond. In real life I am a somewhat disconnected person so it all has to happen for me in the poems. I am worse at parties than the speaker of “Rare Mineral and the Social Structure.” But in the poems the spaces accrue for the speaker to do what she needs to do and leave room upon room for everyone. She has to go alone into the desert; she has to find the paralegal researcher [one of The Transfer Tree’s central figures/subjects], but he seemingly abandoned her. So she goes through these trials alone now, calm, reconnecting, the way she adopted his agency (as “the World’s Ferocious Lover”) she now sees he is inside everything. Still, she awaits him. When she finally calms down and stabilizes into space, when she can live in space (which is lonely) and without gravity (not centralized) and somewhat frightening, when her task no longer opposes the world [Space, obviously, contains everything including the world and nothing is exiled from it.], he reappears and gives her direction[s].
One through-line from The Shape is Space is pure longing. The Shape is Space is written about and for a person close to me who died. A few times in my life I have lost people extremely close which feels like being in outer space with zero weight or space suit umbilicus to any spaceship. So there are all these pathologized hollows of loss, like we have to heal to go on, but it’s not like that for me. I never succeeded in making narratives that close the self into some kind of reason everything happens or wisdom gained or other platitude; in fact those stories seem false, like a distraction from what is happening (even the shamanistic advantage conferred by being close to the dead). The losses are huge, overwhelming: why shut life back down into the size of a “healed” self recontained by an arbitrarily resonant narrative?
I have chosen as my way of orienting to a life where the most beloved and necessary people die – a continued orientation to their now utterly mysterious space – not to close the vast empty openings, though their universes no longer adjoin mine. That book’s title is a paraphrase of something I read in an architecture magazine about how good architects do not design structures but delineate spaces. My father said something about wasted space in a big downtown office building we were in; he wondered aloud why they didn’t fill it in and make something useful. So my initial orientation to space was frightening loss, then, after more than a decade I give myself this allowance, let myself feel into these spaces of total loss (which connect to other types of disallowed, useless, or unexplored spaces). No matter how much I miss people, they never return. So in a sense I must be searching for this meeting or reunion in infinite space or I would not mind closing it down, filling in, having an idea or a goal. But I can’t and I won’t and by the arguments in my poems I will make space a lyrically reasonable response. In fact I will make more and more space for more and more potential meeting or loss and I will not worry about any problems of infinity. As we know from scientific description the infinite universe is somehow constantly increasing at its outer impossible edges. The through-lines, like other actions of the poems, are images that create and follow themselves.
The poems of these two books remain immediate to me, like they are always happening. So the poems, to me, are in space and are space.
I guess that the bereavement and deprivation and harm of this life are so incredible that I felt a need to explore their wavering, unfixed parameters. The more space, the more possibility. There are also all the beautiful infinities of love, all the true goodness, joy, moments of ecstasy. To me none of this seems actually contained or limited; it all keeps going.
RS:What do you think about “genre”? Doesn’t genre lie all the time? Isn’t the idea of a literary “genre” antithetical to great art?
KY:Art precedes genre. Great art might SET conventions and define genre, but not vice versa. I am a poet and married to a musician. Whenever someone finds that out and asks, “What genre do you work in?” it sounds like a bizarre non sequitur. No, no, we try to make art. There’s no genre anywhere in the attempts and we are average artists.
That sort of goes back to my problem with ideas and conventions as projective realities we try to fit our experiences and work into. Why on earth would anyone sit around writing ideas about what poetry should be (although I like the metaphor of schools of poets like fishes shifting together in the unconscious)? Read and write poems (and theory) and then see what poetry is in those contexts. Deep in the heart (and/or brain for those so inclined) there’s going to rise up some other wish, some other need and that gets made next. Genre is not about response, but expectation. How do we know what we need until we discover it in its nascence and go on through the processes of aesthetic and emotional discovery to its (never-ideal) creation?
I’m just going back briefly to that goal of ecstasy. Ex-stasis out of stasis not in the status quo. I would love for there to be some sort of beautiful, happy, socially and environmentally-just status quo. I can see why people want to get out of the status quo we have and into alternate states of consciousness. But ecstasy is just a state. What about going all the way into consciousness? What could be?