Léonce Lupette: Thank you a lot for this conversation – I’m glad to meet you even under these odd circumstances, in different confinements between Cambridge and Buenos Aires, producing an interview for the Poesiefestival in Berlin …
Let us talk about A Sand Book, your latest poetry collection of 400 pages1, starting with the title. A couple of weeks ago, I read about the shortage of sand, and how this shortage is a problem for the development of a vaccine. It is quite a paradox, that sand, which is a symbol for infinity and innumerableness, can become a scarce commodity. In your poems you write a lot about desertification, growing areas of unfertile land, where there is too much sand. So we have this tension between the lethal and the vital, the excessive and the shortage, and they are recurring tensions you write about.
Ariana Reines: Yes, there has actually been a sand shortage for a few years now, because the fracking industry also uses sand. I didn’t realize it was also needed for the testing or production of Covid vaccines. It is indeed ironic that something that we think of as unlimited is needed and has actually become a commodity…
LL: Besides those material aspects of sand, what other metaphorical connections are there, or connections to language? There are a lot of complex references implied in the title of your book: Hurricane Sandy, a short story by Borges, your mother’s name which is Sandra and who you said2 is schizophrenic and came to live with you in your dorm while she was homeless during your college time, she is very present in the book, too …
AR: Sand somehow is a resonance, a form of rhyme that’s in the world, inside and outside of language. Because it is my mother’s name, it is the name of Sandra Bland, who was murdered by the State, the name of the hurricane that in many ways shifted New York City from the 9/11-era into the post 2012-era that we have been living out. So it also has this name of ecological catastrophe inside it. It also comemmorates Sandy Hook where there was a massacre of schoolchildren by another child. So that resonance, that rhyme exists both within and beyond language. The substance sand is also an echo.
LL: The book opens with the first verse of a famous poem by Paul Celan: NO MORE SAND ART, no sand books, no masters. That is, of course, an ironic gesture, since you give us exactly that, a sand book; what does this particular poem mean to you, what you understand by the sand art or sand book Celan mentions?
AR: I feel the book exists on several planes or layers at once, and in one sense it is totally a response to Celan, an answer to him. A playful answer, and from what little I know, he was a playful man. We forget that this, because of the grief and the horror that his poetics testify to have a mighty dignity. But from what I understand, he was a playful and delightful person, in many many ways. And I think he understood irony and humour very well, and I would hazard to say that we share a Jewish humour. Celan is one of the most important and most influential poets in my life, for many reasons. As a person who doesn’t read German, his theory of translation was really influential to me, and his theory of the mother tongue, because of course he wasn’t really German either, but German was his mother tongue. Even though he did explore writing in French, and he explored writing in Romanian. He was polyglot, he was erudite, but as he said, that in anything but his mother tongue, a poet lies. And yet he embraced the inaccuracy and the variety of translation. So there is this both absolute fidelity to the singular and this embrace of the variation, both at once. I’ve always resonated with that, and because my own family was killed in the Holocaust, in some sense as a poet I was born through his poetics. I had to pass through that experience of language in order even to begin. And with him came Adorno who said no more poems after Auschwitz. So the idea of these men saying no, I’m used to that. I’d almost call him a father figure, but then we’d get into heavy-handed Freudian territory, which could be a mistake….. I mean, another father figure in the Sand Book is T.S. Eliot, and of course Borges is one of the fathers as well, but Celan is the one who announced this book in my own body, in my ear. Also Der Sand aus den Urnen was his first book, and he had the first edition withdrawn. Sand for the urns, I always read it as a funerary, and of course in Judaism we bring a rock, a stone to a funeral, that’s what we bear witness with, not flowers. Then you have the desert, the wandering in the desert, and the proverbial desert, and the diasporic and nomadic routes of our people. So there is a sense of mourning having been pulverized down into sand, and the rock of witness, or even the rock of the unity of an experience, the experience of a people having been ground down. I really deeply resonate with those things. My first book3 is about maternity and industrial slaughter, it was an attempt to reckon with modernism and the Holocaust, through my mother’s trauma, and that is a theme that has run through every book I have written, including this one. So yes, Celan couldn’t be more important.
LL: In Germany there may be a certain resistance to emphasize the humour in Paul Celan, his puns or jokes. On the other hand, more than a few poeple always seem to be seeking some kind of permission by someone Jewish because they finally want to laugh about Jewish humour and/or the nazi time, as if nothing had happened.
AR: It may be hard for a German readership, especially a readership that is not Jewish, to even emotionally get into that humour because they are also traumatised by what their grandparents did. And I wouldn’t exactly call Celan’s poems funny. I was more talking about what I’ve heard about what kind of man he was, how he was with his friends, or at parties. What his poems do with language– there’s a slyness, a bleakness, sometimes a horrible or horrified kind of hilarity. But on the page he’s no Mel Brooks. Maybe it isn’t a bad thing if for a lot of Germans it is hard to laugh about the Holocaust still, because it’s not funny at all, nor is it far away. I mean, I make jokes about it all the time, but that’s because my survival depends on it!
LL: You mention several father figures saying no. So should we also understand your book as a feminist act of speaking and overthrowing the negative dictum?
AR: No, that would be too little, that is like thirty years ago where you would just try to show that it is possible to speak. At this point, that is not what is interesting. It’s more that it shows a natural process. And a kind of family relationship with the whole tradition, within poetry itself. That we are capable of speaking is not what we need to prove anymore. It’s more playful than that. What’s interesting to me is that since time immemorial there have been these visionary authority figures who will go through some crazy visionary experience or some massive trauma and then turn around and say say „Okay, after this, no more.“ A lot happened to Mohammed in that cave, and at a certain point he had to say „These visions of mine were legitimate, but after me, no visions.“ I wonder how many people went up Mt Sinai to see if they could hear what Moses heard? Part of the structure of authority is to say AFTER THIS, NO MORE. And yet it is also a mechanism of trauma, of horror. There is always this mechanism in history, where people will feel that they have been through so much that it all has to be over, there can’t be anymore poetry. And of course this no poetry after Auschwitz is also true in a soul sense, because the soul of humanity was through such a horrifying trauma that no; in a sense poetry was killed, and I agree, whether there shouldn’t be poetry after Hiroshima, whether there shouldn’t be poetry after mass incarceration, or after the Atlantic slave trade, or after the destruction of indiginous people. These traumas are so huge that in a sense, those nos of our fathers are legitimate, even though I’m deliberately twisting their Nos somewhat, in order to agree with them. There is also a part of me that says „Yes, no more poetry after that!“ After the atom bomb – if we really are going to bear witness to these things, I agree with that no. And I think that this is a part of our soul, regardless of our gender. The I can’t go on, as Beckett put it. If we really take in the immensity of those traumas, we would agree: just silence is the best response. And yet, life goes on, and the soul continues to unfold. And this is an experience beyond gender. Those who set our culture the way they set it up tried to put a boundary on what meaning could happen beyond, and everything that would happen beyond it would be somehow contained or domesticated, they tried to keep it down, where in such a moment of collapse the soul will always move beyond that no. And of course in history, in so much myth, in so many legends, the soul is always female, feminine, that it is just an aspect of the human being, that impulse that goes beyond that and that finds life, no matter what.
LL: In that sense, your book struck me, because it is so vivid. It strongly bears witness to a lot of historical and personal traumas that are more than hard to overcome, and yet this rhythm unfolds. There is that deep, deep sorrow, but also, as you say, something playful, always deeply meaningful, but not overly transcendental.
AR: I resonate with that. There is something about overly mystical or transcendental poetry, I resist it myself. There are readers who find me too transcendental. The poets I encountered as a young writer were of the New York School, they are very anti-transcendental, and I actually am very lucky that they are the poets I first got to know, because this tendency in me to connect to and seek after numinous experience, it can also make for bad art, it can make your perception sloppy, it can encourage a certain imprecision. As an artist you have to make sure your work stays alive. There’s definitely some bad spiritual poetry out there but there’s also no denying that some of the greatest poetry we have at least has metaphysical dimensions, if you think about Dante or these great poems that are describing the hierarchies in heaven and hell, or the Holy Sonnets, but also everything from Emily Dickinson to Kendrick Lamar. There is an impulse that rhythm itself drives. An impulse to live, an impulse to love. An impulse to God. It makes me happy what you said about the sorrow and the rhythm. Somehow the different rhythms in the book are what I rode, what I lived on.
I worked really hard on the structure of the book, so it could hold these different rhythms. One thing that I wanted was to make the book a place. I started to notice there was no place you could go, no designated place, when you needed to grieve. I felt that there was all this repressed and unexpressed grief in people, and I wanted my book to somehow be a companion to that, a place, some kind of being to be with you when there was nothing else. I don’t know. Theoretically you can go to a synagogue or a church, or you find a quiet place to be, or hole up in your apartment, which we’re all doing in some form right now, or your grandmother’s house, but somehow there’s an incontinence to it….. This book was written between 2012 and 2019 and I don’t know, I can’t prove it, but I just felt that nobody knows where to put their grief and there is nowhere to go to just let it be. So I wanted that book to be like a place like that. When you think of the way of a libation poured into the sand, the way the sand absorbs it, I wanted my poems & the book as a whole to be absorbant like that: a place where you could just set your burden down and let it be.
LL: Places, space, the fact that there is no place you really can go – all that is an important motif in your poems, and there is always that question of the body, the embodiment of the I – which sometimes calls itself Ariana – the being and not being in the body at the same time, really not knowing where to be, what this strange kind of presence and conscience and interior/exterior actually is. I was under the impression that those poems are in such movement because they always are in so many, sometimes contradictory places at the same time, and reflecting on it.
AR: I know this might sound fatuous, but I wanted those poems to accurately reflect what was happening to consciousness itself. My life of constant travel, smartphones, media of all kinds streaming simultaneously, what was becoming of cities all over the world, what Sarah Schulman calls the gentrification of the mind, and the smartphonization of the mind, where you are in so many different places at once: on a spiritual level, on a soul level, intellectually, physically. All that happened to me as a traveling poet with a major Wandering Jew complex but it was happening to all of us more or less. And often it didn’t add up to one thing, that’s why there are so many different kinds of poems in the book. I was trying simultaneously to be very personal and to be so drab and neutral as to be– not objective, because that isn’t possible– but to approximate a sense, following Celan, of bearing witness to the mind itself, to language itself, to something unspeakable happening to everyone. Not just to me and my life, but to the mind and the body. And I normally hate when people say the body, because you are already abstracting it, instead of my body. But all this was so personal and so impersonal. I’m doing a bad job of trying to restate something I say in the second poem in the book…. I wanted to bear witness to these changes that were happening, so fast they had already happened by the time you noticed them. But we all lived through that together, as if we had already been through it. And what’s interesting about having this conversation now, as we are both under versions of lockdown, we are sharing our own nation states’ and physical locations’ responses to the same phenomenon. We are different genders, we’re in different bodies, we are at different places, but in some sense this circumstance has forced us into a more similar reality. The most positive aspect of this experience for me has been that I have stopped running. I am no longer on the run. That’s the part I’m grateful for. I often try to look at certain experiences from the point of view of millennia in the future, or in the past, or from the perspective of another planet. I look at my poems like that too. There is a prismatic quality of what has been happening to consciousness that I wanted to capture in the poems. For right now, during this time, I have momentarily abandoned that prism. My soul is somewhat becalmed and it accepts being inside my body and inside the place where I am, for now.
LL: On the other hand, those saturating aspects of the virtual world we are living in still exist and are omnipresent, all that information that is relentlessly pouring in like little grains of sand dropping in our minds constantly, and which are somehow mind-grinding, soul-grinding, heart-grinding – all this garbage of language, garbage of over-information, of destructive, toxic and useless aspects and functions of language and communication. There is this other famous dictum by Adorno stating that there is no true life within the false life, but how can poetry that works within and responds to and references those mentioned aspects, how can it be a different thing, how can it be in a different place, be something else? Where is the truthful language within the garbage?
AR: We do have lots of garbage-language, that’s true, and we have a lot of garbage, pure and simple, pouring in, in every orifice at all times. It’s more possible to curate it and be intentional about it in lockdown though, don’t you think? Poetry has always been associated with a certain amount of lying and play, of course Plato banishes the poets because we lie, and that is part of our privilege, to make things up, privilege of playing around with reality, but the kind of garbage we have experienced, Celan really was the primogenitor of pointing our attention towards what a moral catastrophe did to language, he showed how German had been turned into garbage, into murderous trash, into lies. Words no longer had any value or meaning, because of what had been done to and with them, and he bore witness to that. Now in my own usage, in my early writing, and my first book came out of the time of the George W. Bush administration – I thought, times were bad then. It seemed to me at that time that meaning was being destroyed, that reality itself was hostile to meaning, and I literally felt as though I were choking, I felt I would suffocate if I couldn’t establish some form of justice and beauty for myself within language, within my sense of horror and despair. Those times look almost sweet and innocent compared to what my government says and does now. But the years after 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, the war on terror, the kind of truly satanically garbage language, and the violence to meaning, that was being done was so overwhelming, I swear it felt like your mind was being destroyed, like you had to figure out how to think while corrosives were actively dissolving your brains. And now that we have some perspective on it, we are able to see that yes, actually when authorities make these assaults on what means what, that doesn’t just harm people through policy, it fucks with their minds. When you do violence to the truth, it damages people in all kinds of ways.
And yet it was really interesting to me about the art of poetry– I wish that I was a better mimic of poeples’ voices. I admire so much the writers who are good at capturing accurately what people sound like. One of the things about the art of poetry that I think is crucial, and not everyone will feel this way, but poetry as I feel it and as I understand it, is at the intersection of the spoken and the written. It has to happen right there, at the center of the X where speech meets writing [she forms an X with her arms]. I don’t like if it’s too much about the text and the surface, then it’s too far away from reality. If it’s only your twitter feed, that’s just one side of it. To me that crazy space of possibility, where really is magic, is at the intersection. And for me, that goes all the way back to Chaucer. Or even to Plato. Or the Bible, where speech and writing are somehow intersected. And Chaucer was this writer who loved what people sounded like. And for us, in the English language, he is the inventor of this amazing epic poem and cast of characters, and this great story that has all these different people telling stories just to pass the time. And not all of them are good people, they are mostly ridiculous in different ways. But there is so much love and interest in the way they sound. Lots of them are bullshitters, too. There is something about a good bullshitter. So we are here in a lot garbage, especially on a state level, there is murderous garbage – like „oh yeah, you should inject yourself with fucking Clorox“. There is that space of poetry we talked about, some kind of language that gets us beyond that. And yet you also said earlier that you kind of resist things that are too transcendental and that is why I think the X is so important. If you’re just transcendental and you’re trying to get away – I love escapism, but that is just a realm that you’re in. You’re just trying to get away from all this dirty, horrible garbage. But actually, there is also something interesting in the garbage, and I have always identified with this sense of working with the garbage. Whether it is the alchemical tradition, or animal slaughter, all the different kind of spaces that I focused on in my different books. Usually it is somehow a little bit neglected or they are not considered important. And I felt the same way about poetry itself. I think it’s growing in importance on the planet for very good reasons, because times are getting worse and people who love poetry understand that it is very powerful, especially in bad times you can really depend on it when you can’t depend on anything else. So I think that is part of its rise in appreciation, also with very young people. There is a mysterious magic in hearing through that crap, for what is really being said, that is so healing, and so invigorating. And we all know what it feels like: it’s so close to nothing it’s almost nothing, and yet, when you hear someone touching the truth, it has healing power, and you can’t predict it exactly. It somehow comes out of that garbage. But we all know what it feels like to finally hear somebody say it. And your guts just go „thank you, that was medicine“.
LL: On that note: thank you! Because that was what happened to me several times with your book.
AR: May I add something that personally would mean a lot to me for people in Germany to know? One of the reasons why I was so looking forward to participating in this festival is that my grandmother was liberated by the Russians in Berlin. She was Jewish, from Lodz in Poland, and after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising her husband was sent to his death at Treblinka. She lost both of her parents, two siblings, her sister in law and a young nephew. Before his death her husband had purchased a false identity and she managed to survive by pretending to be a Catholic Pole. She was working in a munitions factory at the end of the war. After Liberation, she and two friends she had met at the factory walked from Berlin to Brussels, sleeping in cattle cars along the way, and there they wound up at a DP camp where she met my grandfather. I wanted to acknowledge this history, and my mother’s mental illness, which is as much a legacy of my family’s experience of genocide as my poetry is. I know it would have meant a great deal to my grandmother to know I was invited to share my poetry in Germany and to see it translated into the German language. It means a lot to me as well, much more than I can say.
The German Translation of the Poetry Talk is to be found on the German Page.