The first half of this interview took place in the summer. The World Cup was over and I felt like I could think. Caren and I corresponded through August heat and Gmail. In the shortening days since I’ve wanted badly to continue the conversation, to turn it toward Caren’s new book Spain, just out this fall. I helped publish Spain yet I find myself timid before it now, in the tender explosive moment when a book presents itself publicly and is newly beyond you. People start texting you about it. You think, I’ve never read it yet, I still don’t know. Meanwhile the cemetery commences its winter hours. Friendship is a presence and a promise; it’s a question you’re still meaning to ask. I sometimes try to build a structure in my mind that would comprehend Caren Beilin’s syntax and extreme boldness. The revelation of menstruation, e.g., amid the inventive fuck-it verve of her novel The University of Pennsylvania; the wit that makes me smile just remembering her work as I walk through any American office. Her new work heads off to an artist residency in a Spanish village and ferociously perceives what it is to make art, to make a form for women living vividly amid the harsh repetitions of this world. It’s an honor to read the language and thinking of this writer. Welcome to Spain.
Hilary Plum: When I think of your Spain I feel a sense of calm. This surprises me because I also feel the very alive and electric feelings of rage and desire that this book expresses. Rage + desire = calm. It’s a surprising equation. How did you do it?
I’ve read Spain a number of times, in my role as co-editor (with Zach Savich) of Rescue Press’s annual Open Prose Series, which publishes works of fiction, nonfiction, or hard to categorize prose. Spain—travelogue and/or anti-travelogue? memoir, anti-memoir? “portrait of the artist as a young mansplained woman”?—is the fifth book in the series. This book has made a space in my life for this raging desirous calm, and I feel this as a profound freedom.
Caryl Pagel, publisher of Rescue Press, told me that she began an early publicity list for Spain under the heading Who’s mad? So I think she feels this freedom, too.
Can you talk about rage and desire as vital forces? Can you talk about the freedoms you need and seize as a writer and reader and person moving through and constrained by this world?
Caren Beilin: My whole heart is like a big excited dog at the door to hear this question. I want to say so many angry + happy things. But my whole life, I’ve been told to get over my anger. When I was a kid and sniffed out injustice, I was told, “Well, life isn’t fair” and when I was an adult and made some of my own decisions for what I want in my life (like when I stopped having a relationship with my dad) I was told it was sad how angry I was, and when I got an autoimmune disease and explored how to heal, I was told you can’t heal unless you let go of your anger, and that’s 80% women, who have autoimmune diseases, being told that anger hurt them, and is still hurting them, not all our male world leaders who are polluting and deregulating our earth, causing our sensitive, attuned, brilliant and hormonal bodies to react and to flare with the harbinger of what’s to come.
Anger is my vitality. As I say in Spain, “Paranoia, my happiness.”
Natalie Portman said in her recent wonderful speech, “Stop the rhetoric that a woman is crazy or difficult. If a man says to you that a woman is crazy or difficult, ask him, ‘What bad thing did you do to her?’” I’d like to add, if a man starts extolling to you the virtues of a peaceful, calm, lovely, easygoing, or wonderfully generous, maybe a spiritually magnanimous woman he happens to know, ask yourself, what is this passive aggressive, and pernicious, and mendacious celebration seeking to prohibit? Your shrewdness? Your growing interest in being alone to get some more writing and/or reading done? Your growing disinterest in the company of somebody who wants to teach you about something he knows, or to interrupt you when you begin making sense?
This is the territory of much of Spain. These kinks and twists in a conversation, in experience, that end up being everything. How can you be a person with someone who demands you be his spirit animal? How can women become world leaders when often, when I begin to speak, someone is interrupting me? From Spain: “I think the sun is a woman. I think interruptions disembowel her.”
God, I should add. I’m using “man” so disparagingly here, which is necessary, but this is the largest word, so when I say it, I am speaking of “conventional man.” So NB, there are many unconventional people whom these words are so horrible at gripping. I’m smiling thinking of my partner, Jean-Paul, who appears in Spain at the end, when I get to meet him. At our first date at Monk’s Café, in Philadelphia, I told him I enjoy castration, and he said something like, in his femme goth way, that weirdo, “Oh I love castration!”
HP: I’d like to think of rage as hard work—like the hard work of reading and writing—and I’d like to think of rage as an undomesticated form of love. Compassion and anger are old friends, of course, but the story of this friendship is usually told to domesticate anger, draft it into the service of compassion in a familiar, containing way. In that story the point of anger is to Erin Brockovich yourself into a winning court case and great mom, hooray. But what about rage and love that have no clear telos, or whose telos fails, disappears from the only horizon you knew how to see? When I write this question, I understand better the calm your book leaves me with: it’s the calm of companionship, of having someone alongside you in that question. I think this companionship might be the most one can ask.
I’m thinking, for example, of a video Caryl once sent me in response to a conversation we were having about publishing. It’s Bjork and PJ Harvey covering the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” It is correct. Their version opens the end of that song into a vibrating growling clear arrivallessness. Together they are just repeating “Hey hey hey / That’s what I say,” and it’s like the whole song, the whole statement of covering this big masculine canonical song, reduces into this urgent, gorgeous, wall-hitting self-reference: I’m just speaking.
Or, the better way to say that is as you say it on the second page of Spain:
We have had to become so crucial, so cutting. To cut our own work! I, personally, have had to become impregnated with a grown man in the publishing industry and birth him through the cunt of my burning writing so that he cuts it up and kills it, on the birthing butcher table, on my writing desk in the American hospital, so that I could at least publish some pure blue laminates—clearer than all this—of night with no sunset.
Night with no sunset!
My question for you is about reading as writing, criticism as literature, and/or how to read in the most active, participatory, powerful, re-embowelling way. There’s lots to say about such reading theoretically, but I want to ask you about it in your own life and in Spain. Bjork and PJ Harvey are reading the Rolling Stones so that something new happens in the song and we get to hear the force of that happening. Much of Spain is doing work that people sometimes describe as “autotheory” or “critifiction”—it’s reading Blanchot and Flaubert and The Shining and Claire Denis and the art with which you were surrounded at this residency, and this reading is a life as it’s lived and happening; it’s also a way to “read against what was happening” (in your words). How do creative and critical impulses meet in your work? How do you think of the emotions and experience and ethics and possibilities of reading, and how do you write toward/from that?
CB: So. That video is amazing. PJ Harvey, and her deadly anger and anguish and the lavish velvet crack she cuts from—she’s a guiding voice, energy for me, her and Claire Denis and Liz Phair (thinking of 2001, getting stoned and biking through Chicago listening to either PJ Harvey or Liz Phair on my discman… un-flinchers) and lately, Violette Leduc. This video… It’s so good, for me, because at every phrase, enunciation, of this song, PJ Harvey and Bjork manage to hold steady, not fall into the can of this song. With their cracked and unresolved and gravely intelligent voices. How do you hold steady against such a force, this song that’s like a car commercial, how do you be yourself, and what happened to you, or do art, in a car commercial, inside of such a penis? H, they really crack the penis, IMO.
Writing isn’t only about giving. It’s mostly about erasure. And good writing—good writing projects—have some refusal in them. Resistance. A writer can hold that ethics, knows what not to do, what they can’t participate in any longer. I can’t be in your car commercial. Listen, I’m going to bleed on the vehicle. Flaubert can’t write a sentimental character. I can’t give you that any longer.
When is it you know, when you are reading or viewing something, that it is holding itself steady? It won’t fall into the can? Maybe it is deliciously rimming the can? I write a lot about The Shining in Spain, and I was very influenced by the documentary about The Shining, Room 237, which is about all of the different (paranoid) readings one could have about this film. It takes you through quite a few of them (The Shining is about the genocide of Native Americans, The Shining is about Kubrick’s involvement in the staging of the moon landing…). Maybe a sign of great art is that it can weather paranoia. It takes all of the paranoia in, and welcomes it, and lets it have fun, there are so many dots in this art, so many things one could furiously, scrupulously connect and connect and connect. Paranoia can have all its fun making all of its meanings, learning all of its truth, but the art is sort of very loving and against all that. But paranoia is an entrance, a penetration into art, a way to fuck and hold it. I want to paranoiafuck so many books and films and art! But my paranoia, my eros and interest and intelligence, is provoked by the artist’s extreme resistance. It is not even a withholding. It’s more like disinterest, elsewhereness. That’s what Bjork and PJ Harvey share, in this song that has brought people and cars together. It’s not about that song. That song was just a strong thing—like a Victorian marriage plot, like Flaubert writing Madame Bovary—that being them, being their attunement, it turns out, could take down.
I don’t know if I’m answering anything—I like to paranoiafuck art. When I read, I become excited by writers who take down strong patterns and rim old cans with unflinching assertion. Dennis Cooper. Jewelle Gomez.
HP: An eros of elsewhereness, of being welcomed in but withheld toward. Art that invites an extremity of connection but won’t be exhausted by it. Is still beyond it. Yes. This reminds me of Lyn Hejinian’s handy description of the “closed text” (“one in which all elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it”) vs. the “open text”: “all the elements of the work are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) argument that they have taken into the dimensions of the work… The ‘open text’… is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies.”
The paranoiafuck is a way to feel how to move, maximally excited, through the maximal excitement and openness and invitation of an artwork—while knowing that the work offers itself equally to every reader, anyone can participate, you don’t exhaust it, no matter how many times among how many sheep you read Madame Bovary, it’s still elsewhere, still offering the extreme resistance of the openness of its form.
I’m reading right now an anthology called Into English, which offers multiple translations of a number of canonical poems of world literature in order to consider, variously, that multiplicity. There’s an essay by Cole Swenson on three translations of one poem by Baudelaire in which she emphasizes the happy occasion when “the translator [can] admit defeat right at the start… dispelling at once the illusion that translation might actually be possible, and thus getting immediately to the heart of the promise of impossibility, which is the infinity that every impossibility makes suddenly available.” When she speaks of the unlimitedness that the impossibility of translation allows, she sounds very happy. Is this the happiness of paranoiafucking?
So I now want to ask about argument. I find Hejinian’s line about exceeding without deserting argument very compelling, but I’m not sure how to think it. Many of the works we love express a ferocity of argument even as, somehow, that argument feels more open than closed, opening than closing off. Just how does that work? I’m thinking too of your forthcoming book-length essay Blackfishing the IUD, which is making a specific intervention into gender inequities in healthcare, the increasing phenomenon of autoimmune disease, and reproductive health, specifically by pointing to problems of the IUD. Just how does art make an argument—which is maybe a way of just talking about form, as you say, “holding itself steady”—that both openly invites participation and chooses strongly what not to participate in? Is this also a question about Spain as a travelogue?
CB: Blackfishing the IUD is different from any other writing I’ve done. It has a political purpose that even Spain doesn’t have, even though Spain is very feminist. The (under-regulated, under-researched) copper IUD triggered an autoimmune reaction, which became a condition. I know that this happened. I know that this has happened to many other women and that thousands of women gather online to say that the copper IUD is causing in them: depression, anxiety, heart palpitations, joint pain… It is actually simply important for me to write a book that says so—and that shares the stories of other women—because when I demanded a gynecologist take the IUD out of me, she finally took it out and showed it to me and said of it, “What a waste.” I’d wasted the device. I will never forgive her for saying that. My anger is very clear, is very forever. Other women should know that the IUD can cause an inflammatory response, as well as copper toxicity. These things could harm you, possibly immediately or slowly over time.
I have never had a purpose like that for writing. I have never wanted something more than I want my writing, but I want women to know that the copper IUD might harm them. It is a practice of holding steady, because all of the popular narratives about this device are positive, and it’s known as a feminist device, and safe, and effective, so I have to hold myself my experience so steady. Sara Ahmed writes, “Once a flow is directed, it acquires momentum. Once a momentum is acquired, it is directive.” I have to hold against the pressing flow, the crushing wisdom. Patterns of meaning. I have to keep describing what to me, to thousands of other women, has actually happened. It isn’t an argument. I would never ever debate about the copper IUD. Blackfishing the IUD is testimony—mine and others—about the female body, female experience, what happens to us in doctors’ offices, and what happens when oxidizing metal inflames the uterus. Testimony is not an argumentative but a descriptive mode. It is open to every narrow of experience, but closed to interruptions (at last).
Maybe Spain is more of an argument. I wrote it after doing a lot of intensive study in a PhD program about poststructuralism and queer theory and these modes start to feel very anti-woman in that, in their quest to dismantle the constructs of gender (and sex), they can ignore the material, the actual, experiences of people when they get identified as “woman.” Queer theory, to me, still doesn’t work on the street. I can’t go live in that ideal. In Spain, there were too many men constantly bothering me. When I traveled, and was on my own much of the time, I noticed the impositions, the ways I couldn’t just be the little lizard I mostly am. The world felt so closed to me, because of the way women are just, treated. All of the expectations, and my god, all of the lessons. How could anyone learn that much from that many men in any hostel ever? It was too much learning! And listening!
But now I would say, for me, great writing breaks its own form. There’s always that moment, where the book, the writer collapses, if they are willing. Recently rereading Anne Garréta’s Not One Day, a book built on an Oulipo conceit, that just breaks in the end, tenderly, humanly, and she confesses it. Spain is an argument I began—the start to writing it—that has in it maybe many mini collapses.
HP: I am glad for this distinction—testimony is not an argumentative but a descriptive mode—and the ethics it presents, in which testimony is received, attended to, but not debated, not subjected to refutation.
I want to think about the question of modes on the level of the sentence—the modes through which your sentences in Spain move, into and out of which they collapse (of Madame Bovary you note “the funhouse of clauses that adulterate against one another, are different, perform differences in the same sentence”). Throughout Spain images and colors recur, become the vocabulary of this way of seeing and reacting and making (sheep, rain, castle, moon, marigolds, nipples, acid, blood…). Humor occurs without announcing itself, a weaponized coyness. “I let the town adulterer take pictures of me in the butcher’s freezer.” “The full moon is like a statue of a scoop of sheep concept.” Sentences feel like bright furious brushstrokes with acidic borders. There’s a concision that is, I think, pretty transcendent. The reader feels welcomed but not socialized with, to return to elsewhereness (“I don’t care to dine with anyone” you say at one point that I love, and it’s as if the reader is both laughing and included in the liberation of this announcement and is there in the kitchen, the one you’re talking to, pointedly). I’ve been thinking about this passage, in which “she” is the artist:
Her friendship, if you’ve found a friend in her, is a crude skiff that she tries to offer as a salve (of some color) over the numb water. I filled a marigold little skiff with candles but they masturbated until they were dead, and I was really done socializing. I really was. I could not go on smiling at them, at situation. There is no artist’s situation. There is no country that makes me come. I was really in Spain for no reason.
To me this describes something of our feeling for and with and made by this narrator, her freedom and the refusals she invites us elsewherely into. Could you talk about the making of the sentences that make up this book—how you arrived into their different forms, how they felt to create, what guides may have appeared to you?
CB: Spain started out with writing tautologies—metaphors that ended in the exact same place, that refused the work of learning, growing, becoming something new. “Spain is like Spain.” “A sheep is like sheep.” And then, maybe, mix and match, “The full moon is like a statue of a scoop of sheep concept.” I was tired of taking on that labor, of learning and growing. I was skeptical of this labor of ingesting lessons, becoming changed. That labor started to feel very feminine, feminized. And the work of metaphor can be this place of exalted transformation, ground zero in the sentence for beginning to see the world differently. What about making it different? I am influenced by Bataille’s robust, makeshift, can-do metaphors, “The sun is an anus.” Ok. It is now…
I am so glad to hear from you that Spain feels like a friend, in its grumpiness. I have certainly been attracted to grumpy, misanthropic, suspicious authors, like Flaubert. I was just reading these short Thomas Bernhard stories, so grump! Here’s one, in full, called “Hotel Waldhaus”:
We had no luck with the weather and the guests at our table were repellent in every respect. They even spoiled Nietzsche for us. Even after they had had a fatal car accident and had been laid out in the church in Sils, we still hated them.
Being raised a girl and then being stung all the time with woman, woman, it’s hard to get the same kind of applause for being a grump, a Nietzsche with all your negative joy (I mean, even Nietzsche would call you a cow, he called literary women that…). Women are accommodating, nurturing, connective—we do a lot of connective labor. So I would say the sentences in Spain were about refuting that, with joy. Taking joy in outing myself as a grump, as someone who feels quite dead to all kinds of things (even including my dad). Considering all the shit put on women, maybe I am not surprised a reader to this book would actually understand all of this quite well. For Bataille, the copula (the verb, “to be,” i.e., is) was this erotic, constructive (ha, for Bataille in his negative joys, destructive…), violent and happy word. Spain is full of is. “There is no artist’s situation. There is no country that makes me come.” I’m trying to make space for my certainty, when my experience in life is often, people telling me what they know, interrupting, overrunning. Judging me on the affect of my kindness, and making sure I’m not a bitch or vixen. I guess a lot of people have a secret life, where they try to be what they would have been, what the thwack inside of them says. My great hope, my big fantasy, about publishing (thanks for this, btw),is that I could rectify the would (that mournful warbling word) into much is.
Caren Beilin is the author of a memoir, Spain (Rescue Press, 2018), a novel, The University of Pennsylvania (Noemi Press, 2014), and a nonfiction book on women’s health, Blackfishing the IUD (forthcoming from Wolfman Books, 2019). She teaches creative writing at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
Hilary Plum is the author of the novel Strawberry Fields, winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose (2018); the work of nonfiction Watchfires (2016), winner of the 2018 GLCA New Writers Award; and the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013). She teaches creative writing at Cleveland State University and in the NEOMFA program and is associate director of the CSU Poetry Center. With Zach Savich she edits the Open Prose Series at Rescue Press.