Margaret Christakos is a Canadian poet living in Toronto
Margaret Christakos’s multifaceted and deeply personal new book, Her Paraphernalia: On Motherlines, Sex/Blood/Loss & Selfies (Bookthug, 2016), is the inaugural title in BookThug’s Essais series. Dedicated to nonfiction that challenges traditional forms and styles of cultural enquiry, this new series offers takes on embodied criticism from unique creative minds. We invited Margaret and series editor Julie Joosten to contribute a bonus post as a coda to May’s curated series on writing the body.
Julie Joosten: Speaking as the editor of this book, one of the things I most love about Her Paraphernalia is the book’s intimacy with risk, its willingness not only to take risks but also to inhabit risk, on the levels of form, sound, time, history, and self-exposure. Did conceiving of Her Paraphernalia and writing it feel like an engagement with risk? And how do you understand the risks involved and the ways you ended up negotiating them?
Margaret Christakos: The book risked not existing and found its way to existing. I risked believing in a book that seemed to want to become itself. Those are the ways I seem to find to talk about Her Paraphernalia. The book was like a night grope. Yes, you’ve gone up the stairs before, felt the doorframe with your toe, but suddenly the air around you is strobing its lack of light and you want to fall down the stairs. But you don’t. You go through the door, and there’s a room.
JJ: HP seems to me the realization of a constellation of language, thought, and feeling that went in search of form and, abiding with and in uncertainty that became possibility, discovered a range of forms to meet its density, playfulness, openness, and struggle. What were the surprises and calmnesses of finding and working with the various forms in your night grope to HP? In other words, what were the experiences of groping toward form in the book?
MC: Hmm, I like that you allow for both surprises and calmnesses. Both were there, yes! I’ve composed poetry and poetic cycles and made them into nine books, and in several cases, these books contain procedurally engined extended compositions. I’ve written fiction and sustained characterization and also produced countless talks and lectures that directly address varied audiences, including many student/mentee groups.
In all of these dark writing stairwells, I have also valued the grope at the unseen ground in front of me. In lots of ways the grope has always been the calmness! It seems to me that I “draw down the present” into my writing. So I don’t think it’s exclusive or original to this book of mine.
It’s the time frame of the grope that is intensely different with this one, and the precarity of losing parents, relational language and partnership over the same interval. Those things shook me up! The biggest surprise for me was going into a grief-trough of not being able to write, and having to re-find, I guess, the room itself.
As I write this to you, Julie, I hear how important domestic architecture is to me, and though I’ve considered this for several minutes and thought about using a different metaphor, this one’s sticking!
JJ: Let’s stay with domestic architecture a bit longer. The engagement between private interiors and public spaces, the traffic between them, seems crucial both to HP and to your other works. How do you understand the relationship between these rooms you both discover and build and the public world that exists beyond—but also with—these rooms?
MC: In Her Paraphernalia, each of the ten “études” (which I consider short for “tumultétudes”) is a kind of domestic room of its own, housing different stuff. It’s interesting to scan this idea in relation to some earlier books. I wrote about the idea of the future after two interrupted pregnancies this way: “Through the window / is another window.” In “Orange Porch,” the evening porch-sit is a place to examine my bisexual desire. Several of my longer poems like “What Stirs” (in What Stirs) and “The Problem of Confessionality” (in Welling) are situated in my back yard—a space which seems an allotment of private property that is concealing, yet continuous with the sociality of the city as well. In Multitudes I write about sexting in terms of hovering at a “so-green threshold,” and that’s an architectural space and also the sexual body as a ledge. Now I’m noticing a lot of stoops, docks, park benches, sidewalks …
I am staging an imaginative retreat up my own cunt [ … ]
In Her Paraphernalia, of course, there’s my body sitting at my grandmother’s and my mother’s bedside, in domestic rooms that are about being in memory and near death. In the “Up Into Her Hole” étude, I am staging an imaginative retreat up my own cunt, almost a journey to the underworld to get my daughter-self back. Seeing light beyond that room’s closed door is kind of sensational: “Edge of door against doorframe vibrated orange sizzle.” More orange!
JJ: More orange! Her Paraphernalia seems to have a love affair with orange: oranges, orange trees, and orange vests appear, as do an orange sizzle (as you note above) and an “orange vibrating incandescent buzz” (reminding me of Emily Dickinson’s “Blue—uncertain— stumbling Buzz— ”).
“[Delicacy Oct 15]” in “She Comes from Everywhere” contains two beautiful and provocative stanzas that both work with orange:
An angle always lingers to be noticed. Your attention gels the others. You exist while they exist. A narrative imbues you all with meaning that tastes a little like an orange.
[ … ]
Maybe links exist and they postulate the ifs and whys. An angle always lingers to be noticed. Their attention gels the others. They exist while they exist. A narrative imbues them all with meaning that tastes a little like fields and fields and fields of oranges.
What do you perceive when you see or hear or taste or imagine orange?
MC: No joke, I logged in to our email conversation with a fresh orange cut into wedges, and I was already three wedges in. Check the photo! They are very oral, O wedges of oranges. On my travels in Greece as I was writing what became Her Paraphernalia, I went by bus from Sparta to Molaos (Molaoi) where my father’s father was from, and we drove across a valley grove of orange trees as far as the eye could see. The fruit is striking, and fragrant. In a culture that was struggling amid a horrific prolonged encounter with the hardships of austerity, the orange seemed an icon of Greece’s own plenitude, alongside lemons and olives. I hadn’t expected to see oranges as a major crop in Lakonia; it defamiliarized them for me. Every orange comes from somewhere rooted and particular.
Margaret’s plate of oranges
I also love the segment structure of the orange, how it bursts with juice, how it fills the hand, how you suck it like a breast. I like how it gets unpacked over time. It’s a multiple, a serial, a module, and these are all forms I have liked as a poet.
JJ: That picture is amazing! Will you please describe your practice of working with photographs and linguistic photograph captions or captures and how this practice worked its way into writing Her Paraphernalia?
MC: It was all kind of an organic social media practice. It really took off during my two-month solo travel in 2012 to trace my grandmothers’ young lives in the UK and Greece. I didn’t have a cellphone yet, I had a digital camera and a laptop, so as I travelled I uploaded photos with notes. The chronicle function of Facebook “albums” was intimate enough that I could let my kids know what I was up to and share their family history with them, and it was also generically editorial enough to hold my self-aware writing gestures as well. I re-appropriated the notes without the photos in Her Paraphernalia as intense capsules that retain the traveller narrative but seem to speed up time and productively squish the text around questions of the conventional memoir genre.
Once I got a cellphone in 2013 though, the smaller framing and hand-held immediacy also invited me to make images of touching the laptop screen, and asking questions about what and how we touch using the social media we do. I think I started by touching online images of women artists at midlife—Clarice Lispector, Maria Callas—and holding kitchen waste and objects in my hand, doing various “handdances” and making Facebook photo posts of little handscript texts. I started making images that were specifically about trying to touch old photos of my daughter, mother, grandmothers, and threading those images multiple times from cellphone to laptop to email to Facebook, making them carry the wear and tear of all the transfers; these all became part of a larger project called #touchingseries. And I tried to externalize and interpret my own subject position as a woman of 50 by making an ongoing series of “cellphies,” gathering them into an Album called “Marcissus”—playing off of the teenaged girl habit of ubiquitous selfie-flogging. One of the HP études gathers some from each photo series into a visual portfolio.
JJ: In many of the photographic practices you describe, there’s an element of accident that opens onto new rooms—accidental methods of inhabiting, thinking, and questioning, the accidental assemblage of communities (via Facebook, for example), and the accidental development of a sense of self-accompaniment. How do you respond to accident or the accidental in your practice and your work?
MC: I’m more interested in the incident, and the incidental—incidentality and improvisation—I guess, that leads me to consider coincidence as well—and I’ve been interested in domesticity and ambience throughout my poetry, and the acts of attention and awareness that allow us to frame ordinary, quotidian life. I find that interesting because of the way things revolve between order and disorder continually, everything’s always leaking and becoming imperfect. With writing and with photography I like documenting domicile and the happenstance of my private life, making photos of food-marked dinner plates, and of windowed and mirrored views inside my home, all the mess of living in a family.
Do photographs secure a record of our existence, or do they dismember our internalized sense of belonging and self?
For me, my writing and the visual work fold into a serial poetics of the boring and confessional, and a spin through the dizzy doors of what it is to write now, you know—what’s direct and indirect address, how do these perform fiction, how do we retain privacy, and how is it we know now, in the weird virtual culture we occupy, that we exist. Do photographs secure a record of our existence, or do they dismember our internalized sense of belonging and self?
In one of the texts in Étude 9 of Her Paraphernalia, I “ask” my grandmothers about how often they were ever photographed as young women, and I think about whether, when we engage with a photograph of ourself, it is a summoning of the pleasures of the mirror stage when we see ourself reflected in our mother’s gaze, a kind of “mama mnemonics.” Instead of thinking of the contemporary selfie craze as rampant narcissism, maybe it’s more like, “What you are trying to create is a slide of her eyes across your own.” My cellphie project nurtured a huge eventual sense of being accompanied on the planet, one I hadn’t often felt.
JJ: Has this sense of accompaniment shifted the ways you read? The ways you write?
MC: Regarding the latter, yes. Less camouflage, more telling.
JJ: I experience that “less camouflage, more telling” as a form of intimate generosity in Her Paraphernalia. Are there questions you have about or for HP that you’ve been able to articulate but are unable to answer through your time working on, publishing, and thinking about the book out in the world? What are they?
Julie Joosten is an American-Canadian poet
MC: You mentioned Dickinson’s “Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz—” and we began this chat talking about writing as a groping search for form. Tonight I am sitting in sparse candlelight as there’s a complete power outage in my neighbourhood—it’s like the digital 21st century has capsized for a few hours. It reminds me of the sensory intensifications that occur with bewilderment by grief. Writing this book allowed the basic question, “do I exist?” to arise simultaneous with saying goodbye to my mother’s time on the planet. I often didn’t know what Her Paraphernalia would be as a book. Now I wonder what new forms of art it has prepared me to make in the future. Another good question that I hear as the book floats into its own grope toward readers: How is the selfie a gesture toward the other, and the collective? How does the disclosure of personal grief operate beyond confessional poetics to stir ethical social memory that remembers the missing? Can touch itself heal? And, was there rehabilitative therapy that could have repaired my mother’s language loss and given us one more fluent conversation? What would we have discussed?
Julie, at every turn I wish I had better answers for you. Thank you for the talk.
Margaret Christakos is the author of nine collections of poetry, including Multitudes (2013), Welling (2010; A Globe100 book), Sooner (2005; a Pat Lowther Memorial Award nominee), and Excessive Love Prostheses (2002; winner of a ReLit Award), as well as a novel, Charisma (2000; a Trillium Book Award nominee). Also a prominent critic and teacher, she designed and facilitated Influency: A Toronto Poetry Salon from 2006 to 2012.
Julie Joosten is a poet, academic, and series editor for BookThug’s Essais imprint. Her debut poetry collection, Light, Light, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award and the Gerald Lampert Award among other honours.