(INTERVIEW) A Conversation between Irene Silt and Rosie Stockton, Fall 2022
Poets Irene Silt and Rosie Stockton in conversation about their recent books of poems, My Pleasure (Deluge, 2022) and Permanent Volta (Nightboat, 2021). Here they discuss how sex is a tool for destroying sovereignty, the poetics of submission, how to decouple work’s stranglehold on time, and how we can possibly love from a position of total vulnerability.
Irene Silt: I want to start with the theme of erotics in Permanent Volta. As I read the book, I was thinking how erotics operate in my writing. In My Pleasure, I can't describe exactly why I write so much about sex. We both use the language of sex, turning it around a lot. When I read the description of the book, I feel protective of it. I think this is the right thing to put on the book, as Nightboat wrote, ‘providing for each other through intimate acts of care and struggle,’ ‘writers as tops and muses as bottoms.’ But, it seems flattened, this idea of erotics as simply providing for each other. It's brilliant and it's good and it's right for the book, but why does that reading of erotics-as-providing land as too simple?
For me, I don’t know why my poems are erotic. As I sit and write, I do enter a D/s zone. It must be connected to how I tend to be dominant in sex, but also have a certain fear of sex. As if I should keep it away from myself and the only way to take power back is through dominance. Not that I am to remain in control, but that it is in control. The D/s dynamic builds a palpable excitement which allows the sex to wash over me rather than be me.
I want to ask you: how and why do you think you likewise write poems with the language of fetish?
Rosie Stockton: For me, sex originates so much more in mobilizing symbols with another person rather than in a bodily sensation. Traditionally, we think of sex as fucking. Normative or even kinky modes of fucking: this is sex. But in these poems, I wanted to distinguish the bodily mechanics of sex and desire with erotics. Erotics for me are animated through the gap between what we want to say, and what we are capable of saying. The gap between wanting and having. The caesura or interstice when you find yourself suspended midair. In that gap I think there is potential to build a world. Poetry is a staging ground for mobilizing those unassuming signifiers into an erotic dimension. In a poem, you get to make signifiers mean whatever you want, they don't have to mean what they usually mean. Gertrude Stein or Wittgenstein are such important influences to me in this regard. Like language is the vehicle of thought, I also think language is a vehicle of sex. Like you, I too have a certain fear of sex - the bodily grammar and anti-grammar of sex carries with it such crises of consent, power, potential failure to connect, even the out of control feeling of release. In the poem, it’s almost as if I want to cloak ‘the body’ with symbols: as a way of feeling safe. The body, to me, is the caesura. It exists as that gap, totally vulnerable.
In Permanent Volta, I used the poem to stage these power dynamics - of dominance and submission - inherent, latent or explicit, in erotic dynamics, which are so hard to speak about and so hard to confront in intimacy. The poems help me process power dynamics, and help me understand what sex is. In a lot of those poems, I'm writing about wanting to be completely broken & dominated down by another person, and then remade through worldbuilding. The process of getting topped - in language or sex (a false distinction) is such a rich metaphor for subjection. For the process of being a subject, being a self. You're built by all the things that are pressurized in you.
When I read My Pleasure, though, I think you are doing something different with erotics. Your work doesn’t shy away from the body: both the horror and the pleasure possible. I mean, you literally write: ‘What if I am against boundaries’ and ‘I am not a separation, I am a chaining together’ and ‘There is nothing in the world to move a body but another body’. How does the body figure into your cosmology of erotics in the book?
Irene: Yes I write from the body, it is my site of interest. Erotics, or the tending to desire, is folding under this pressure into yourself or another. It is the being of sensation. I want to replace the drive to solidify everything into is by replacing with and. My body does this for me, my body does this for others.
One of my favorite lines in Permanent Volta is from ‘A Libidinal Nobody,’ where the speaker and the direct address both become objects. You write: ‘Your light I thought would come for me, would inhabit my hungry nobody, where we’d be object together, we’d rot under the leaves, compost, and subjectivity.’
Rosie: I originally wrote ‘A Libidinal Nobody’ as a sestina, using the strict formal constraints according to sestina conventions. A sestina is an old Italian form that was invented a little before the sonnet. I find formal constraint very erotic: the tension between wanting to obey and wanting to break down the form maps on the tension in topping and bottoming. In a way, the form is the top and the writer is the bottom in this scenario! The muse, meanwhile, is totally absented. My question was then, who authorized the form? Where did these ancient forms come from? Which brought me to this question of power and subjection: feeling like the loophole to the dialectics of power existed in becoming object, or reclaiming objecthood as this rejoinder to say, liberal feminist demands against objectification. When I write a sestina, I really do experience it like being tied up. You're so constrained in your lines. In this poem I started with six words: bar, nobody, object, gender, money, rot, and then repeated them at the end of each line according to the form. I like this way of denaturalizing language via repetition. When I say this word enough it's going to mean whatever the fuck I want it to mean, and not what it meant before.
Irene: My work is after this same thing -- losing sense of the self. I often channel a room or atmosphere as much as my body, both vessels for something indescribable, both infinitely complicated in energy and process.
I want to forget myself as a discrete being. I want to be filled with other things, I want to dissolve through infinite divisibility. I'm turning things over using the you and the I so that there is no you and I. I am filled with other things. And they are both me and not me.
Rosie: That thing you said about forgetting is something I've been thinking about a lot. I want to dissolve myself as a fucking self and subject. I want to forget myself. I do think if you create the right situation, you can achieve that in sex, in total submission.
I try to write toward the dissolution of the sovereign self. I have a line that’s like just ‘fuck me and forget me.’ I'm like: me. Forget me. Let's all forget “me” - the possibility of me-ness as a discrete self from any other self.
Irene: There's also this line ‘I abolish my identity and it keeps coming back.’
Rosie: Yea, I feel close to the failure in that line. If you're willing something, you're still a subject. You can't will subjectivity away, that's the joke in that line. In the act of sovereignty you're imposing power over yourself, and thus you're restaging the scene of your own formation. In a psychoanalytic sense, it’s about the return of the repressed. I guess my question was – what are all the things that make you actually lose your sense of self and feel that euphoria? I’m curious how you would answer that in terms of your own writing. You have this line that feels resonant I want to ask you about:
‘I am bound by myself, presesd to crush you on top of me’ and then ‘When you fuck me I entirely decompose.’
Irene: I look to bodily sensation for that loss and euphoria. In contact and exchange, we can become an unfinished series. I look for a relation that is internally rigorous yet lacking finality. Here I am writing from sex but this dispersal of formation happens when we truly attempt to inhabit earth instead of trying so hard to forget that we are human. When we garden, in the mosh pit, on the mats, in the field, the tree sit, in all that is in conflict with empire, the destruction of life.
I also get down with the concept of the return, revisiting, mixed with the feeling of putting off and being stuck. I find this in your poems. You use this word genre a lot ...
Rosie: My gender, my genre ... that's a collapse. I think a big question of the book is, what is autonomy when you're operating within a gender or within a set of constraints? I wrote these as sonnets and then I broke them apart. I wrote these as a gender and I don't want a gender. Can you have autonomy from structures of power? A genre constraint, or a genre of poetry, or within poetry... a genre of poems or a gender that you're working against in the symbolic order. Or the material way you're confronting the world as you present differently. What does it mean to be autonomous? Do we experience gender or capitalism as totalizing or do we think there's an outside? Or is having to maneuver within the system total domination? Can you experience something that looks like autonomy?
Irene: It's like your line that goes something like ‘I didn't mean to ask for money, I meant to ask for destruction.’
Rosie: Exactly. You can get that feeling of outside of a system of domination, but you're still so quickly subsumed. In my fantasy I shatter the stage. In my fantasy, everything breaks.
Irene: What was this line -- your curfew on my radial pulse?
Rosie: I was thinking deadlines. The constraint of time and the conditions of life that pull us away from each other.
Irene: Work is the ultimate ordering of time. Have you put in the time? Have you gotten enough hours to get your time off? Are you in the class of daytime workers or third shift nightcrawlers, on call or freelance ambiguous? Your life is structured around work but flourishing life is structured in the 24 hour cycle of movement around the sun, the successive movement of energy through life forms. It is about function, growth, rest, and decline. Time is a faint approximation of this path. Time is unnecessary without work.
Rosie: Right. The curfew is just a deadline when my lover has to leave me. You have a curfew? You've got to go? Where do you got to go? Your boss? Your mom? Imagining someone laying in my arm and being like, you have to go, that moment before departing.
Irene: It's nice to attach that to this bodily function and meter. The non linear aspect of romantic relationships should be a comfort instead of an anxiety.
Rosie: Right, linear time is a trap, I want my poetics to be able to fuck that up.
Irene: Describe the trap.
Rosie: The normative experience of being free and being able to work, you get to work and make money and buy the stuff you want, live this life, you're free and you're in America and you're free, I think this is a critique of that false sense of freedom. The false hallucination that we are autonomous subjects that feels like we can be mobile within this social contract.
Irene: In the popularization of certain kinds of signals, it's like, there grows an either/ or of revolution. We're either going to like our jobs more, or we're going to have a revolution. Fully destroy everything.
Rosie: Yeah totally. What's the outside, what's it destructed from? What's the post-communist horizon? What's the horizon when sovereignty isn't the model of being? Exhaustion -- you're tired of work so you're so fucking tired.
Irene: You bring up pauses. The pause of the shut door, and excess, the pauses and excess. I was drawn to that.
Rosie: If time is the enemy, or it at least it monopolized by the enemy, I wanted to ask how do you make time move differently? The caesura in poetry is the pause. The last poem in the book is called ‘Caesura Fountain.’ The caesura is the poetry word for a pause. It's a silence, a gap, a lexical leap where you'd expect the next syllable to come or the next word, but it's evacuated. That's such a seductive temporality: -- the pause. All that which is in excess of the meter by not subjecting it to language. So much is said in what’s not said of course. An unassimilable moment. Something that can't be accumulated in the symbolic order. It's clandestine.
Irene: Can you tell me about the conversation between the debt complex and the bad sub?
Rosie: I started the book being like, wages for muses. and then I was like actually ... I don't want to uphold the writerly subject, the whole form of the sonnet is a writer lamenting his unrequited love from the lover, but really needing the lover absent the lover to constitute himself in his own identity. I was really trying to work through that. This is a conversation imagining a muse on strike. Imagining someone who's being like, I'm not even going to show up in your poem. Try to write about me, you can't. And then of course, how do you refuse to be represented politically? How do you refuse to be represented non-consensually by someone you don't want to be? Actually, I'm more interested in kink rather than trying to escape that relationship. I don't think it's possible. I used to have a line in the book -- do you consent to my direct address? Do you consent to be the you in my poem? Can the discourse of consent and bodily violation actually be moved into the fantasy world of a person? I was like, I want to explore consent. That was a provocative question for me, but I wanted to explore. I was trying to imagine if the person you were writing about tried to refuse to be in your poem. Tried to fuck up your poem. You need me but I'm not going to show up. I'm going to sabotage you. This first part is so much about sabotage. Do you know the etymology of sabotage?
It's from the 1800s when French workers were striking, they had these specific clogs called Sabots. They would throw them in the machines to fuck up the machines. And that's where the word comes from: it means to clog a machine. I used to only wear Danskos, clogs, because of that. I also worked in diners and bars, so it made sense.
Irene: Good excuse for Danskos. It makes me think of another poem ‘Eunuch of Industry.’That’s definitely a powerful strike. The Plato part, at the end, is really good too. You want to talk about this?
Rosie: Here, I was thinking about Plato’s cave. The people in the allegory who are holding up the different platonic forms who are chained in the thing in order to make the representation possible. What about the modes of domination that allow for how we understand representation to work? Whatever multiple forms of primitive accumulation, slavery, Greek slavery obviously is different than the way we think about how slavery has come to dominate in the United States. Global capitalism. This was an early poem I wrote. What about the modes of domination that allow us to believe we're free. That was a generative question of the whole book.
Irene: It's very anti-democracy.
Rosie: Yea it's a very anti-representational book, in so far as our current form of democracy is ultimately descending into fascism, and has always been based in anti-black frameworks of legitimizing who counts as a person and who doesn’t in democratic society. It’s very much questioning the very western philosophical categories that legitimize democratic notions of freedom and representation. I don't actually want to subject myself to the violence of representation in the symbolic and political order. As you say in one of your essays in The Tricking Hour, I don't want to be a constituent. The first poem about encryption is speaking to how one might go about becoming illegible and encrypted from the surveillance of power.
Irene: ‘Is my boundary exquisite to you, is it knowable. Isn't this having?’ I think that encapsulates writing from the sexual encounter. It is both mysterious and without words, and when it's good, there's nothing to say. Blatant yet mysterious. “Isn't this having?” In particular, that's the good question.
Rosie: It's like trying to point to a contradiction that with desire, one struggles with possession. Wanting to have someone else as their girlfriend or whatever. Partners, boyfriend, the pronoun. It's the separateness. The separateness allows for the possession and then questioning what it means to have. Do you even want to have? Do you even want to have the capability of having someone else?
When I say I am an ‘autonomous bottom seeking non-sovereign top,’ I try to encapsulate the contradiction of the desire with regards to this question of freedom. I find myself not wanting to have a self, but having to have a self to want to not have a self. Wanting to be topped, wanting to be free. This one is a lot about submission. I guess that's my answer to the question: is restaging your own submission a way out? Being tied up is actually so freeing because you're confronting your profound unfreedom.
Irene: It's also something you can't do on your own. It does require someone to take interest in your desire, to make your needs their own, to make them good. I’m sure there are many lines in my book that are sexy in how they command the reader, but one of the lines that gives me away most is from the prose poem you : ‘It was not my own face that taught me the things I desire and am good at.’ It is the reaction of my lover or my opponent that provides the kind of dynamic response I am after, not just feedback but the entry into the continuum where the next step is apparent and multiple. To learn bodily attunement so fully that your desires play out in the other, completely resituating threat and fear.
Can you have that exercise of trust, be known? I would like to have this more. Can I be topped beginning to end?
Rosie: It's very fucking rare.
Irene: I cultivate a subspace that is meant for release and internal movement. Being tied down, so that everything inside can start to dislodge and exit. The awe of something that is done to you, but still you think, ‘I didn't know that I could do that.’ My ability to be skillful in the administration of dominance is less interesting than what is happening to the submissive. It's not about ability but more so the suspension of time that leads somewhere internal instead of just forward. It takes attention to know how to use a body for its own benefit.
Rosie: Completely. It's miraculous to actually get topped.
Irene: You escape a logic of deprivation, without the onus of production, earning, or deserving. When free of this, you are new and imagined. Is that elsewhere? Did you really have to get thrown in? I don't know. I can't really think of many opportunities to do that by yourself. An environment may approximate it, but…
Rosie: You actually need another person.
Irene: I find this in jiu jitsu as well. I feel strongly attached to the people that I train with. We meet to offer our bodies in an exchange of practice. Grappling is a deeply personal art, a technique that takes shape only as you put it together. But you need someone else to enact that art, it has no outward life in isolation. It cannot be honed or developed alone. You have to find the people who will do this with you, commit to them, and return to them. It feels rare.
Irene: I enjoy the reciprocal nature of dominant and submissive positions, becoming so intimate with both the top and bottom that you can find power anywhere. There's a lot to be said about exercise and exertion. Exhaustion. What the body goes through to gain strength and stamina. You can experience a lot of that by yourself, but when you're experiencing it in contingency and interdependence of other bodies, it's excruciatingly beautiful.
Rosie: It's about being beneath everything. The position of power in jujitsu is on your back, the one beneath. But you're doing it with the other person, you can't be beneath nothing. Of course I ended this book with deep submission. It's this collaborative way to desubjectify and stage this mode of being together, or something. How do you think about submission in My Pleasure?
Irene: I think of it as softening to yourself as a real path of survival. Allowing the pain to come, to know it will. To let it be there without encapsulating it with doubt, blame, or fear. Letting it breathe, so that we can know it. Know things before we put them away. Reject the tendency for measurement and instead allow our achievements to disperse further into the earth. There’s a line I love from Stalker --
Rosie: The Tarkovsky movie?
Irene: Yes, my favorite movie!
Rosie: I love that movie.
Irene: In one of the more famous parts of the film, he's talking about the room, he says weakness is great, and strength nothing. When a tree is growing, it’s pliant. In death it is hard and dry. So, hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. If we harden, we cannot win.
Irene Silt is the author of My Pleasure and The Tricking Hour (Deluge Books 2022). They write about power, anti-work feeling, joy, and deviance. Their essays and poems have been published in Mask Magazine, ANTIGRAVITY, Spoil, LESTE, Trou Noir, Poiesis Journal and in the Tripwire pamphlet series. They live in New York.
Rosie Stockton is the author of Permanent Volta (Nightboat Books 2021) which was the recipient of the 2019 Sawtooth Prize judged by Brian Teare. Their poems have been published by Social Text Journal, VOLT, Jubilat, Apogee, Mask Magazine, Tripwire and WONDER PRESS. They hold an M.A. in Creative Writing from Eastern Michigan University and are currently a Ph.D. Student in the Gender Studies Department at UCLA. Rosie lives and works in Los Angeles.
Text: Irene Silt & Rosie Stockton
Images: Stalker (1979), Andrei Tarkovsky