Following the release of her latest book, Lovebug (Peninsula Press, 2023), Thea McLachlan chats to poet and author Daisy Lafarge about the trajectory of her writing and thinking across three publications, touching upon ideas surrounding airlessness, the strengths and limits of metaphor, complicity, abjection, and the slippages between technology and the environment.
'consider the sheets of air / gridlocked in double glazing', Daisy Lafarge wrote in her debut poetry collection Life Without Air (Granta, 2020). I think: trapped, musty, rental car smell. In that collection—the title of which comes from a French chemist's discovery that, while most organisms perish from a lack of oxygen, some thrive—Lafarge considers airlessness and how we construct our lives (suffocating, choking) under such conditions. The poems reflect on love, on aging and on our resilience in states of precarity. In false alarm air, a woman turns to the poem’s narrator and says: 'one day I will know how it feels / to haul around a body of rotting flowers, to let memory / chew holes in my mind like maggots.' In the eponymous poem, Empedocles says: 'Remember that air / is just fire waiting to happen'.
In Lovebug, Lafarge’s new work published by Peninsula Press in October, she continues to explore these themes, writing about the boundaries of the metaphors we use for love and sickness. In part, it is a response to Susan Sontag’s writing on illness and metaphor, about the limits of the metaphorical thinking involved. Lafarge thinks 'there always has to be more metaphor'.
Like Life Without Air, Lovebug is a poetic work but it contains more in text references, more academic rolled up sleeves pressed onto the page. Yet to leave its description like that makes it sound sombre and ignores what makes Lovebug sparkle: its insouciant mix of memoir and essay, its sexy vulnerability seeping out of writing on infection, metaphor and love.
And then there is Paul (Granta, 2021). Paul is a novel about complicity, which follows Frances falling in love in the Pyrenees, but a love that seems, at least to us, poisoned, bad, not quite right. Paul is, undoubtedly, a novel, one with characters who do things, a narrative with a start and a finish and a plot that moves between the two. Its form separates it from Life Without Air and Lovebug, yet there is an overlap in themes that, like shared spit, join them together.
The impact of Life Without Air’s title comes, in part, from our miscomprehension of it: our belief that life cannot survive without air or if it could, well, it must be hard, or, at least, very tiring. Metaphor is always stretching to cover over gaps in communication, in language, in understanding but its sweet hehe joy arrives, in part, in the potholes that stay. Lafarge’s writing celebrates both the functional elements of metaphor and its play. In October, I spoke to her about some of these themes from her home in Glasgow. We talked on the phone about metaphor, the self, and being inspired and overwhelmed by the poisoned world that we live in.
Your works are all intimately tied to a negotiation between the self and the environment in which that self is in. What for you are the elements that comprise that environment? And in your life now what does that environment look like?
I think that negotiation always comes back to the idea of boundaries or lack of boundaries, which is a big part of Lovebug, and which I don’t mean in the way people describe ‘setting boundaries’. It probably comes from something I often experience which is feeling unable to logically or rationally separate things out. So whether that’s in terms of my immediate environment or ecology as an abstract total entity, interpersonally or emotionally, or to do with a bigger geopolitical event. I wouldn’t say things get collapsed into each other or that I’m disinterested in distinctions, but I’m perhaps more drawn to exploring slippages and where things become porous, hard to pin down, as this feels closer to the nested, messy experience of them. I think I'm always trying to capture that confusion and disorientation of being alive, rather than refine it or offer clarifications.
How do you think technology fits into that picture? I'm thinking about that poem you wrote about the Baotou Lake where you muddy the communication about love to the problems of the technology that facilitate that communication. Could you speak about how the grosser forms of technology fit into these slippages in the environment that you think about?
One of the central images in that poem came from several years ago when a friend showed me her broken phone. The screen had been cracked for a while but one night she was speaking and crying on the phone to someone, and when she got off the call she saw that her tears had leached into the screen and somehow turned it green. It was almost like this strange, mystical reaction to her emotions on behalf of her phone. Obviously, there’s this very real and algorithmic monitoring and marketing and profiteering of our emotions through social media but it also seemed like there was also this analogue response from the phone, from its actual material elements. There’s a part in Paul where the protagonist, Frances, gets told about the minerals that are violently extracted to go into the phone, and she’s momentarily forced to regard it as an object with material implications. I think I'm always interested in this tension between the physicality of technology and then the way that power moves through it in more seemingly intangible ways.
Yeah and these tech companies want you to forget about the analog nature of it. They’re all soft edges, seamless, supposed to be a continuation of the self in an object. And so it’s fascinating when you get these glitches which you have with your green screen or when you’re reminded that a phone is made up of properties that have been mined from the ground rather than simply these things you get in a nice little box.
And also that they are designed to produce a sterile aesthetic but they are probably also the grimiest thing you own. At art school I made films about the grease and the grime that accrues on laptop keys and mousepads and things like that so I feel that must have somehow found its way into things I’ve written since then as well.
I really liked in Lovebug that you reference Annie Dillard because the comparison between you and her feels particularly apt: where she has a spiritual pull from nature that is very much drawn to this pristine, gorgeous natural environment, the world that you are navigating is far more poisoned. Where does Dillard, for you, make sense and where do you see what you’re doing as different?
Dillard has been really important to me. The things that I love and the things I'm reticent about are both the things that you mentioned. What I love is even though she might find herself in the most idyllic place, there’s still space for things to be, not sinister exactly, but she’s willing for the idea of harmony to be complicated. She doesn’t try to make things okay. And the thing I feel less resonant about with her work, perhaps, is the lack of toxicity and damage. Just because the world is different, the places we write about are different. Or probably she’s just better at boundaries than I am! But I think if I was in a place of unspoilt nature I wouldn’t be able to write about it in an unspoilt way. I’m too aware that I’m bringing toxicity with me.
Environmentally as well it’s hard to think about anything being idyllic or unharmed because ecology doesn’t work by being chopped up into bits. It doesn’t really matter if you have a healthy part because if there’s ongoing destruction somewhere then that affects all of it. I think this blurred boundaries thing, what I’ve been trying to do with it, rather than pathologise it, is to try and use it to think ecologically.
Lovebug is about the strengths and limits of metaphor, particularly metaphors about the body and the environment. What do you think happens to metaphors when they turn out to be inaccurate? What do we do with that?
I think there always has to be more metaphor. The book was partly a response to Sontag’s few books on illness and metaphor. Her position, and I completely agree with her, is that the military metaphor—the idea of the body as a battlefield being invaded by pathogens—is harmful, and potentially lethal because it suggests that we can defeat or resist illness by becoming stronger, more protected etc. – as if it’s ultimately to do with effort and will. I agree that this does damage, but what Sontag doesn’t elaborate on, not that this is necessarily her job, is an alternative in terms of metaphor.
I really don’t believe that we can dispense with metaphor altogether – it’s not an optional add-on or ornamentation, but integral to thought and perception. After spending time with Sontag’s work I was left with the question of what metaphorical alternatives are there for thinking about the process of infection? So with Lovebug I was trying to improvise in a different metaphorical mode and that was thinking about infection from the perspective of intimacy, rather than invasion. Which as I clarify in the book, is not to say that infection is a form of intimacy between different species, but to ask whether following that line of thought allows for a more ecologically nuanced understanding of what’s going on when we become infected. The body as battlefield or military metaphor doesn’t really stand up to what we now know in terms of ecology and immunity.
It reminds me of Jan Zwicky, who wrote Wisdom and Metaphor. She says: “Those who think metaphorically are able to think truly because the shape of their thinking echoes the shape of the world.” You make an argument for metaphor rather than simply rejecting it or thinking about another couple of metaphors you can use. It’s about what a metaphor can do.
For me, it’s connected to the ecological concept of umwelt, which is the idea that the world as seen from our perspective as humans is just one version of the world. That’s the human umwelt, but every different species will have its own umwelt overlapping with our own. I’m very pro metaphor, even magical thinking, because at least that is gesturing beyond the idea of human perception as true or objective. And I think part of what poetry and metaphor can do is gesture towards other umwelts and this acknowledgement that everything is kind of overlapping.
In Lovebug, you’re trying to reconcile distinctions between good and evil in yourself and in human relationships. And you’re doing so in part to build greater coherence. But at the same time you’re wanting to blur the distinctions between the self and the environment in which the self is in. There’s both this path into coherence and out of coherence that pervades Lovebug. How do you try and marry those two different aspects of thinking about selfhood?
I don’t think I’m trying to reconcile good and evil so much as acknowledge an inherited awareness of that tendency? Partly from a religious upbringing and partly because those are the forces tacitly invoked in the military metaphor around illness. The self is good and the pathogens are evil. So that was the setting for a lot of this book. And then it’s not so much that I want to become coherent, it’s more that I maybe harbour a fantasy that coherence would be an easier state of existence, or that coherence would be at least coherent. But the book contains a critique of that as well because, if there are any models of coherence, they’re also closed off. They’re not open encounters. It’s about trying to reconcile myself with these things personally but also in terms of the immunological subjects I was writing about. To be reconciled with incoherence even though it’s painful and difficult and unpredictable.
Which comes up so much in Paul. The journey in Paul for me is the complicity that the protagonist feels about the situation that they’re in. They don’t blame themselves but they also don’t see themselves as being totally blameless from the toxic environment that they have fallen themselves into in human relationships.
Yes. She feels incoherent, and is not yet reconciled to being incoherent so what she is attracted to is someone who presents themselves as very contained in who he is and what he wants. She finds that, on one level, very reassuring, but I think she also hates it and then maybe hates herself for going along with it. She’s intuiting that in his possession of solidity he is enacting a form of violence on other people, and that’s partly where her complicity lies. She’s enabling him by valuing his rigid and dominant narrative.
And his robustness in his selfhood is also based on the narrative he’s constructed about his history, which we all do in the way that we narrativise our lives but what separates him from her is that he is like: “this is what happened” even if doing so is dishonest.
He’s crystallised around himself. That’s a concern that runs through everything I write. With Lovebug I was cautious about the autobiographical parts because there’s a tendency with narrativising to fix things down, to analyse and interpret, which I think can often do as much work to obscure or foreclose understanding as it can to illuminate. It’s difficult to avoid premature conclusions. For me the writing needs to stay partly mobile and undetermined – even incoherent or elusive – to avoid these things, to try and get a glimpse of the moving parts, which is to respect the fact that they are constantly moving and changing. I think it’s easy to critique this kind of approach as a stylistic postmodern flimsiness but I really believe it's an ethical necessity. Because otherwise, you know, anything can be committed in the name of a narrative that considers itself truth, whether at the level of the individual or the state.
In Lovebug, you begin, or very early on say: “This book is an exercise in abjection”. Which Life Without Air and Paul are as well, I think, in that they are all committed to this sexy self loathing, this mix of longing and despair. What for you is hot about acting and writing from a place of abjection?
Oh god. I think maybe abjection and hotness are just locked in this horrible ouroboros. It’s so horrible 90% of the way but it then becomes transcendentally erotic. It’s really not a conscious decision – writing is very close to desire for me, in that if I’m not excited by the language or subject then I quite literally can’t do it – or I can force it, but the whole thing feels dead and lifeless. There’s no other way I can do it.
Lovebug perhaps exhibits its research more than the other books I’ve worked on. I was in the university for a long time but I always felt too scattered for academia. You need to be able to put your feelings aside and sublimate very well. And the older I get seemingly the worse I become at sublimating! I have to meet the material from where I am, psychically but also physically, in terms of disability and how that interacts with the work. I’m doing this interview now through the brain fog of a bad flare, sparked by a series of partial neck dislocations. It’s inseparable from my ability, or lack of ability, to think and write. I wrote all of Paul standing up because sitting was so debilitating, although I didn’t understand at the time that standing was just as bad. I think that physical discomfort probably seeped into the claustrophobic feeling of the novel; maybe it always will.
You’ve written publicly about the difficulties of access to the arts and having the time and funding to write. What needs to change in the UK to make that better?
Well, I’m a communist. So I sometimes worry that focussing on change within the publishing industry itself is too myopic and not anticapitalist enough in its aims. Because it’s hard to imagine addressing endemic problems of exploitation and inaccessibility in terms of class, gender, race, ableism etc. without imploding publishing as we know it. But there is so much mystification, like, in other media it’s fairly easy to tell when something is a big-budget Hollywood film or a large scale exhibition with major funding, and you’d take that into account when comparing those works to, say, an indie film or tiny exhibition in an artist-run space; you understand to an extent the flow of money and power, even if you enjoy the movie or whatever. But part of the inaccessibility of publishing hides – I think – in the uniformity of the book format. A reader browsing in a bookshop, for example, will not know that one book has been injected with several six figure sums in terms of marketing, publicity, editorial wages and the author’s advance, while the one next to it has maybe a hundredth or less of those things, comparatively, or the writer didn’t get paid at all, which happens! It’s more difficult to read – or at least this was my experience, previously – the ways in which certain forms of success, and thereby cultures of reading, are manufactured.
I often feel like I can’t afford to be the kind of writer I am – in that I’m bad at writing something because I think people will like it, or because it will sell. But I also don’t come from the kind of background to be able to afford that position. And it’s been interesting becoming more sick and disabled, because I can no longer do the over-exertion or hustle that writers in my position depend on. So I hope something changes, but it also feels myopic to frame it in terms of my particular access issues, when I know it’s ubiquitous, and endemic to the whole industry.
I wanted to end by asking you about the concepts of awe and wonderment. I’m personally interested in those concepts because for me they have this spiritual backbone to them while also being free from any at least explicit religious nature. And I felt in reading all of your works you also live or are moved by awe and wonderment in the world. What do these concepts mean to you or how do they impact your life?
I think it relates to what we were talking about around that experience of overwhelm, which can sometimes come full circle into something like a state of grace. It’s maybe related to the mystical unions I talk about in the book actually, where you are flooded with the existence of something else to the extent that you don’t quite know where you are in it or how to arrange yourself around its presence or whether ‘you’ are still there at all. It’s kind of like a radical receptivity.
One of the great joys of doing the research for this book was reading about evolution or scientific relationships between organisms and all of it being quite abstract until I’d go for a walk and think about these rhythms and metabolisms happening all around me in unseen ways. My lack of access to those things through perception would always feel humbling, not in a nature-is-enchanting sort of way, but just to be reminded of the constant verbs of the world and everything in it, it does feel like the closest I come to awe and wonderment. Abstraction is a very productive space for me!
Text: Thea McLaughlin & Daisy Lafarge
Images: Image 1: Izzy Leach, Image 2: Thea McLaughlin, Image 3: Daisy Lafarge