SWAT SIGHT: An Interview with Nasim Luczaj
In this interview, Glasgow-based writer, dj and multidisciplinary artist Nasim Luczaj talks to SPAM editor Maria Sledmere about her recent publication, SWAT SIGHT: a hybrid essay and artist’s book that weaves modalities of lyric, photography and online dialogue to explore Luczaj’s experience of aphantasia and its implications for aesthetics, perception and philosophical enquiry.
Can you explain what aphantasia is, and how did you discover this was something you experienced?
Aphantasia is the inability to form mental imagery. To have aphantasia is to not be able to ‘see in your head’ – not the characters of a book you are reading, not the faces of your loved ones, not a random object you’ve been asked to visualise, not the sheep you may or may not be counting. It seems there is a spectrum in people’s ability to do any of these things. Roughly, those without it have aphantasia, while those who are extremely good at visualising have hyperphantasia. Most people fall somewhere in between. I get something imagelike appear when I’m falling asleep or really really tired, and once in my life I visualised while reading (about the Quidditch World Cup – I saw Viktor Krum flying about the stadium!) – but I had a fever at the time and as soon as I noticed what was going on and got excited about it, I was unable to keep the imaging up. I think I mentioned my imageless way of reading to a friend, probably one of the times we were watching a film (again, probably Harry Potter) and she complained that the character doesn’t look like they’re ‘supposed to’. What did they mean, supposed to? I remember talking to them, shocked at how they claimed to have something like a film unfolding in their head. They were as shocked as I was to find that I didn’t have one, especially since I was a full-on bookworm, and they didn’t understand why I’d ever want to read if it wasn’t a filmlike experience (guess what: I was reading for the words!). I accepted these differences and didn’t think too much about which of us was normal, or whether either of us were not. Then, a couple of years ago, another friend discovered the term and asked me whether I have it – reading my work gave her the feeling I might. I started reading and found out what I have is a rare disorder. I’m still not so sure it is. I don’t think the samples studied so far are big enough for us to come to that kind of conclusion.
Maybe a cheeky question, but what does the SWAT in the title stand for?
Swatting sight is partly a play on catching sight. I can’t do justice to what sight is but trust that I’ve caught something, an angle, a thing among many. It’s also a bit like ‘shot’ in ‘screenshot’ (at first the title was actually going to be SIGHT SWAT), but ‘swat’ is more organic, and invokes a kind of slaughtering of something that’s necessary in order to study it. I wanted a title that sounded nice, compact, yet violent nevertheless, because as I wrote I became aware I was feeling angry at the misjustice being done to people who are called abnormal or disordered without careful consideration. Only writing fully enabled the sensation to emerge out of a plethora of ambivalent strands to my experience. And then the insect-connotations of swatting work nicely with one of the central metaphors I consider in the work, that is, Wittgenstein’s beetle in the box. I guess all of the above considerations, the rational reasons, were hovering somewhere in the background of my choice, but here’s a short and honest answer: it just came to me once I got to the I-need-a-title-stage. And I felt it fit, although – bad pun – I hadn’t seen it coming.
I’m interested in the mode of address that opens SWAT SIGHT, which features a sequence of questions. It’s unclear whether the speaker is speaking to the reader, or having a dialogue with herself. So many times in your poetry I get to a point where I think I know what’s happening, but then a few lines come and totally throw me off my assumptions. It’s poetry that keeps you dancing through metaphysics, for sure. Can you talk a bit about how asking questions of yourself, of the world, of the reader, is a process or form of poetics for you—and perhaps to what end?
I guess I’ve always been inquisitive but have felt increasingly answerless. I love the questioning stage, and the addressal that it often entails, for its own sake. I’ve kind of given up on answers, I don’t trust them, don’t feel as comfortable in them as I do in the mode of questioning. What I want to be expressing, in perhaps every piece I ever write, is roughly: wow, all this exists and we don’t really know anything, or if we do we can’t confirm whether we do or fit it into a whole that would really be the whole thing. Answering has never seemed as doable, as satisfying to me, as asking. The best poems distil the poise of a question. It’s a shame questions are often rashly associated with despair.
You recently graduated with a degree in English Literature and Philosophy (congrats!), which I know included elements of creative writing. What do you see as the relation between the two, and how has each fed or diverged from the other?
I used both to access a kind of metaphysical vertigo of not knowing what the hell’s going on, as explained above. At first I approached the ‘content’ of this vertigo as a philosophical one. I think I’ve been able to address similar things to myself in a ‘creative’ way and in a ‘philosophical’ way, but I no longer believe that the hard work of philosophical answers is worth anything to me personally. I’m chasing a connection with a feeling partly composed of not accepting answers. I believe in attentiveness and possibilities for elaborate playfulness that do arise in philosophy and always appreciate willingness to take on difficult and deep questions. But I cannot feel devoted to this field, while I can be attentive, elaborately playful, and ‘deep’ through writing, I hope. It’s easier to find works of literature of this kind than philosophy that is honest about its inability to actually answer as much as it claims to.
Poetry seems a totally embodied thing for you, ‘a pinch in relation to the tongue’. Where do you see the body in your poems? Does poetry need more body?
I don’t see it anywhere, ha! But I try to be in the moment, and poetry can very much be the art of the moment, the linguistic equivalent of some alarming glimpse. I like how you can – though maybe not always should – read a poem in a short unit of time, one in which you have not yet disconnected from the physical motions that brought you to this page, because you haven’t and will not repeat it in quite the same way as when reading gripping prose. If something odd happens in the language, as I like it to, I want to be there to feel it ‘oddening’ the body, for it to all amount to a flash, an enacting of the gut that leaves space for me to feel all of these effects.
It strikes me that a lot of this book is about the possibilities of attunement, for instance: ‘a sense of the circuit run through / worldly activity’. What poets for you manage to supplement, enhance, expose or skew particular senses?
This is hard for me to answer. I read in quite a scattered way and try not to distinguish much between the senses, to read in undistinguished frenzy and love for what’s going on in the words without categorising what’s happening on a ‘sensual’ level. Without having any synesthetic tendencies whatsoever, I still struggle with things that are grouped into categories: 5 senses and then their subdomains, such as types of taste. I’m more than a little obsessed with how anything is partly something else, how things affect one another in a way that makes it unhelpful to present things as belonging to clear-cut types. So I don’t seem to fall into noticing what’s going on on the level of the 5 separate senses, but yes, some poetry and some work in other art forms have indeed enhanced and skewed and supplemented my perception, I think increasingly. They make me notice a word, an object, an emotion I may have neglected. I’ve recently been excited by Nasser Hussain’s airport poems. Hussain wrote a whole collection (SKY WRI TEI NGS) of poems written using only existing airport codes. I’m pretty sure I’m going to see the airport world through them for years to come. More than for a synesthetic image, that’s what I’m looking out for: works that change the structuring of my experience, that alter noticing, that leave me interested in some phenomenon.
This is probably the first poetry book I’ve seen (outside of SPAM!) that replicates the architectures of Facebook discussion, including groups, comment threads and private messages. Without quibbling over the term ‘post-internet’, what do you think happens when these kinds of archives are translated onto the printed page? I’m interested in your decision to reproduce the discussions as screenshots rather than, say, collage select quotes in a more traditional poem. What’s the importance of including the context, the avatars, the reactions?
The only one? That’s surprising! I remember wanting to write a detective novel in chatroom form as a child, and the reader would only have these online conversations to go by and figure the truth out (one of the messagers was guilty). Now I’m quite dedicated to my phone notes, in which I mainly write down dreams, funny things people say, and passing thoughts (without ever making note of which category a note belongs or who is its author). I proudly show them to people when we’re killing time. As they are one of the ways in which I feedback loop with my surroundings, one of the things that shape my cognition, I always wanted to use them in my work, and knew they belonged in SWAT SIGHT as soon as I decided to write it. Then I started messaging people about the fact I’m writing something and wanted to engage them somehow, so I ended up embedding what they say in their own words, partly because of how seriously I treat the beetle in the box problem. I thought that maybe you’ll understand what they’re telling me better than what I tell you they told me, even if you don’t know these people as the reader, and I (think!) I do. I’ll give you exactly what they said and what the context of the words were (by context I mean, in large part, the interface that always affects the way they say it), and you can have fun figuring it out or leave it if it’s not your thing. The chats, forums, websites are a habitat I’m in, the form of communication I am immersed in as I do my thinking, the way I arrive at knowledge, arrangements, humour. They have a massive effect on the way my mind and, I presume, your mind works, for better or for worse, and I want to convey that, even if the craft lies in what the disembodied, timeless-y voice has to say and how. As for screenshotting rather than quoting, I’m also really interested in signs I see in the streets and how they operate linguistically, but that’s also something I’d take a picture of and think of including in a text – something I’m rarely tempted to take out and play with without its context, the pole it’s fitted to, the road it’s next to, the weeds that grow at the bottom of it. The way things are framed is partly responsible for their juice. I really want people to communicate about this in whatever way that is natural to them – so giving this much space to the discussion is a way of counterbalancing the strength of the ‘literary’ voice, of saying: it’s equally important to use language in all sorts of other ways and places.
What was the most surprising thing you encountered within the aphantasia ‘community’ online?
Nothing, really. There’s a divide between people who are genuinely upset about not being able to visualise and those who are extremely affirmative of the way they are, but I expected as much.
I’d love to hear more about your decisions around the book’s design. What’s especially unique, of course, is the palimpsest effect whereby text printed on clear acetate is layered over content printed on white pages. As readers, we can lift the acetate with all its textual clutter to ‘cleaner’ pages underneath. I’m struck in particular with the page of Aphantasia Awareness Group content, lifted to reveal a short passage underneath: ‘research on aphantasia is sparse. my looking into it decorated with a pang. […] what keeps me out and makes me look like this is apparently a lack’. Can you talk a bit more about this lack and how it relates to the play between white space, acetate, page and text?
The lack I’m mostly on about here is a lack of seeing – and then of course there’s a play there. On another page, one full of messages, thanks to the lack in the acetate page I can see the text on paper (as ‘i hope for darkness’ in the passage itself). I can tell myself that I’m missing something, that I don’t have an ability, but it’s not like someone cutting the content of a text box – it’s a reshuffling and change of the relationship of everything else that is giving me this different outcome, and to think of myself as ‘deficient’ is not to think about my cognition as play. Quirks are, to an extent, enabling. The form mimics this. Also emptiness can be good, so I wanted places where a condition for arriving at some sentence is the empty space that allows it to be seen. Sometimes I imagine daydreaming as if it were a film, which apparently people do, and I wonder how that would affect my peace of mind, my mental clutter, my voice. You know the truism: less is more. It’s unverifiable what I’d be up to if my mental processes were different, but I have a feeling that I am gifted with a space that could have been cluttered beyond my control.
I’m also interested in how the book’s design goes some way to dramatising Marshall McLuhan’s point about us directing towards acoustic civilisation, as you put it, civilisation ‘infused with simultaneity’. Lifting a page is a bit like opening or closing a window, and the size of the book replicates that sense of screen. Sometimes light catches the plastic acetate and I’m tricked into thinking someone’s left their iPad on my desk. I also think of screening as in brain-scan. What is the work of ‘screening’ in poetry?
I’ve mentioned this already, but what I like about poetry is containment. I often encounter longer poems with confusion and laziness, at first, which ceases if the work is still at the pitch/intensity of a shorter poem, except, hurrah, longer (as is the work of Anne Carson). Good poetry brings me straight into a space of simultaneity. It gets at something that’s both a detail and sort of everything at once. It makes you look at everything like that. Screening is also a kind of framing. You need something brisk to catch and then place just right on the screen, let it replay.
In a message you include to your mum, you write ‘aphantasia is horizontal again but with a margin that makes it a different kind of rectangle’. For me this speaks, quite beautifully, to the book as a whole. What or where is your sense of geometry in writing, and how does this relate to aphantasia and maybe even the structure of the book?
I love flippability. And maybe it’s in poetry that I get to have a sense of order I’m probably lacking elsewhere. But then most poems are like something that intended to be rectangular and then persists in trailing off. Of course there are all sorts of ways of trailing, many of them elegant. Here I wasn’t really writing poems, but a piece that was self-consciously scattered. Intuitively I picked up the shapes, the widths for each part. Maybe I use a similar intuition to drive and park my car – if you asked me, I’m not actually sure how much or what sort of space I have, I can’t see it, but I can do what I have to do just right. The shapes make or dictate themselves in a similar way.
In being orientated landscape, SWAT SIGHT also has the satisfying feel of a guestbook or ledger. Which feels appropriate, given that you include song lyrics, text conversations, comments, quotes and cross-references from philosophy, poetry (even William Blake is in there!) and what looks like Yahoo! Answers. I see SWAT SIGHT as a kind of experimental archive, or revisionist provocation of the-archive-as-such in the time of social media alongside the ‘traditional’ book. I think within this what you’ve done is quite remarkable: established a vernacular compendium of feedback, testimony and reflection on a condition that is not only rarely heard of but seems (at least until very recently) also to lack research or medical recognition. Do you see SWAT SIGHT as a counter-text to this discursive absence? Who should be reading this book?
Yeah, I guess it’s a form of affirmation – I want to encourage conversation about aphantasia in any way possible, and all sorts seem fit. But I need fun. I need to draw attention in some other way than linking to a BBC article on Facebook, which really doesn’t feel like engagement. I guess I’m also implying: I’m engaged with my environment and its diversity of mediums/registers, even of matter (different kinds of pages, B/W and colour images, shots from classic cinema, scans of my clothes and of plants, memes), as I seek to be engaged with people and their diverse ways of functioning. People work in mysterious ways, like poems – they might ‘work’ for you and one could assume that means there’s something similar about you, you could be part of one book. But it turns out you’re doing (even similar) things really really differently. I want to get some kind of rush from that. As for who should read it – whoever also might get a rush from what I give them.
In this discussion around the book’s holding together of analogue and digital, I was reminded of visual snow: a neurological ‘disorder’ characterised by continuous visual disturbance, often described as miniscule dots that flicker like the noise of a detuned analogue telly. It’s interesting how these conditions ‘glitch’ or interrupt the representations of visual perfection or clarity which culture and technology pushes towards with retina displays, Blu-ray etc. I wonder if you’d come across any other under-studied neurological conditions (especially those of the senses) in your research? Are there any famous poets or musicians who’ve ‘come out’ as aphantasic?
No – I guess that’s the problem with the under-studied! There’s Aldous Huxley, whom I quote in the book. My mum is also an aphantasiac poet. It’s more of a thing that visual artists tend to ‘come out’ with, because it can be counterintuitive and shocking. The conversation comes more naturally than in the case of writing, which doesn’t seem necessarily tied to any traditional sense (one kind of archetypical writer is cut off from the sensual world in a dusty study with just enough lamplight to keep to their lines). An interesting example in the visual domain has resurfaced recently, via the BBC. One of Disney’s most important animators had aphantasia, while his collaborator who worked the identical job was on the opposite end of the visualising spectrum.
Is neurodivergent poetics a term you recognise or identify with? Do you think we’re moving towards recognising the role of neuroscience more in understanding poetry as also a kind of cognitive manifestation or aesthetics?
I’ve never looked into it much. What I’ve been coming to terms with is how much of what I’d consider normal might be identified as ‘divergent’ – it’s interesting that different people might have differing tendencies here, some to distinguish differences and others to widen what the norm might be. I am interested in making people pay attention to difference and to question whether there is not so much of it that it collapses back into a kind of sameness. I guess that’s my poetics. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘cognitive aesthetics’, but the term sparked a thought in me: people find very different kinds of poetry (if any) pleasing, and I wonder about the neurological basis of this. How does a combination of words ‘hit the spot’? If language can get to our emotions even when it’s not someone we are closed to addressing themselves to us specifically, it must do so on the basis of connections that will vary from person to person, and are to do with a multitude of factors, maybe even a kind of genetic memory for the ways their ancestors used language. There’s certainly a lot to investigate and, at the same time, a lot that will resist investigation.
I’m struck by the book’s illumined confusion of paratextual, marginalia, annotation, footnotes or poetic content. At the same time, there’s often a lyric voice weaving through, synthesising things, moving between exemplary media, linking anecdote with theory. There’s a drive towards turning the page, even as each page is also a ‘field’ in its own right. So in a sense I’d say SWAT SIGHT is maybe actually a lyric essay remixed with its paratextual materials. An essay that stages its own research process? What’s the value in this ‘transparency’, did any particular text inspire you to take that risk of reflexivity and assemblage?
Yeah, that’s what I’d say it is. I wanted to write a lyric essay and wasn’t sure how to start. As soon as I did, the voice started pushing me. It had a lot to say and I think it still does. To me of course the voice is the most important part, it’s most akin to my ‘core’ that all the rest branches from, is light that my leaves pick up and comes back to the trunk. But as for all the staging – my voice does that. Another thing I wanted to stage was my need for props, my love for images, designs, the ways of working of different websites, which I find inextricable from my lack of ‘invention’. I look at things out there, I get excited about things out there, and what’s going on in my head is either a tic, or something not quite surfaced, or, at best, that voice of the lyric essay. So the book ends up being my mental process and the world that it takes from, that it reacts to, that it is shocked and moved by and tries, in turn, to shock and move (more feedback loop!).
The whole book, of course, is about ‘vision’. I found that line, ‘to have a song stuck in your head, for some reason, is harder to treat as a metaphor than an image being stuck. […] rain on the trees as jewels. I couldn’t, I can’t’, really emotional. Throughout SWAT SIGHT, you recalibrate what ‘imagination’ is – in both form and content. How can poetry intervene in what we consider ‘sight’, to be less ocular-centric? Do we need new tropes and metaphors, or more a kind of visual refusal?
I love the phrase ‘visual refusal’! It’s right up my street and I don’t think it’s occurred to me before. Poetry brings awareness to language, and so an awareness of the baggage, the loadedness of any word. If sight has to be visual, and we have words like ‘foresight’, that does subtly hint at how we imagine the future. So maybe we can work on other terms. But I think what is best to do is to remind yourself of your other senses and how much it means to you to smell/taste/hear/feel/pull something sensual from the world, categorised or not. If you pay attention to that, you’ll write differently, thus enhancing others’ attention to those things.
But as you put it, ‘no-one’s looked in anyone else’s box. language doesn’t quite do inner life’. We can’t expect SWAT SIGHT to provide an actual snapshot of the aphantasic experience, any more than we can expect reading Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to somehow allow us to comprehensively ‘enter’ an autistic mind. I think the fact that you weave personal perspective alongside many other voices and representations (including an art exhibition) makes that clear. I’m interested, then, in what you might want readers to take away from this book in terms of empathy, awareness but also potentially recalibrating their own neurological sensitivities?
I would like us all to be aware of unnamed, unsaid, unprovable diversity. To approach it as a gift, with childish glee, and to know that it cannot be unwrapped. To ask each other questions and listen in to the way we describe each other’s mental processes, and to be aware of the fact that even when we think we agree or disagree there aren’t ‘samples’ of experience we can put next to each other to confirm or disconfirm anything. Also to be aware of the fact that our culture is skewed towards the visual, that it privileges it partly arbitrarily.
Can you talk about the images you chose for SWAT SIGHT, which include a lovely full-colour photo of you lying on a bed of coastal heather, as well as many representations of abstracted or glitched scenes/textures which must’ve taken a toll on your printer’s black ink cartridge. How do you see the relationship between image and text in this work, and are there any other writers who use images in an interesting way who you might’ve taken inspiration from?
The glitchy toner-heavy images are scanned objects from around my room – a top, a leaf, a headline, a daffodil. I really enjoyed their textures, the kind of nightscape of a piece of fabric that barely stands out of the uniform black. I’d achieve the glitches by moving the objects around while they were being scanned just the right amount, at the right time. I was intentionally confusing the printer but not quite in control either. It was both a hectic and repetitive process. It had in it excitement and tediousness – like writing. The images show the world as processed by a kind of system – a printer – thus running parallel to my verbal processing.
In SWAT SIGHT, the relationship between image and text is of course crucial. At first, I was tempted to completely do away with seeing, adornment – to have a kind of unity between sign and signified. Then I started adding the black scanned images as something along the lines of, but never really, illustrations. As soon as I did that, I started craving contrast and thought, to hell with that, I love the visual world and don’t want to be misunderstood as someone who doesn’t, just because I’m making a kind of cultural critique of vision-centricity. I am engaged in the visual world, and this lack of ‘inner’ will not take it away from me, and it does work for my way of perceiving the world, too. The images dispel inner and outer.
I really like W. G. Sebald’s use of photographs as strange hinges on oneiric texts. They complicate the voice by putting pressure on the distance we make for speaker from author, without ever allowing us to identify that voice with the author.
You also run a radio show for subcity, [underthunder]. Can you talk about the ethos behind the show. How important is music to your writing process, and do you think your experience of music has changed or intensified since you recognise your (visual) aphantasia?
At some point I realised that I love contrasting interactions between tones, mediums, textures. I like profound-grumpy-metaphysical things being read out loud and I also like ‘tribal’ energy. I was once editing a poem while listening to some Detroit techno and it struck me that these two things really fit together, that the words are energised, driven, dipped in densely and magnetically. I became increasingly curious about how best to combine these and whether others do it. I started paying attention to uses of language in electronic music, where words have diverse but recognisable, categorisable roles, but are not what you’d call ‘lyrics’. Now my experience of music is changing and intensifying by the day. This happened partly through that discovery, and so through poetry. I felt that it gave me an entry point into music, because I knew I was good at words and started copy-pasting them into other people’s tracks – otherwise I would never have felt entitled to ‘touch’ music. I always feel a bit guilty when I do that copy-pasting, a tad unsatisfied, hungry for something I’ve made from scratch. I’ve not got there at all yet, but it’s poetry that got me to focus on music in its own right. And my being drawn to poetry must stand in some relationship to aphantasia. I think I’m more at ease with oddness, a kind of casual surrealism, because of it, and that’s what often keeps my work going. When I feel I’ve written something good, it’s always because I’ve flexed the world without some specific message or thing in mind.
You write that ‘bliss’ is ‘a current […] i obsess over’. Your website says you are ‘here to make bliss’. What does bliss mean to you, or better still, what’s giving you bliss right now?
I just love the word. I think I fell in love about two years ago, and I’m not sure how, but it happened to me and my mum more or less simultaneously. She also puts that word everywhere; although I don’t know what’s in anyone’s box, including I think the most similar box to mine in this world, it does feel like a shared entity. Bliss is a short word that echoes out, like most poems – present, compact, extending its arm to everyone. A really small thing giving everything else a hug. And it seems like a half-place, a spacious state, not something like ‘joy’ which is much more identifiable with the springing up of some happy hormone, much more bound up with a person and nothing else. ‘Bliss’ is halfway between ‘joy’ and ‘paradise’. It’s something you can have next to you, or visit, or, as my mum says, ‘plug into’.
What’s giving me bliss now? Apricots, speeding tracks up as I DJ, ferry red.
Anything else you’d like to say about the publication, or what you’re currently working on?
I’m working on how to have a lot of time + space. Then full-blown bliss is gonna move in and we’ll split the bills.
SWAT SIGHT is out now. To order a copy, drop an email to nasimluczaj[at]gmail.com.
Images by Nasim Luczaj and Maria Sledmere, all taken from the publication.