The first cool day, I drape my knotted body with old sweatshirt, cheap canvas sneakers, a dressing down I usually reserve for home
My period 8 days late, I am crying on the steering wheel, unable to allow myself to mourn my shoulders, how they escalate, how I need to pierce myself and drain the excess I am trying everyday to shove inside my skin like a sack of grains but, you know, the rotting kind
I buy makeup that promises glow or glimmer or another adjective I reserve for how fireflies were the only lanterns I knew for the first hundred years of my country life, how everything smelled electric and benches were jaunty wooden stumped hunks and how your porch leapt when it saw me drifting
Instead of glow, I gloom, dark but iridescent dunked gasping, my body on mute except the dreams where I open drawers of my dresser from college: cateye sunglasses, femme gear, things I haven't touched since I started to feel
In another, I am folding laundry still dewy with sunrise, the hammock a knotted metaphor for my clasped back, how I only jumped off of the roof that once, mattress leafed with autumn sparking bark, my legs collapsing into the swell of soft, my own swells still steeping along my hips, my hands, your hair, hideous fist I begged you to leave rattling in the pickup bed
If I could still play with space, I would
interview with zefyr lisowski
Hey there! I'm excited to have/start this conversation, and I'd like to lead with something we've talked about individually with each other several times—what does hybridity mean to you?
We're conducting this conversation both digitally and in person, and I know you've talked about the blurring of forms between essay/poem/memoir in your work. Certainly for me, in both my writing and my physical embodiment—and yours— there's a certain polymorphousness that I'm excited by, a refusal to, so to speak, check just one box. What does the idea of the hybrid mean to you? How is that shaped for you by digitality, disability, queerness, etc?
early 17th century (as a noun): from Latin hybrida ‘offspring of a tame sow and wild boar, child of a freeman and slave, etc.’
This little snippet gives me pause: a miscegenation of two unlike types.
To me, this dualism speaks to well/unwell; IDK that I'm OK identifying as "polymorphous," but I definitely feel that my writing is doing some of the work of embodying me.
There's some stuff I actually can't even speak about except in my work. As someone with sliding degrees of ability, depending on the severity of each oncoming illness flare-up, hybridity is a reminder of the weirdness of the liminal body I inhabit/have available.
Why does polymorphous feel applicable to you?
I love the idea of writing doing the work of embodiment, rather than the other way around. And the way that hybrid projects these meanings of coerced couplings and slavery is deeply unsettling to me, but also reminds me of why I find etymology so interesting: a way of forcing visibility of those violences that have been rendered invisible by day-to-day use. Thank you for drawing my attention to both of those!
For me, "polymorphous" is part of a project of weirdness, like you note, but it's also a way of making work against the ways in which trans and faggy self-representations have been historically constrained. I'm drawing my use of the word from Freud's "polymorphous perversity," the violence that medical gatekeeping, pathologization, etc, have writ onto bodies similar to my own.
I don't need to explain to you why Freud, like, sucks, but I find something exciting about using this language that infantilizes to refer to my own work, bending the box out of shape by claiming the words that made it. Of course, my ability to claim this language has everything to do with my whiteness, ability to present as abled, and so on. Yet still, I think reclaiming it can be important! Do you know the artist Greer Lankton?
Yeah, girl, you talk about her all the time.
I'm obsessed with her! She was a trans artist in '80s New York, but she made these enormous, mutable, life-size dolls out of scraps of fabric and wire--all kinda monstrous, gender-liminal, but also invested with this enormous care and tenderness. There's a photo of her that I think Nan Goldin or Eric Knoll took where she's sitting in a bathtub smiling, and all these dolls are hovering around her:
I love the idea of crafting other selves/forms as something both deeply eerie and kind, and hope to gesture to those same types of mutability—a polymorphousness, to return to Freud—in my own writing. There's this tenderness, but also sadness, in Greer’s eyes that I keep returning to. I think of poems (like dolls in many ways!) as bodies or imitations of bodies. As I’m building a piece, I think of what it would be like in three dimensions, what part of the poem would be the arm, what it would mean to feel that. Looking at Greer’s process helps me picture that in some ways, feel kinda less alone.
I'm deeply bored by ekphrasis and hope we don't start talking about that, but are there artists or non-writers that you channel in your own writing? What places, besides other words, do your words come from?
I have been working on a pop-ekphrastic series based on episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, which I binge-watched when I first got really sick in 2016. I began jotting down slivers of dialogue, and the off-screen narration from one of the characters (usually the titular Grey) that opens each episode.
I like the idea that we can articulate patterns and themes as they happen, which I know comes largely from my work as a writing consultant. This kind of meta-awareness of practice can lead to valuable insights about personal needs in creative projects: I work best on my phone with some tea and a heating pad.
It’s funny that I identify with the GA narratives about doctors and surgeries: I’m so suspicious of the cultural power that MDs wield, but I’m drawn to the intensity of the work as it’s depicted on the show. I waited tables for a super long time—and I loved it—so I harbor nostalgia for urgency, embodied laboring that I can no longer perform since my chronic illnesses have pulled me away.
Otherwise, contemporary poetry is super exciting. I’m constantly favoriting new issues of mags on Twitter and when I revisit the links, I’m like, I should have done this sooner. I also love Instagram meme accounts, although the form is so different from my own work. Something about the disregard for professionalism is enticing.
How/do you find shards of your writing practice showing up elsewhere in your life?
In my text messages, weirdly! Writing poetry has made me a better (or at least weirder) texter, and there's a constant transmutation between texts and poems, switching back & forth. I suspect this is true for most writers of this generation, though—it's really interesting to see how technologies are affecting writing, and I share your enthusiasm for memes as a similarly millennial way of wilding/queering form in these interesting ways.
Even though I think of myself as someone who is bound by the page in some ways—I started making visual art before I really started writing, and keep returning to the physicality of a watercolor brush or sturdiness of a pad of paper in moments of high stress—it's undeniable that digital technologies shape my writing. And that's something that I think is so important to talk about! How have computers, smartphones, etc changed the way we think, or write? In what ways can these changes constitute a queering? (You don't have to answer these questions if you don't want to).
But there's that word "shard" that you used, as well—I'm so interested in rupture and in my current work am looking a lot at different units of breaking—writing about holes, and decay, and glinting. How a thing shards apart. What’s left after the shard. What meanings do the break/shard hold for you or your writing?
That’s not weird!
I think of “shards” often lately: memories, snippets of conversation. I have late-stage Lyme disease, and especially when I’m tired or in pain, I feel much of my emotional and intellectual work appears as these “shards.”
I have an acute memory of hosting Nicole Steinberg, JD Scott, and Niina Pollari on tour in 2012 when I was running the Juniper Bends Reading Series back in Asheville, NC. Niina got up and read weirdly and fabulously off of her phone and I was like, done. I had never seen anyone read off of their phone, and it was such an intensely casual and confident gesture, and she did it in this astounding laid-back style that totally rocked my world.
Obviously, this gesture has become more commonplace, but Niina’s performance laid the foundation for me to start working on my phone: the aforementioned work on Grey’s Anatomy, my first book forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press in 2019, much of my work towards my MA and now my PhD—all completed on my phone. I can lay on a heating pad and watch workplace TV dramas and write.
I tend not to tell my PhD colleagues about this behavior, but I do talk to my students at City College and Cooper Union about this, and about how lowering the stakes of *sitting down to compose* has helped me loosen up and experiment with weirdnesses that have always rendered me self-conscious in other writing spaces. I don't know that it's a queering, but it's definitely an important piece of student-centered writing pedagogy!
I'm all about this practice! I think it was you who turned me on to writing on my phone—it’s definitely lower-stakes, but also does weird things with form that I'm interested in. In a lot of ways, phone writing—for me—becomes sort of a box building process, the constraints of the screen (and you know my phone is tiny) a way to get in to the poem immediately, do some weird stuff, and get out. To that end, it's especially good for editing for me, forcing a kind of concision I don't naturally drift to.
I'm preparing to give a conference presentation on ecologies as we're emailing each other so I'm all over the place, but I'd like to conclude by thinking about how technology or writing intersects with our environments, too. My presentation and, like, two of the chapbooks I'm pulling together currently (like a typical Gemini moon, I'm always working on six too many things) is about ~trans becoming~ as a form of kinship-making with surrounding biomes—what it means to queer a body or queer a form of writing against the mass extinctions, etc, that are unfolding everywhere.
I know we're both vegan (which is boring to talk about—vegans, especially white vegans, as you know, suck) so we could obviously talk about animal rights in our poetry or whatever, but I'm deeply uninterested in that. Considering this instead, I'm wondering what it means for you to write environmentally. We're both from North Carolina, which is such a fecund state. For me, the greenery there—the Great Dismal Swamp especially, but the swaths of kudzu across the plains, the dogwoods flowering everywhere, Appalachia—is something that keeps me scrappy. I love those territories of becoming, wildness, and home, and I try to channel in my own writing.
But, of course, "nature writing" as a genre is marked by really intense ableism and also colonialism! So much of the "natural" world is glorified as a way of emphasizing nature writers' physical health, the ability of people or bodies to make do without accommodations. And, obviously, the creation of natural parks, preserves, etc, is an act of theft, stealing the land away from the poor, frequently Black and indigenous inhabitants who were already living there (to say nothing of the original thefts in the United States that happened as part of manifest destiny, etc).
So what I'm constantly trying to do is figure out how I can write about nature in the 21st century without glorifying any of these processes. I'm not sure it's even possible! But how do you connect with the physicalness of your home state yourself, avoiding those toxicities? How does technology intersect with that? I know you aren't even interested in writing about nature, but I see its shadow in a bunch of what you produce, especially how your first chapbook, Soft Switch, uses the moon as a framing device. Where does this sit within you?
You know, I’ve thought so much about how to I neglected to credit the Indigenous
knowledge of the moon that I relied heavily on in Soft Switch, and that's 100% my white privilege showing; we have the ability to ignore historical contributions by BIPOC to all forms of knowledge, but it’s especially pervasive in white *healing* spaces and social justice work.
I apologize for this tremendous oversight, and I commit to unpacking the white entitlement that allowed me access to this knowledge without giving credit to the folks whose labor I took for granted.
When I moved to the west coast, I began to feel my Southerness as I faced loads of anti-Southern language and ideologies (white liberal cities *shrug*). I began to dream of venus fly traps, dogwood & azalea blossoms, afternoon thunderstorms, and while I don’t especially work with the pastoral in my work, I definitely feel grounded in my North Carolina roots, and I know now that much of that ethos carries me through my work.
Roots are so important! Not just metaphorically—although that shit is definitely true—but literally, as well. I’m always trying to find inspiration in the ways plants suck up water, tether themselves, are buried in dirt, as a resistant strategy.