David Herrle SubtleTea Interview with Renee Alberts
Visit her site. Read her poetry.
D: The title of your blog is Animal Prayer, and you affectionately refer to yourself as Womanimal. "Womanimal" originated as an abusive term for an ugly, repulsive woman, but you've recast it as something respectable and transcendent. You've also hailed the term "Womanist," which was lexicalized by Alice Walker. Aside from her racialist implications, I find the concept interesting as a later offshoot of 1970s feminism.
Janet Radcliffe Richards wrote: “When actually faced with the question of what femininity consists in, most people find it very difficult to say.” This reminds me of Augustine’s spiel about knowing what Time is until being asked to explain it. Please discuss your affinity for the name Womanimal and share your thoughts on Womanism with us. Also, does your play with “feminine” terminology imply that you consider "femininity" to be qualifiable?
"Womanimal" has to do with being free. It's not an alias, but a term of
recognition for that tribe of women who listen to their inner animals, who
surrender to their instinctual appetites and innate wisdom.
Of course femininity is more dynamic than a list of adjectives (and i hope it goes without saying that it's separate from gender), but the areas we commonly culturally associate with the feminine are the same ones i'm interested in exploring. They include difficult emotions, deep caring, sex, the body, the shadow, the unconscious, nighttime, creativity, dirt, death, connection to the physical earth, blood, taboo. By exploring these, i become reflexively more comfortable with masculinity and the attributes i associate with it. The energies might feel different, but they're impossible to separate. How do they overlap or balance? How do they influence our behavior and interactions?
The part that's most striking about Walker's definition/poem "Womanist" is that it reads like a sly, celebratory manifesto, and insists on complexity beyond dichotomy: "Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female."
D: I quite respect your debut poetry book, No Water. It's not life-negating like a lot of today's art. You've a pretty, feline (womanimalistic?) way of singing images and memories. The book overflows with splendid passages, such as "everything is so dark red it's blue," "this/is how we pray here, love -/with claws," "so new/you could count my breaths," "fused to motherfruit, uterus, texture of human skin, river surface," "My fist-sized heart/forces out/on your tongue," "her hazel irises shuddered as she said it."
Where does "no water" come from? What is your role as poet: individual seer, anonymous chorus/channeler? Is there a social need for the poet? Is poetry like gravity: taken for granted but keeping stuff together? Please discuss the book's thematic design, its inspiration, its message.
Thank you! I'm glad you like the book, and it's such a compliment that you gave it such a close, thoughtful reading.
After the poems were finished and put in order, the sections named, and the cover designed, i was desperate because i didn't have a decent title, only a sense of the impact i wanted it to carry. The same night i finally decided to let go and wait for the words, "no water" came to me in a message in a dream. It woke me up, and i knew it for the title by the way it struck me: in the gut, raw, with a little panic and a hardness, but also elemental and spiritual.
If you say it as a command: "No water," then the moment that follows asks the question "What now?" A lot of these poems speak about moments like that, when the speaker is left without a pillar, without something essential, caught in that stunned instant after the conditions become clear but just before a decision follows.
I subscribe to Joseph Campbell's idea that today's artists play the role of yesterday's shamans: someone who goes into the unknown, unfamiliar or uncomfortable and reports back to us, to tell us something about our common experiences. The book's (non-narrative) structure roughly follows that quest formula: Spread to Map is the opening. It establishes the mysteries at hand, the entrance. It poses the questions. Black Saturday refers to Holy Saturday in the Catholic Holy Week, the day that god is dead and there is "a great silence and a great stillness." Those poems go under into the most bare parts, and they stay there, aware and wait for their eyes to adjust to the dark. In Animal Prayers, the voice is changed by the echoes of what was learned in the two earlier sections. Animal Prayers' poems aren't answers, but they ask questions a little differently after the underground things happen. So, if the first part plants the seeds, and in the second part, underground, those seeds germinate, then in the last part, they've pressed above ground again, and they're growing leaves and fruit. But it's all the same plant. And the fruits have their own seeds, too.
D: Now I'm stuck on Augustine's koan-like time conundrum: "What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not... If, then, time present - if it be time - only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be - namely, so that we cannot truly say that time is, unless because it tends not to be?" Like Berdyaev, he saw ultimate realization in eternity. You once wrote: "[T]he idea that the world is static and predictable is certainly an illusion, a construction of inaccurate ideas...[I] find it sort of perplexingly beautiful that part of the task here in existence is to go against that comfort that arises from the animal aspect of conditioning for self-preservation and embrace the unpredictable instant..."
Is living "in the moment" actually an attempt to live outside of the moment, outside of time itself? Or is the moment the Moment indeed? "There aren’t any times but new times," said Eugene in Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. John Locke (the philosopher, not the bald guy from "Lost" TV series) wrote: “For this present moment is common to all things that are now in being, and equally comprehends that part of their existence as much as if they were all but one single being; and we may truly say, they all exist in the same moment of time.” "What you do is what the whole universe is doing at the place you call 'here and now'," said Alan Watts. To paraphrase Hegel, all Nows that have been, that were once "is," comprise Now, though each Now is "was" and can’t be "is" once you point to it because you can't point to it. (Mother Mercy, pass the Tums!)
I'm always late for the bus. I have such a warped sense of external,
quantifiable time that Pangea and the skeletons wrapped around hand-woven
baskets and pottery shards feel as real to me as walking across the Smithfield
Street Bridge last Thursday. But in those moments when the weight of the past
and the pressure of the future lift, and i am present, i feel infinite and free,
and the moment feels eternal, anarchic, autonomous. It's the voluntary rapture
of glossolalia or the Super Bowl. It seems so easy, as though any of the chain
of nows could collapse into that single blissful instant with the ease of a
breath, and then, even though i arrived at that breath as a result of my past
choices in anticipation of future ones, from that moment of presence, my path is
completely open and unstructured and possible.
Time in art works differently, though, and that's partly why it is so
compelling. A poem or painting or song creates a moment with layers of equally
present nows. The moment of inspiration melds to the moment of creation, and
then to the moment when someone witnesses the work, in the context of whatever
experience she is having at the moment. The piece of art becomes a point of
access whose "now" is multidimensional.
Maybe when we're moved by art, it's a result of sensing what Locke was describing in the connection of all living beings by shared time. Those moments of presence have a feeling of my awareness opening enough to equally include that of other people as well. And the people from those ancient societies lived in moments that felt as real as ours does, so maybe my sense of connection to them is not so inaccurate, maybe their present and ours is connected in a sort of tunnel of present moments.
D: What are your favorite/influential works of art (books, film, music, etc.)?
My goodness, it's endless. The older I get, the more I learn to appreciate. Judy Grahn's book Blood, Bread and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World really shifted my worldview. She investigates anthropology with a poet's eye, re-imagining the sources of our taboos and cultural signals as separations that originate from responses to menstruation, with common themes across all cultures.
I'm lucky in that some of my biggest influences are people i know. The poet
Nikki Allen has shown me so much about passion for poetry - both its writing and
its expression. Every time i hear her read, the blood rises to my skin. In
addition to introducing me to a lot of other music, the band Dreadnots have
taught me a lot about experimentation and autonomy, about honoring our art by
creating for its own sake and unapologetically making space for it in our
Who else? The artists Bruegel, Bosh, Frida Kahlo, Henry Darger, 1950's guides to surviving an atomic bomb. The music of Can, Sun City Girls, Tori Amos, Animal Collective, 60's psych rock, free jazz. Poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Jan Beatty, Sharon Olds, W.S. Merwin. Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian. Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, Harry Nilsson's The Point, The Wizard of Oz and Return to Oz, Werner Herzog's documentaries, The Man with No Name trilogy.
D: Ever since the first two Back to the Future films, Heinlein's mind-bending "All You Zombies" short story and Jack Finney's time-travel novels, I've been a time-travel kook. Then some Pittsburgh film geek (who you may know) turned me on to "Lost." As a fellow Lostie, let's hear what you have to say about the show. Who's your favorite character? And why is time travel so fascinating?
I like that show because i can almost never guess what's going to happen. My favorite character is the Island. They film the show on the Big Island of Hawai'i, where i've been. It's Pele's home. She's the volcano goddess who lives in Kilauea, whose eruptions created the islands and continues to form them, leveling buildings, highways, and forests in the process. There's a tangible sense of the land as a living creature there that has stayed with me ever since i encountered her. The Island in Lost also asserts itself as a force and a source of fear and reverence, as ally or enemy.
D: Your guilty pleasures, your vices. Time to confess.
I spent a Catholic childhood confessing - i'm done with it. All my pleasures are innocent now.
D: Back to the book. "My Ex-Father Eats a Live Honeybee" is on my No Water greatest hits list. It strikes (stings?) me deeply, but I'm not sure why.
...could you taste nectar
smeared on her needle feet?
Did your glacial teeth
crunch her downy abdomen?
There's something mystical and god-like about eating bees. Exotic ingestion seems to consume mysteries, nourish one's cosmic unconsciousness. At the passage about your father silhouetted against the sun at the moment of dropping the honeybee into his mouth, I couldn't help but think of the comics villain Galactus, the eater of worlds. You describe your ex-father as "absent, like god" elsewhere, yet he's enlarged and looming. (See Dorothea Tanning's Family Portrait.) I feel that the ex-father is gloating in this act. Mother Mercy, how symbolic can a scene get? Apollonian assertion, Zeus swallowing a natural matriarch, a gynecocratic lament, a double-emasculation of a daughter. I recall the sacrificial, web-trapped bumblebee in an earlier poem, "Orbweaver". The man who took your virginity sadistically de-legs a mosquito for web bait. You and your ex-father are entangled in all of this. Tell us about it.
It's important to me that the poems are
self-contained and function without additional biographical footnotes. As
personal as they are, the figures also stand symbolically to pose questions
beyond my own experience. I mine memories for source material, but poetry isn't
journalism. I started out asking specific questions about these people in my
life and myself, but discovered when the poems grew that the relationships were
more complex than victim and aggressor, so i wound up asking different
questions. How much does heredity shape identity? Can we separate innocence
from culpability? What does our own violence tell us about our selves? How
does power and ownership of our actions shape the stories we tell about our
experiences? What if the "father" is abstracted to mean patriarchy or
Yes, these poems have biographical elements, but they are their own structures now, which means that a reader's experience informs them. So how do you enter the poems? Are you the father, the bee, the mute daughter, the narrator?
D: Though there's a father motif throughout your book, there's no shortage of mother. "Primary" and "cloth mother/wire mother" mark her gift of birth, "Start My Apple" remembers her opening an apple's skin for you to suck on (Eve-like) as a child, "Orbweaver" riffs off of her arachnophobia, you feel the leaf eyes of the mother-goddess in "Deva", daddy's bite crunches a mother bee's abdomen in "My Ex-Father Eats a Live Honeybee". She seems to be associated with food and cooking, and you seem to have inherited a culinary love, an awe for the anatomy of fruits and vegetables. Then there's the poem pasted below:
8 in the morning i walk
into the porn store
to buy a pen i open
with my teeth.
would i make?
What kind of mother would you make? Thoughts on mothers and parenthood in general?
I am already being the best mother i can by choosing not to have kids. It's not for me. That said, I'm still very interested in exploring ideas about motherhood, and my relationship with my own mother and with the metaphorical mothers - like Earth and the ancestors and goddesses. I realized that if i want to connect with feminine divinity, i have to also honor women, especially my mother, by appreciating different facets of womanhood, and recognizing the holy parts in them. I want to leave room for the mother in a nightgown humming lullabies to her nursing infant to turn ferally protective. I want to allow my mother and myself and other women the spectrum of their humanity and not limit them to a defined role. Be a serene Virgin Mary and a blood-drinking Kali, and Nina Hartley, too.
D: From time to time, always when I'm alone and usually when I'm listening to sublime music, I often encounter Grace: an inexplicable, drunk and ultra-sober Joy that overwhelms me for a brief and everlasting spell, makes me cry until I laugh, then flutters away. How can I identify the rush or capture it to share it, to prove that it had been there? The torrent of words creates a vacuum of words. The more I try to describe the vibe, the less describable the vibe becomes. It's akin to what Greek drama did for Bruno Bettelheim: he felt "in the presence of, and participating in, greatness" and "at the height of selfhood." During this benign assault, I'm David completely, standing before a wide-open door that's between this mistakenly perceived closed physical system and the origin of the sublime and inexplicable.
I feel sick, as if I've gobbled too much candy. Flowers bloom from my throat, and I can't sing of their beauty. I try to broadcast my heart until I squeal incoherently like latter-day Coltrane or collapse, mute and depressed, wishing for a word of words, a superior language to speak the unspeakable. Friends have commented on how my "questions" usually end up being longer than their answers. I lose myself on the path to the question mark. Maybe that's because I always feel the need to write too much. The unwritten is a burden. Here I am again: pressed to type a question mark, but lacking justification for it. So help me. Answer my non-question.
That's beautiful, Dave. Let's hope the question is always longer than the answer.
D: Renee, you're a worthy and respectable artist, and I wish you blessings on your path. Any closing words for readers/fans?
Morning glories, boxcutters, vox. We are more like than not.
Visit her site. Read her poetry.
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