Interview With Amber DiPietra and Denise Leto*
WG: Recently you read from Waveform and Beauty is a Verb at the Litquake city-wide literary festival. Can you talk about that?
AD: The Litquake reading was the first time the Library for the Blind and Print Disabled were included in a Litquake meeting and the first time that we read for them. It was an interesting experience. They did have sign language interpreter there. We told them about Beauty is a Verb being available in audio from the Library of Congress. Denise and I read from Waveform. It was different from our other readings and we thought we might have missed the mark a bit in terms of getting our meaning to match their focus. We usually read to more academic crowds and not at 3 PM, so this was different, but it is making us rethink what we are trying to do a bit.
DL: This was a very important and exciting reading for us. On the day of the Litquake reading—which was at the Library for the Blind and Print Disabled—a dear cousin of mine passed away. She had rheumatoid arthritis. I entered the reading with a sense of urgency but also one of disorientation because my mind was partially focused elsewhere. This presented a kind of internal tension. This double-ness of experience, the sense of moving between states or worlds seemed to mirror the effect of place and content at the reading. The sections that we chose to read may not have spoken to the community we were with that day as much as we hoped. I don't know. There was a lot of excitement and interest in the books. The intersection of a poetics of disability and experimental poetry can be fraught and is dynamic and changing. Amber and I discuss this frequently and this reading gave us new information and experience.
AD: I'm always wrestling with that trying to match the ideas of avant garde poetry with disability. A short while ago Marjorie Perloff wrote an essay describing what avant garde poetry should be. Denise, Jen Hofer and I are now writing a hybrid essay response to Perloff. We've just begun really, but it will probably run about 1200 words.
I teach creative writing workshops in the disability community. My series of workshops is called Write To Connect. When I graduated I started at a place where I was writing in the ways I had learned in a community of more academic writers but then I started working for disabilities community. I wanted to offer a platform for people with disabilities to be able to express themselves. I realized that the guy with a traumatic brain injury was working with could not really connect to the kind of writing I was used to. That is why I favor a hybrid form of writing. It can combine both. For example, in my poem "Bunny Baby Fast and Slow" in Beauty is a Verb I can blend the more straightforward narrative story with more experimental work.
WG: How did the collaboration between the two of you to write Waveform come about?
AD: I actually met Denise through Patrick Durgin. He found me online through my postings in a virtual community of poets here in SF called Nonsite Collective. I was blogging, as an open letter to the Collective, about the avant garde poetry scene taking note of disability arts. I was involved with the disabilities community and I felt as though disability and avant garde didn't connect This was late 2006 I believe. I began the course because. I began emailing Durgin who was also interested in disability poetry and then got involved with the course. He gave me Denise's email and we realized that we lived pretty close together. Denise really had not been involved with the disabilities community, but we began emailing. We were not all that interested in the project that Durgin was going on to do but through Denise I met Jen Hofer at the University of Santa Cruz. We began talking and Waveform grew out of that.
DL: Yes, we were introduced to each other through Patrick Durgin at Kenning Editions whom I was introduced to by Jen Hofer. Jen and I were artists in residence at Djerassi together a few years back. She and I would talk about language, speech, and poetry and she knew Patrick was interested in disability poetry as I was, though I was very new to it. She gave me his email address thinking we might like to communicate. He and Amber had been communicating and he put us in touch. So, as Amber mentioned, she and I met over email and found many affinities. The collaboration first started as part of a larger project that Patrick was editing but then grew into what is now Waveform. Meeting Amber and working together on it came at a time when the importance of collaboration, of shifting poetics was emerging in my poetry and it was a fortuitous moment to be able to work so closely with such an amazingly gifted poet.
WG: What did you want Waveform to accomplish?
DL: That is a good question. To my mind, during the collaboration, we stayed close to what the poem was becoming as an emergent work and not so much to a prescribed result. But we knew or had a sense of what we were aiming at or what we were trying to touch. We were interested in a mutual exploration of disability, poetry, embodiment, movement, genre-blending, uncertainty, language, silence, subverting the seduction of perfection, notions of the broken line, suspension and pause, flow and disruption. I was hoping Waveform would become a blended voice/poem that might enter into the discussion of disability poetics and avant garde poetics. We were engaged with and responsive to some of the ideas emanating from both realms and were interested in casting a net into our lives—the artistic, social, political, personal—and rendering an exchange about those concrete realities via acts of the imagination and experimental poetry.
AD: We wanted to explore our personal soma tics through our coming to know each other, getting to be friends. So, we chose a "pivot" word, suspension--because in our first talks, we realized we were both very preoccupied with the way our disabilities slowed us down or made us start from a low place or return to a slow place. Suspension was hindrance, but it was also an ideal, a hope for being somatically held and carried into greater efforts.
WG: Speaking of experimental poetry, Denise, the title of the essay that you contributed to the anthology Beauty is A Verb: the New Poetry of Disability is called, "Oulipo at the Laundromat." Can you explain the meaning of Oulipo to our readers and how it might relate to disability?
DL: Yes, Oulipo, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or "Workshop for Potential Literature," was co-founded in Paris in the early 1960s by mathematician and writer Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais. Oulipian writers impose literary constraints and procedures such as "slenderizing," for example, removing the letter "r"" from a text, or "N + 7", in which a writer takes an existing poem, and substitutes each of the substantive nouns with a noun appearing seven nouns away in the dictionary. Oulipo was a poetic movement to approach new ideas and thoughts of the middle 20th century within new forms.
I have been struck by the poetic devices of chance and structure that Oulipian poets created. But what is most interesting to me is how chance can erupt within a formal structure and how that process relates to daily life. If you have a pattern, that pattern can nonetheless become completely re-designed by the unexpected. It can bring words closer and also keep them at a distance. For example, the condition that I have, Laryngeal Dystonia, involves a kind of stuttering of the larynx and its effects on speech are unpredictable. This means that it creates a heightened attention to words because it requires greater concentration to parse what is being said but it also creates an artificial and often painful distance because communication becomes halting or thwarted. I began to think of poetry and lines on the page differently. How do we classify this rupture in poetry? In linguistics? In the field of neurology? Of speech "pathology?" What are the effects of verbal loss or difference on literary art? Stuttering is in the Table of Elementary Linguistic and Literary Operations. What does this mean exactly? Why is it there? To point to whether "non-normative" speech belongs in this field of inquiry? Who owns and who defines how words (should) sound?
In my essay for BIAV, I was concerned with what it is like to engage in a routine activity in the public realm in juxtaposition to the thoughts behind formal structures such as those found in Oulipo. For example, doing the laundry in a public facility, which I do every week, and how that activity of necessity interacts with daily verbal exchange. What happens when you cannot make sound in that context? When nouns shift, transpose, or move around for the listener who cannot discern exactly what is being said? When your body is disappeared because it cannot be heard? The invisibly of voice is always political. I found the idea of Oulipo's N+7—switching nouns around methodically but also as if they are replaceable—gripping and sort of disquieting in how that might manifest poetically but also in direct, lived experience. That is, the experience of nouns (bodies) being shuffled about or misplaced in discrete containers of language/movement on (or off) the page within a certain construct when what is really happening is a radical sort of explosive difference. I thought of this in relation to how disability and the poetics of disability "disturbs" or upends "inspiration" "received perceptions" and the writing process. As bodies in difference moving in and across multiple sites and cultures—and if those loci are structurally forbidding, inflexible, inaccessible, or unwelcoming—how to turn them into forms that enter into the record rather than forms that are reflexively stricken from an assumed communal archive.
WG: Other than writing the hybrid essay response what projects do each of you have planned?
AD: I have found working collectively is a way of being involved with others is actually a stronger pull for me than poetry. I grew up with rheumatoid arthritis. It was drilled into me that was it was bad to just sit around. They tell you to have move around if have a physical disability so sitting and writing does not really work for me. My interest has really turned to trying to work collaboratively.
I'll be doing collaboration with Todd Shalom and Elastic City. Todd works out of New York and creates participatory walks lead by artists. He asked me to create a walk in San Francisco. I want to involve clients from nursing homes and senior citizens but not hit over the head with politics. It involves more of having another lens to see the world through.
DL: Lately I have been most interested in collaboration and multi-genre or multi-media work. It is both an aesthetic and community-minded choice. I've been trying to find a form of engaged poetics within the context of other media. In addition to the collaboration with Jen and Amber, my latest project is an interdisciplinary work that involves dance, movement, music, poetry, and sound collage. I am working with the choreographer Cid Pearlman, the cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, and the conductor Maya Barsacq. It is a piece for which Joan has composed the score and Cid the dances that interact in some way with poems I wrote. The show is called Your Body is Not a Shark, the title of which comes from Waveform and is fully involved with, generated from, and attributive to the ideas that Amber and I explored and put forth there. This is a great example of how collaboration extends well beyond the demarcations of a single project and can spill over and generate more collaborative work. The show premiers in January 2013 in San Francisco at ODC and Santa Cruz at Motion at the Mill.
WG: That sounds as though it is going to be a really interesting program. I want to wish you good luck with it, and thank you both for taking the time for this interview.
*(Editors note: In the collaborative spirit of Amber DiPietra's and Denise Leto's work, the interview above was actually constrtucted through two separate interviews - DiPietra's by phone and Leto's through email - and then integrated. These adaptive interviews strategies also allowed the poets to respond in the medium of their respective strengths, verbally and through writing. The process also accounts for occasional tone shifts and disjunctures between some of their answers.)