42: Anne Boyer
poet and essayist
Anne Boyer talks caretaking, capitalism, poverty, romantic and sexual abuse, household objects, and Mary J. Blige.
Anne Boyer is a U.S. poet and essayist, and the inaugural winner of the 2018 Cy Twombly Award for Poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Art and a 2018 Whiting Award in nonfiction/poetry. Boyer’s newest book, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, is now available from Small Press Distribution or directly from the publisher, UDP. Boyer’s other books include The Romance of Happy Workers, My Common Heart, and the 2016 CLMP Firecracker award-winning Garments Against Women.
Cara Lefebvre is a photographer, native to Kansas City. She studied writing and photography at the Kansas City Art Institute.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards over Skype on March 8, 2018. Cara Lefebvre photographed Anne in her Kansas City home.
SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.
ANNE: I grew up in the very middle of Kansas in a small, isolated city called Salina. I began to read early and never wanted to stop, so my experience of girlhood was the experience of being a reader. I would stack books in my arms at the library and take them home, read them, try to write novels, try to talk about books with my family and friends. Girlhood probably remained the experience of being a reader until I got old enough to figure out that the world experienced me as a girl or woman —not as a reader, not as somebody who was someday going to be a writer, too.
Along with reading, I spent a lot of time daydreaming and playing imaginatively in a relatively culturally deprived setting, so what I was doing was suspicious to the people around me. My grandmother thought that I would get brain tumor because I read too much – she’d had a bookish cousin who became a Latin professor and died of one. So far, I think I’m safe, however, from that particular consequence of reading.
SOPHIA: What was it like to realize that you were understood as a girl, not a reader?
ANNE: It took me a long time because one of the things that happens when you read so much —and especially when you try, as I did, to read “serious literature”— is taking on the subjectivity of the other people, who in this case were often men. But obviously, too, some of the literature had been written by women. I remember that my friend Mindy and I had a Louisa May Alcott reading club in fifth grade, which involved wearing dresses and skirts on days they were disallowed because of groups sports. That way we could sit by the swings and talk about books instead of playing soccer.
ANNE: But I was always also looking for worlds other than the narrow one that I was born into. Early in high school I started reading French poetry (Rimbaud, Baudelaire) and reading Jack Kerouac and the other beats, and I saw myself through this work as an adventurous bohemian, boyish spirit.
Then I kept coming across a world that didn’t understand me that way at all. It was confusing. I swear, it took until I was, I don’t know, 19 years old to figure something out about the way that the world was going to treat me in relationship to the subjectivity that I had assumed for myself as a reader and as somebody who wanted to write, who had these dreams and desires about the world that did not correspond to how I appeared or the place and people I came from.
SOPHIA: I interviewed Laura Kipnis in October. While we were speaking, she called the fear of retaliation against sexual abuse “sexual melodrama,” which manufactures an imagined state of predation and misuse of power, or at least works to manufacture such a state that exceeds the real. It was in the context of a case in which a woman stopped writing as a result of trauma from unwanted advances by an academic superior. And I know you tweeted in December about experiencing harassment in graduate school that caused you not to write—
ANNE: It's a lack of imagination to call dramatic responses to dramatic harms “melodramatic.” I write in Garments Against Women about inadmissible and admissible information: that way that those in power will often believe what they believe to be the truth because there’s a scope of information from which they are protected, and the way that those who are harmed cannot or will not always reveal those harms because of these same dynamics of power. This asymmetry of knowing-what’s-up leads, I think, to the accusation of melodrama, a word that is usually a simple tell that someone is not astute enough to know that the reaction is in fact proportionate.
Perhaps somebody who has not experienced considerable amounts of oppression doesn't yet have the information to understand [that oppression] and its consequences as real. I always tried to not talk about [my experience in graduate school] for the reason that no one wants to be defined by the bad things that happen. I certainly don’t; I’m a proud person, possibly to a fault, and I think I have much to offer beyond what has been done to me in these ordinary circumstances of the world.
What I do when I meet people, then, is try to give them the same space not to talk about the bad things that I like to take, too. I operate with the assumption that most people have probably been through some shit, especially women, people of color, queer people, poor people. I'm like, “Okay, I don't need to know specifically what has happened. I'm just going to behave with compassion, and with the expectation that in order to survive this long in the world, most of us know what it is like to endure serious harm and are probably still feeling some effects of it.”
After I left graduate school, my reaction was to stop being a writer and never talk about what happened to me there again. I decided never to set foot in a classroom again, too. I still came out better than my friends. I was able to finish my degree, but my friends lost their assistantships. The person who had been responsible for decades for abuse of women kept his job. My resolve was radically politicized through this. I had once had this sort of naïve faith during these events that if you tell what has happened, the institution has a stake in correcting [the problem] —this was the 90s, which was another time of incredible complications around institutions and sexual violence— but the institution failed miserably not just to protect against sexual harassment and sexual violence, but also to protect against retaliation.
I did many other things when I decided to quit writing, but I ultimately came back to writing years later. My refusal didn't stick because my desire to write and to teach became stronger than the repulsive lessons of the institution, although I still carry all of it with me and use it to understand where I am.
And when I hear someone say something like [“sexual melodrama”], I should say that it’s kind of a class position, too. There’s a level of insecurity and preexisting trauma that most people already face in order to survive in a capitalist society that pre-date or co-exist with the experiences of sexual abuse that compound our reactions, too. Some people don't have those experiences and can't conceive of them. They can't understand the way all of these things work together to diminish life, but diminish life is exactly what they do.
SOPHIA: Thank you, that was so generous of you.
Where was it that you wrote that you keep reading these philosophers, hoping someone will know something, but nobody ever does?
ANNE: I was on a flight home from Los Angeles yesterday, and I was reading Brecht on the plane, about whether you should know your philosophy from books or from experience. He and I often seem to be having the same problems. The faulty narrative I always tell myself is that someday I'm going find enough pieces in books that I'm going to put the puzzle together into an answer for all of these questions that I have —not just about terrible, sad things, like why people have to suffer or why our lives are diminished by the arrangement of the world, but also the wondrous things like love, and the attractions people feel for each other intellectually and otherwise, all of it. I always make the mistake, though, in thinking that I'm going to read my way to the answer. It’s only through my habitual disappointment with the philosophers that I am reminded that there are other experiences that have to happen in order for us to really know anything.
SOPHIA: This next question is of that completely impossible strain.
In your interview with Poetry you said, “My daughter and I were struggling, then, in the kind of poverty in which you are always getting sick from stress and overwork and shitty food then having no insurance or money or time to treat the problems caused by having no insurance or money or time.”
It made me think of themes across your writing on exhaustion and the need for survival. That line from Garments Against Women that reads, “for what dog says of her litter, ‘It is not only my own that should have my milk, but I will suckle the world’?”
This problem is a conglomeration of so many factors, but just choosing one, could you talk about the way that caretaking specifically has influenced the way that you negotiate the tension between survival and the desire to suckle the world?
ANNE: It's still completely unresolved. There has to be a way in which we don’t have this absurd structure in which only a few people have everything and everyone else has to sell their lives to barely live. And when the rest are not selling their lives to their employers, they’re having to go home and take care of themselves so they can sell their lives again, then taking care of all these other people they love so that these other people can eventually sell their lives, too. You take care of your child and then you just release your child into the same depleting world that is depleting you. Or you take care of your elders because they have been so exhausted by this world at the same time you are destined to end up with the same exhaustion.
It doesn't make sense. We live on an abundant planet, even with all the damage we've done to it. We live as a species with all these profoundly awesome, hilarious, adorable qualities. If you watch humans over the course of the day, the cute things they do will outnumber the vile things they do by…I’m going to say 96-cute to 4-vile.
But what happens is, however, that as the world is arranged right now, care gets disproportionately burdened on women and the poor and people who are otherwise feminized. As such, with care doled out as a kind of punishing extra shift, experiences of human life that should ideally arise from care get turned into experiences that exhaust and deplete us as opposed to what they actually are and could be, which are opportunities for, among other things, better philosophy. We could learn so much from care.
I think part of what is going to have to be different is that with a more just arrangement of the world, we will no longer understand caretaking as that which takes from and diminishes all the rest of what we should or want to be doing. There’s a way to finally know that we will always have to love and care for each other, that we have frail bodies, that lifespans are not going to ever go away. Some of us will be babies; we won't even know how to talk yet. Some of us will be old and frail. There has to be a way to accommodate that and to accommodate all else we can do, too, enabled by this care, like write music, or poetry, or talk about philosophy, or plant gardens, or make great meals, or dress well. There has to be a way all of this can finally fit together.
SOPHIA: In “Click-Bait Thanatos,” you wrote, “Roombas, twitter-bots, self-driving cars: all are automated ideations of everyone else’s extinction. As techno-capitalists imagine the end of our labor, they imagine the end of their need for us, and in that we can imagine the end of ourselves.”
Reading that made me wonder, as someone who’s concerned with the politics of reproductive labor, what your thoughts are on its future.
ANNE: I just don't know. It's not the future, even. It’s the now in that selling of our body parts and our reproductive capacities is all happening, making these issues vivid. And I think that’s it — the intersection of technology with reproductive labor will make the problems and contradictions of reproductive labor highly visible, and as such, the need to figure them out will appear more urgent.
And what happens when reproduction becomes an amalgamation of fractions of biological processes recombined inside of high technology and separated from lifespan in the way that we once knew it? Part of what will happen, I think, is that these technologies will never be equally distributed —just like not everyone can have a Roomba now, so not everyone will be able to engineer their offspring. These new reproductive technologies will continue to point to and create vast inequality. I don’t have much else to say, but I’ve been trying to follow good thinkers on this, like Sophie Lewis.
SOPHIA: There’s a loneliness to that. Like, in the same poem, you wrote: “It began with the phrase ‘post-privacy poetics,’ and contained nothing but its ending: ‘new forms, entirely lonely.’”
Do you think that doing good things in the world and engaging in collective action becomes less possible with this kind of technological alienation? Or differently possible?
ANNE: I think that as things get worse, the possibilities for collective action become greater. When your dissatisfaction is made apparent, when the world’s contradictions and possibilities are vivid – this becomes the moment when you realize that some of the comforts and hopes that you thought were real were actually delusions, and that you’ve got to find some other way. And no matter how we are kept apart, humans always find each other. We will talk through walls if we have to, pass notes, write graffiti in the middle of the night. We will do anything to prove that we are not alone. And the atomized life, the life alone in which you have nobody else or can’t love who you do have, with everyone turned into an instrument or object — that's a miserable life. It's a life that's like death. You don't go to that voluntarily; you're pushed to that. Something or someone did that to you.
I think that no matter what capitalism throws at us, however, no matter where we are pushed, there’s then an inevitable pushback. I don't believe that the whole world is going to spontaneously know what to do, but…Children being treated unfairly in a classroom will take it for so long, and then the next thing you know there are tacks on the teacher's chair.
ANNE: If we are, as I suspect, a generally adorable species, I think we can only take so much before we look to each other and form the associations necessary to overcome these cruel conditions. I also think that we have this particular advantage at this point in history in which the destabilized climate is going to open up historical possibilities for struggle. Capitalist circulation depends upon skies and seas that can be easily traveled. It depends on ports that are not upturned by earthquakes. It depends on air currents to remain stable, for the financial districts to not be flooded. But the very ground of circulation —nature— is changing. These changes are not a full guarantee of new human possibility —the opportunity must be seized— but we finally have a window that's never been opened before, which is the window of the new weather and the way that we respond to it.
SOPHIA: In the context of collective action, I’m thinking of your piece, “The Kinds of Pictures She Would Have Taken,” as a meditation on the role of identity in politics—how it can and can’t be necessary, how it can be used and abandoned—through the life of photographer.
ANNE: [Jo] Spence, yes.
SOPHIA: I know when you were writing Garments Against Women that you were reading Hannah Arendt, who has a lot of opinions about what brings people together. Could you talk about how your thoughts on that subject have progressed throughout your life?
ANNE: They're still progressing, because I just don't know. I know that we live in places together. That's the Arendtian fact that we occupy space, and that we live in plurality. I know that. I know that nobody on this planet is alive unless somebody has taken care of them. Go to a stadium where there's 100,000 people and remember all of these people were once 100,000 helpless babies. Think of all that went into each of those 100,000 babies, that somebody cared enough not to kill them or let them starve to death.
I know certain kinds of things, like certain amalgamated facts about experience in life that suggest possibilities to me. For example, I know I've behaved in loving and caring ways towards people who have treated me badly, not even out of delusion, but out of some sort of higher ethical responsibility. I also know I wasn’t a saint when I did that, and I have all sorts of these vile characteristics, too, that somehow I can overcome.
Jo Spence really presented an opportunity for me to challenge my own thinking. I was sad that her late work left behind politics that I admired in her earlier work. When I set off to write that piece, I didn't know what to think or how to make sense of her relationship with identity and collective struggle as she reached the end of her life. I wanted her to always be Jo Spence, the proud warrior, but I also wanted to explore the change in good faith. The attempt to understand it is what finally led me to thinking about exhaustion, thinking I have carried through in the book that will come out in 2019 called The Undying. Trying to understand Jo Spence's relationship to her last illness helped me understand something about the political relationship to phenomenological experience, and how being in a body influences what our politics can look like and our relationship to how they are enacted.
SOPHIA: Your description of the world outside the Occupy movement in Kansas City reminded me of the way that this other woman that I've interviewed [Alexandra Kleeman] described her relationship to femininity: as a theme park, as a faux-hygienic, grating, insincere thing. Then, I thought of the lines in “Please Stand Still, The Doors Are Closing” that communicated a similar theme-park-ness, “my head itched from my wig (my hair still gone from cancer treatment): my skin (also devastated from cancer treatment) burned with the toxins in my own sweat: my nails (discolored from cancer treatment) were painted lavender gray” —
ANNE: I’ve always thought of being a woman as the country to which I have citizenship but to which I’ve never been. I know that’s what they say we are, but I've never seen evidence of it myself. It’s so hard to imagine that that’s what's real when we have these other complex lives that exist so beyond that definition. That's not an answer to your question—
SOPHIA: No, it’s valuable. That's wonderful.
Those [feminine objects] that I just quoted sound so corrosive, but then there’s the [hair highlighting kit] Frost & Glow from “The Innocent Question” in Garments Against Women, which is the most wonderful thing ever even if it’s also corrosive.
ANNE: [laughs] I don't know. I love decorative things, love hair dye and nail polish, flowers, all that. I don't necessarily think of them as corrosive femininities. I just think of them as pleasant things that boys are socialized not to like. I feel very sorry for the boys who fall for that socialization because they're being deprived of all the gorgeousness, and I don’t want boys to be deprived of roses and lip gloss any more than I want to be deprived of reading Marx. No human on this earth, should be deprived of Frost & Glow when they need it. Sometimes you just…actually need your hair to be a little frostier in order to move through the world.
What always has bothered me, and still does, though, is when femininities are essentialized — when the lie is told that femininity is found at the depth of our being and defined by the accident of our birth. The attitude that “all women” are anything is much more burdensome than walking into Sephora, although Sephora sometimes has its problems. But sometimes I'll read stuff like, “Women are incapable of solitude.” Then I get riled up and start thinking, “What the hell am I? I love to sit alone for seven hours and read.” I might like nail polish but that says nothing about my soul, and claims that it does so do much harm to me than nail polish.
SOPHIA: More about objects, also in Garments Against Women, you asked, “is it possible to write about objects—the way things look and feel, the garments on bodies and in furniture in the gardens and in the rooms without somehow also provoking a desire to acquire more things, or even if one writes about making things is it possible to write about making things without also provoking desire for them?”
In Garments Against Women, the objects that I find you confronting most are household and feminine objects. How has the domestic sphere influenced the way that you understand the historical relationship between women and objects?
ANNE: When I wrote Garments, I had just left my marriage. I had no money. My daughter and had almost nothing — two chairs and a record player, one bed. Then I moved, and I only had a pickup truck to move in, and I left behind everything else to take my books. Then a thunderstorm got my books, because they were in the open bed of a truck, so we just really went from nothing to less than nothing. And I was trying so hard.
And one of the complications when I found when I started writing again is that writing involves people from a lot of different class backgrounds. Many of my friends who were writers had families with money, or trust funds, or access to power, which didn't make them any less my friends. But they had this kind of bourgeois standard of living that was absolutely inaccessible and often incomprehensible to me. I could converse with my friends and write with them and we were equals. I never doubted for a second that we weren't, and I don't think that they ever believed for a second that I was inferior to them. But it was sometimes hard to join their conversations because of these class differences, and I was thinking a lot about these differences then, wondering “Can I write about things without wanting things? Can I be a writer without creating this desire I can't fulfill?” A desire which was not just for basic economic security — it was also for simple things, like a dresser. How do you get a dresser? It was hard to know, and for the longest time, a lot of what I wanted most was to be able to put things in drawers.
And I still have a really strange relationship to comfort and objects. Even after things got better, I decided was just not going to have a lifestyle, that I would be against it if for no other reason, someone had to be. I wanted to see what life without lifestyle could feel like. I modeled it on the practice described by Epictetus: You sit at the dinner table, and if the dish comes by, you can take a small portion, but you don't bring yourself to excessively desire what’s on the dish. You don’t take more than your share. If you can actually reject what comes by, it’s better, but not required, and you certainly shouldn’t make a show of that rejection. There’s a piece of furniture on the curb and I need that furniture, so I’ll take it. Somebody serves dinner, and it doesn't matter if it's Burger King or a fine dinner — I'll eat what they serve. I'll dress with what I have, and take what comes my way, and then hope that this would relieve me of the distractions of taste or the idea that we are defined by it.
So I tried it. That was my relationship to objects for years even as I became more economically secure. Then I got cancer, and in the recovery, I sort of lost control of myself at the dinner party because all the plates that came by looked, after surviving the worst, totally delicious. Now I think I probably have a lifestyle. I've got these all these houseplants and cats and books and my walls are pastel. Bad things have happened here. [laughs] If you came to visit you'd be like, “This is a very cute lifestyle you have.”
SOPHIA: From “My Life,” there's a line, “Suffering called gender named by capital as love.” Is gender suffering to you? What parts of gender are suffering? Are there parts that aren't suffering?
ANNE: In “My Life,” I'm really thinking about all the suffering Mary J. Blige has had in her life of violence, addiction, suicidal depression, of her wanting to check out of the world because everything's too hard. The way that shows up in her work is absolutely gendered. It is about those kinds of sorrows that come to you disproportionately just for having been born who you are, and she is a genius of expressing that particular sorrow.
I think also in that essay, I write about how she sings “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” on an album about how feeling like a woman is wanting to die from your love, from your lover—like we see all the way back to Dido in book four of the Aeneid. About wanting to be loved so badly, and then to be either deprived of that love, or to be found in difficulty inside of it, that you can't see what it is about yourself that should stay alive. That's the suffering of gender that capitalism calls love.
I don't think that's what love has to be. Just like anything else, the world we live in now tries to take everything good and everything bad about us and finds a way to distort it into profit or control. I don't know if I would generalize it outside of the bounds of that essay. But I do think beyond the bounds of that essay, that what we know of as romantic love in this world is a violence to many, many people and results, if not in Mary J. Blige’s My Life-style suicidal heartbroken despair, at least in the extraction of incredible amounts of unpaid labor from women and the real diminishment of life’s possibilities for everybody involved.
SOPHIA: Do you want to speak about the violence and unnaturalness of romantic love under capitalism?
ANNE: One of the things that happens in a world in which we are so alienated and atomized is that romantic love can seem like it might be a little communism of two. It's feels the place where you might have this opening into the possibilities of an unalienated healing, of true feeling. But this thing that feels so good also becomes the thing that causes women to spend thirty years doing the dishes after work instead of writing a great symphony, and this thing that feels so good can also lead to the deaths of women at the hands of their partners, or a deadening of life in general.
I then want to understand how love, which is the most beautiful thing, is also the most potentially terrible thing. And one of the hopes I have about changing the world is that we must change it for the sake of love, if not for love’s rescue, maybe just for love’s arrival. Think about all the possibilities of love that could happen if everything were organized in a way that made life more bearable, in which people have most of what we need. And think, too, of the possibilities of poetry under better conditions. I want to be able to feel the love that could finally be liberated when the world is arranged for the benefit for the world, to read its literature, to see what happens to our species when we are not in this fucked up capitalist world.
So my misamory, my hatred of romantic love, is in all honesty my complete and utter devotion to romantic love, the kind of love that will finally arrive at its real possibility. I love love the most, therefore now hold it to the highest standards. I no longer want love to be a site of violence or a site of extracted labor, and it should never make anyone ever again as sad as Mary J. Blige on the My Life album.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women need or can do for each other presently?
ANNE: Everything! Just everything. There's so much to do and not just for each other, but for everyone who is not a woman, too. For every living thing and every unliving thing, every memory and ghost and possibility.
I want to see a world in which women and girls no longer have disproportionate violences against them. People can't be unraped and they can't be unabused. But for women and girls and people who are not men…actually everyone, what happens when we’re freed from this burden of sexual and gendered violence, capitalist violence, racism, anti-black violence, and all these other unfair and unnecessary things that the current arrangement of the world does to people?
So we have everything to do and we can do everything. As I keep saying, we have it in us to be an adorable species.