Line / Break | Season 3 is back with former Utah Poet Laureate and Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, Paisley Rekdal!
Paisley and Copper Canyon Press publicist Ryo Yamaguchi talk about Paisley’s extensive, multi-media project, West: A Translation, that documents and reconstructs the Transcontinental Railroad’s layered narrative.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:00):
Hey, everybody, I’m Ryo Yamaguchi, the publicist at Copper Canyon Press, and you are watching season three of our interview series Line / Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We began Line / Break as a way to connect during the pandemic and we’ve had so much fun seeing poets on screen, hearing poems, talking about writing, books, life that we simply had to keep this series going. Thank you for tuning in. We have such an exciting multifaceted conversation ahead of us today. Paisley Rekdal, who will be publishing this extraordinary hybrid work with us so big in its scope and its title West, and yet, like so much of Paisley’s work, it is profoundly grounded in this really tactile sense of poetry and of language and of all of these lives that she writes about. I am so eager to talk about the creative processes behind this, but before I do, first, Paisley, hello. Thank you so much for being here.
Paisley Rekdal (01:06):
Thank you. I’m so excited to be here. Thanks very much.
Ryo Yamaguchi (01:07):
Yeah, absolutely. So, we’re recording this in December and it’s the time of the year I’m thinking a lot about the year coming to a close and I would expect that this is an especially transitional time for you, given all your responsibilities as an academic. And I just want to ask, just to kind of get us going here, just how the term is wrapping up for you? For you and your students and your colleagues?
Paisley Rekdal (01:28):
Actually, it’s really good. This is probably one of the few semesters I can say that about, mostly because we were actually able to be in person the entire semester and only two students got sick towards the end of it. So, I feel like that’s just its own triumph at this point. Were we able to keep meeting in person and did no one have to be quarantined for very long? So yeah, that’s about it. That’s as good as it gets at this point.
Ryo Yamaguchi (01:57):
No, absolutely. That’s a little bit underlying my question is that I feel like this is the first semester where I think reliably everyone’s in person, on campus and if the vibe has been good for that, it sounds like it has been.
Paisley Rekdal (02:08):
Yeah. It’s been fun. It’s been fun, it’s just so much of a relief to be back in the classroom consistently. I just really enjoy it. I love teaching.
Ryo Yamaguchi (02:18):
Yeah. Just right before the call we were talking about AWP and getting excited for it and thinking about, this’ll probably be for us the first time back to that conference and all of its splendor. I think about this a lot with, we both live in the West and also in these kind of high desert areas that feel so devoid sometimes. I was out on this hike this week, the sun was setting and it just felt very open and mostly unpopulated. And then right as the sun was setting, just this insane murder of crows, this flock of crows just to start flitting among all the junipers.
And I was reminded how much life there is here in these landscapes. And I think that’s something that this book really does, West does, so much is it just shows how much life is here in all these different forms and I’m just really grateful for that. Do you have any rituals for this time of year at all? For New Year or for the holidays and that kind of thing?
Paisley Rekdal (03:18):
No, I really wish I did. It’s funny because I’m trying to actually create more rituals. I’m trying to create some sense of just some sort of more of a connection just with time and place and stuff like that. And this isn’t a ritual at all, but for the last several years, because I was Utah’s poet laureate, so I was really busy, I didn’t get to go skiing nearly as much as I’d wanted to. And so I got a pair of back country skis and so I’m doing that, not very well but I’m trying to get back into skiing and back into one to two days a week. Just get out there and be out in this incredible landscape, because I think a lot of people know that the West is beautiful, but there’s— it’s another thing to be in it and the wildness of it and the openness of it, and to be constantly reminded of place is a privilege
because I think having lived in cities for so many years of my life and I still live in a city, but you think of nature as behaving around you and you get to do your life and somehow there’s natural stuff. But it’s nice to be in a place where you’re really aware of the landscape and you’re really aware of your impact on the environment. And that’s one thing I just love about the west and it was something I was thinking about with the book a little bit too, even though I’m writing about the train and the Transcontinental Railroad and people. And thinking about that kind of impact, I wanted to think about environmental impacts as well.
And so I actually have a poem about the sequoias that were made into tracks and I spent a lot of time thinking about the West desert too, and writing about Robert Smithson and the Spiral Jetty and thinking about his ideas of land art and how they actually are really fascinating commentaries on American history itself. So I’m always aware of land, that’s a long way of getting into a completely different place in which you started with.
Ryo Yamaguchi (05:32):
No, you’re touching on really already fascinating points. One thing as you’re saying that I was spending time with both of those, spending time with the whole book today in advance of this and thinking about the Spiral Jetty. And one thing I really like that you relate, this is maybe in the notes of it, but that no one really owns it. The Dia Foundation is a steward of it, and that’s in really stark incredible contrast to another thing that you note which is the easement that surrounds the track like 10 miles on either side of the railroad tracks and how that is owned, that is a space that maybe shouldn’t be owned and thinking of the sequoias as being owned now in this functional form.
Paisley Rekdal (06:13):
Yeah, it is fascinating to think about ownership in the West and the land. This is a landscape that I think from before white settlers and white colonial settlers came through, you had a sense of land as not owned, but moved through. People had winter encampments. People had spring encampments. People had large territories, sort of national boundaries, but they were also understood as shared boundaries as well, that they were something very porous and there was a much more open and communal and certainly less possessive ideas of landscape until suddenly landscape became claimed, quote, unquote, by white settlers. And then it was like, well, no, this was our land and people fight about it and I found that really fascinating to think about when writing about West is thinking about how the train becomes a way of facilitating certain types of ownership in the West and the ways that art always is a great way of reminding us that in fact we don’t own. We don’t necessarily possess in these kinds of ways and not in ways that we think we do.
So that was something that Robert Smithson, I have to admit was not somebody who had personally interested me that much until I started doing research on this book and I was thinking, wow, that is a really fascinating commentary. He builds a Spiral Jetty very close to where the Golden Spike Promontory meeting place, the X of completion is made on Promontory Summit where the two railroad halves unite and it’s all about forward progress. It’s all about industrialization and modernity and all this sort of stuff. And then Smithson is like, “I’m just going to create this spiral that would suggest that in fact everything you think about progression and everything you think about ownership and everything you think about completion actually comes and spirals out and works towards entropy, and it decays.” And I love that. I love the fact that there’s that sly comment out there in the West desert.
Ryo Yamaguchi (08:25):
Yeah, that’s wonderful. And you do such a good job at pointing that out exactly as you just described and in your notes where you have a railroad which is so linear, it’s about progression and then this jetty, which is so resistant to that spiraling back return going nowhere kind of thing.
Paisley Rekdal (08:42):
Going nowhere, which is what I felt like when I was writing this book. To be honest, I’d love to hear from other writers, but I suspect all of us are in the exact same boat where it’s the rare writer who knows where they’re going. I think all of us just waddle around in the region of unknowing and then suddenly you have a book and you’re like, “Oh, that’s what it’s about.” And then you clean it all up and, “See? I planned this whole thing to begin with,” but in fact you had no idea.
Ryo Yamaguchi (09:09):
That’s so wonderful. Yeah, I love this. I’ve had conversations about the revision processes, like a form of forensics or is a form of self-analysis where you’re returning to your own self to understand it through line edits and stuff.
Paisley Rekdal (09:25):
Bad therapy is what it’s like. It’s the world’s most come-to-Jesus therapy you can imagine.
Ryo Yamaguchi (09:32):
But bad in a good way. I don’t know. Well, I really want to talk about non-linearity in particular with reference to the website. So let’s just hold that thought maybe for a second, put it to the side because I do absolutely want to get to that. Talking about— okay, I can’t resist if we’re talking about Spiral Jetty, if you know the work of the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy?
Paisley Rekdal (09:53):
Yes. Yes. I love those sort of pieces that he would do and leave for people to find. And again, this idea of decay. It’s not meant to be permanent. It’s just not.
Ryo Yamaguchi (10:05):
There’s a great documentary about him called Rivers and Tides, I think, or something, and he’s building these cairns in tidal, the tides coming in and just watching these cairns just get swept over with the water. It’s just extraordinary.
Paisley Rekdal (10:19):
I know exactly what you’re talking about. I watched it too, and actually I’ll jump to the website in one moment theoretically with that because I’m just pouring tea for myself and so [inaudible]. But the thing that’s really interested me about Goldsworthy’s work is that the embrace of impermanence and working on West the website, which is a digital artifact, we might have an imagination that is in some ways a more enduring kind of artifact, a material. And in many ways it’s not because so many digital projects rely on platforms that themselves become either outdated or if you’ve got flash for instance, it’s gone. And there are websites, I was talking maybe to you as well about this, there’s a wonderful website called 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein. It’s an amazing art piece, just fantastic, and you can’t watch it anymore. The site, which is a true genius piece of art is unplayable because Flash is gone.
And I kind of like that. When I was writing about the Transcontinental, again, the sort of the ideas and enduring empire that is built on an industrial infrastructure that is always about technological progress and the reality of the Transcontinental is it’s always being built. As soon as it was built, it degrades and you have to go back and you have to rebuild it. And websites are a bit like that. And the funny thing is books, we think of this as probably the lowest-end technology, but it’s the most enduring technology, it’s the easiest. Worms will get to it, moths will get to it, that sort of thing. But generally speaking, it’ll last longer than a website will. It’ll hold up, it’ll retain its beauty in ways that the digital doesn’t. And with going back to Goldsworthy, I like the idea that at some point West the website will be unplayable. That it will degrade and it will be unrecoverable. And that to me is a private joke, which is sort of, here’s the Transcontinental that I built and it was meant to just go to dust.
Ryo Yamaguchi (12:33):
Yeah. Oh, it’s incredible. And I remember very vividly that our wonderful coffee that we had for so long at Iconica here in Santa Fe when you were in town for the conference, talking about Flash going away and I remember that too. And there were also other art web art pieces I knew about that were gone. And the Wittgenstein piece is so incredible. And I love the idea of the durability of paper, I’m thinking of papyri and things from Mesopotamians or whatever, and this is still around in fragments.
Paisley Rekdal (13:04):
Ryo Yamaguchi (13:07):
The name of the train wreck is escaping me, that’s in West too, but—
Paisley Rekdal (13:10):
The Bagley train wreck.
Ryo Yamaguchi (13:12):
Yeah. This idea of iron being taken over by the landscape and turning into sand, I think as you mentioned it. It’s just so crazy.
Paisley Rekdal (13:22):
And it’s funny because when you go past it, I think I’d seen it by accident a couple times, I’ve driven around the dead Transcontinental line, the sort of ghost town area where the old Transcontinental used to go and you go past it and you don’t even notice it necessarily. And then you get up there and there’s actually a tremendous amount of wreckage left there. The Union Pacific, after a while they were just like, “The hell with it. All this material, we don’t want to drag any of it out.” So you can find a lot of stuff out there and it’s just orb weavers have built webs in it, pelicans have nests in it. Owls have nests in it. It’s degrading, it’s literally becoming part of the website. And it’s funny because here’s this thing that is supposed to stand outside of nature, but it’s becoming part of nature. Whereas a Spiral Jetty, which is supposed to be a comment on nature in some ways, you go there and people, there’s tons of people always taking pictures of it. So it becomes, this piece of art in some ways stands outside of the natural environment that it was supposed to be really naturally part of. It’s kind of a surprising flip.
Ryo Yamaguchi (14:27):
I hear in this too, this idea of the museumification of art or we have anything that’s really old, we want to put in a glass case and handle with gloves. But there’s certain examples in the world where this just isn’t that case. This train wreck is just out there in the landscape. The jetties can’t be contained. I think of experiences walking around India and going and there’ll just be a Jain Temple, a thousand years old. Yes. And there’s no red ropes or there’s nothing, you could just walk up and touch it.
Paisley Rekdal (14:55):
Yeah, I’m glad you bring this up too, the museumification and the idea of preservation and what it is. And it’s true, if you go into other cultures in Southeast Asia where I lived for a while and you travel around, you can end up in these incredible complexes of temples. And some of them are well-known like Angkor Wat and others are not. And they’re just far off the beaten track and you just go through, and there’s no attempt to make it safe for tourists. There’s no ramps built, there’s nothing out there. There’s no ropes, there’s nothing and you just sort of encounter it in its degrading state. And there’s something amazing about that because preservation, and it comes out of a place of history is important and all of these things are important, but the reality is that loss is always there.
And going back to West for a minute, that was the thing that haunted me so much about the project, which is that when I was asked to write a poem about the Transcontinental Railroad, being biracial, being half Chinese, I thought this is a perfect way to go in and tell those histories that have always been there, but no one’s paying attention to. We’ll start with these Chinese workers. But what I encountered immediately was loss. We don’t have any letters, we have no diaries, we have nothing written from these workers. We don’t even really have their names. And so we know of their presence because they left other material records. If you go along the Transcontinental and you go to these sort of Chinese camps, which you can do right now, you’ll find artifacts are just left there. So you feel their presence, but there’s this incredible void as well.
And at the same time, if you are in the West and you see other Chinese people here who’ve been here for generations, you’re seeing that presence again because a lot of them have come as Transcontinental workers, married, settled, raised families, open businesses and stuff like that. So you’re constantly wrestling, what are we trying to preserve when we run into these temples and we run into these things? What is the thing that we think we have to preserve? Because in some ways all around us is preservation. Those temples still exist, just not in the state that we want them to exist potentially. And these people exist that I’m writing about, but maybe not in the ways that we want to first encounter them in a poem or in a history book. And so I’m really kind of haunted by that. What does it mean for something to be truly lost and then in its recovery, what exactly are we recovering? Another kind of fantasy, which would require another kind of loss? Or are we recovering something completely different in our imagination, in our stitching together, all of these different kinds of facts and artifacts that we can find. Have we created something entirely new? In which case it’s not recovery at all, it’s just fabrication. So I don’t know, but I’m fascinated by that question. Preservation and loss, and where do those things touch and where do those things pull apart?
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:16):
Yeah. Oh man, that’s such a complex and rich topic. And I think also where we are in history is so important because we— us as humans at this moment in history are so tasked with this idea of recovery. And I’m hearing the word imperialism in here, that recovery has an imperial quality to it or that we only do things we can never escape our own need for the utility of what we decide to remember, that kind of thing. And you’re bringing up, actually my very first question about West, which has to do with the invisibility of the person who wrote this poem and to invoke Derrida, the trace of them. But maybe let’s hear a poem, actually let’s concretize this a little bit. If you’re game to read a poem, and you want to show the website too, this could be a good time or whenever you think.
Paisley Rekdal (19:10):
I’ll show the website and it’ll be a poem, it’s me reading a poem. And this actually speaks to one of the problems of maybe fantasy, fabrication, loss. One of the things, and I’ll explain how to use the website later on, but so this poem, this Chinese poem here on the screen is a poem that was carved into the walls of Angel Island Immigration Station sometime during the Chinese Exclusion Act, which is a very long time. It’s between 1888 and 1943. So we don’t even know what date, we don’t know who wrote it. We do know that it’s part of what they call a dialogic pair of poems that elegize a suicide. Another Chinese migrant had committed suicide while in detention in Angel Island. And that was not uncommon, but nor was it uncommon for people to carve poems into the walls to sort of record their feelings, their impressions, their hopes, their dreams and stuff like that.
But we don’t know anything about these people. We can make educated guesses, which is that anyone who’s writing in this kind of poem style, it’s called regulated verse, the closest approximation in English is the sonnet. Anyone who was writing like this was probably pretty well-educated and probably a man then, because women did not tend to get that kind of education. And this website, every single character or pair of characters opens up into a poem about the Transcontinental. And this is one called “What Day,” and the important thing to know about this is that I wanted to write from the perspective of some Chinese workers. Again, not having their voices that they wrote down about their experiences, I had to imagine it. The other thing I was thinking about is I wanted to think about the Transcontinental in a sort of fractal way. Think about all the different people who worked on the railroad, and the thing that really struck me again about the scholarship around the Transcontinental is another absence, which is no one really talked about queer histories of the railroad. So I’m going to play this and I’ll put on the closed captioning too, so that people can see that.
What Day. On this seventh day of the seventh month, magpies bridge in a cluster of black and white. The sky king crosses to meet his queen. Time tracked by the close-knit wheeling of stars. I watch. You come to me tonight, drunk on wine and cards, nails ridged black with opium to ease the pain of work. We are all men here. Anybody can be a bridge, little raven. Your eyes squeezed shut, but not from pain. We are a trestle. A grade we build together. Would matter if you say you’d never choose me, were there women willing in this desert? I chose. I choose the memory we share of rivers, your hair of smoke and raw wet leather. A man in another man’s hand makes himself tool or weapon, says the overseer, as if a man’s use to another is only one of work. Pleasure is the only chosen future. You are the home I briefly make, the country I can return to. Here where the moon wheels its white shoulder in the dark and you push me to the earth, slip my whisker tip of hair into your mouth.
Paisley Rekdal (23:25):
So I just want to say I played that for Utah’s governor and a whole room of very conservative donors. And that was one of the greater pleasures I had as Utah’s poet laureate, and they loved it. I have to say, they thought it was great, or at least they told me that to my face. But one of the things I wanted to do in that poem was pick up on two themes that I talk about in the book. One of the things that struck me so much in writing and reading about the Transcontinental is in the 19th century, they really saw the train as body. They kept talking about the iron joins and joints of an iron nervous system. They really made the railroad a physical embodiment. And so when we were making this video, I wanted bodies and railroad parts to sort of merge together, but to subvert it slightly
because, oftentimes, when they were thinking about that bodily reality or bodily presence of the railroad, they saw it as a form of assimilation. How can we make these people from other nations, who are working on our railroad, Americans? And if you notice in the poem, the character says, you are the home I briefly make, the country I can return to. And the labor of building that railroad isn’t about becoming more American, but actually becoming Chinese again in a way. Becomes a moment of connecting back to the other country that he plans to go back to. And also, I was thinking about how much labor is used to people’s detriments. You read about the Transcontinental, the Chinese died. We don’t know how many, but many, many men died building that railroad because they were given the most physically difficult tasks. And they were really blasting through the Sierras with nitroglycerin and crawling up these carapaces of stone without anything but a tiny piece of rope.
People were dying. This was painful, painful labor. And if you go out to the Transcontinental and you see just how monumental it was, you just know this was kind of endurance and suffering. So I wanted the idea of sexual intimacy to be— this is a physical labor of pleasure that you cannot take away from me. This is a way of standing against the way that my labor has been used against me. And so I thought it was really, it’s not just sort of a titillating poem for me. To me, it’s a poem that, for me, I’m hoping it’s a kind of useful site of resistance because I want people to see there are ways in which these men were able to use and imagine their bodies that was controlled only by them, not by somebody else.
Ryo Yamaguchi (26:27):
Everything you’re saying is so incredible and thinking of this multiplicity of bodies, and I love this idea of pleasure as almost an act of defiance. I think it’s so well done in this video, too. I mean, I’m very taken with texture in the video in the way that that’s described, and skin, and there’s the—well I just learned this word so I’m going to use it—the craquelure of this broken dry skin and of the desert as it’s fragmenting, and then this very velvety sensuous skin there and how all of that’s coming together through these cross-dissolves and through these double exposures that’s happening in the film. Yeah, so there’s something very surface that’s bringing together these dichotomies, like you’re saying, that’s so wonderful. I’m an American, but I’m Chinese. I’m home, but I’m away. Pain and pleasure, and how important all of those are to each other.
Okay, so this goes back to the invisibility of this prisoner on Angel Island and this trace, this poem that’s been left behind and all of these stories that have been left behind and unsung and unseen. And I think so much of the power of this project is in giving shape and in particular illumination. And I think illumination is a really key term here to the forgotten communities in the West. What do you think, in your mind, just top of mind, what’s the most egregious oversight our history of the West has held onto? If there’s one takeaway you’d hope readers would have from this project, what would it be?
Paisley Rekdal (27:55):
That is a great question.
Ryo Yamaguchi (27:59):
I know I’m asking you to identify one among many things.
Paisley Rekdal (28:03):
Yeah, no I think my first impulse, and I write about this in the book a little bit, my first impulse to answer that question is to sort of say not who is forgotten—because one could make a really strong case that every group, there’s just not enough information on. But I think what really struck me in my research was maybe the ways in which we are not creative in how we remember. So I talk about this in some of the notes, the note essay where one of the questions that kept coming up in my mind as I was researching was what did Chinese and Native peoples think of each other? And there’s not a lot of scholarship on that. There’s some, but not a ton. And what I was able to find via some footnotes, and one tiny article that really fully addressed it was that in fact it’s in oral histories of the Paiute and the Goshute and the Shoshone where they intermarried and they adopted Chinese workers sometimes into their families.
And certain Chinese workers also adopted some of the Native customs or languages and memorized the stories. So for instance, there was one man named Sam Wong, evidently, or not Sam Wong, somebody else who memorized all of the stories that he could of the Paiute. And when he died, the Paiute and the Ute went to mourn him at the Indian Agent’s office. And I think that that’s what we forget. We forget that actually it’s how we remember each other. We don’t necessarily, we look for official histories, we look for written documents. That’s what we tend to look for. And I understand why, I did too because it’s the easiest thing to cite. It’s the easiest evidence you have. But most of the memories of the West are exactly that. They’re memories, they’re held in oral culture, they’re held in family lore. They’re held in some ways just essentially very close to the body because they’re in our minds and are in our retellings and private encounters. And I think that that’s the thing that is the biggest absence in the West is that maybe when we’ve got a space and a timeframe in which written records were hard to get or preserve or to make, maybe we need to start asking better questions about where to look and who to talk to and how to remember cross-culturally.
Ryo Yamaguchi (30:45):
So I love in particular that cross-cultural element of this and the way you described. I think we’re in a moment right now where we are trying to recover lost histories. We’re trying to give illumination to histories that we’ve refused to look at. But I think one tendency that we have sometimes in that is to compartmentalize those histories, to try and hold them pristine, to say this is an intact version of things when really you’re describing cultures are constantly in communication with each other. They’re corrupting each other in these beautiful and creative ways. And sometimes that’s a distinct power dynamic to that, too. It’s there’s not parody to it, and yet nonetheless, it’s this interaction.
Paisley Rekdal (31:28):
I thought about that a lot because it did not escape me that having written a book called Appropriate: A Provocation, all about cultural appropriation in literature, I was now working on a book that was entirely appropriative in its aesthetic strategies. And of course, I’m writing about the Transcontinental, which is not only an extractive labor and industry, but it’s also appropriative in the ways that it takes as other people’s labor, didn’t often pay some of the workers that worked on the railroad and has sort of subsumed all of these histories in a way that just raises up people like Leland Stanford, or Charles Crocker, or General Dodge who ran the Union Pacific. We know so much about the people who benefited from the building of the Transcontinental. We know nothing pretty much about the people who built it. And so going in and working with these kinds of documents and these materials and thinking about experiences that are completely different than mine, it’s not certainly as bad as what the Union Pacific did or as monumental as what the Union Pacific did, but it’s of a scale.
There’s a kind of relationship, which is obviously I’m building a book that relies in some ways on the labor of other people, the language of other people. And I talk about that also in the book and this note, I was really struck by the work of Cristina Rivera Garza, and she was talking about the value of appropriation as a way of using the archive to speak back to certain institutions that would take these kinds of bodies and materials and labor for their own benefit. But she did point out something that I point out in the book too, which is who is it that really wrote this book? I like to think of myself as the writer of the book, but the reality is it could not have existed without all of the different archival sources that I used, all the different texts that I work with and play with, the collages that I scattered throughout, that’s from a book of maps and stuff like that.
So literally the production of this book was done by other people. If anything, I’m sort of the conductor or the orchestrator of the thing. So for me, I have to admit, it’s a very strange process to talk about and represent a book that I think of as really polyvocal and poly-authored, actually. It doesn’t feel like me as the writer a lot of times. And I’ve both liked and been a little afraid of these poems because usually when I write a poem, it’s going to sound like me and I went out of my way to make sure these poems do not sound like me, mostly. The one I just played for you is the closest that sounds like me because that’s the one I had to make up the language for. But everything else pretty much takes its language from somebody else, and so how to be respectfully preserving of that, at the same time understanding it can’t really be me. It’s strange.
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:39):
No, this is a terrific dynamic that you’re talking about. And it’s tricky terrain, too, the idea of appropriation or a better term maybe is just found text or found materials.
Paisley Rekdal (34:52):
Let’s use that. Let’s go with that.
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:55):
I think the approach is right, though. You’re very democratic. Unsung voices, but then also Abraham Lincoln. It’s everyone, and I think you put them all into conversation. You were touching on something that, and I’m hesitant almost to ask this question because you’re already sort of talking so well about it, but you’re echoing our absolutely fabulous intern Tobi who has been writing these spectacularly sensitive well-read questions. And so he kind of asked the question about this, exactly what you’re describing, and I’m hoping this question might maybe can kind of expand this a little bit. So if you don’t mind, I’m just going to ask this verbatim and it goes like this. So West paints such a diverse, yet coherent picture of the lives that America has built itself and its progress over. I love that line, that America has built itself and its progress over. In revivifying these lives, how did you see your voice interacting with the voices of the archive? Where did you want your choices as a poet to be more pronounced or less visible? So I think he’s asking you for a little bit more detail on how you really did see yourself as your— as a person within this. You’re the conductor, you’re the researcher, but surely you have your own personal stake, right?
Paisley Rekdal (36:12):
Yeah, I definitely have my own personal stake. And I think anyone can see some part of how I felt about the Transcontinental. I take a very critical approach to it, largely because I think the Transcontinental deserves that critical approach, but also because there’s been so much positive literature essentially written about it. It can sustain a little bad press, the Transcontinental. But in terms of how I saw my own voice working within these, I wanted to. . . it’s a hard question to answer because there’s sort of three ways I thought about it. So when I’m dealing with texts by people we don’t know anything about, so the African American porters who worked on the railroad during the mid part of the 20th century, these are people who left no other written record that I know of. And they don’t have a volume of work that stands on their own.
And so I wanted to be as close to them as possible. So I had a very particular working ethic. No one has a verbal tick that they did not display in that record. No one says something they did not effectively say in that record. I pared down quite a bit to bring out the music of their voices, to make sure that the rhythms of the speech that attracted me first to their stories was preserved as best I could, but with an understanding that a lot was cut out. A lot. But with those, like Frederick Law Olmsted or Robert Lewis Stevenson whose voices I appropriate, there’s a huge amount of record from them so I was able to be a lot freer. But again, it was also identifying what it is that they were saying, the particular rhythms of their speech, but then also being able to sort of say what is it that they’re indicating or suggesting, but not really saying explicitly and can I elevate that?
And that’s where my voice stitches in and I’m like, I’m going to make a little more obvious what they refuse to say. So Olmsted, for example, he’s writing in the southern railroads and he’s making comments about mixed race people. And for him, it’s clear from our vantage point, he doesn’t think of it as racist. He and people at the time probably would not have considered it racist, but standing where I am standing, the ways he’s looking at biracial people was racist. And I think it was important to bring that out, the sort of anxiety of mixing. And that gets to the third thing that I wanted to bring out in this, the Transcontinental unites East and West, and it was imagined as a bodily reality. And it was a place in which different classes, different races, different nations, different genders, sexualities mixed because it was a public space.
And what came up over and over and over in my research was the sort of horror of that. The Transcontinental is awesome because it unites us, and then they were like, “Oh, my God, we’re all together on the Transcontinental. It’s disgusting.” And as a mixed race person, and I’m sure you also as a mixed race person— like the fascination and the horror of that remains still about what is the biracial person and the biracial identity and body. That was the other place that I wanted to write into. There’s lots of sneaky ways in which I point to ideas of passing and ideas of mixing. And I make it explicit when I read write the poem in the voice of Sui Sin Far who was a biracial journalist who wrote about taking the train and trying to figure out where she fit in.
She’s a biracial woman writer at a time when that was really, really unusual. And the whole notes essay is all about obviously the history of America, but also the sort of story of my own family and the difficulty of saying, can we unite East and West in these ways? So, for me, and I even say this in the book, what is poetic I elevate with fact and what is fact I change with poetry. And that was sort of the ethic that kind of ran through all of the work. It’s a long answer to the question, but it’s a really good question. It’s a tough one.
Ryo Yamaguchi (40:33):
Yeah, that’s great. Oh man, you bring up four or five other things here that I want to get into. I love the relationship of the notes section to the poems and the way that the notes aren’t just factual, too. You feature in them emotionally also and things, but also that how the yin yang of poetry and fact and that you’re describing, if I can use that term. I also love this idea of that the railroad united East and West, of course that’s both the East and West coast of the US. It’s also Western and Eastern culture because Chinese workers and this idea, that immediately invokes to me this idea of horizons and destinations as enfolding each other and constantly turning, which is also part of this communication thing too. There’s some famous thought-experiment about, you could take a map and you fold it and now the two most distant places are right next to each other.
Paisley Rekdal (41:32):
The reason biracial identity kind of functions this way, both in the book and just thinking about the way that the book itself divides between here are the poems that translate that Chinese poem, and then here’s the notes that then translate those poems into some other sort of historical research. And everything is a hybrid. Everything is combining two or more forms. And that is because in part that the Chinese poem on the Angel Island wall was, like I said, a dialogic pair. There were two, but I only translate one supposedly. But I wanted to effectively produce the presence of that missing other poem by always having two things mirror each other. The poems and the essays mirror each other, and then the book and the website actually sort of speak to each other.
And they divide at several points, too. The website has a couple of poems that don’t appear in the book, vice versa. And obviously the book has the essays that you can’t get on the website, but because of that they also sort of speak to and then don’t necessarily mirror each other exactly. So I wanted to formally call back to as many ways as possible what that Chinese poem, that dialogic pair was doing in the walls of Angel Island as those two things faced each other and maybe united a meaning, an elegiac subject because you could read across them. And in that way it did function a little bit like I think the Transcontinental, trying to unite two distinctly different points of the map together. So yeah, there’s a method to this madness, but I admit there’s a lot of madness. This is a totally insane project.
Ryo Yamaguchi (43:17):
Well, it’s wonderful. So there’s just so many entry points and again, with the website, the non-linearity that users, readers can navigate it according to their own will, their own animus. But there’s this question that I really like to ask in every one of these Line / Breaks and almost every other Line / Break, I ask it at the beginning of the Line / Break. I’m going to attempt to ask it here as we necessarily have to start coming to a little bit of a close. And I think it’s because you are talking about your own authorship, but I’m going to frame it in this way too, which is that so much of what West is doing is it’s creating this landscape, it is surveying this landscape that is three dimensional and full of all these different people.
And then how does an individual voice or an individual perspective enter into that, or exist within it or find their own identity within it? And so that’s kind of my question, so maybe we’ll leave the project as now and look to your broader experiences as a whole, as an artist and as a writer. And this is my great question, which is my predecessor Laura’s question, which is can you go back to your own origins as a creative person and describe the first time that you recognized yourself in such a landscape, in such a broad landscape that the entire landscape of art and literature, was there a particular piece that resonated with you? Or when did you first come alive as a poet?
Paisley Rekdal (44:40):
That’s a good question too. And I know you sent me this question ahead of time and I’ve been thinking about it. There’s many, many ways, but there’s two I will only talk about. I think one was I started out as a medievalist and, I was at Trinity College, and this is going to sound so woo woo, it was Trinity College in Dublin and I was in the library and somehow I just randomly pulled off the shelf an anthology of medieval women’s visionary literature. And, it was just an anthology of these visions at different anchorites and nuns that had, some they wrote down, some were taken down for them by confessors. And I just opened up and I just started reading. And there was one by Mechthild of Magdeburg and I don’t know why it startled me so much, but it really shocked me partly because I had had a dream that was almost exactly like what she described. And I won’t say what the dream was, because I won’t let it go too woo woo, but I just remember being just so startled. I just thought, oh, my god, how is this possible? And so I started reading that and that was just sent me off into my medieval kick. I had been interested in sort of more of the Arthurian legends before that, but then after that I was like, no, it’s all medieval women’s visionary literature.
So that was one, but then the second time it happened I remember distinctly I was also in graduate school and this time I was at the University of Michigan for my MFA. And this is probably not uncommon to a lot of people of color of a certain generation. I was always an avid reader and I love reading from all different corners of the world. That was never a problem. But no one had ever given me anything written by somebody who was biracial at that point. I’d never gotten that in any of my classes. I hadn’t even read Passing for some reason. It just never came into my whatever. And I remember standing at a counter, it was at Shaman Drum, this fantastic bookstore and there was a book and it was just called Half and Half and it literally just happened to be right by the cash register. And I looked at it and it just was essays about being biracial and I just grabbed it and I read it just in one sitting. I was so excited. And then Danzy Senna’s Caucasia was another one of those moments where I was like, oh wow.
So both those times, it was very personally a moment of recognition for totally different reasons. But I will say just as a reader who loves to read in general, I think there are a thousand little moments where I feel some part of me open up in a book, some part of me open up in a poem. With poetry, I think it was Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, which I remember reading and just loving and I felt the same way about when I got Inger Christensen’s Alphabet, and I just read it and I just felt so electric reading it. And that doesn’t have anything to do with the personal recognition of something in me that I felt like hadn’t been expressed. But it just felt like some part of my soul was also being expressed there. So yeah, I’m always in search of that moment.
Ryo Yamaguchi (48:18):
That’s so cool. I love this way you’re dropping these coordinates in these different places and where I feel the fruiting body, I’m going to use a mushroom metaphor here, Paisley Rekdal’s fruiting bodies coming out in these different areas, of creative body.
Paisley Rekdal (48:36):
Let’s hope so, yeah.
Ryo Yamaguchi (48:38):
Yeah, whatever. I think everyone’s origin story should start in the library in Trinity College. What a primordial, dark, wonderful place.
Paisley Rekdal (48:46):
Oh, I know. It’s so great. It was such a beautiful library too. The whole thing was just like, it’s a Harry Potter kind of thing. You’re just like, look at this, this is fantastic.
Ryo Yamaguchi (48:55):
I very vividly remember the one the time I’d been there, just seeing Samuel Beckett’s handwritten manuscripts. Museumification, under a case. Can’t touch it.
Paisley Rekdal (49:04):
I know. There’s something about the aura of the hand and being able to do that.
Ryo Yamaguchi (49:11):
Well, thank you so much for sharing that with us and I’m so excited. Man, we really could talk about some really powerful and complex… I love talking with you so much because your mind just moves in such a textured way and it’s just really wonderful. This has just been super fun for me. I hope it’s been fun for you.
Paisley Rekdal (49:29):
It’s been so much fun. I could talk about the train for years. My husband knows so, and by the way, I don’t know if you probably heard something kind of stumping around that was my husband literally crawling on the floor to get his phone because he left it up here, he didn’t want to get in the screen. I don’t know if you can edit that out or just leave that in, that’s even better.
Ryo Yamaguchi (49:50):
I think it’s great. Yeah, I think cats have been visitors in Line / Break and things, but never a husband. That’s so wonderful. I’m looking here, I got five minutes. Do you want to read another poem to take us to the end or what do you think?
Paisley Rekdal (50:06):
I will read one more poem and this is something that you can’t get off of the website. You can read it on the website, but you can’t hear how it’s supposed to sound. So one quick thing I’ll say about this, I wanted to think about people still riding the train illegally, like hobos, they used to call them, and now they call themselves riders. Freight hoppers, basically. So I interviewed a number of people who have ridden the train illegally to create a portrait of maybe why and how people experience that. And it’s important to hear the way it is read because I’m trying to mimic a particular sound. Dead is what they call a torn up track who’s living rails I jumped to bed down in the wells and feel the thud hit every trestle steam at dawn. Like horses at the track I trained them for the fillies foundered sick, they fired the agents, vets, they fire the riders.
Me, I love how in a well you thrown with sound until your bare lips start to bleed like canisters of oil is stolen inside the train you’ll find a nation what it wants to eat and where and what it likes to buy. A ring, a phone, some jeans. Of course there is no reason why to jump a train except to lose the edges of yourself. The time like pacing Moxie at the track, that speed that almost has your hands up at the wrist. She was the last to go, her tendon voted worthless than insurance. No one rides a racehorse just for pleasure. No one hops a train if they can take a plane, a car whose engine speed is gauged by horses kept alive in memory for sentiment. I guess there’s ghost of what we were and are. We cannot bear to leave up in the desert where I’m going home just now, right now. I said of Moxie, not right now before the race. She hasn’t many left in her. “You know she trusts you, right?” the owner said. Then slip me two grand and the shots. So there you go.
Ryo Yamaguchi (51:44):
Amazing. Galloping, Paisley or the chugging. Oh, wow. That was great. Also, flawless. That was amazing.
Paisley Rekdal (51:53):
Thank you. Thank you so much.
Ryo Yamaguchi (51:54):
Oh, wow. Okay. That’s great. That energizes me to get through the rest of the afternoon here. Thank you. Thank you so much again. This was really fun and just meaningful, and so thought-provoking and really, really enjoyed it.
Paisley Rekdal (52:05):
Well, thank you so much and thank you for producing such a beautiful book. I know it was such a lot of work and I really love the finished product. For me it’s like a piece of art, so thank you. I really appreciate it.
Ryo Yamaguchi (52:15):
Yeah, absolutely. These are the galleys, we’re going to see the final thing here in the spring. So excited. And of course the website, I’m so excited to see how these two interact out in the world when we get out there and we’ll do it. So thank you Paisley, and thank you all out there for tuning in for this conversation and for all of our conversations. It’s been really special and meaningful for us at the press to have authors as amazing as this and projects that we get to bring out like this. So thank you all for being present to us and we’ll see you next time.