Shae­lyn Smith

Poets and Writers - - The Genre Of Resistance -

The Left­overs (Cleve­land State Univer­sity Po­etry Cen­ter, April), a col­lec­tion of lyric and ex­per­i­men­tal es­says on fem­i­nism, art, food, and in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity that crit­i­cally ex­am­ine Judy Chicago’s 1979 fem­i­nist in­stal­la­tion The Din­ner Party. Se­lected by Re­nee Glad­man as win­ner of the 2017 Es­say Col­lec­tion Com­pe­ti­tion. Agent: None. Ed­i­tors: Caryl Pagel and Hi­lary Plum.

First print­ing: 1,000.

As a kid I col­lected. I was con­cerned with sta­sis: col­lages, mo­ments, scenes, dio­ra­mas. Then I devel­oped a fas­ci­na­tion with the dy­namic. I learned the term lim­i­nal. I tracked Alexan­der McQueen through stacks of mag­a­zines. I learned the term fem­i­nism. In col­lege I ac­cu­mu­lated artists, ar­chi­tects, pho­tog­ra­phers. I saw An­drea Arnold’s Fish Tank. When a pro­fes­sor gave me Peggy Phe­lan’s Un­marked: The Pol­i­tics of Per­for­mance, she said, “Write what­ever you feel.” Not the­ory but rather its un­der­belly. The darks. I de­voured Anne Car­son, So­phie Calle, Ma­rina Abramovic´, Ana Mendi­eta, Nan Goldin.

I wrote na­ture po­etry. Ex­plored

fields of vis­i­bil­ity. Then I went to New York City. I worked in a restau­rant. Days off I spent at gal­leries, the­aters, mu­se­ums. I found Laurel Naka­date, Marguerite Duras, Adrian Piper, the Wooster Group. A ret­ro­spec­tive of de­funct per­for­mance rooms. I started to think about how to re-cre­ate what no longer ex­ists. Rep­re­sen­ta­tions of once-re­al­i­ties.

I think we write to un­der­stand thoughts; we make art to un­der­stand emo­tions. But we can’t ever, re­ally. Those strange un­sayable beasts. That’s what I wanted to con­sume: ob­ses­sions, un­know­ables, inar­tic­u­lat­a­bles. Per­for­mances. To mimic that feel­ing of play­ing wit­ness to art, of play­ing wit­ness to the af­ter­math of art. How I felt on the train there. How I felt on the train home.

In the kitchen I got so ut­terly de­pressed. I was too full; I wanted out. I was ac­cepted into an MFA pro­gram in po­etry. My first se­mes­ter I purged in prose. Ev­ery­thing

I had stuffed in­side: what I saw, didn’t see, loved, hated, wished I did or didn’t have or do or want, got aroused or con­fused or up­set by, cried at, laughed at, danced for, dreamed and night­mared about, couldn’t re­mem­ber, couldn’t for­get. Ev­ery­thing I couldn’t say.

At the end of the se­mes­ter my pro­fes­sor handed me back hun­dreds of pages with a brief note: “I felt most en­gaged when you wrote about art.” I still wrote po­ems, but noth­ing fit. I read Clau­dia Rank­ine, Lidia Yuk­nav­itch, Mag­gie Nel­son, Kiese Lay­mon, Jenny Boully. I dis­cov­ered pos­si­bil­i­ties of form. I learned my way through a sen­tence.

In the con­cave si­lences of work­shops I re­al­ized I wasn’t try­ing to write about art; I was try­ing to write around it. Judy Chicago’s The Din­ner Party gave me time and space to fo­cus—a con­text of which I was both proud and ashamed, felt com­pli­cated by and com­plicit in. The in­stal­la­tion be­came the prover­bial sand­box: I could ex­plore, dig, plant, har­vest, ex­per­i­ment, play. There was time for trial and er­ror. Space to fig­ure the con­tours of a project. A con­tin­uum to make it co­he­sive.

Ev­ery es­say be­gins a poem. All those lines, stan­zas, caesuras. Blank space. Then re­search. An­other poem. More re­search. Sen­tences. Etcetera. A puz­zle, a sculp­ture: piec­ing and hon­ing. A bor­der, an out­line. Stuff goes in; stuff comes out. Each es­say is a thing built with­out blue­print.

The Cleve­land State Univer­sity Po­etry Cen­ter was among my top three choices for pub­li­ca­tion. I sub­mit­ted my grad­u­ate the­sis to the es­say col­lec­tion com­pe­ti­tion and didn’t win. I fin­ished school and stopped writ­ing. When I re­turned to re­vi­sion I wrote just for my­self. I had changed. And so the writ­ing changed. When I sub­mit­ted my re­vised col­lec­tion to the con­test, I won. Spend­ing five years with a man­u­script taught me not what it could be, but what it should be: a messy place ad­ja­cent to the al­go­rithm of genre, an amal­ga­ma­tion of in­fat­u­a­tion, a rem­i­nis­cence of what’s leftover.

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