A pandemic splits world time into fractals we can neither hold nor deny. We Zoom in to gain a clearer view. This interview was originally published in LESTE Issue 10, and has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Dan Schapiro is a disabled ashkenazi poet living with HIV in New York. HOLEPLAY, his first book, writes through and about images and illness, and is available from Nueoi Press. He is @waterkeeps. J.R. Hughes is a Black disabled writer and allopractice artist living in New York. She is @joselia_pdf.
Let’s start here. Where’s your head at?
My head is definitely in a fog... I’ve been so anxious about the fog lately, so possessive about memory, or “losing my mind,” as if you can lose something you never owned to begin with. I’ve been trying to extricate myself from the idea of memory as private property.
JRH: Right. We don’t own the fog, we share it. And perhaps this relates to the concept of telepathy, or “being of one mind.” I’m curious as to what role telepathy and telekinesis play in your work. Play as in role-play but also play as giving into time.
DS: Well, I grew up with these stories of my father being telekinetic in his childhood. He had a model airplane that hung from his bedroom ceiling by a string, and he could make it fly. So I’ve lived in the wake of this knowledge my whole life, which was so radically incongruent with my reality, because I never developed the capability. And I came to realize that whenever I ask, “why can’t I move things with my mind?,” I am really asking, “why wasn’t I chosen?”
JRH: I identify with this on a lot of levels. My grandmother was a chosen person, in the sense that she was a healing child. She was visited by some spirit and she knew how to heal people. And there was the magic of it, like is this a myth? Is this reality? And wanting to exist in the in-between of myth and reality. But also, what does it mean to be sick? What conditions does sickness present — not the conditions of sickness? I use sickness in two ways because you use it in two ways in the book: you repeatedly cut off that “k” [in sic(k)], and you present lines of thusness. This happens, thus that. The cause and effect is always there, but it’s also completely disturbed by the wordplay. And that is very exciting. How does being sick — meaning, the conditions that sickness allows — open up the possibility to telekinesis?
DS: I like how you said “the magic of it” when talking about your grandmother. I’ve always had a sense that these things are coming from outside of me, and whenever something is coming from the outside, there’s a sense that you were chosen for them or by them. Prepositions are funny because I’d find myself saying a poem was written “to my mother,” or “for my father,” but then I’d correct myself and say, no, this is a poem from my father, or actually by him. I call each page in the book a poem, even the images. The image of the post-it note, for example, is literally my father’s handwriting with found text superimposed over it. I’m always trying to push two words into the same space-time, which I know you can’t do because you always have to make the choice, you have to prioritize. That’s what it means to have executive function: to have the capacity to choose who lives and who dies, right? Which lines to cut.
JRH: I’m thinking about what you said about oneness. I’m also thinking about the header or poem of “terribility.” I read it as “to terraform,” to build a landscape. Could you speak to how these poems are terraforming your mind, or presenting a landscape for us? Because you do use a lot of blooming images — there are flowers, there’s the sky, we get the whole space. It’s not just a cognitive space, it’s not just an abstracted space. We are in physical places. How did you terraform it?
DS: So one of the big things with the book’s psychogeography is its situation between sky and water. They’re not opposing, but there’s a mirroring mechanism going on between the two. Even the cover of the book is an inverted picture, a negative. And so what happens when fish become birds, or when day becomes night… I began to associate that whole process with the idea of being sorry. When I use that adjective, “sorry,” I am often using it as a surrogate for “mirrored.” So the sky as sorry of water or the water as sorry of sky. And there’s a beauty in all of that, but also an understanding that beauty in and of itself is an apology for what beauty does. And what beauty does is hurt. Then you come back to the hole. “My boyfriend is a hurtful bird_so beautiful he burns / an image a hole in me.”
JRH: If the sky is an apology, is the apology necessarily remorseful? How does sorry actually function in a mirror? Like, are we trying to be seen? Is the “sorry” like, “oops, didn’t mean to see you?”
DS: I’m still thinking this all through, but I think that apology means debt. I think that my obsessive compulsion to apologize bleeds into an obsessive compulsion to bleed, and then my blood leads me back to obsession, and that obsession leads me to debt. And then the debt can’t be settled but it is also always settling, it’s related to settler colonialism, it’s related to forced reproduction and maternity and slavery and math, a math that cancels mathematics... and all of this happens at night. That was a big point of the imagery of the book for me, that the ‘-matics’ of the book, the action, all of this happens at night.
JRH: All of this happens at night. Wow, I did not feel that (laughs). I felt like this was happening in the middle of the day. I’m not sure why… something to do with the images, that sort of fluorescence, maybe I kept seeing suns.
DS: No, wow, that’s cool. I’m into that interpretation. I mean, night is just, sorry to the day….
JRH: Right, it’s the same thing. And we’ve also had this conversation about being positive and negative, and what it means to have a viral — to live in a state of virality. Whether it’s online, or hematologically (laughs). If positive and negative, much like sky and ocean, function as debtors to each other or debts of each other, then there isn’t really much of a difference between either, right? The distance between the HIV-positive and the HIV-negative person is their relation to, maybe, the fear of debt. So we’re talking about proximities. And we come back to sic[k]ness not necessarily being a condition, but making you aware of or open to or giving you permission to be within the possibility of conditions.
DS: We’ve also talked before about people who argue that disability is not innate, but is entirely a symptom of ableism. And the problem with that is simply that pain exists. But ableism does thrive in cultures that herald individualism over collectivism. So, when two individuals are pitted against each other for what should not be limited resources, one will inevitably have an advantage in accessing those resources. And that edge, or distance which you describe, is separate but related to the eternal facts of pain and sic[k]ness and disease which, under capitalism, will always sublimate into a power differential.
And I am asking all of these questions on the rim of suicide, or as I rim suicide, and perhaps the only answer, or the only answerer, is suicide, is the hole. So I’m wondering what can you really say about the thing from outside it? If you’re always foreign to that thing, that thing being death....
JRH: Unless — you are a resident of death, a long-term resident of death. In which case you see dying as much a process of living as birth. I also have to question the hole. I could get into a whole thing about Blackness and black holes and the event horizon... to stand on the edge of suicide, right? And I don’t know if it’s a literal suicide, or if it’s an ego death: if it’s the death of the self that you thought you could persist with until you recognized that the fascism is too great. You bring that up as well. You realize the self you’d assembled functions only to destroy, and instead of engaging in a mass destruction you destroy that self, so that you can be reborn. Not necessarily as a savior, because I don’t think we really need that dichotomy of the sinner and the saint — especially when we’re talking about disability. But to destroy a self that would have been complacent in wonton violence. And to use liberatory violence to disrupt complacency. How do you think of your own work as a battle cry — if it is — for maybe the rising complacency in literature… what we see as what we want to be easy, as categorizable, what we want to be just niche enough, niche enough to be chosen… and this comes back to being chosen.
DS: I think there is definitely an economic and cultural pressure to cite... everything you own, everything you desire. Citation as desire as consumption. Petero [Kalulé] has talked a lot about this, as has Vqueeram [Aditya Sahai]. If citation is a practice of desiring, then we must abolish desire if we are to upend this whole thing, this whole thing being capitalism et al. So I’d say the closest I really get to an articulable battle cry of sorts is my placement of fascism next to desire, and desire next to stupidity: “It is perhaps stupid not to desire… fascism_the force of beauty_all the time.” I think it forces people to confront, a), ableist attitudes towards stupidity, and b), these oftentimes fascistic, or at least fascizoidic, tendencies to tolerate desire, or the instances when desire flows parallel to fascism.
And when I say fascism is the force of beauty all the time, I am being literal in the sense that I am thinking about Mariah Carey, and this fascistic ideal of beauty as precious, as always, as needing to obfuscate or deny the mirror. Because the thing about Mariah is that no one denies that she looks sometimes beautiful, or that she sounds sometimes beautiful. The criticism comes in when this misogynistic and antiBlack ideal of beauty as always gets leveraged... like, “Oh she can hit the note that time, but…” or, “Oh, she can hit the angle in that particular selfie, but…” as if that rise and fall is more offensive than having never risen to the occasion of beauty to begin with.
JRH: Your focus on “but” reminds me very much of — my very close friend E once said, “‘but’ is the anti-semicolon.” I have sat with that phrase for a long time. I bring it up now because fascism doesn’t want the semicolon. The punctuation of fascism does not allow, the grammar of fascism does not allow, for collision. It requires continuity, an easy, legible, continuity; so that people will know to feel. Does [hole]play, for you, undermine these fascizoidic tendencies? When one is playing, does it disrupt the geometry of a fascism?
DS: I particularly like what you said about the geometry of fascism, as opposed to play — because where fascism draws a straight line, play does this (makes a wiggling motion in the air). I don’t even know how we’d transcribe that (laughs).
JRH: When you say your writing is for and to, or from and by… I’m curious about your thoughts on with-ness, or the possibility of a writing-with. Maybe it’s not a “from” or a “to” or a “for” or a “by” but a “with.” And you even bring up a chorus towards the end. Do you think this text is with you?
DS: This book is composed of my memories, so I’d love to tell you we are with each other, neither one of us in possession of the other. Which reminds me of what it means to ghost, or host, or be [g]hosted. I’d love to say that I do not “host” my virus, that we simply live [with] each other.
JRH: Ok, so, there’s a global pandemic right now. This is not the first pandemic that’s ever happened. It’s not the first airborne pandemic. It’s not the first pandemic that affects the lungs. It’s not even the first pandemic that looks like the flu. What convenience is replacing our capacity to remember?
DS: I think part of it is what you were saying about world time, which is always going to be eurocentric and anthropocentric and present-centric. Like this idea of the “unprecedented” that we can’t seem to shake no matter how many precedents we point to.
JRH: So the whole point of ableism/disableism discourse is to potentially reorient, resignify, recommunicate, or perhaps communicate for the first time, what it means to be a corporeal self. But the thing is, there’s a lot of discussion about diagnosis. What does it mean to be diagnosed, what access comes with diagnosis. What do you think about pathology?
DS: Lunacy was one of my big fixations writing the book. And one of the things I found freeing about the category of the lunatic as a pathology — and it’s still used in a pathological sense, but not so clinically — is that I think the juridical verdict of whether you qualify for madness or insanity or not is a far less interesting question than, put simply: does the moon (g)listen to you? To be a lunatic is to be moved by the moon. In that sense, water is very much a lunatic. Water is perhaps the first lunatic. And if you look into the history of lunacy as pathology, you’ll find it quite capacious and, for all its violence, generous in its inclusion not only of what we would now call afflictions of the mind but also those of the body or the spirit. Hauntings, possessions, seizures, migraines, mood swings... all of that was blamed, sort of astrologically, on the moon.
JRH: And lunacy speaks so much to what was addressed earlier, in terms of the sky and the ocean. It is the pull. It is the thing that gives us our waves, that gives us the crash we long to hear. Or the feel of water on our feet. And that is not something that one can qualify for. That’s literally being a person on a planet (laughs).
DS: That push-pull between moon and water is everything. One of the reasons it was so necessary for me to place that poem about Nina Simone towards the center of the book, is because of what she does vocally at the end of that song, “22nd Century,” which I can only describe as babble. “Babble” being what the river does, what the fool does, what the child does. The word actually derives from an imitation of children’s speech… “ba, ba, ba”... and so the association of disabled people with children, you know, you sound like a child. I think that as the song builds, Nina starts to sound like water in the most beautiful way.
JRH: Do you think that, as poets, that may be one of our goals? To try our best to enmesh with the natural? Is that something you seek to do?
DS: I certainly try. I mean, another definition of babble is “to reveal by talk that is too free.”
JRH: To reveal… by talk… that is… to free. To as in t-o or t-o-o?
DS: T-o-o. But it could be both. Talk that is...
JRH: To free, yeah.
DS: No, exactly. It’s both. Colloquially, I think it means to be a big gossip. And gossip has its own negative connotations. Gossip is its own technology… it’s an anti-fascist technology, right?
DS: Probably a way better and more efficient one than poetry.
JRH: (Laughs). Damn. But deadass, gossip is an anti-fascist technology. By definition, gossip is... not relying on the qualified truth. Gossip is birds, you feel me?
JRH: Like when I go outside, and I see birds on the tree, they chilling, and they (animatedly) pop pop, pop pop, peep peep (laughs).
DS: No, but literally, (laughs) and they know!
JRH: And they know! It doesn’t matter if anyone hears. And they scuffle. Birds encounter scuffles all the time. Birds are always getting into it.
DS: They’re messy.
JRH: Exactly, they’re messy. Like, pigeons? They have beefs, they have romances, they have everything —
DS: More epic lives than we’ll ever hope to know —
JRH: Ever. Or streetcats, you know? My mother has taken to feeding a bunch of streetcats, and she was feeding one cat, and then suddenly, two, three cats show up, and you’re wondering, Where did these other cats come from? And maybe, it was the transmission of gossip, right? That said: Hey, I got fed over here today. There may be some food for you.
We do often position gossip as something that is less than noble. Something that is akin to sin, that is akin to jealousy.
DS: But gossip is often the very antithesis of jealousy, in that it’s the whisper network, right, it’s collective survival, it’s mutual assistance, although I hate that term, “mutual aid.”
JRH: And while we’re talking about gossip… let’s talk about the diva. What is that line? You know the line.
DS: “Pop music slash music tells us that / A Diva Always Gets Hurt.”
JRH: Talk about that.
DS: I think on one level it’s about victim-blaming, which is what happens when one is seen “as asking for it” by being too free, too much the diva, or too much the gossip.
I’m curious, what did you think of when you read those lines?
JRH: So I’ve been reading Mariah Carey’s memoir, and I’ve been reading it slowly, because I’m trying to feel her. I know she wrote it with someone else, and you can feel them too. But it’s a very painful book. She repeatedly talks about what is lost. What she loses, how she has to lose, and how the losing becomes dense from an early age. And then suddenly, her diva-ness… it doesn’t hold the same gravity as like, You are untouchable. It’s almost like, You were too touched. You were too touched.
DS: And I also like the other euphemistic sense of, like, you know, Oh, that child, she’s a bit touched.
JRH: Touched (laughing). Right.
DS: Because that’s probably what people said about her (laughs)… because she was, right? And that’s when we get to the fact that mania is —
DS: Mania is magic. And Mariah Carey is bipolar, she is manic. Sometimes. And when she’s written a lot of her greatest songs, she was. And she was also magic. She was both.
JRH: It also comes back to being chosen. You brought up why you hadn’t been chosen when you were telling the story of your father and how he got other people to witness the magic. I want to say that we are all always telekinetic. It’s just a matter of whether or not we want to accept that the atoms are moving. And again, coming back to oneness, coming back to the hole, coming back to the inversion, the rim, the rimjob, the edge of it. We’re already there. Do we partake in the manic magic of play — like yeah, it’s happening — or do we resist and only speak into the desire of wanting it to happen?
DS: I like that you use the word partake. Because I finally arrived at that word after spending a long time trying to figure out what exactly it is that the chorus does. I was thinking about the chorus in multiple senses: the tragic chorus in the play and the chorus in the pop song; the diva’s chorus, and what the diva’s chorus does to honor and repeat the diva’s pain back to her — that babbling ba ba ba — because that’s why babies cry out, right? Their repetition is often from or about pain. When babies call out for their caretakers, repeating the same syllable, it is usually a sign of pain. So what is the point of pop music, of reopening and salting the wound again and again and again?
JRH: I find it interesting that you use the word salt — to salt the wound — because my association with pop is confection. My association with pop is sugar. It’s edibility. And so, to have the chorus, to have the repetition, to have the cycle, shows just how wide the plate is. And we constantly have this metaphor of like, (mockingly) Oh, do you have a seat at the table? Like, screw the table, do you have a plate that’s big enough for people to eat off of? And is the diva using their capaciousness to let others eat? Is the diva using the chorus to get others to eat in their pain, to eat of their experience. So the question is: how does the diva so miraculously sublimate? Like, what is the miracle? How does the diva always touch the miracle?
DS: I think through this so often, especially with my friend Zamaan. Obviously, we are both deeply aware of the practical economic problem that celebrity poses, but we’re also distrustful of how recent calls for the abolition of celebrity have been articulated, specifically, against the diva, with disregard for the miraculousness of that figure…
JRH: The diva specifically.
DS: So diva comes from Italian, and before that from Latin, and it literally means —
DS: Yeah. And there is always this frivolity that is associated with that kind of figure in culture, which people will say is all about wealth, but I don’t think it is ever totally just about wealth.
JRH: The diva is the capacity to conjure. But we don’t have many divas — prominent divas — left. And that’s because, to me, we live in a deeply repressive culture where we have situated atheism and being agnostic as these means to cut off our capacities for magic. And this resituates and reifies and upholds the Human, the Human Ability, the Human Capacity — so that we never seek transcendence. And because we never seek it, we don’t perform it. So when Mariah hits those whistle tones, or when you hear the story of Whitney going to the studio and recording “I’m Your Baby Tonight” in one take because she wanted to go to the mall (laughing), like, I’m a Jersey girl, I just want to go to the mall... to then conjure, to get outside the Human, to say fuck the Human, I need to be in the exception. And not the exception for a hashtaggable reason, but I need to be in the exception because I need to reroute my time, I’m trying to disrupt time to go to another time.
DS: Yes! No, precisely. And even just talking about the chorus… I remember reading that the chorus is able to sustain itself for “inhuman” or “unnatural” amounts of time because one person drops out and another fills in for them. So that, in and of itself, sort of counters the humanistic, ableist idea that the one person must have the beauty always, and must get there, always. Because even Whitney, even Mariah, even Nina deferred to the breaths of their background singers, and invited them into the foreground. It just was not “humanly” possible without the chorus.
JRH: And the thing about possibility is that what they sought to do was the impossible. Meaning that they had to reroute the possible to get to it. But we have the capacity to conjure magic always. Not even to make it. Magic is always there. Like when you write (be)come. It’s a (be)come. Be is in parentheses and then come. And that the being-state is and it is fixed and eternal and exploding and collapsing — it’s everything. And it’s about what is your relation to coming to it. Like do you want to come to be or nah?
DS: Maybe that’s what the river invites us to do as well. To come to being. Because you’re right: magic keeps being here. “Water / Keeps / Being / Here.” ◾