“A Poetics of Relation”: A Conversation with Eleni Sikelianos – curated by Mary-Kim Arnold

Hear Eleni Sikelianos read from Tooth to Bite

Mary-Kim Arnold: I thought we could start by talking generally about the book, what inspired it, how it came to be?

Eleni Sikelianos: It was ignited at the Scientific Delirium Madness Residency at Djerassi, which is a month devoted to artists influenced by science and scientists influenced by art. I was taking a lot of hikes with other residents, in particular Allison Cobb, who wrote Plastic: An Autobiography, and a cognitive scientist, Deborah Forster. 

It was fantastic to hang out with Deborah because she would spend all this time just looking at things. And it was banana slug mating season. Maybe it always is, I don’t know <laughs>.  We’d go on these hikes and she would just lie on the ground and watch banana slugs for like an hour and talk about their mating processes, their elaborate mating dances, nipping each other’s genitals and slapping at each other with their tails. 

It was wonderful to have that kind of dedicated observation modeled. I was very briefly a biology student at Santa Barbara City College. I abandoned it for writing, but that was one of the things I loved — just being outside and watching other life forms. 

I was walking by myself one of those days and there were a couple of salamanders lumbering up a log, and this whole memory from my zoology class, which I loved, flooded in, and I started thinking about all the bodily structures that other animals invented that we benefited from. So yeah, shoulder girdles, hip girdles being salamanders’ invention, <laugh>, and I felt it physically and that moment unfurled into this work. 

At the residency, I made some collages with writing on them. When I feel stuck or uncertain, or am trying to figure something out in writing, I often turn to some kind of visual meditation. And then, it was seven years of research, writing, expansion, compression, and reading a lot.

MKA: Seven years! So you were writing this while you were working on other things. How did this book fit into the other books you were working on? 

ES:  I always work on a few things at once. That’s just how my attention is most fruitful. It took me a really long time to realize that I’m a restless person, and then once I realized it, I saw how it’s a part of my poetics. 

MKA: One of the reasons I’m curious about the projects you were working on during this time was that in reading Your Kingdom, I had this wonderful moment of feeling like, oh, I understand where this sort of fits. Because it felt to me, from what I know of your work, like this book was expanding the scope of your past work, your study of lineage and history,  and I’d love to hear whether that feels true to you and how you think about it. 

ES: Absolutely. Mary-Kim, I love that you identified that, because it took me a long time to see it. And in fact in this third family history that I’m working on now, I have a sentence, something like, “I want to know just as much about my other ancestors, the bacteria and fishes and how I descend from them, but for now I’m here with my great grandmother.” And it really does feel like the same inquiry and the same sense of who, who are our deep living — and I’m just, I’m gonna say people in a really broad sense — because our people could be salamanders too. 

One of the things that I’m thinking through in [Your Kingdom] is a poetics of relation. In what ways are these lineages made manifest? I’m thinking here about Glissant’s notion of colonial or patriarchal obsession with filiation, and I’m thinking through how to explore and reveal these lineages in a way that’s mycelial, I guess. 

So much modern scientific knowledge came to us literally through disconnecting things — examining an animal out of its context, snipping some neurons in a mouse’s brain, cutting into a monkey’s skull. How can that be a study of relation?  I mean, when we’re looking at the field of science and what’s come down to us and how — even just the motion of a hand with a scalpel in it — that disconnects rather than connects things.

MKA: You’re bringing together all of these ways of knowing and different kinds of knowledge. We associate knowledge with certainty, but what I think your work suggests is a more dynamic relationship between knowing and certainty. 

ES: I think it’s one of the downfalls of scientific inquiry, this notion that things have to be provable, separatable, that affective or sensory knowledge is separate from that. In a funny way, the more that I meditated on our connections with other beings — provable connections, genetically — the more it allowed me to be in the uncertainty of our moment in a less anxious way. Because we’re fucked, right? 


We know we’re fucked planetarily, but thinking about all these deep, deep connections from the get-go, I mean, it’s all the same fabric, from the first chemical reactions to now. This notion that’s really hard for us to shake, even if we’ve been meditating on connection our whole lives, that we’re the center of the world, that human beings are the center of the world.It’s somehow comforting to de-center that, maybe because we’ve relieved ourselves of a cultural lie, and also because it helps us feel that even if we go, something’s gonna remain, even if it’s the atoms from the era when atoms first started to kiss. Those aren’t gonna go away, right? 

MKA: Right. 

ES: I wanted to mention, for a sec, one of the important touchstones for me in writing the book, which was thinking about this moment that happens in almost every philosophical or scientific text of the 19th and 20th century, probably earlier too. Which is this obsession with what distinguishes us, you know, the place that divides us from the other animals. And it’s always a different answer. In one text, it’s higher reasoning, in another it’s language, in one text it’s having emotions, or having a psychology, a consciousness, or being able to use tools. Even the ability to feel pain. As in, humans feel pain but lobsters don’t. Each of these has been debunked. And so, you know, why do we have to think about it in terms of what the border is? 

This is in the book, I guess: that allows us to extract, right? Resource, life force, animal, human, oil, whatever it is. If it’s not human, or not the “right” kind of human, it’s a resource. And so, you know, what if we actually just turn that question around as a way of being? Let’s examine all the ways we’re connected instead.

MKA: You just made me think also about bringing humor and playfulness. When I saw you read, you made this gesture, the movement of your shoulder to demonstrate what we owe our salamander relatives, seeing you do that and laugh,  it allows a different type of engagement, as an audience member, to be possible. I know that’s not really a question, but. 

ES: No, I love that. Because sometimes when I’m giving a reading, I feel like people don’t understand that some of this is funny, too <laugh>.  

I was just in Detroit helping my mom, she’s almost immobile. She wanted, she desperately wanted, to take a bath, which she hadn’t done in at least a year, and because I was there, she thought she’d try it. It took her like 40 minutes to get in. I kept saying, is this a good idea? But she went ahead. So I scrubbed her up, I pumiced her feet. But then she couldn’t get out. She was stuck in the bathtub <laugh>. So I spent, I dunno, like two hours trying to get her out. She was moaning and crying. But then she was also laughing, saying things like, “I’m not stuck here. I’m just relaxing”  <laugh>. Humor was definitely in my upbringing. I grew up in fairly precarious circumstances, on food stamps and in Section 8 housing. Laughing was a way of managing the situation. 

Then I was living in New York and working at the Poetry Project, stepping into understanding something about the New York School by being in that city, the sense of lightness and humor, turning on a dime, being able to pivot from one register to the next. Like how amazing Frank O’Hara can be, you know? There’s all this death happening, but then you’re buying a bottle of spirits to take to your friends. That sense of pivot, the possibility for quick change is really important to me. And I think that probably comes back to a certain kind of restlessness, but it’s also a commitment to not getting stuck in one emotional register. To life and poetry and thought as improvisation. The registers are all available to us at all times, right? 

That might also be about not getting too attached to your own emotions or story. But it also makes me think about how evolution is an improvisation too, how living, for an animal or plant, is an improvisation.

I’m thinking about how important play is to other animals, too. Other animals tell jokes, you know? The gorilla Koko tied her trainer’s shoelaces together and signed “chase.” Foxes, felines — they all play wrestle. Play is such an important way of learning. Of connection too. 

MKA: Did you have a favorite part of the book in writing it?

ES: The opening pages of the title poem still feel important to me, and I love reading aloud from that. I see in it some of the things I was trying to accomplish — accomplish in a very loose sense. 

I only recognized later the way that Niedecker, who was such a big influence for me, is present in that opening “flagella and feathers and fingers.” That’s so indebted to her!  It’s like  the DNA of “Paean to Place,” actually. You know, “fish fowl, flood water lily, mud.” It’s like, oh, I even have her f’s!  

An earlier iteration of this poem is up on the Poetry Foundation website and it’s all left margin justified. That has not been my go-to mode in general. But then for a couple of years, weirdly, I think after writing the hybrid family works and trying to write in sentences, it brought me to the left margin, like I forgot how to use the page with ease. But the left margin was so not right for this poem, so I had to figure out what the placement was. That was a really long process. I realized I was trying to figure out a genetic, like a DNA structure for it. How could the language or the form hint at DNA unzipping, replicating, making mistakes, or creating more than one meaning? Like the way opsins have been used for light-sensing in many different kinds of animals, or the code for where to put toes is used by so many of us. There’s a kind of double helix thing happening at points. The enjambments with big gaps between them felt to me like genetic mutation leaks or continuations of lineage in a sense where it could, like, in this passage here: “you / had no nouns, did you,” which could end there, but  it picks up again, after a sizeable stanza break: “feel the gravitational sorting in the / pre-lung graphite.”  So I guess that opening section feels like it’s manifesting some of the processes in a way that I still feel connected to. Those still feel alive for me.

MKA: I wanted to ask you about the images. I found the one in “Tooth to Bite You” particularly arresting, but generally how were you thinking about placement, the distinction between the illustrations and diagrams? 

ES: I was actually trying not to use too many images, because I do work with images so much and this  just felt like a book where I wanted the language to be more central. But images work for me as part of meaning-making for sure, as they do for you in your book looking at your ancestry and lineage, Litany for the Long Moment

In “Tooth to Bite You,” part of what was happening is I couldn’t get the poem to work. I really wanted to say all these things, but it felt too direct, it just wasn’t doing something on some level. So I thought, what would happen if I tried to draw each of these things, and write the poem out by hand ? You know, it’s so easy to write the word “tooth,” but could I draw a tooth? That process helped me look in more detail at what a tooth, what a claw is, to see it or experience it again beyond the symbol of t-o-o-t-h. So that was the process of that. Then I scanned it, and started playing with overlaying typed and drawn language. 

There’s something Anne Carson once said to me, which is that drawing is clarifying for her. I think images, in these hybrid works, help us reach beyond the abstraction of language. They help both clarify and complicate language. It’s a process, for me, of making the language sensory on a different level.

There are some images in the book that point to the various histories of genetic or evolutionary trees. I’ve always loved those gorgeous images of trees of life. I was looking at this fantastic book, Trees of Life. It’s a visual history of evolution, tracing different ways people have tried to organize life into various systems. You know, the tree image, which we take for granted, has been disputed and argued with, especially by Lynn Margulis. The tree form, which Darwin adopted, contains a notion of hierarchy, and it has been used to try to make racist ideologies seem part of nature. Like, humans, or only some humans, are at the top of the tree or “higher” forms are at the tips of branches. Margulis said, it’s not a tree, it’s a net, with all kinds of exchanges in all kinds of directions.

The star-like image in the book is a collage adaptation of one of my favorite “trees” in that book. It’s a “quinarian view of affinities among crows” from 1854. And the little circular image designating section breaks in the long title poem is a circular phylogenetic tree.

Another image I could point to is the siphonophore — they’re just the coolest animals, and I wanted to have a picture, to give a visual sense of them. I find these colonial animals  utterly fascinating. Siphonophores are a single creature made up of a bunch of different individuals, or zooids. And they’re bioluminescent. I found this gorgeous picture by a diver named Merry Fortune (she wrote me, “Yes, that’s my real name,” even though I didn’t ask). That photo was taken near the Channel Islands off my hometown, so I liked that. I tried drawing a siphonophore to understand the complex structure, and there’s a remnant of that drawing in the book, too.

I wanted to include a Maria Sybilla Merian illustration, because they’re just so beautiful, and because she was one of the first women naturalist-artists.

MKA: I’d love to talk a little bit about the Deevolutionize section of the book, particularly that first poem, “Picture of, not a” and its use of negation. I kept thinking about this relationship to knowing and to knowledge, and the binary that scientific knowledge often sets up, like in order for X to be X, it can’t be Y, but of course, in naming the thing (e.g., “This is not a picture of a bird.”) the thing becomes present. Which is a longwinded way to ask you to speak more about how you were thinking about this relationship between what a thing is and what it isn’t, what might be denied or disavowed when something is claimed. 

ES: The word “deevolutionize” came to me as a way to suggest that some of these structures of thought could be undone, or redone, and also to mess with the notion of evolution as something that happens along the arrow of time, with humans as the pinnacle. It’s hard not to think that evolution runs in one direction. But evolution isn’t only about accumulation or growth, it’s also about losing things you don’t need, like hagfish who went down to the lightless depths and lost their eyes.  Whales and seals lost hands (or paws) and snakes lost legs. There are some things we could stand to lose! I wanted to meditate on the “revolution” in all that, too. So it is about multiplying the ways knowledge might work.

There’s a section in Anne Carson’s Economy of the Unlost that has really marked me, where she discusses the apophatic. The idea is, if you say “There is no smoke over Tyre,” you immediately see smoke over the city of Tyre (however you imagine that), and yet you also have the negative in your mind too. It is a form of Negative Capability, holding two opposing things that actually makes the whole larger than the parts. 

For sure in that poem, I’m indicating that age-old problem for poets, which is that the word is not the thing (even if I reject the notion of a totally arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified), but it’s not just the thing it indicates, either, and vice versa. So, “father” gains or loses an “e” and floats back and forth with “feather.” And what do we do with the very real problem that “a painted rice cake doesn’t satisfy hunger,” as Dogen tells us?

MKA: Amazing, I love that so much. By way of wrapping up, can I ask what you are working on now? When you finish a book, do you have any particular rituals or practices to mark its completion, or to turn attention to a different thing? 

ES: I am working on a third hybrid family history — I really need a better term for these — maybe you can help me come up with one, since you have written one, too? This one is trying to tease out my queer great grandmother and her possibly queer husband’s dream to save humanity by reviving the Delphic festivals. 

I wish I had a ritual to end things! But it feels more like the very slow process of turning a foot into a fin. Or developing eyes all over again.


Eleni Sikelianos, a native of California, is the author of two hybrid memoirs (The Book of Jon and You Animal Machine) and ten books of poetry, including Your Kingdom. As a translator, she has published Jacques Roubaud’s Exchanges on Light and Sabine Macher’s the L notebook. Her work, which frequently draws on biology resources, looks into the open from our deep animal past, seeking passage backwards and forwards in worlds and in times.  A graduate of the Jack Kerouac School, she is in the lineage of the avant-garde strains represented by her many teachers there, encompassing ecopoetics, investigative practices, and lyric and nonlyric approaches to human citizenship. For a decade, she worked as a poet in residence in homeless shelters, public schools, and prisons. Before coming to Brown, she taught at the University of Denver (where she founded and ran the Writers in the Schools program), and she remains on guest faculty for the Naropa Summer Writing Program. Committed to a cross-national notion of poetry, she is frequently invited to festivals and colloquia abroad.  Equally committed to an expanded notion of how poems can behave in social space, she has regularly collaborated with musicians, filmmakers and visual artists, including Philip Glass, Ed Bowes, Christine Lee, Roger Green, and Mel Chin. She has been the happy recipient of various awards for her poetry, nonfiction, and translations, including two National Endowment for the Arts Awards, a New York Foundation for the Arts Award, a Fulbright Senior Scholar fellowship, Seeger Fellowship, and a National Poetry Series selection. Books have been translated into French and Greek, and poems have been translated into over a dozen languages.