I Feel Fine: A Conversation with Olivia Muenz & excerpt —curated by Christopher Salerno

Olivia Muenz is the author of poetry collection I Feel Fine (Switchback Books, 2023), which won the 2022 Gatewood Prize, and chapbook Where Was I Again (Essay Press, 2022). She received a BA from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University, where she received the Robert Penn Warren Thesis Award in prose and served as an editor forNew Delta Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, The Missouri Review, Poetry Daily, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Conduit, Black Warrior Review, Pleaides, Massachusetts Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her writing has been supported by the Tin House Summer Workshop, Zoeglossia, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and New York Foundation for the Arts. She currently serves as Music Column Editor for ANMLY. Find her online at oliviamuenz.com.

Christopher Salerno: The poems of “I Feel Fine” call attention to ideas of “embodiment” and “functionality” (of the sentence, of the poem, of the book, of the self, and of the body). What led you to write this book?

Olivia Muenz: Most of the time, I can’t sustain thought long enough to write. I’m not only neurodivergent, but also have intense cognitive fatigue, so I write pretty infrequently. My great fear as I was applying to MFA programs was that I wouldn’t be able to become a writer not from a lack of commitment or time but because of my body. After the first year in my program, my greatest fear seemed to be coming true—I wrote nothing outside of assignments the entire year. I left my summer free of commitments so I could write as much as I could, but right as the spring semester ended, I became bedridden, which lasted for a month or two. Realizing I was waiting for conditions that may never come, I decided to try to write anyway. Through that, I realized I’d been endlessly accommodating of my body’s physical needs, but when it came to my brain, I wasn’t accommodating. I was trying to make it write neurotypically. I gave up order-making and sensemaking and let my brain write whatever and however it wanted to write. And this is what it did. There wasn’t much active choice in what I was doing, outside of deciding to use the period as the only punctuation mark. I’m chronically interested in total representation, so I think here I really wanted to replicate a highly fatigued, neurodivergent brain. I wanted to remove the filter and the effort I put in to making myself sensical in my day-to-day life and let my brain exist as it is. So there must’ve been a reclamation impulse here too—to resist the able-bodied gaze, the neurotypical gaze, just by virtue of existing as I am.

CS: I’m intrigued by your table of contents, which can also be read as a poem: “I’m here / but not / or am I / let’s see.” What came first, the table of contents or the book? And do you see a narrative through-line to this collection?

OM: The book! I started with the first section as a refrain of “here” and once it felt like that section was complete, I decided to continue with another refrain, “but.” I think I titled the first section first, “I’m here,” as a play on the refrain, and followed suit with the next section. The titles to me felt like an encapsulation of the refrains, which also dictate the general tone of each section. “Here” is very declarative and commanding, so I went with the declaration “I’m here.” “But” is a kind of negation, which for me is often a “looking to the dark side” as my dad would say, so “But not” felt right. As I continued writing the latter two sections, I started to consider them in terms of the four humors. In my notes, I have “I’m here” as choleric, “But not” as melancholic, “Or am I” as phlegmatic, and “Let’s see” as sanguine. I’d wanted to incorporate the four humors more directly, respond to them, engage with them, but it didn’t feel like the right direction as I continued writing it, so they remained very loose inspirations for the tone of each section. I wasn’t telling a story so much as a feeling, so I wanted there to be some kind of vague emotional narrative arc. “Or” has a really nice sense of possibility and uncertainty, which influenced the title of the third section: “Or am I.” And “Let” has an obvious allowance to it, a sense of acceptance and possibility and maybe even an optimism, so “Let’s see” fit well. And of course I did intentionally write the titles to add up to one long line. It’s some compulsive puzzle-solving thing I have more than anything. I think it’s a little absurd, almost camp-y, so I don’t know if it’s something I’m even doing earnestly or not. But I do like to echo a lot, knot things together. There are lots of words, images, that reappear in different sections. Refrains from one section that appear mid-stanza in another section. And all that is I think part of my rejection of linearity and leaning into the cyclical and referential.

CS: The poems are often so dynamic tonally. It’s one of my favorite aspects of this book. I love how, quite often, a bit of familiar rhetoric will come by and shift the wind (of the poem/moment) completely. Do you see a tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar in the book? Between, perhaps, parts of familiar language operating within unfamiliar constructions, structures, or forms?

OM: Definitely. I’ve always liked to play with idioms, colloquialisms, and forms. Some of my earliest experiments with this in writing happened online. I’ve always engaged with the internet—especially social media—satirically. When I was 12, I would satirize away messages on AIM. When I was 15, I would satirize Facebook statuses. The fun part of being unable to stop yourself from satirizing everything is that the boundary between satire and sincerity becomes very nebulous. What starts as a joke often becomes earnest. I’ve found all that now shows up in my writing and forces tensions to coexist. 

I think I’ve always been drawn to idioms because it’s one of the ways we engage with the figurative in our everyday life. And so I’ve always found a lot of possibility in defamiliarizing the context or situation of idioms, which I extended to tone in I Feel Fine. It creates a real instability. I like the phrase you used, shift the wind. It’s certainly a play—and by that I mean both playfulness and a show. And I think this is where the parts of my disability come together—being neurodivergent, mad, physically impaired—and become both real and performative, satirical and sincere. When the voice shifts abruptly from aggressive to demure, are both expressions real? Which version is the real “I”? It creates a lot of contradiction and doubt, both for the reader and the speaker. And that reveals two things that seem in contradiction. In one way, it exposes the self-doubt of the speaker who’s at the mercy of their own ever-changing moods and conditions, which makes the reader distrust the speaker. In another way, it feels like the speaker is in control of the tonal shifts. Maybe they’re reclaiming their inconsistencies by performing them or maybe it’s an earnest expression. Either way, it’s startling, unpredictable. There’s an overarching sense of command of the speaker, which the reader is being subjected to. The speaker becomes both familiar and decipherable and unfamiliar and indecipherable. This is all a long way to say I owe a lot to Dadaism.

CS: Rhythm and fragmentation are obviously central elements in I Feel Fine. How does it feel to give a reading from these poems?

OM: I love reading from this book. People respond really well to it, which has been surprising. Something I noticed recently is that my writing is extremely integrated with performance. Both of my parents were on Broadway, so I was immersed in theater and performance my whole life. A lot of my childhood was spent on tour with my dad, in green rooms or in wings, in high school auditoriums watching my mom direct musicals. I’ve been thinking about how these early childhood creative forces formed who I am creatively today. I think about language development and the easy possibility of fluency when learning language at a young age. And I think about these creative areas like music and performance as languages that I became fluent in when I was very young. I haven’t really thought about any of this until I started reading from this book. But I realized I think in voice, in character, and so I write with a very clear speaker that I can hear. And so I naturally read in whatever way I hear the speaker. The voice in this book is very deadpan and I read it like I’m Siri—that strange blend of the natural and the technical. That’s a lot of what my disability is, being a cyborg. The voice I use to read these poems turned into something that’s very performative, while really being an augmented version of myself. I’m very monotone, very unenthused, so it’s fun to lean into that. It’s the closest I’ll get to doing stand-up.

CS: Philosophically, I FEEL FINE reads like an investigation of language. As you mention earlier, defamiliarization and decontextualization (of language, rhetoric, idioms) play a big part in that investigation. This poem, which appears late in book, features a speaker perhaps needing a break, perhaps ready to give it all over to fate, luck, superstition as a way “out of this mess.” Can you talk about this or any other moment in the book that captures the essence of I FEEL FINE?

Let’s give it a rest. It’s feeling like a death. Wish. I’m looking. For
eye lashes to blow around town. I’m collecting ladders. To run
circles around.

Let’s put our thinking caps on. Remember the list. Put them in
groups. Get all their bits. Will you piece them back together.
Will you let them all fall down.

Let go of it. I am stupefying. My way out of this mess. If I just
keep. Jimmying my leg long enough. If I just keep writing. Like
this. If I just keep it all. Where it should be.

OM: This excerpt is a great encapsulation of the general tone or perspective or identity of the last section. It adds some important nuance to the way I described it earlier (“Let” has an obvious allowance to it, a sense of acceptance and possibility and maybe even an optimism). While it’s definitely the most optimistic of the four sections, it’s not a pure kind of optimism. It’s maybe an anxious and reluctant optimism. There’s possibly a relationship to Richard Kearney’s Anatheism: Returning to God After God. Like going through the black hole of suffering out to the other side. Or I guess more simply resurrection, which requires a transfiguration of some kind. In chronic illness, there’s a real monotony not only to the daily life of physically feeling ill or being bedridden, but also of the emotional feelings that come with it. After a while, you belabor those feelings to death. Eventually, you’ve almost exhausted those negative feelings that at first feel like they need solving. And you get a little sick of yourself too, in illness, but also as a writer belaboring everything. 

Now that it’s been four or five years since I wrote this book, I also better understand the circumstances in which I wrote it. At the time, I had only been diagnosed with my illness—my umbrella diagnosis—for a year. It took me ten years of active searching to be diagnosed. In those ten years, I was so hyper-focused on getting a diagnosis, and put so much into the possibility that would be offered by it, that when I was finally diagnosed and not much had changed, even my relationship to uncertainty, I first felt deeply pessimistic. I’d lost the only hope I had in feeling better and having a fuller life. But after a while—what are you going to do? You either give up or go on trying. So I think without realizing it this book replicates the process of reckoning with uncertainty and loss and so on. But still its attempt at finality is unstable. The books ends with a kind of plea: “Toss me the ball. Take me to the game. Send me on home. Call me safe.” Even in these commands, there’s a dependency on the other for safety and certainty. And the commands are strangely out of order—is the speaker running the bases or playing the field? Even at the end, the speaker doesn’t know quite what they’re doing or where they’re going, but they try to will their own shaky sense of finality. 

CS: What are you reading now or lately that has moved you?

OM: I’ve been telling every writer I see to read Concealed Words by Sin Yong Mok, translated by Brother Anthony, which was published by Black Ocean this year. I won’t shut up about it. It’s somehow both incredibly dense and light. I guess the right word is rich, but that feels too simple. I read the book so slowly because I felt like I had to take a seat on each line. It’s not the same style, but the feeling of reading it reminded me of how I feel reading Lydia Davis and Amy Hempel. Just knocked over by the power of the line. His ability to conflate the body and language, the world and language, is so masterful. I can only imagine how difficult this was to translate. And Brother Anthony got it. I don’t speak Korean so I can’t say exactly how, but I can tell that he got it.

CS: What’s next for Olivia Muenz?

OM: I’m working on a lyric memoir on my decade-long search for a diagnosis. Though there’s personal narrative, particularly moving through my medical records and my ancestral documents dating back to 1609 colonial America, there’s a lot of auto-theory—theories of the archive, translation, postcolonialism, Marxism, disability (of course), and aestheticism. I use the history of gendered disability, especially hysteria, to trace the development of our current healthcare system and the medical neglect I experienced pursuing diagnosis. Ideally I’ll move beyond an illness narrative by engaging with the existentialism that being disabled invites. I’m also trying to finish my second poetry collection, which is a much more loosely connected collection of poems on disability. And in the meantime, I’m hoping to publish a micro-chap of fruit haiku puns.