I: Individual Collectivities
Karla Kelsey: Each of the eleven books that you’ve published is utterly its own, unique entity that observes and reinvents relationship to genre. Each book sits squarely in its room of the archive while at the same time teasing out nuances and transcending boundaries until—voila!—the floorplan has opened. For example Loudermilk, your novel set in an MFA program in Iowa, not only invites us into the trials and tribulations of your young aspiring writer-characters but also includes some of the poems and stretches of prose that they write. When I imagine you at work I imagine you sit before the entire Western (and some of the non-Western) archive of literature. As you write you rearrange the walls and the furniture.
Added to this are your editorial projects, most recently The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had To Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, which collects this extraordinary poet-artist-philosopher’s transdisciplinary writing. You end the book’s introductory essay with the following thought on the undervaluing of poetry, which has stayed with me for months: “Poetry may be writing, of course, but it is not necessarily that; it is also image, performance, gesture, song, social life, gossip, furniture, food, shelter, dance, research, email, garments. This is not to say that poetry has no determined or identifiable form, but that it suffers when it is confined to a stanza. It may well need all the room of a novel, if not the room of an actual room. Madeline Gins is the one who taught me that.”
How has working with Gins’s archive shifted or solidified your sense of genre—shifted and solidified not only what might belong in what genre, but also the usefulness of the concept of genre for the creative practitioner?
Lucy Ives: Thank you for this question. I wrote in a recent review of a collection of writings by the artist Moyra Davey,
...there is a certain “magic circle” drawn around the authors Davey prefers. “Magic circle” is a phrase that the critic Walter Benjamin applied to the act of creating a collection, and with it he implies at once the synthetic quality of collections and the collector’s selectivity, according these a mildly occult valence via his chosen metaphor. The collector is a creator not just of piles of stuff, but of categories, genres. And with new genres come new aesthetic possibilities.
In my opinion, genre is a way of speaking about conventions of reading and looking, where you sit or stand and whether you’re allowed to talk to other people or move around while you’re communing with an object or text. By combining different or new sorts of things into a given work, the author of that work is suggesting different affects and behaviors to the reader or viewer. Gins, for one, was very good at this sort of thing. I think that this is part of why it’s taken us such a long time to really be able to “read” some of her unpublished work from the late 1960s and 1970s, because the habits and behaviors of mind and body suggested by her writing from this time are really more those of a more densely mediated, projective society (a society like our own), a society to come.
However, as much as I am able to observe what Gins does here, in this writing from her archive, and as much as I’ve learned that this sort of thing is possible (and I marvel at it!), I’m not sure I partake of the same logic in my own work. I am primarily interested in writing speculative texts that are expressly very difficult to write, because of the sorts of mimetic skills they require. I’m interested in teaching myself to imitate different genres of writing—that are not, strictly speaking, important or canonical. For example, for Loudermilk, I taught myself to write a style of poem that would have been written in an academic workshop setting in the U.S. circa 2004. It’s not exactly significant that I was alive at this time and also hanging around these contexts; I didn’t want to write a poem that *I* would have written at this time, in this place. I wanted to write a poem (“the” poem) that would have been written by a young man in his early twenties, in this time and place. So I made some studies and sketches, and I developed a technique to write as this person, writing at this time. It’s a projective exercise. In my novel Impossible Views of the World, I did the same for a minor novelist of the nineteenth century in the U.S., and I also created various other documents written by other people at other historical moments.
As stated, I’m interested in very challenging kinds of writing—kinds of writing that are not precisely personally expressive and which are deeply informed by research, theories of material culture, as well as theories of affect and psychology. I don’t believe that I can or should attempt to counterfeit every kind of writing or every point of view; my choices are specific and have to do with a style of historical learning that interests me at a given point in time. A more recent example of this sort of work is a short story included in my forthcoming collection, Cosmogony, which is written in the style of a Wikipedia entry for the word, “guy.” It’s a strange and synthetic point of view, the “objective” or algorithmic tone of these entries, mixed with the voice of a person who’s struggling to compose this entry, along with themself.
II: Collective Entries
Extended versions of these original questions can be found here.
The Call of the Object: Have you experienced a “call” from an archival object or text that led you down the path of response?
Lucy Ives: I’m not sure that I have ever experienced such a “call.” I am of the opinion that the work I have done with archives (in New York University’s Fales Archive and in Butler at Columbia, at historical societies on the East Coast, and in online databases) is usually about a style of gaze that’s coming from within me. I don’t understand my motivations fully, and so much of my work is about attempting to come to grips with those motivations, which I take to be historical as well as personal in nature.
Karla Kelsey: If you never have received such a call what is your process for engaging historical material like?
Lucy Ives: I follow my own interest. And then I attempt to analyze that interest.
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Archival Work: What is one of the most powerful experiences that you have had as you’ve engaged an overlooked or silenced element of the archive?
Lucy Ives: I don’t think I have any stories of triumph. My primary experiences with overlooked authors and/or texts are of observing as work I have discussed in an essay or published in some other context is treated as (here, paradoxically) “overlooked” wherever it circulates. I assume that over time, these authors and works will shed this label, which I take to be a symptom of so-called attention economies of our time. I don’t do much that I do, whether in my own speculative writing or in the criticism and semi-scholarly work I produce, with the thought that it will command a major readership in the present or be truly discovered or uncovered. I do wonder what that would mean, anyway. This said, I often find that, in a personal sense, little-read writing holds a kind of normalcy to me. It often feels like messages from the world I want or meant to live in, a bit like recovering a long-lost memory.
Preservation and Access: If you could create any kind of archive you wanted, anywhere in the world, to house any kind of materials, what would you create?
Lucy Ives: Many years ago I went to a photography museum in Amsterdam called the Huis Marseille. I think I was twenty-three years old at the time. The museum has a small and very comfortable library of photobooks and is entirely at the disposal of visitors for browsing. There is a table and seating and a window that overlooks a garden. I don’t have the expertise I believe is necessary for outlining what an ideal archive would be, from a more technical point of view. However, I do have strong feelings in relation to libraries that are free and available to all visitors and have good places to sit. These are the spaces that have given me my education and my life. I have never forgotten those two days I happened to spend at the Huis Marseille, teaching myself about contemporary photography and all it encompassed—an activity entirely unforeseen and unplanned. Nor can I forget what I learned from the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, where I learned most of what I know about contemporary writing as an undergraduate. It is probably a lesser-known fact that Dartmouth, forty minutes’ drive from where I currently live, has an open-stacks library that is free and open to anyone who chooses to walk in. For about $100 you can purchase borrowing privileges for a year—but you needn’t do this if you simply want to look at books while you are there. To my mind, analog materials and open-stacks policies can promote freedom of information and experience in ways that we would do well to consider now. No one tracks me as I pull a random book from the shelf and take it away to a corner. If I had unlimited funds and powers, I would create a free and open library. I used to think that I would create a school, but, sadly, I’ve learned my lesson there.
III: Exchange Question
Ashley Lamb: The artist, writer and illustrator Maira Kalman created an archive of her mother’s all-white wardrobe and accessories after she passed, with the aid of Kalman’s son, Alexander. The installation was called “Sara Berman’s Closet,” and was exhibited in the MET’s period room, in conversation with other meticulously curated domestic spaces from the 1800’s.
Think of someone who has had a profound influence on your own life, living or otherwise. This can be a person who you have known intimately, or a person who you have been in relation to in some way but have perhaps never met. If you were to make an archive in their honor (or to shame them), what would it look like, and where would it be displayed? This question can be answered through language, by drawing, a song, etc.
Lucy Ives: I think that the best way I can answer this question (having been to Sara Berman’s closet on several occasions!) is to point to my two recent novels, Impossible Views of the World and Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World, in which I am at pains to create archives of institutional experience—indeed, I am drawn to the use of the verb “shame” in this prompt. Part of the usefulness of speculative writing (if, indeed, it really needs to be useful) inheres in its ability to embody forms of experience that do not make it into traditional archives; in this sense, it’s a bit like the installation in question here. Although I never set out to shock anyone, it has been interesting to me to see the ways in which readers have responded to my choice to “hand it to” (as a friend wrote to me) a large institution, a family member, and an academic program I may have attended, via these two fictions. Yet, what I believed (fallibly, to be sure!) I was doing in composing these books was talking about aspects of experience it seemed to me that no one cared much about. My main goal was simply to record these feelings and experiences for posterity.
Lucy Ives is the author of two novels: Impossible Views of the World (2017) and Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World (2019). Her essays and stories have appeared in Art in America, Artforum, The Baffler, The Believer, The Chronicle of Higher Education, frieze, Granta, Lapham’s Quarterly, and Vogue, among other publications. In 2020, Siglio Press published The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, a selection of Gins’s poetry and prose, edited and with an introduction by Ives; a collection of Ives’s short stories is forthcoming in early 2021.