Sunday, December 07, 2008

Reject me! Fund me! Accept me!

This is my statement of interest for UCSD. It's not the best thing that I've ever written, but it does a pretty good job of describing my current creative interests.

Over the past two years, my writing has become increasingly interdisciplinary, borrowing from and integrating a variety of different genres and forms. With my first book coming out in March and several completed poetry manuscripts cluttering my desk, I am in a transitional moment. I am applying to the MFA program at UCSD to develop my creative work in a stimulating, interdisciplinary environment, participate in an expanded community of peers, and work closely with writers and scholars I respect. The MFA program at UCSD is of particular interest to me because it is one of the few programs in the country supportive of innovative and interdisciplinary approaches to literary art. I am also excited by the trans-cultural nature of the program.

I grew up mostly overseas in China, Papua New Guinea, Chile, and Mexico, and when I wasn’t overseas I lived in rural Maine, where many of my friends lived on communal farms. As an undergraduate, I studied Chinese and East Asian history and politics at George Washington University because I wanted to continue to travel in Asia, and I thought I wanted to be a journalist. Really, it was a way of concealing my interest in writing and making it seem professional and practical. During college, I spent between six and ten hours each week in various Chinese classes, and the rest of my courses were devoted to history, politics, and economics. I worked for various non-profit organizations during the school year, and spent most of my summers either Beijing or Singapore working, variously, as an English teacher, translator for a petrochemical company, and web designer.
After I graduated, I got a job working in the East Asian department of a non-partisan but mostly democratic public policy organization focused on international security. I spent a lot of time researching and explaining various plans for missile defense systems and going to meetings at the Pentagon where I would talk to Department of Defense bureaucrats about why the People’s Republic of China felt insulted and threatened by US plans for missile defense systems. These meetings typically took place in windowless internal offices decorated with artsy pictures of mushroom clouds, and I was usually the only woman in the room.

When I finally did start going to poetry readings and learning about contemporary poetry in English, I was drawn to the politically and socially engaged poetics of Language poets as well as writers affiliated with the Kootenay School of Writing. However, I was especially drawn to writers engaging issues of translation and gender.

Yunte Huang’s first book, Shi: A Radical Reading of Chinese Poetry, as well as his critical work on the “transpacific displacement” of cultural meanings through twentieth-century America's imaging of Asia, was pivotal to me. In particular, it helped me rethink the problems and pleasures of translation from Chinese to English. A Xu Bing exhibition at the Sackler Gallery in 2001 was also important to my critical thinking about translation—I love his scrolls printed with thousands of imitation Chinese characters.

One of the first larger projects I worked on after college was a procedural translation of several classical Chinese poems, which attempts to highlight—through form and process—my anxious relationship to the creation of a poetic text that can be read as a kind of ethnography that maintains linguistic and cultural boundaries, even as it tries to subvert them. The translations were procedural because, in addition to Yunte Huang and Xu Bing, I’d also been studying Jackson MacLow and John Cage. The final manuscript, Large Waves to Large Obstacles, is coming out as a chapbook from Take Home Project in 2009, with the original Chinese on one side and my procedural translation on the other.

While I was busy investigating translation and conceptual art, I was simultaneously reading a lot of Lyn Hejinian, Bernadette Mayer, and Kathy Acker. All of these writers challenged me to rethink the relationships between form, subjectivity, and materiality. These are the main concerns in my book, Terminal Humming, forthcoming from Edge Books in 2009.

While working on my MA in literature at Georgetown University, I continued to think about these concerns, but became particularly obsessed with the role of pain in the construction of subjectivity, and how the experience/articulation of suffering through sexual and romantic relationships comes to bear on representation and identification. I read Mayer and Acker within a continuum of writers who examine sexual relationships through experimental lyric and narrative forms as a way of highlighting material concerns, critiquing cultural representation, and renegotiating subjectivity. Working through the subject-subject oriented psychoanalytic theories of Jessica Benjamin and Elaine Scarry’s investigations into the experience of pain, My MA thesis brought these critical concerns to bear on Mina "Loy’s Songs to Joannes" and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood.

In retrospect, I see how my theoretical interests at Georgetown were an extension of the concerns in Terminal Humming. The poems in Terminal Humming oscillate between an insular rhetoric of lyric desire in stanzas and social rhetorics of love and sex, always in some combination of prose, stanzas, procedural pieces, and breath-based space on the page, with bits of narrative only occasionally appearing. My work has always been interdisciplinary, but recently I’ve been exploring and integrating new forms into my work. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the use of visual non-linguistic materials, narrative, and movement/gesture.

My first teaching job was at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, where many of my students were already accomplished visual artists. Teaching at an art school helped me see poetry as part of larger, more complicated, cultural, historical and multi-disciplinary frameworks. One of my students described drawing as “just making shapes that resemble real shapes.” I started drawing and making visual poems because I thought it would be interesting to attempt something I have no talent for and because I was looking for a way to critically and creatively respond to all the poetry readings I was attending. So, I started doodling during readings, and those were my first visual poems. At this point I have more than a hundred reading responses; if I could get away with it I’d publish them as a book of essays. A complete list of influences for my doodles would very long, but it includes Övind Fahlström, Louise Bourgeois, and bpNichol.

Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Jane Bowles and Paul Bowles are central to my understanding of narrative, but my more recent interest was prompted through exposure to various contemporary experimental fiction writers and through an ongoing exploration of New Narrative, which has only increased since I moved to California. In particular, I’ve been considering how New Narrative and Language poetry mutually inform each other’s concerns with narrative, gender, and identity. Several conversations with Kaplan Harris, as well as his recent scholarship on this subject, have deeply informed my thinking. Narrative strikes me not as incapable of mounting a materialist critique of language, but rather capable in a way different than poetry. In addition to New Narrative writers such as Robert Glück, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, and Camille Roy, I’m interested in works like Lyn Hejinian and Carla Harryman’s “The Wide Road,” The Transformation, by Juliana Spahr, Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, Stephanie Young’s most recent book, Picture Palace, and almost everything recently published by Les Figues Press.

All of my work plays with an intense and even exaggerated exploration of life as a female body but also a rejection of that materiality (if that’s even possible). Before I became interested in incorporating gestural elements and movement into my work, I was drawn to writing grounded in voice—an actual, physical voice that forms the base of a line. So, that means I was reading a lot of Bernadette Mayer, whom I’ve already mentioned, and also Joanne Kyger and Eileen Myles. It wasn’t much of an intuitive leap for me to move from voice to movement. Speaking is physical.

With physical movement in mind, I’ve been studying the work of choreographers like Pina Bauch and Martha Graham, whose work emphasized emotion, spontaneity, the erotic, and an exploration of Jungian psychology. Modern dance is dominated by women and often grew out of a desire to thwart cultural control over female bodies—think of Isadora Duncan dancing uncorseted in a white tunic, for example, or Graham’s Greek mythological heroines. Theoretically, I’m opposed to Jungian psychology, and I remain postmodernly obsessed with the fact that our emotions and behavior are socially conditioned. There’s never a moment when we’re free from social constructions. Instead, we participate in and are constrained by an endless dialogue with them. However, I am interested in how stereotypes and mythologies about femininity and female bodies have been used by Feminist artists, and modern dance is a good place to explore that.

Tina Darragh’s work has become increasingly important to me as I consider these feminine stereotypes. Darragh’s work investigates such stereotypes in a hybrid, interdisciplinary way and demonstrates how materialist critique, Feminism, non-linguistic elements, and performance can successfully exist together—albeit with plenty of tension—in a text. Darragh is a poet I know from Washington, DC often associated with Language poetry. In 1999 she started working on a project that eventually became opposable dumbs, a multigenre piece that combines reportage, theater, letters of protest, visual pieces, and notes that examine and think about pain, hysteria, animal subjectivity, economics, labor unions, and Feminism. Even after years of hearing her perform different parts of this piece and now reading the 2007 “project report” I have trouble summarizing it. Her work has many possible sources that connect and expand into other possible sources. It’s investigative and process-oriented, but the process and investigation are always shifting.

In addition to modern dance choreographers and Tina Darragh, I am inspired by my peers and slightly older contemporaries, many of whom have been incorporating gestural elements and movement into their work—and here I am thinking especially of Laura Elrick and Rodrigo Toscano. Elrick’s recent performance pieces stem from, as she noted in her statement for the Positions Conference in Vancouver, August 2008, “a desire to elaborate a social poetics that does not rely exclusively on language operations to enact and continually ‘post’ its resistance to the hegemony.” I’m equally intrigued by Toscano’s idea of a performance text being, as he noted in his statement for the Positions Conference, “a semi-contained social-psychological crisis, a formalization of an incipient collective consciousness from the vantage point of the collapse of a previous collective consciousness.” At recent readings, I’ve been looking to their work as well as drawing on my own background in modern dance to incorporate movement and polyvocality into my performances. Quite frankly, I’m not sure how it’s working. Thus far, I’ve created musical and sound texts to accompany myself while reading, and I’ve performed both choreographed and improvised movement. Performing my poems while upside down in a handstand gives the performance a strange combination of camp and discomfort.

I want my poems and performances to highlight risk and vulnerability—aesthetically, politically, psychologically—and I want them to be a bit out of control. Extending poetic praxis into multigenre and non-linguistic forms feels risky and necessary. It’s also fun. As with any innovative art, there is always a danger that the reader/viewer will not be able to or not want to make the intuitive leaps offered, but playing with that danger is, to me, the point.

My creative interests are interdisciplinary and well suited to the resources of the MFA program at UCSD. The creative and critical work of Rae Armantrout, Eileen Myles and Michael Davidson is of immense interest to me given my work in avant-garde poetry and gender, and I am certain I would like to work with them. Anna Joy Springer’s own innovative fiction and interest in Kathy Acker and intermedia is also relevant to my own concerns, as is Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s work in innovative and speculative fiction. Moreover, Wai-lim Yip’s work in comparative poetics, modernism, and translation theory is also very relevant to my interests, and I would hope to study with him. Finally, the Archive for New Poetry is a major resource that I would be very glad to have regular have access to.

As I mentioned above, I can think of few MFA programs that could support the cultural, linguistic, aesthetic and theoretical concerns of my various creative projects. The interdisciplinary MFA program at UCSD has expertise in contemporary experimental poetry and fiction, feminism, and comparative modernism, and I would be excited to pursue my studies there.


sandrasimonds said...

Soooo, can I pay you to write my cover letter for jobs? Just playing. They would be really dumb not to take you. It's excellent.

cielo fontanero said...

Lorraine, brilliant.

second to last paragraph, 'have' appears twice in the last sentence :?

Also, needs more acronyms! George Washington Univ. can be.. GWU

Corcoran College of Art + Design can be CCAD

Archive for New Poetry -ANP
Kootenay School of Writing - KSW
Paul Bowles can be PB

This'll make them say: 'gosh don't I know what KSW means? I guess Lorraine does belong here and its time I went home and reevaluated my life!' ;)

jeannine said...

Good statement :)

But really, are you opposed to Jungian ideas? I'd be interested in knowing why. In Part II, perhaps...? I've always found Jung to be pretty friendly theory towards feminism...or rather, a lot of critical feminist theory has been friendly to Jung.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

@Sandra: aw, thanks, but I'm sure you write pretty good cover letters, too. By the way, I hope that we can meet, even if only briefly, at MLA if you're going to be there. I know it won't be, err, relaxing (understatement), but still, it would be good to see you.

@Cielo Rontanero: I have no idea who you are--are you someone I know but I just don't recognize your blog identity? Either way, thank you for your comments. The idea that an acronym for Paul Bowles could also stand for Pacific Beach is, now that I live in San Diego county, rather charming and hilarious. Somewhere in the depths of my desk I have a copy of the handbook of acronyms used in the Defense Department. It's really absurd and fun. I should try and find it...

@Jeannine--The part of Jung that I'm wary of is his work in archetypes, the way they can be applied to Feminism. I don't dispute the presence of archetypes or how they can be potentially useful for exploring subjectivity. Still, archetypes are frequently used to enforce cultural norms--not to transcend them. Feminism and Feminists have often turned to powerful female archetypes as a method of empowerment, but I'm not convinced that archetypes can be especially liberating. I think they typically explain and even reinforce norms.

But, my thinking on this is often conflicted. I'm just now coming out of an obsession with Alice Notley's Alma--a book that relies heavily on examining, manipulating and rewriting female archetypes. I'm definitely interested in archetypes simply because so many Feminist artists and writers have used them or been interested in them, but I'm not show how that might come to bear on my own work. Maybe I'll blog more about this--and I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about it.

jeannine said...

I agree that archetypes are extremely limited - probably because the role of women has been limited by patriarchal culture over history. In my book, Becoming the Villainess, the characters complain about the lack of possibilities available to them through story - and how women are typically demonized (the villainess) or victimized (the princess.) I haven't read Alma, but it sounds right up my alley, no?
One thing that really liberated me in terms of thinking about archetypes was reading a book about Japanese fairy tale archetypes by Hayao Kawai, a religious scholar and Jungian expert from Japan - his book "The Japanese Psyche : Major Motifs in Fairy Tales of Japan" (in translation, but better than nothing) because so many Japanese female archetypal characters seem much more true to me - the Sun Goddess, for instance, or the sister/savior character that recurs. We don't just have to rely on thr brothers Grimm and the Bible for our heroines. Thank goodness.
Anyway, a good discussion to have. HD also re-wrote the histories of quite a few archetypal heroines - most notably Mary and Helen - in a way that I think allowed for the other feminist re-writes that came after (ie Gluck, Sexton, Atwood, etc) I wrote about this in my MFA thesis - how feminist re-writes through persona allow women to assert their power - but it would be nice if the archetypes weren't so demonized and weak that we had to re-write them.

cielo fontanero said...

Lorraine its Doug!

I just took my name off my blog temporarily :)

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Ah, Doug! Hello--the next time I see you though, I may have to call you Cielo.

tmorange said...

dear ms graham, thank you for your interest in our program but unfortunately you are way too interesting. good luck in your future endeavors!

sandrasimonds said...


It would have been fun to meet but I didn't get any interviews so I will have to content myself being barefoot and's not so bad actually! Anyway, good luck getting into school and I'm usually in LA once a year so I think that would be a good time to meet if it worked out.