Dropping The Bullshit with Poet Ariana Reines
Speaking About The Weirdness of the World and Her Latest Collection, A Sand Book
- Interview: Ana Cecilia Alvarez
- Photography: Elizabeth Weinberg
Ariana Reines is a poet. This title does not indicate a career choice, or even a chosen vocation, but, I think, a calling, the way someone might be called to pilgrimage or prophecy. Reines also writes plays, performs, translates, teaches. Before I became a student of her poetry, I read her Tumblr, a generous repository of dispatches for and from the most curious of souls that I considered something of a public service. When I downloaded a copy of her 2011 book Coeur de Lion off a torrent site (at the time editions of the book were going for three figures), I did not get up from my bed until I read it once, and then again. Coeur de Lion is an epistolary lyric poem about the dislocation of address and the fermentation of love; her first book, the Alberta Prize winning The Cow is about the mastication of flesh, female or otherwise. She wrote her third book, Mercury about alchemical communication and the internet before she studied astrology. We first met when she read my chart (a service she named the “Marguerite Hardass”) on a friend’s Lower East Side rooftop in 2016. I felt the depth of her generosity was only eclipsed by her genius.
This time we met in Los Angeles, where in a month she would launch her fourth collection, A Sand Book. A book, Reines told me, about “climate change, birds, love, bystanderism, mass murder, abandonment.” I’d add store-bought mysticism, gun violence, sexual trauma, the internet, and prophecy. A Sand Book’s achievement, in its lyricism and its philosophy, cannot be understated. With this book of books, Reines transmits and distils the miasma of our reality—in all of its impossible completeness—in order to leave us with something that feels like truth. But to say this book—or any of Reines’ books—are “about” one thing or another is imperfect, in the way that you wouldn’t say a drug is “about” anything. I give Reines’ books to friends like I might give them a pill, with a warning and an urging smile. Here. Take it.
Ana Cecilia Alvarez
Tell me about the “you” in your poetry. How do you address that second person?
This is a profound question. It contains a whole spiral of concerns and is a very big deal, this problem of address. But to start simply—erotic poetry is the most fun to write. Everyone alive that has ever fallen in love has written some, and to me it’s the essence of the poetic impulse. You know what it feels like when you are texting someone who you have erotic feelings for and suddenly you are in language in a different way? There is a density and a strangeness and a precipice in the way you choose your words. The beauty of poetry is that it’s made of that kind of intimacy but it’s also open.
This is more precious now because on social media we broadcast to anyone. Literature is speaking to “anyone” and everyone too, but it needs to be nurtured on a charge that is somehow both intimate and open to the gaze of the universe. Something we’ve lost track of is the rigor of address between one and one.
That impulse to broadcast online mystifies me. I feel like it’s an urge some people possess and others don’t.
To me, there’s a hilarious, bathetic absurdity to it. We have been culturally broadcasting to anyone for decades. I learned recently that my career is as long as YouTube. You asked me about the second person, and I have a line in an older poem that asks who the “you” in YouTube is.
These ethics of address interest me because in my late teens and early twenties I felt so brutalized by the “you” of advertising and politics, by the second person my father threw at me, the Iraq war threw at me, men in the street threw at me. It was like, I am not the “you” you think I am…I am not the “you” you’re looking for. At the same time, I crave connection and I make it however I can. But I am superstitious about how I address another person. I try to do it carefully. I’d like to do it with dignity. And I am curious about what might happen if we learned to address each other in a better way.
“We all have some form of bullshit we walk around believing is the true and only reality, then for whatever reason, one day, for an hour or a weekend or forever, we drop it.”
The final part of the book contains a section titled “MOSAIC.” It’s a direct transmission, as you explain, from the sun. You write in an accompanying essay that the statements that comprise MOSAIC are “transcript[s] of the verbal portion of an encounter[...] The words aren’t mine.” You took down this transcription during a confluence of traumatic and demanding circumstances—you were, at the time, rehearsing MORTAL KOMBAT, which involved violent physical engagement with a man three times your size, and in the midst of a #MeToo-esque conflict at an elite university—and these experiences pitched you to a state of heightened receptivity. I sense a lot of your poetry is the effect of this kind of pitching, that picks up on transmission, experienced first through the body and then reflected back in language. Perhaps this could be said of all poetry, or all art. What do you think?
There’s so many levels in the practice of poetry. On level zero, it’s a really good practice to develop a sense of reflection within yourself. We are all always receiving something. We are in between some weird combination of our native capacities, the weirdness of the world, and whatever is coming through. You could be making widgets in a factory or writing for a fashion magazine or whatever and that trinity is at play.
I believe that everyone should write poetry. I mean, every living person needs to have some sort of reflective practice. Meditation, poetry, some kind of discipline that is receptive and lets in some of this formless immensity and strangeness that otherwise gives us massive anxiety. The veil is thinning around the planet. Freaky shit is going on. My privilege is to have been able to record it, and to have had poetry to carry me through figuring out how to integrate this experience into the rest of reality. A lot of people have experiences that just don’t fit into the ordinary consciousness or habitual philosophy of “daily life.”
I guess my other privilege is that I believed what was happening and I knew I wasn’t crazy. I had been going through an intensely painful and busy time. When I realized what was happening, I fucking laughed. I have always felt a little made fun of by my Thou.
There’s a beautiful line in your essay about “MOSAIC,” where you write of that moment: “[...] I felt gently, lovingly taunted, mildly made fun of. [...] I notice the weird artifice of my personality, how clumsy it is, how it gets in the way of things, right before I drop it.”
It’s the same exact thing as when somebody kisses you. It’s like that moment when you drop your bullshit and just let somebody have you. That’s universal. We all have some form of bullshit we walk around believing is the true and only reality, then for whatever reason, one day, for an hour or a weekend or forever, we drop it.
It’s demanding and time consuming to cultivate hospitality to this stuff, but then, lots of worthwhile things take work. Another trick that can be found in every religious tradition—it’s a trick, but it’s a good trick: every single thing that happens to you, that befalls you, is a treasure. A jewel in your hand. No matter how weird or how bad. Our job is to figure out what kind of treasure we're holding, and what the fuck to do with it. It’s a trick. I know there’s like a thousand versions of this being sold in TED talks, but it’s actually very raw, this idea. Very simple and very old. Once you apply it, freaky shit starts to happen. And we all want freaky shit to happen. At least everyone I want to talk to does.
“Our job is to figure out what kind of treasure we're holding, and what the fuck to do with it.”
I want to ask you about one of the statements in “MOSAIC.” You write that the sun said, “KNOWING THAT THE WORLD HAS ALWAYS SUSTAINED AND WILL ALWAYS SUSTAIN THE MAXIMUM OF DESTRUCTION POSSIBLE / IS WHY THE OTHER WORLD HAS ALWAYS AND WILL ALWAYS NEED TO BE CREATED.” What do you make of this?
This particular statement, about maximum destruction, deserves research. I'd love to gather twelve graduate students in different fields, like design or urban planning, to think about this for a year, five years, ten. All religions say life is suffering. But we don't get this kind of algebraic clarity on the quantity of suffering in the existing traditions, at least not that I know of. Some people seem to suffer more than others and this provokes immense human anxiety. In many ways it is this anxiety that religions exist to answer. If we learn to take destruction as axiomatic—on this planet, in this solar system, in this particular reality there is always going to be a precise quantity of destruction, tuned exactly to how much the planet can bear—instead of worrying about eradicating all suffering or neurotically comparing our own capacity for happiness and misery with others, our intellectual and imaginative power can instead turn to infrastructure, logistics, design, resource management, urban planning, architecture, agriculture, engineering. What conditions would temper, or lower the overall quotient of destruction?
I understood the part about the world that will always need to be created to be about what artists do. Artists have always been creating the other world—and these worlds continue to be habitable long after the artists are gone. I was both shy and a bit irritated writing this part of “MOSAIC” down—because even while I was in a state of rapture, I still had enough perversity and sense of humor to cringe. The part about great art—was that just narcissistic twaddle? Preachy and boring? I felt a little tacky writing that down.
Let’s read it: “WE DO NEED EVERY KIND OF STORY / BECAUSE THERE IS EVERY KIND OF PERSON / YET STILL, GREAT ART IS CRUCIAL. / FOR THE WORLD TO WATCH; WHEN IT WATCHES, DIVINITY IN SPLENDOR / RATHER THAN WHAT WE ARE WATCHING NOW, WHILE LEARNING TO WATCH.”
It’s sincere and it's preachy and so didactic. But of course, in my deepest heart, I know that it's true. Art keeps the universe in balance. Somehow it returns some of the treasures of existence back to the universe itself. I can’t explain all the reasons why or how, but we are given more than we know what to do with on Earth—bodies, trees, cultures, languages, mysteries, histories, ancient catastrophes. When we are born we are given so much we had absolutely nothing to do with. Somehow art returns this generosity and overwhelming superabundance to the world itself. Even with all the art and holiness and love we're wild to make, life on Earth is wildly out of balance. That’s the adventure we get to have. Somehow we are helping the beyond—whatever it is—to understand what it is, as we figure out what we are. It’s a continual reciprocity and I don’t know how far it really goes, because my little pea brain can’t fathom it. But I know it goes far, and even just into little me, it goes very far indeed.
A friend asked me what A Sand Book was about, and all I could think to respond was, “Everything!”
[Laughs] Yes, when people ask me what this book or what my poetry is about I think....infinity?
Ana Cecilia Alvarez is a writer from Mexico City.
- Interview: Ana Cecilia Alvarez
- Photography: Elizabeth Weinberg
- Styling: Trudy Nelson