the Riddled with Arrows SPOTLIGHT SERIES
As we draw nearer to our third year in publication, Riddled with Arrows is excited to launch our new SPOTLIGHT series, focusing on poets, writers, and writerly-types doing meta-esque things out in the literary wilds.
Luke Swenson is a poet, translator and performance artist whose work has been propagated (or is forthcoming from) Trashuas Publishing, Bloomsbury Publishing and Porcupine. Swenson’s stream-of-consciousness piece, “Swallow”, stood out in the Riddled with Arrows slush pile as utterly inappropriate for our regular pages and yet, somehow, oddly compelling. We invited Luke to be the subject for our first SPOTLIGHT feature, even before we had a clear idea of what that would entail. Luckily, Luke was game.
How to “Swallow”: Click the link below to read SWALLOW in its entirety. (Give it time. Read it all the way through. Let it saturate your mind’s gullet. Come back to it, maybe. See what comes up.)
OR, scroll down to read Swenson’s artistic statement and introduction, for context.
*KNOW SOMEONE SPOTLIGHT WORTHY? SPOTLIGHT features will be by invitation only, but we can use your help to find Riddled-esque word-artists to shine our light on. Guidelines for nominating potential SPOTLIGHT subjects will be posted in early 2019 –>Follow us on Facebook or Twitter and/or subscribe to the Riddled with Arrows mailing list to stay in the know.
by Luke Swenson
“Swallow” could be about a 22-year-old writer with a chip on his shoulder from three years at a strictly religious university, who was now growing out his hair, playing in a noise band, having pre-marital sex, smoking pot and moving from his hometown to the much edgier Salt Lake City, a short 45-minute train ride away. However, I doubt this is your impression after reading the work. Not that the work isn’t about me: it is obsessed with my experience. It says so itself. In its eight or so pages, I am the only sustained subject of thought. Despite this, most of the major threads of my life can only be gleaned in passing. My surroundings on the train and my thoughts about them dominate the poem. Can it still be said to be a personal exploration of identity? I think so. Writing about writing it seems to me is inherently self-reflective and can reveal aspects of our identity that we wouldn’t reveal any other way.
I boarded a train in Provo, Utah on the sunny summer day of July 14, 2014 with a can of Coke, a backpack, a notepad and a pen. My goal was to write on the train and to not stop until I arrived at my destination. What came out was mostly observations of the enclosed world around me. “Swallow” as you read it now has changed considerably since then. The bullet point format came later to better represent the flow of my thoughts, and the position they had occupied on my notepad. Set to the left of the page, the notes are an even newer addition to the text, included as the transparency of the original work was being exchanged for something presentable. These notes were an attempt to retroactively document the changes that I had made to the original text since its conception. Credit for the idea goes to Robert Ashley’s television opera Perfect Lives, in which editorial comments on the text are spoken in the performance along with the original lines. The email conversation with my father is then the most recent layer. I had a feeling the piece was self-obsessed, and I needed another voice in the essay to confirm or deny this to the reader. “Swallow” has evolved through a process of self-reflection. Comments on comments on comments on a distant experience. The editorial process involved layering: I didn’t integrate my father’s ideas into the piece, I set them on top of it.
I regret the early changes I made to the text without documenting them. In a way, “Swallow” is a compromised experiment. Without considering the implications, I made typographical and stylistic changes to certain lines to make the piece more reader-friendly. Now I see that it was never going to be a perfectly crafted experience for my reader. It would never have a nice tension arc; there are much better writing processes to achieve this effect. Instead, this piece had the nearness of the writing to the literal event, and the transparency of my thoughts and actions as I attempt to offer them to my reader. Although minimal by most standards, every step I took in the first few weeks to ‘clean up’ the language, to narrow the focus of my writing, took the piece a step away from the moment, and more importantly introduced an opaque layer between the reader and my experience that that I can never scrub away. The procedural transparency has been compromised, as it never needed to be. I could have offered my readers a more digestible version, if I would have layered these clarifications of the text on top of the original, as opposed to trying to synthesize these clarifications into the original lines. For an exploration of identity to be truly comprehensive, it must be honest. In order to be really honest, a writer needs to be transparent about the writing process as well as the events they describe.
An example of this self-reflection is the email conversation with my father. Even without more context, so much about me can be gathered from these emails: that I took an analytics course from my father, that he is a math professor, that I use Gmail. How I word these emails reveals as much about my own insecurities and my need for fatherly approval as a personal essay might. Lines such as “I would be confused if it came back all flattery” or “you can write your reactions/suggestions/criticisms” ring editorial alarm bells in my head and I have to stop myself from erasing them. I then respond to my father’s possibly light-hearted criticism with an email twice as long, fully utilizing my bachelor’s degree in the humanities to defend myself and my writing. I drop in terms like mise en abyme, stream-of-consciousness, recursive maze, representation and seem to imply that anyone who writes a personal essay is a liar. I wouldn’t write like this now, but that is the beauty of layering as an editorial process as opposed to synthesizing: you can hear the different ways I have talked at different points in my life. You get a much more accurate picture of my subject this way.
But what if I did edit down the emails? Like when I refined my phrasing on the original piece, the reader would be pushed back another step from their experience of the subject. It is important to maintain this personal vulnerability revealed in the content of the piece as well as the writer’s vulnerability in the construction of it. I am a son with a father, and I am a writer who doesn’t know how to spell. These are truths of the world, like the time the train departed, the words spoken by the police officer and the lake that could be seen out the window of the carriage.
At some point in the summer of 2014, I was told to read Fidget by Kenneth Goldsmith by someone who didn’t like it very much, but who thought I might. I did. Goldsmith attempts to narrate every movement his body makes on Bloomsday, 1997. The result is around 100 pages of short, staccato descriptors of physical movements, as follows: “Facial muscles relax. Back tingles. Chills emerge. Right hand moves to top of head. Fingernail scrapes scalp. Thumb meets each successive fingertip. Rubs.” No thoughts of the world around him, no opinions on the movement, just raw data. I was impressed, and I wanted to do something spontaneous and impressive. In retrospect, I am more impressed with the procedural transparency of this work than the act of the production itself. A reader can, similar to my experiment, glean a few personal details about Mr. Goldsmith from this text. We know when he gets up, we know, most memorably perhaps, how he masturbates, we know a few ways his body fidgets. In this sense he is very vulnerable, and possibly self-reflective.
In another way, however, he isn’t. Describing your masturbation session could easily be seen as exhibitionism as much as honesty. From the text we don’t know what he thought about these movements, or about how they made him feel. This is what makes the text memorable, of course, but it is also what makes it limited. He has, as it were, an ethos of writerly transparency, but in contrast the personal transparency is absent. I wouldn’t want his current observations to distort the source, but what if they were layered on top of them? This extra meta-layer would inherently add a level of self-reflection. Especially now, over 20 years later, after the star of conceptual poetry has shone, and by most accounts, burnt out. What would Kenneth Goldsmith say about those movements now?
Writing about writing is an exercise in self-reflection. The changes we make to our writing can tell the reader as much about who we are as recorders of experience, as it can give them a window into the truth of the situation we are describing. By choosing to layer editorial comments on a text as opposed to making changes to the source, the spontaneous language of the moment can be kept and honored and yet continue to be contextualized. Just as a thorough exploration of personal identity doesn’t avoid topics that make the subject seem weak, the writing itself should leave room for what is amateur and ungraceful about how we write. We can only see the subject of the writing clearly when we know the process that brought it before our eyes.