jane lewty; in one form to find another

Book Interview: Jane Lewty & Penelope Jeanne Brannen


What for you is the function of the body, embodiment in your poetry? With so much transference (trauma to mind, mind to body, etc.), at what point does the text become an extension of this for you?

A book called Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (a professor of internet governance) has been a huge influence on me; he keeps using the phrase “archives are dangerous” — something we’re sadly all too familiar with, owing to social media. If you revisit an online conversation, there is seeming comprehensiveness but digital evidence does not truly reflect what “really’” transpired. It’s a false construct. By triggering recall of what is forgotten (or suppressed), digital remembering has the ability to confuse us with conflicting memories that may affect our review of certain events or interactions. We may stop trusting our own memory and, instead, supplant it with an artificial past, one that is not only open to interpretation, but utterly dependent on the emotion that one has when scanning back.

I think it’s similar to the ways in which a body has its own archive and method of storage/remembering. Erratic and erroneous playback can also occur. In One Form to Find Another draws upon the condition of somatic symptom disorder; the conviction that sickness is present or incipient. For the patient, respite — diagnosis, compassion — is often found in online communities where one’s post may remain in static form, unanswered for years, as a testimony of anxiety and suffering to be picked over and misinterpreted long after the writing of it. The book is ordered into case studies, a different speaker for each imagined or partially-experienced medical condition. Many focus on the networks of the female body, and how the aftermath of trauma can linger via unexpected and unidentifiable physical symptoms Each speaker has their own story but owing to the digitized environment in which they share that story, I imagined a process of cueing and echoing where words, themes, obsessions and events collide and morph into one another. I had an idea of the text being malleable, like a noticeboard, or another interface. The back-and-forth dialogue in #6 is elaborated upon and then dismantled in #34. Understanding can't be reached, the solace and chemistry is gone, the screen fades to blank, there is death in repetition. Many of the poems have a shadow-meaning, offered at the end of the book in a piece made of end-notes, and (to quote Stephanie Strickland in the title) “overlying keywords”. For example, a poem that, in the body text, references Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, secretly gives you advice about curbing your addiction to web browsing. I guess the book can be read as a network of many conduits and transfers, a set of trails to follow.

Memory seems to take on a sharp definition in your work, transforming into the tangible. In “Case Study # 31: Telesthesia” you ask: “Did I know / that people in Mesopotamia, 4th century BCE externalized memory, too?” in reference to cuneiform writing. In many ways writing itself is a form of mnemonic embodiment. What advice do you have for other poets in dialogue with somatic approaches to poetic becoming?

The line “You are tired, and you have moved something around your body for years” (the final line of Case Study #10) compiled itself in my head a long time ago, before the book really took shape. The question is, how does memory truly return and what power do we have to compartmentalize it? How can we trust our memory? In One Form To Find Another relays the mirror-and-echo effect of communication between people who are trying to reconstruct their own histories, recognizing that heartbreak, death, violence, abuse, and smaller though lingering disappointments have affected their ability to live in the present, and within their own body. The patient is left at the mercy of a body that has held onto a memory. I tried to write poems that registered this concern with retrieval and false intuition. It can be argued, though, that writing — and reading —  is an uneasy form of mnemonic embodiment; in the endnotes I cite the following lines from the Myth of Theuth, God of Writing in Plato’s Phaedrus, spoken by Socrates: “O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ words because they will not use their memories, they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence.” On that note, I’m not certain I’d be the best source of advice to other poets, but I did enjoy writing  the long poem-essay at the center of the book (Case Study #19: Disequilibrium) that analyzes the failures of different types of memory, clinical, implicit, semantic, eidetic, etc., and suggests that the body is the best conduit for accessing the truth of a prior event: the feeling of a grainy wall, the spikiness of a plant, fabric slipping from shoulders. I ask the question: Do I really want a memory that unfolds itself from objects? The object in question is a photograph; all the sensory impressions are generated from that. It was a very meditative experience, sinking back into the body, asking it to recall further, deeper.

Your book is broken into five sections, in what ways is this structure informed by the content of your poetry?

Each section carries the weight of what has passed before, similar to reading a long conversation thread. The voices are fragments that speak and reappear in a different setting: “Words migrate from scene to scene. They carry their previous incarnations” (Case Study #34). Illnesses mutate into those more serious, those more able to be defined. The text can be read linearly, but there are also embedded “conversations.” Case studies #4, #28 and #31 engage with one another, as do #7, #17, #22 and #24. I hope the reader, when faced with the terrible pronouncements of section five, such as “Take me into your skin/Archives hide those who tell” will have seen them coming.  

This book is rife with end notes. Where do you see artists and philosophers intersecting with your poetry? In what ways are you in dialogue with these references?

The "forms" in the book include architecture, dance, sculpture, animals, film, horoscopes....and a whole host of other things. I've tried to make the collection stylistically peripatetic whilst registering the realities of theory and social/psychological issues. While I wouldn’t order anyone to engage with the book in a specific way, the endnotes do function both as a coda, and, sometimes, a deepening of certain pieces. For example, I refer to Roni Horn’s urban installation Portrait of an Image - with Isabelle Huppert (2005), which meticulously catalogued the face of Isabelle Huppert, who reenacted the expressions of her previous roles/characters, solely on the basis of her memory. Horn’s concept appears sporadically throughout In One Form To Find Another, one scornful observation being that Erika from La Pianiste would be Freud’s wet dream, but mainly in reference to Huppert’s process: muscle memory and recall. Another poem incorporates the film Inconsolable Memories (2006) by Stan Douglas, an enquiry into the act of repetition. When displayed in a gallery, one film reel is longer than the other which produces a different combination of images over time. Unica Zurn and the trauma that seeps from every iteration of her life, art, and being was undeniably a huge influence on the book. Not just her own writing, but the manner in which her body was abused and exploited by Hans Bellmer in his creations — the “altered landscapes of flesh” that constituted his bondage drawings.

Is there anything that you’re currently working on? What are your future plans?

I’m reworking a manuscript I actually wrote before In One Form To Find Another. It used to be called Mistune. It centers on the industrial decline of a city, and how that process can be registered polyvocally. The poems track the loss of a regional accent and contain many linguistic variations; all reverberating in the sound of 1990s dance music and within the topology of a place that can never be regenerated, either for the individual or the community. I experimented with historical narrative, and consequently found myself researching soccer hooliganism and ornithology alongside linguistics and electronica. In case it doesn't work out or if it stalls again, I’ve forced myself to tentatively start a new project that I feel nervous about consolidating into a statement or description. Here’s a few of the books I’m consulting to help me out, though. Maybe they will say more: Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by Jane Burnett; On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, by Susan Stewart; Bluets by Maggie Nelson; Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism by Maurizia Boscagli. I’m interested in how the experience of mourning can find its place in objects; how we discard, how we hoard. I guess I’m still stuck on/in memory.


Jane Lewty is the author of Bravura Cool (1913 Press, 2013), winner of the 1913 First Book Prize in 2011, and In One Form To Find Another, selected for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Book Competition in 2016. She has also co-edited two essay collections, Broadcasting Modernism (University of Florida Press, 2010) and Pornotopias: Image, Desire, Apocalypse (Litteraria Pragensia, 2009). She has taught at universities in the UK, The Netherlands, and the USA.