Featured Poet: Joyelle McSweeney

Interview by–Natalie Solmer

Years ago, when I encountered one of Joyelle McSweeney’s poems and was completely knocked out by it, I was even more excited to learn that she lives in South Bend, Indiana. I looked forward to finding the right time to interview her one day for Indianapolis Review. That time has finally come! Here we discuss a myriad of topics related to her book Toxicon and Arachne, and she also shares a new poem with us from her current work in progress (to access McSweeney’s poem, go the Next Page link at the bottom of this page).

Joyelle McSweeney is the author of ten books of poetry, stories, novels, essays, translations and plays, including, most recently, the poetry double-volume Toxicon and Arachne (Nightboat Books, 2020)and The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults, a work of decadent ecopoetics (University of Michigan Poets on Poetry series, 2015). Her debut poetry volume, The Red Bird, inaugurated the Fence Modern Poets Series in 2001, while her verse play, Dead Youth, or the Leaks, inaugurated the Leslie Scalapino Prize for Innovative Women Performance Artists in 2014. With Carmen Maria Machado, she was the guest editor of Best American Experimental Writing 2020. She also collaborated with Don Mee Choi on translations of two short stories by Korean modernist Yi Sang, featured in Yi Sang: Selected Works from Wave Books alongside translations by Jack Jung and Sawako Nakayasu (2020). Her poem “Post-NICU Villanelle”, was published in the Iowa Review and is the recipient of a 2021 Pushcart prize. With Johannes Göransson, she co-edits the international press Action Books and teaches at Notre Dame.

NS: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with The Indianapolis Review. You published your tenth book, a book of poetry called Toxicon and Arachne, last year with Nightboat books, and ever since then I have been trying to get up the courage to ask you to do an interview for us! Your work dazzles me, changes me and my ideas about poetry, and I am a bit intimidated to ask you questions! 

One of the reasons I started The Indianapolis Review is to promote the work of Indiana writers, and I was excited when I found out that you teach at The University of Notre Dame and live in South Bend, Indiana (which happens to be my hometown). I have to say that I don’t ever remember reading a collection of poetry before that has specific references to South Bend as a place. This is no surprise since it is one of those Rust Belt cities that is most famous for being in a constant state of “dying.” I felt this without fully understanding it while growing up there–my grandparents had come from Eastern Europe and they worked in those dying factories. My parents were the only ones from their siblings to stay in South Bend–all my aunts and uncles left the place. I admit that the references to the St. Joseph River, to the city, all added a powerful layer of psychic experience for me when reading these poems. I found myself often weeping while reading this book–not just for the death of Arachne, but for my memories of that city, my origin.

An example of this is a quote from your poem, “Eaves,” “the goddess you mean to be shits men out into the dust of Troy to go a-slaying, / while the prophetess with her hair undone goes wandering around the / streets like a mad mother (me). In threadbare South Bend where everyone / is raving it’s so hard to make a scene.”

I love how you unabashedly and seamlessly mix Greek legend with this modern, plebian place, all while threading in the narrative of personal grief and profound loss. The city’s aura of dying, the threadbare-ness, the mentioning of the large homeless population in other poems–it all complements the narrative and theme for me, but I am wondering how you made the decision to name and include South Bend in the poems?

JM: I’ve always experienced South Bend, Indiana, as the heart of the world, contradictory, rotting and vivid, a place of sacrifice and prophecy as decadent and profound as the shrine of the oracle at Delphi. They called that oracle the Pythia because the shrine is on top of the rotting corpse of a python slewn by Apollo. The shrine’s to Apollo, but it’s really the python that makes things happen. In fact the word python comes from the Greek púthein, to rot.  At Delphi, the corpse-gas of the rotting python comes up through a crevice in the ground. The Pythia sits on a tripod over this crevice, huffs the gas, gets high and relates her prophecy. That’s how I think about South Bend, and Art.

When I moved to South Bend fifteen years ago, in the opening stages of the last financial crisis (the crisis that has been happening for 500 years, all over the planet, and in every body), I was struck and pierced by how everything is laid bare here– the arrival and withdrawal of capital; the persistence of racism, sexism, and xenophobia; the palimpsest of urban and rural poverty; the way past and the future are comingling in the air, soil and the water in novel configurations both toxic and intoxicating– the whole place felt alluvial, inundated, posthumous, futuristic, and fatal. It felt like the heart of the world.

My heart laid bare.

When our newborn Arachne died of an unexpected congenital birth defect, it felt of a piece with all this changing and making, radiant fatality and incomprehensible novelty. I could barely stand up under this knowledge. I felt smacked in the head I was so brained with it. By the time I opened my eyes it was a Rust Belt spring, with all the toxins rising from and flowing down to the river. I was also a place from which the fluid of grief ran, out of my body and into the street, down the street and into the river, from which it would also rise and flood the town. 

NS: When reading over various interviews of yours, I was especially struck by your interview “On Adoration,” published by EcoTheo Collective. First of all, I recommend everyone read this brilliant meditation of yours on devotion, gold, the sins of Catholicism, binaries, decoration, hearing loss, and everything in between. When asked about your everyday “adorations,” you wrote one of the best descriptions of the St. Joseph river I’ve ever read: “Rust Belt rivers are vexed and profound; our river is the St. Joseph River, whose Potawatomi name is Senathëwen Zibé and whose Miami name is saakiiweesiipi.i. The St. Joe bends and gives South Bend its name and goes beer bottle green in the summer, svelte slate grey in winter. It gives back no light and seems absorbed with its own affairs. I try to gaze upon it every day, literally gaze upon it, until my eyes unfix and I’m inside its flattened, abstract planes. I’d like to live there. Maybe that’s what vision’s for, to teach us what to long for. I’ve often wondered.”

This river makes its presence known as a powerful character (at least to me!) throughout your book Toxicon and Arachne. Can you talk more about this?

JM: Just as the slain python still bleats its green signal from under the shrine at Delphi, regardless of what the god of daylight has to say about it, so the river in South Bend signals in all its unsummarizable profundity all through the human night. For the indigenous peoples of this area the river is the site of absolute generation. I couldn’t lay claim to their expertise. But I’m always aware of the river’s green cursor blinking in the night. Cursor: the one who runs. So many things run down to the river, are cherished there, and rise.

When Arachne was alive, which is to say, while she was dying at the NICU in Indianapolis, her green monitors bleat all night. Some green thread kept bleating, first hopeful and then dismal. I became nocturnal then, and maybe posthumous, watching the green thread with closed eyes. I feel like I’m still watching that green thread. I feel like I’ll be watching forever in this night.

As for how this connects to writing: There’s something continuous in grief, in green-ness– a poison green and a spring green, a wellspring and an ill spring, the green of photosynthesis, of oxygen being made, and the green of eutrophication, of air being choked off. Something is continuous in Art– all the Art is touching, runs down to the river, rises up in the drain. Something brushes past us as it runs off. Something else returns– but never what we want.

Never what I want.

When I wrote the lit-up, tongue-tripping, hyper-vivacious poems of Toxicon, the river was exemplary in its delirium, toxicity, its cross-purposes, its capacity; when I wrote the poems of Arachne, all at once in an alluvial spring, the river welled through me and laid me to waste, or, erratically, turned its cold back on me, refused to give anything back.

NS: Your book is divided into two sections: the first section, Toxicon, and the second one, Arachne. Dan Chiasson explains in his review of your book in The New Yorker that it “is actually two books, bound as one and yoked together by disaster. In “Toxicon,” written while carrying her third child, McSweeney imagines her body as a poisonous, dangerous host, a “nest of scum” or a “jet engine” with a “stork torso” caught inside it. The world that awaits the child is equally, extravagantly lethal: “factory hens” carry “their viral load” while the “zika mosquito” dips its “improbable proboscis / into the human layer / and vomits an inky toxin.” The poems are written in a frightening, crusty impasto, the hard “T” and “x” and “c” of the title mutating from one phrase to another. “Arachne,” the sequel, is named for the child, “8 pounds, black hair, and a heart shoved aside by its guts,” who died tragically after her “odd allocation of thirteen days.” 

In other interviews, you have spoken about how these two books came to be one unit, and you have written a brilliant essay for The Yale Review about the act of writing this book as prophesy–how Toxicon predicted Arachne and her death, predicted pandemic, and then the book was released during the middle of COVID. You have also said that you feel you didn’t have a choice in the matter of how the poems came out–they just poured and pushed out of you. These things fascinate me, especially as a woman who comes from a matrilineal line of women with some psychic ability. I am curious about your thoughts on where poetry comes from and how it is linked to prophecy. Can you talk more about this?

JM: There’s so many ways to think about prophecy, from the Oracle at Delphi communicating with the rotting python to Gertrude Stein defining coincidence as “a thing is going to happen, and does.” Maybe prophecy is just anachronistic conversation, in that temporalities which should be separate begin to beat together like dissonating tones, begin to converse in unnatural speech. Of course, that also breaks the temporal logic of the orderly English sentence, and entails a different kind of listening and a different kind of speech. The poet is the place where that perverse conversion of the world can happen, a place where language turns inside out, a trick mirror, a chiasmus, where logic becomes reversed, doubled, but still yoked at an unbearable point. The x-acto of chiasmus. The wasp-waist of chiasmus.

Toxicon turned out to be prophetic because it’s so very drunk on the present tense, which was both quickly withering away into history and working its perverse entendrilled effects on the future. Avian flu, the zika mosquito with the distinctive lyre-marking on her back, the birth defects in both birds and humans in Falluja caused by buried US weapons caches leaking into the groundwater, the legacies of US global warfare, chemical culture and global supply chains–the poems in Toxicon are absolutely swimming with toxins, with ill arrivals and special effects, as the title of the book suggests. I just had to get out of the way and let it pour through me, usually as a sonic logic that could build associations faster than the conscious mind can.

Of course these birds of ill-omen came home when my own child was born with a fatal birth defect. I kept thinking of Stein’s “thing that is going to happen, and does.” An error message speeding from the Big Bang, a bullet that crosses the universe to find its (bird-)breast. With its obsession with mutation, effloration, and fatality, Toxicon literally prophesized Arachne, while Arachne re-authored Toxicon as a work of prophecy. In a way the two books co-gestate each other, and light each other up like a spring-green flare in the sky. In a way they can never be born.

NS: I first became aware of your work when your poem, “Simon The Good” was published on Poets.org in 2018. I was stunned by its fierce and unique voice, its blend of diction, sound, language, and style, not to mention its subject matter and setting. For me, it’s that golden blend of lyric and narrative thread, of imagery and declarative statements. Here is a section I will never get out of my head, “like a helicoptera / performing its opera / all above Indiana / bearing the babes away / from their births to their / berths / in the NICU in Indie-un-apple-us / Unapple us, moron God, / You’ve turned me Deophobic” I saved that poem in a special folder and returned to it often until it came out in your book in the Arachne section. I adore the inventiveness, the odd puns and play with language coupled with the mad voice of the speaker. I am curious about your writing and revision process. How do you craft all of these elements together? I watched an excellent video you made about hyperdiction, which is a practice that you do use in your writing. Can you talk more about this and your process?

JM: I am a poet driven by sound. I’m also hearing impaired. I wear hearing aids, and at certain pitches and volumes, sound just drops out for me. Over the ten years I’ve been losing my hearing, my relationship to sound has intensified. Sound has become more profound, stranger, more erratic,  more intimate, more mysterious in its arrivals and departures. In this regard, sound is like art itself.

Sound, with its dissonances and assonances, its absurdities and near misses, its desire to be something other than speech, is the first and last material of poetry for me. When I write I try to let the sound come through first, then shape the language around that sound. If there isn’t a word for the sound I’m hearing I make one up through neologism; and if the sound wants two things at once I try to do it through pun. Sometimes I sing in three-part harmony with myself, and sometimes, more frighteningly, in unison. Keeping up with sound’s spectacular momentum requires a suped-up, flexible, flexing, mutating use of language which I call hyper-diction.

To put it simply, hyper-diction just means calling into service all the language you have at your disposal– high, low, and pop; lyrics, jingles and slang; regional terms for food and weather; specialized terms from fandoms and hobbies; technological terms and terms from defunct technology; all the language that has found its way into your brain since it started forming. No two people will have the exact same hyperdiction though obviously some elements of your hyperdiction will be more audible to those who share some of your coordinates. Hyperdiction is fun. It allows for unexpected juxtapositions and gives you an expansive, glittering fabric to fold into new and radiant shapes.

NS: In addition to poetry, you also write in many other forms, such as: plays, lyric novels, and essays. When did you first know that you were a writer and who/what has shaped you as an artist?

JM: This is truly the most lethal question! To stall a little bit, it’s true that I write in a variety of odd and expansive shapes. I love writing verse plays, because a verse play is when you let the speakers/personae of your poems become truly outsized and overblown and make all sorts of ridiculous vows and pronouncements. Then the diction becomes this outrageous, ornate garment in which the actor can strut around.  I love a farce, for the way it hosts seriousness and absurdity in the same compressed space. I love poet’s prose in particular because you can write based on, say, assonance rather than argument and see what emerges. Write now I’m writing a collection of essays on Keats, the logic of which is very assonantal.

As you can imagine my influences are pretty various, from Euripides and Aristophanes to Jacobean revenge plays, Langston Hughes, Artaud, Suzan-Lori Parks, Aimé Césaire, Alice Notley, Harryette Mullen, Hannah Weiner, Zurita, Kim Hyesoon and Hiromi Itō, and, more recently Friederike Mayröcker and Ingeborg Bachmann. I love writers who go all the way and I recite the sacred scripture: Let beauty be convulsive or not  at all.

NS: You’ve talked about Catholicism and gold in the Ecotheo interview I mentioned earlier. I, too, grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school grades K–12. I am not a practicing Catholic for many reasons, but still feel very culturally Catholic and love my icons and am fascinated by the aesthetics (though, as discussed, the whole obsession with gold has a murderous history). Yet I am drawn back to these sites meant to be completely holy. One of my favorite places to go in South Bend when I am visiting is the grotto at Notre Dame. I am also obsessed by the church my Polish grandparents were married in, St. Adalberts, which has not Jesus as centerpiece behind the altar, but the Polish Black Madonna, Our Lady of Czestochowa, a brown skinned woman in the middle of a gorgeous gothic cathedral. You have said that you are a “Decadent” and believe in ornament, which I associate with a Catholic aesthetic. Do you feel that your writing has been influenced by this aspect of your spiritual background?

JM: My grave problems with this Church aside, my cultural instincts are definitely shaped by my early immersion in Catholicism: my taste for the drastic, for extremes, for the blood and the gold, for a faith based on Mysteries, on agonies, for the set-up-and-punchline structure of the Beatitudes: Let Beauty be convulsive… Catholic media theory, like the Virgin of Guadalupe making an image of herself on a peasant’s cloak, or the fact that images themselves may generate impossible effects and be realer than real. The fact that there is something realer than real. Something real that can be saturated with more realness. Transubstantiation itself, that a thing may be turned into its opposite through a tiny portal the size of a wafer, that’s just like a basic assumption of my day-to-day life. Saints’ bodies are notoriously full of special effects: the ability to be in two places at once (bi-location), to smell good in the grave (the odor of sanctity), to bleed from the wrong holes or function though dismembered. My hearing loss and tinnitus creates a feeling inside my head like a struck bell, a buzzy stillness thick with activity and inclination. I like to be there, and I think this is a Catholic feeling.

NS: For my last question, I always ask the featured writer to talk about where they live in Indiana and give readers some information about places in that location that are influential to their art and their practice. You might also talk about any misconceptions, truths, or other thoughts about the place you live. I think the wider literary community doesn’t necessarily think of Indiana as a literary place.

JM: South Bend has been my muse and model of thought since moving here fifteen years ago. Were I not living here, I don’t think I would have developed my idea of the necropastoral – a way of making and reading literature based on anachronism and strange meetings as well as Anthropocene phenomena like mutation, metastasis, toxicity, contagion, and decay. The Rust Belt and Decadence rhyme– coicident with decay, with with lateness, being deranged in time. So it is written in the sacred book of Indiana: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”  Something breaks down, and something else is rising. An unwholesome and unauthorized, tickling and dubious blooming. A defunctness and a posthumous vista of possiblity. A light that never goes out.

South Bend is as good a place as any to set out to describe the universe. 

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