Melgard – Reads Holly Melgard

This piece was first published in 2015 as part of a collection called Essays for a Canceled Anthology. Republished with permission of the author. Citation info below.

Holly Melgard Reads Holly Melgard
Holly Melgard, 2015

Holly: Holly, you’re a fellow woman writing in a contemporary poetry community, so let’s just talk woman to woman if we can—tête-à-tête, you know, like man to man. I have a lot of questions about your work that I want to ask you.

Holly: I would hope so. Like what kind of questions?

Holly: Hang on, I’m getting to them.

Holly: Ready when you are.

Holly: Almost there. Just getting out my pen. I’m messing with you.

Holly: Thanks for that.

Holly: Any time. Now then—Looking at the trajectory of work you’ve produced in the last decade, I notice that you’ve basically operated in three modes: 1) First, there were the poems you composed for sound at your poetry readings, all of which multiply and amplify your speech patterns using acoustic devices like loop-pedals. 2) Second, in 2010, you started making book-length poems, all of which display some text in relation to a single visual image that repeats on every page (like your “White Trash” or scans of your losing lottery tickets). 3) Third, and most recently, you’ve been making “Labor Poems,” each of which is titled for a different theoretical category of labor and transcribes scenes of female labor (mainly childbirth) from different perspectives (the mother’s, child’s, etc). This is at least the sequence in which you began working in these three modes, although you still actively work in all of them. Would you say these modes—sound, book, and labor—are three separate projects, or is there an underlying formal concern that’s driving your turn from one mode to another?

Holly: Well there’s a difference between what I would call a formal concern and the drive. My ongoing formal concern during this time has been accounting for the labor of my poetry reading itself. So over the years, my method has stayed pretty consistent: I always start by reading a text and then document that activity. Sometimes poems transpired from enunciating my work in sonic space, or designing a book environment in which my work can dwell. And sometimes poems developed out of trying to note something I fail to read like “undocumented female labor.” It’s not as though these three modes—sound, book, and labor—are separate environments of the poem. I tend to resort to each as an alternative to another whenever something isn’t working for me. But writing as a woman, all along what’s driven my formal concern and alternation between modes has been the utterly base necessity for my work to contribute a feminist practice that I can inhabit. Most days, that means revising what I thought the day before or starting over completely.

Holly: Wait—you are concerned with how to account for your “poetry reading itself”—what do you mean by that?

Holly: Just that.

Holly: What? How?

Holly: Well, Holly, what do you make of poetry reading itself? I’m asking because the idea depends on readerly input. Do you expect me to both make the poem and read it for you? The poem doesn’t exist prior to the moment that it’s read. So, go on, read it yourself. Do the work. Re-read it if you need to. I’ll wait. I’ll be right here when you get back.

Holly: Okay I re-read it. Poetry reading itself—I still don’t get that. Oh wait—Right. Ha ha, because I’m reading it and I’m you. Good one. Okay sure, but poems don’t read themselves, people do. So in what way do you mean poetry reading itself?

Holly: I don’t know—that’s why I keep re-reading it. Meanwhile, reading is a socially constructed category that has been the site of great existential turmoil and political renovation in the last decade. During this time, I saw my publishing environment and my own habits of attention in reading practice completely transformed by the digital tools I now use to process information. Simultaneous to this transformation, many in our community greatly debated whether a poem needed to be read at all in order to get the idea, whether the distribution of poetry had limited its readership exclusively to poets, and whether those poets were even reading each other’s work. Throughout this conversation, the problem remained that poems only exist when I read them. For any of my work to begin to contribute to lessening the unequal occupancy of women’s writing in poetry, focusing on my readings as the material site of the poem itself was my way of verifying that indeed someone was reading my work.

Holly: At this time, you’re in the process of compiling a manuscript of collected works that includes many transcripts of your poetry readings. This is your first book with an outside editor, but technically not your first book at all. As a co-editor of Troll Thread press, you’ve already self-published eight book-length poems prior to this. What’s been the delay in putting out this first book with an outside editor?

Holly: What delay? I make poems as readings—not poems to be read. Why wait to be asked before speaking? What, should I not speak unless spoken to? Why wait for an established person to solicit, welcome, and/or legitimate this work prior to permitting it to occupy public space-time? Self-publishing these books via Troll Thread allowed me to immediately distribute my work to a larger public without predicating what I make on anyone else’s desire or agency besides my own.[1] Given the structural sexism built into publishing culture, not depending on an outside reader or editor’s hospitable approval has been like literally cutting out the middle-man for me. Because TT books don’t need financial investment, literary merit, public demand, or ethical appeal to get made, it has opened up possibilities for experimenting with materials that would have never occurred to me otherwise. My primary interest in TT has been in its potential to house poems that couldn’t otherwise effectively occupy space in a published economy.

Holly: Yet you rarely read from your TT books at your events. Your book-length poems on TT all explore implications for physically materializing poems by designing them to do things like break an industrialized printer by POD’ing a 740 page all-black book (Black Friday, 2012), or reimburse your gambling losses by selling a book of your scanned losing lottery tickets (Reimbursement, 2013). How does your stated objective—accounting for your reading labor—translate to the silent pages of your TT books?

Holly: My TT poems are mainly picture books of single images that repeat on every page with few words in between. Each one’s conceptual premise is rudimentary enough that it triggers a cause and effect reaction with or without reading it aloud. They consume bandwidth and resources just by existing either as POD books or downloadable pdfs. Getting to design everything from their conceptual premise to their paratexts (like covers, spine, front/backmatter, layout, page numbers, etc) enables me to install all kinds of reading devices for tempering the navigation of the physical environment of the poem. My TT works were designed for the labor of reading poetry in a changing book environment.

Holly: But Holly, if your desire has been to more directly transcribe your reading labor into books, then why did you make your book-length poem Money by “Maker” instead of by its actual author, Holly Melgard? That poem is a 740-page book of full-color, full-scale scans of hundred dollar bills. It uses POD to illegally counterfeit money, inviting the reader to either call cops or cut on the dotted line and use the bills IRL. Where is your labor accounted for in a book that doesn’t list you as its author?

Holly: In a book this repetitive, putting my name on it would have conceptually organized it into a book about my money (of which I have little), rather than into a book of money, or a poem that makes money (which everyone insists poetry doesn’t do). Given my subject position, my name on the cover would have turned the major conflict of the book into the problem of having no right to claim Money as my own.

Holly: How does listing your name as the author of Money turn it into a book that doesn’t belong to you?

Holly: I’ve never had the financial stability of “a room of one’s own” with which to write “Women’s Literature.” I’m a contingent adjunct, editor, book designer and practicing poet in her 30’s who has never made a living wage. I sought a PhD to gain financial stability, but the economy collapsed a few months after I entered graduate school. The adjunctification of the university system has all but deleted the possibility that I’ll pay off the debt I’ve accumulated by continuing to participate in my field. The more debt I accumulate while simultaneously participating in this literary “gift economy,” the more all this just looks to me like a company store rigged for the rich and established.[2] As a student and as a woman operating in this literary gift economy, I’ve seen the products of my labor continuously subjected to ever worsening gender inequalities, and cannot see anything I’ve made as exempt from my complicity with those frameworks. I didn’t make Money to reflect my life or reflect on it. I attributed Money to “Maker” so as to exceed the limitations of my biographical and historical situation. Money is a poem that makes money without depending on institutional support, application process, or start up capital.

Holly: I can’t help but notice that your description of the failing economic support for females in a literary economy bares a striking resemblance to your more recent “Labor Poems” series. “Divisions of Labor” transcribes and alphabetizes sounds that women make while giving birth in videos on YouTube. “Alienated Labor” transcribes a scene from Alien Nation where a male member of the “Newcomer” species gives birth. “Child Labor” cuts up Penthouse accounts of what it’s like to be inside women and changes the order of information to reconstruct childbirth from the perspective of the fetus. “Undocumented Labor” departs from the theme of childbirth entirely, instead depicting an overheard phone conversation between an unpaid assistant and their demanding boss. Would you say that your increasing regard for the undocumentation of female labor in this series has something to do with the lived historical conditions that you are describing?

Holly: I know many poets with stories similar to mine, and plenty with worse ones. Because I am restricted to my given subject position within this collapsing institutional setting, more and more I’ve become compelled to account for forms of labor that have similarly gone un- or de-documented as a result of the wholesale stripping of financial support from writers of all stripes.

Holly: It seems you aim in the performance of your work at the production of an immersive soundscape. You use acoustic tools like extra microphones and speakers to multiply and amplify your reading voice. For instance, when you read your sound-based poem “Stay” (2010), you use a loop-pedal to gradually layer what you say into dozens of voices that repeat back and talk over you, eventually drowning you out. As I mentioned before, you are only just now beginning to release the written versions of your live work. What’s been keeping your reading of “Stay” off the published page until now?

Holly: When I first started making poems, I thought that putting feminist theory into written practice meant doing something like what my teachers suggested: make Écriture Feminine—install feminine desire in a male dominated discourse by importing the female body and its desire for self-regard into its written archive, thus inscribing gender equality as the cultural foundation of language itself. It seemed logical to me that the most efficient way to get the female body into writing was to put my body into my poems. So at first I composed texts for live performance, rather than for silent-pages, as a practical way of installing my body into the material site of the poem. However, much of what my body does when it reads aloud doesn’t translate to the silent page. Both pragmatically and historically speaking, things like intonation, inflection, repetition, pacing, pausing, skimming—these types of affective labor are the parts of conversational speech that typically get omitted from utilitarian publication and skimmed when silently read. Ironically or perhaps conspiratorially, these are also precisely the “not-yet-articulate” parts in language that essentialized theories of feminine form.

The thing about hearing poems that unfold in sound over time is that lines can occur simultaneously: slowly or repeatedly. But when read silently on a page, there’s nothing preventing the automated habits of attention from disregarding those sonic features. I began resorting to greater extremes to amplify the volume of the bodily sense I was making in my readings just to get it into the recordings in order to make them transcribable at all. But the harder I worked to get my reading into the material site of the poem, the less of it managed to transfer to the page. It turns out that putting my actual body parts into a poem made the work difficult to archive. I never found a graphic equivalent for overriding the bodily faculties of involuntary erasure bound up in the editorial attention span of the solitary reading process. In the end, making audible my bodily reading to an outside ear by way of the printed page considerably limited my options for publication and distribution.

Holly: Well now I’m wondering: what if embodying these inherited concepts of “feminine form” in your work is precisely what’s kept your poems off of the page and out of published distribution?

Holly: That’s exactly what I said! I started to grow paranoid around 2007, when Stephanie Young and Juliana Spahr pointed out in “Numbers Trouble” the still very large page-gap of under-included women. I thought to myself: What if the genre expectation that an ideal form of femininity can translate into an evolved model of feminism has been self-defeating for materializing our authoritative agency to exceed the confines of feminine passivity? Paranoia aside, translating inherited definitions of “feminine” and “feminism” into my own practice has certainly been much more easily said than done in the writing I’ve managed to produce so far. Subsequently my focus on embodying an ideal model of femininity decreased the more my failure to read a functional model of feminism through that framework escalated.[3]

Holly: In your poetry readings, your performance of the sound work and Labor poems is always heavily scripted and rehearsed. Your friends in our poetry community often describe your readings as “abrasive” and “arresting.” But the challenge for me as a listener is this: I’m confused how assaulting your audience with deafening sound or putting your books in without asking permission isn’t problematic. Holly, how are these “immersive soundscapes” and “designed book environments” not measures of control like the total works that Wagner was after? Are your texts rhetorical means of domination and mastery?

Holly: I’m trying to make audible to an outside ear muted forms of labor, not turn up the volume on them only to cause a sensation that leads to further disregard. When I’m reading, the last thing I need is some reader-writer, bored Apollonian to barge in and monologue over the poem with their own thoughts and ideas. Not while the poem is happening. In civil conversations, people take turns speaking and listening to each other. What’s so problematic about making conditions possible for that exchange? How is being direct and assertive, or displaying things like logic, linearity, and bossy dicks in my writing problematic?

Holly: Well Holly, isn’t that domineering performance style phallologocentric?[4]

Holly: Do you find it odd that phallologocentrism should find a place in my work? I don’t see how the genre expectation that my work provide an effective model of feminist practice is any different than the social obligation to display an agreeable brand of ladylikeness that my mother taught me. It seems to me that the activity of reading for the ladylikeness in women’s work only reinscribes gender conventions onto subsequent generations of female writers. “Phallologocentrism” is a redactive rhetorical term and is just one methodology among many others. If my practice is to take aim at this cycle of reinscription, it will do so precisely by embracing whatever my formal concerns encounter.

Holly: All this is causing me to wonder: How much of women’s labor that is available to us in the archive achieved documentation only as a direct result of refusing to surrender personal agency by embodying the characteristics of the essential “feminine form” like passivity and silence in their writing? If it is true that femininity in language is “not-yet-articulate,” then how much can I even regard feminine form through the written medium?[5]

Holly: Well, I see there being a fundamental distinction between abstract concepts like “feminine,” “feminism,” “female” and the material specifics of my lived person. For all the pluralism of my gender, personhood, and the historical specifics of my body of writing, the concept of gender is a category that has certainly undergone great social reconstruction in recent years. I would think that disidentifying my body of writing from impossibly ideal images of feminine form would be the only way to get my work on the page at all.

Holly: But Holly, doesn’t completely dissociating from figures of femininity run the risk of undocumenting all kinds of female labor from the record?

Holly: I doubt the gender imbalance of women’s writing represented in the published realm can be corrected by embodying feminine virtues of passivity and silence, and I doubt much progress can be made in a conversation about equality concerning all people by limiting its bounds to a gendered vocabulary that to my mind only restricts its relevance to the ladies room. Meanwhile, in an age of economic recession and environmental collapse, there remains a pressing need to expand my means for reading and articulating those recessive and ubiquitous objects by which I find myself interiorized.

Holly: Well then, reach for alternative positions from which to regard that unknown unknown. Come on, Holly. What are all the kinds of femininity and/or writing by women that have so far receded from the visible surface of the written archive we’ve inherited, whether because they failed to evade their complicity with patriarchy, or because their recessive, ubiquitous features have made them difficult to locate and consolidate. Whether by consequence of the gendered vocabulary they inherited or because they are structurally ambient by definition, both in and beyond the gendered vocabulary, what for all the ubiquited: the taboo, the hated and shunned; self-defeating narratives and the failures of self-reflexive regard; radical narcissism, feedback loops, inner monologues and, confession; all those embarrassing bitches like the tween, the shrill, and the shrew; all their labor that gets de-documented and unpaid like childbirth, motherhood and administrative duties; all the shit that’s difficult to fathom about them like reading them without writing over them, making poetry without money, and hearing silence prior to translating it into sound.[6] We’ve inherited all the these jankey conceptual frameworks for discerning this world that sound good in theory but that don’t work so well in practice. Even if these forms will only ever recede just beyond the horizon of intelligibility, at the end of the day, what would be the alternative to trying and failing to account for that which evades notation and defies the known—phobia and avoidance?


* * *


[1] Chris Sylvester founded Troll Thread in 2009 and invited Joey Yearous-Algozin, Divya Victor and myself to co-edit with this simple proposition that made all the difference: “It’s a place to put our poems that no one else wants.”

[2] For more on class struggle within in an economy of 21st-century American poetry publication, see Josef Kaplan’s “Poem that is Pro-Violence” in the concluding chapter of his Democracy is Not For the People (Truck Books, 2012).

[3] For more oedipalizations of Lynn Hejinian’s “Rejection of Closure”, see Joey Yearous-Algozin’s “The Radically Closed Text” (Becoming Poetics, 2010).

[4] This was originally a question that Trisha Low asked me in 2010, out of which much discussion transpired between she, Divya Victor and I in the years that followed. Still, we all fall on different sides of this debate. There are overlaps between our ideas, but this is my take. For more about this debate, see the concluding chapter to Trisha Low’s Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013).

[5] The essential definition of feminine form that the deconstrucitonists theorized is a concept that only makes sense to me in abstraction. Their theories articulated the feminine as an extreme position in relation to the masculine. In purely abstract terms, the feminine is absolutely passive matter that has no agency, and is only constituted as an object of desire in pursuit, never as a subject with that can pursue. Luce Irigaray even went so far as to say that the feminine is a figure is so imminently passive that it is spatially ambient; such that it can never be fully regarded because it exists in a state whose appearance recedes over the horizon. By definition in this light, the feminine is a figure that lives in a state that is utterly unfit for human consumption.

[6] After listening but failing to hear/note silence in the anechoic chamber, John Cage concluded that “there is no such thing as silence.” As Giorgio Agamben asked in his 1978 book Infancy and History, “how much can silence be heard prior to translating it into sound?” Cage likely couldn’t account for silence because he was measuring it only through the rubric of sound.

Melgard, Holly. “Holly Melgard Reads Holly Melgard,” in Essays for A Canceled Anthology (Troll Thread, 2015). http://trollthread.tumblr .com/post/157765917044/essays-for-a-canceled-anthology-holly-melgard.