Despite all the ‘it’s not what you write, it’s how you write it’ clichés flying around, sometimes I still have a teenage belief that I need to be living some kind of physical extreme to be a good writer. I should be doing more drugs, having dramatic love affairs, traveling to the ends of the world, and generally making every day such an aggressive pursuit of experiences that I am always close to death. Then I read Lucy K. Shaw’s writing and feel very silly. She can make a story about a simple trip to the park or museum completely compelling to read. In her debut book The Motion (421 Atlanta), it is moments of solitude, disappointing social interactions, or simply living as a woman with fierce artistic ambition, that truly makes a—to borrow a phrase of Shaw’s—sensational lifestyle.
The book ends with a list called “Incomplete List of People I Would Want to Blurb My Chapbook.” The people range from the very famous (Beyoncé, Fiona Apple), to the dead (Louise Bourgeois, Amy Winehouse), to great writers who actually did end up blurbing The Motion (Chloe Caldwell, Wendy C. Ortiz). In lieu of a traditional interview, I thought it would be fun to ask Lucy questions about the people on that list, essentially having her blurb the people she wanted to blurb her book. The list is almost completely all women, so we get to be two feminist creatives talking about (as well as exchanging links/images/quotes of) other female artists, which is pretty much one of my favorite things to do. It happened through a shared Google doc.
Kristen Felicetti: I don’t know if your list is in any particular order, but the first person listed is going to have some significance regardless. You’ve given that slot to Joyce Johnson. Why is she listed first?
Lucy K. Shaw: Well, I wrote this list in about five minutes and the order has not been revised so it’s very truthful. Although it could probably, in fact, be called, ‘Incomplete list of people who have made me feel like it’s okay for me to be me’ or something like that…
I wasn’t looking forward to asking people for blurbs because, I mean, I don’t really like asking people to do anything, and I think blurbs are a particularly gross or insincere part of the publishing protocol. But I knew that they could be helpful. So when I was thinking about that, I just started writing down a list of people who had really inspired me and then I emailed it to a friend, as part of a larger conversation.
My friend thought it was funny so I sent it to Amy (McDaniel), my editor, too, on a whim, just to make her laugh really, because some of the people I put on the list are so famous and far-fetched, or dead.
But Amy immediately said, “We should put this in the book!” So I think that was a visionary move on her part. And then we actually did end up getting blurbs from Chloe Caldwell and Wendy C. Ortiz, which was really flattering, because I love their work very much.
I could write a whole essay about why Joyce Johnson is first on the list. I mean, I’ve already written this short one about her. But there is still so much more to say. I read her books when I was very young. I mean, I was about 20, but I think I was very young. And not only did I feel like her writing really gave me permission to live in a way that I had, up until that point, not viewed as an actual possibility, it also showed me that it could be very important for me to do that.
Here’s an extract from her memoir, Minor Characters, (published in 1983, nearly thirty years after the period she’s talking about). When I first read this in 2007, I can remember feeling something very similar to what she described here, and it helped me. Joyce Johnson became my ‘usable model’:
KF: You and Sarah Jean Alexander are close friends who edit Shabby Doll House together. It seems right that you’re both having your first books come out around the same time. I smile every time I see pictures of your two books together. If you were to blurb Sarah Jean’s book Wildlives, what would your blurb say?
LKS: This is from a poem called “Hard Center” which is in her book;
‘If you see a person everyday for many years,
you won’t notice when they begin to develop
wrinkles, and suddenly there is a canyon running
through each of her cheeks and when you kiss
them your lips won’t find the deepness foreign
as flesh presses against softer flesh even though
your skulls are closer together now than they
were forty years ago.’
It might sound strange but because I get to talk to Sarah Jean every day, I often forget that she’s this genius poet. But it’s very easy to do that because she’s so much of a person too. Then every time I read her work or get the opportunity to see her read IRL, I’m suddenly reminded of her incredible ability to pick out the smallest details from life (be they passing emotions or passing people or passing physical objects, everything is treated with a sense of delicate, wondrous respect), and then, by the way that she can amass all of this ephemera onto the page and so naturally amplify it to the exact volume at which we hear life in our own heads.
I’d probably say something about that. But like I said, blurbs make me feel kind of uncomfortable!
KF: The two people on the list that I immediately wanted to ask you about were Sarah Jean and Fiona Apple. Few famous people mean more to me than Fiona Apple does. It sounds a little silly, but I’ve really grown up with her and she’s always made a lot of sense to me. What she has said in articles resonated with me as a teenager and also now, as she has gotten older, and even more articulate, and hopefully, so have I. Above all, she’s always made great music with a lot of integrity. Do you feel similarly about Fiona Apple? That you have grown up with her?
LKS: I somehow didn’t know that Fiona Apple existed until after she did a VH1 concert with Elvis Costello in 2006. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a child because my parents listened to him a lot, but I guess she just wasn’t really as big in England? I don’t know. But at some point I saw a video of her on YouTube singing one of Elvis’s songs (it’s called “Shabby Doll”…), and from then on I was obsessed with her music. I guess this was just after Extraordinary Machine was released.
I went to see her in concert in Toronto when she toured The Idler Wheel in 2012, and I remember sort of deliberately losing my friends mid-way through the show because I felt that her music had become so personal to me. I needed to experience it alone.
I think what makes her music feel so valuable is that she doesn’t force herself to release albums until she really feels ready to release them. Her songs spring out of necessity and I think that, as a culture, we’re kind of starved of that type of brevity. It’s no wonder it feels so powerful.
KF: I think that’s true. There’s this iconoclasts episode where she and Quentin Tarantino are hanging out, and she talks about how she will not force herself to write songs. She says, “if you’re not overflowing with something, there’s nothing to give”, which really rings true. She says most of her time is just spent “keeping the antennae out there,” listening and experiencing and taking things in. I always try to remember that, in an age where people are constantly asking you what you’re working on, and there’s this big anxiety to produce, or produce faster. Or if a good portion of your identity is wrapped up in making things, you can feel a little lost without some sort of project on your hands. But it’s okay, sometimes we all just need to remind ourselves to keep our antennaes out there.
LKS: Yeah I completely agree. And even worse than that, we’re absorbed into this really ugly culture of people feeling completely entitled to constant validation from others. And obviously the popularity of a certain thing/person/work can fall completely out of sync with the quality/the honesty/the necessity of [whatever it is]. It’s depressing to think about.
KF: Please post a Nicki Minaj quote that you like here. The internet needs to be taken up with more Nicki Minaj quotes.
“I put quality in what I do. I spend time and I spend energy and I spend effort and I spend everything I have, every fiber of my being, to give people quality. So if I turn up to a photo shoot and you got a $50 clothes budget and some sliced pickles on a motherfuckin’ board, you know what? No. I am gonna leave. Is that wrong? For wanting more for myself, wanting people to treat me with respect? But you know what? Next time, they know better. But had I accepted the pickle juice, I would be drinking pickle juice right now.”
KF: Can you talk about someone on the list that I haven’t already mentioned? (in any way you like)
[Lucy posts the following image:]
KF: Luisa Casati was one of the people on your list that I wasn’t familiar with, so I consulted Wikipedia, obviously. The second line of her Wikipedia entry caught my eye, “As the concept of dandy was expanded to include women, the marchesa Casati fitted the utmost female example by saying: ‘I want to be a living work of art’.” Being a living work of art, I feel that’s a fantasy I’ve had in various forms, from eccentric dressing to living a “vaguely bohemian lifestyle” (see #17) lol, to just working on art really, really hard—so much so that it’s all-consuming. I’m not really sure what my question is here, but yes, talk about Luisa Casati, in any way you like!
LKS: So I used to live in Toronto and I would often go to the big gallery there, The AGO, and it’s such a vast place that you kind of just have to walk around and take it all in as best you can. There are many, many rooms filled with beautiful, boring Canadian landscapes and so many paintings of old aristocratic-looking men being serious. A lot of it is extremely dull. But it does feel nice to be tucked away somewhere quiet in the middle of the city sometimes.
One time I was walking through the galleries aimlessly and I came across this painting of this woman and I was so struck by it, I just stopped and stared at it for a really long time. The entire wall was covered with paintings, like I mean they were really crammed on to the wall, and there were no plaques indicating who had painted any of them so I didn’t know who she was, or who the artist was, but it stayed in my mind.
Here’s a snapchat I took on a later visit:
A while later, I found out online somehow that the painting was by Augustus John and that the subject was Luisa Casati, or the Marchesa Casati. She was an ‘eccentric heiress and patroness of the arts,’ once the richest woman in Italy. She’s famous for dominating European society in the early twentieth century and for ‘commissioning her own mortality’ in the form of hundreds of portraits by some of the most famous artists of her time. She lived in the palace on the Grand Canal in Venice which is now the Peggy Guggenheim museum.
So she was basically the most sensational person who ever lived and that is kind of a nice story by itself, but then she lost all her money and died in London in 1957, $25 million in debt. I kind of like that her life ended that way though, I don’t know—not in a vindictive way, at all—just that it gives her a much richer texture, as a character. She lived through this really extravagant period of history during her youth and then the whole world changed and she just sort of had to change with it. I’m amazed there’s no Hollywood movie.
There’s something really powerful about her eyes in the Augustus John painting. Every time I see it, I just feel like she’s looking at me and confirming some kind of feeling that I have but can’t yet identify. It’s so inspiring. I suddenly feel like I want to write a whole book just about that.
KF: The list in The Motion isn’t called “List of people I would want to blurb my chapbook”—it’s called “Incomplete List of…,” implying there are more people to add. The book’s gone to print, but are there any names you’d add to the list?
LKS: Luna Miguel, Karina Briski, Stephanie Georgopulos, Kristen Felicetti, Amy McDaniel, Stacey Teague, Maggie Lee, Ashley Opheim, Rachael Lee Nelson. There are definitely more. Maybe I should put a list in every book I write and it’ll be interesting to see how it changes.
KF: I think some of the stuff I said in the intro to this interview would make decent blurb copy, but here’s a more fun one.
“I had a dream the other night, probably in anticipation of this interview, that I made earrings of Lucy’s book, dangly enameled pendants of the cover. My dream self was so excited to tell Lucy about this, for I was sure this was gonna be the way to promote her book, lol. In real life, I don’t have any jewelry making skills, and any attempt would probably end up looking like some kind of Etsy nightmare, but if I did, I’d make those earrings. Not as a brilliant marketing plan, but because I’d be proud to wear a reminder of The Motion with any outfit.” –Kristen Felicetti
KF: Okay, here’s one final question that doesn’t directly tie to the incomplete list, but I was curious! How did you select which stories were going to be in The Motion? You didn’t just compile every story you’ve ever written or published—there’s some kind of selection process. You mentioned to me that you’re starting to think of it as more of a loose novella than a story collection. I wonder if that line of thinking affected what pieces you decided to include?
LKS: There’s a bonus track on Drake’s Nothing Was The Same album called ‘The Motion’ and I was listening to that record a lot whilst walking around in the English countryside by myself last year and trying to figure out how best to put the book together. The hook of the song, or the definition of Drake’s ‘The Motion’ is, ‘She’ll probably come around soon as I’ll settle down, that’s the motion’, meaning everything changes, you can’t wait for people to feel differently or to feel enough, you can’t stay in a place that doesn’t let you feel like a person, you have to keep moving. You must follow your own trajectory. And I was trying to write this way and trying to live this way, while putting this book together. The epigraph for the book is from Frank O’Hara’s Personism manifesto, and part of it says, ‘You just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do may after a few months. But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang onto life.’ I think there’s something so powerful about that line,
‘But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang onto life.’
So if I can remember that and live by that, I feel like everything makes a lot more sense. The stories I selected for this book are about time and distance and moments and life spinning away in so many different directions. I guess because that’s all I’ve been thinking about for the last few years. Once I figured that out, selecting the stories was simple.
Kristen Felicetti is a writer and the editor of The Bushwick Review, which will have a Lucy K. Shaw story not included The Motion in its upcoming issue.