The following is an interview I did with Brittany Billmeyer-Finn, an Oakland-based poet whose recent book of poetry the meshes (Black Radish, 2016) features a complex polyvocal/temporal interpretation/dialogue of and against Maya Deren‘s filmography.
Geraldine Kim: When I was reading the meshes, I noticed multiple layers of gazing or “looking” throughout the text—the gaze of the filmmaker, of the author writing about the filmmaker’s work, etc. “looking resists. looking revises. looking interrogates. looking invents, to be stared at. looking at one another. looking back” (p.31) and “having performed seeing. seeing double. seeing doubles. having performed spectatorship. I describe the lens. the film itself. the both-ness. opposition of becoming. soft focus. caught the light. depth of surfaces. multiplications as limiting” (p. 54). Could you talk a bit more about these layers?
Brittany Billmeyer-Finn: Spectatorship is innate to the process of writing this book. An important part of the process is watching films. It also becomes a source of contention and critique that develops in the four sections of the book; “the poems,” “the essay,” “the play,” and “the annotated bibliography.”
“the poems” engages with a selection of Maya Deren’s silent films including; the meshes of the afternoon, ritual in transfigured time, witch’s cradle, choreography for camera, at land and meditation on violence. As I watched these films, I attempted to translate them into poetry by showing the experience of watching on the page.
Following Deren’s silent films, I came across her documentary, The Divine Horsemen the Living Gods of Haiti. The course of the project shifted with the inclusion of this film. It felt important to push up against the passivity of watching. The process needed a form that allowed for more nuance beyond watching and translating. So, I changed the form to a poetic essay. “the essay” includes both the process of transcribing the film itself and also a research element in which I read books and essays on the Haitian Revolution, on Haitian Voudoun tradition including Deren’s own book, The Divine Horsemen the Living Gods of Haiti. I read multiple genres in which Haiti is represented. This incorporation hoped to push up against the colonized archive and potential violence of ethnography as well as the passivity of spectatorship by asking, What are the ethics of this?
“the play” was an important shift in form. It reflects the process of writing the first two sections of the book and offers a self-awareness the first two sections do not. “the play” itself is a ritual of making this work. the meshes deals in iteration. As “the poems” and “the essay” become “the play” the position of the text shifts, starting as a collection written by a viewer and becomes that which is viewed.
GK: There are multiple voices in the meshes—specifically, ones that keep time like a metronome, especially in “part 3: the play.” How do the polyvocal and the temporal relate to one another in the book?
BBF: I am interested in this text as performance text, something sensuously experiential for the reader. The polyvocality and temporal are related to this idea. The polyvocality particularly shows up in “the play” and I would describe “the annotated bibliography” as a polyvocal score. The layers of voices throughout the text is a cacophony that engages a relationality of phrases.
The metronome or the counting in both “the essay” and “the play” are additional layers to the soundscape of the text. In the film, The Divine Horsemen the Living Gods of Haiti drumming is a significant part of the ceremonies taking place. On one level, I wanted to mirror the rhythmic experience of watching this film. The counting becomes a stopping, a sort of meditation or sort of moment of recalibration, it may also offer anticipation.
GK: What other works influenced the meshes (or, your work in general)? How did you get interested in Maya Deren’s work?
BBF: My interest in Maya Deren came out of an assignment in graduate school. I was assigned to respond creatively to an artist of a different medium and I chose Deren from the list. When I encountered her film, the meshes of the afternoon, I wrote the first iteration of the title poem for my book.
“The annotated bibliography” is the best representation of the texts that influenced the meshes directly. There are also many writers who indirectly influence this book and who are continuous influences. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book, Dictee, might be my very favorite book of all time. It is such a transformative work that moves through various forms and subject positions. I am also interested in the way Hak Kyung Cha used ritual in her performances. I am also inspired by Myung Mi Kim’s use of form, Joan Retallack’s The Poethical Wager and the idea of “the swerve,” Lyn Hejinian’s essay “Rejection of Closure” and Trish Salah’s convergence of the lyrical and critical feminist discourse. These writers influence the kind of artist I want to be and challenge me to consider the various possibilities and responsibilities of writing.
GK: Do you consider yourself and/or your work feminist?
BBF: Yes, I am a feminist. Deren was definitely a pioneer as a female avant-garde filmmaker and her work has been written about widely around the idea of the female gaze. Sarah Keller’s book, Maya Deren Incomplete Control, writes of the female gaze as it relates to Deren’s film, Witch’s Cradle, “the threat of violence relates to the strong subjective position of a female gaze—the “witch” invoked in the film’s title both wielding an excess of power and yet always in danger of punishment for her brazen independence” (pg. 66). I am interested in the complexity of this analysis of Deren’s work and the idea of the subversive quality of the female gaze.
Deren’s position as a pioneer in her medium is interesting and significant to why I was drawn to her, she is not foundational to my own notion of feminism. In the meshes, I think my own politics and position are most visible in the play and the embodiment of the text. In “footnote 1” of the play I write, “The performance of the meshes: an iteration in 2 acts is a self aware production of the implications of the archive and the avant-garde. Deren’ s documentary, The Divine Horsemen, The Living Gods of Haiti is foundational to this play that attempts to unpack positionality in relation to art-making. This play has a responsibility to those filmed in the documentary in Haiti. There are bodies at stake here. This play is not appropriative of the Voudon ritual itself but instead engaged in the process of making as well as the position of spectator and its tensions as viewer, voyeur and witness. It hopes to push up against the passivity of the spectator while considering the way language constructs knowledge and how this is related to the historical. This should be considered in the staging and casting of the play. This play has been adapted and performed as queer performance and is rooted there” (52).
GK: What feminist writers do you admire?
BBF: As a queer woman I consider my identity both an innate part of who I am as well as a political identifier. To me, a queer feminism is intersectional and directly in opposition of white supremacy and hetero-normative oppressions. What is true of my person and my poetics is that I work to resist hierarchies in part through ongoing reflection and self-evaluation of my own position and intentionality. I am lucky to be surrounded by a generous community of queer poets who do this work and offer this labor among various other labors. I am greatly influenced by the work of my peers: Zoe Tuck, Cheena Lo, Tessa Micaela Landreau-Grasmuck and Madison Davis to name a few. All of these writers engage in political poetic work related to identity, mourning, trauma, institutional critique and do so with beautiful lyrical crafting, humorous story-telling and compassion.
GK: What was the process like for writing the meshes?
BBF: I wrote the meshes over the course of four years. It started as a generative writing practice and grew into a performance text. It under went many revisions and discoveries. Most importantly to me and the way this text shaped me as a writer was through collaboration.
Whether it was from the help of teachers and my cohort in my graduate program, to the generosity of other poets in the Bay taking the time to sit down with me and discuss the work, to most significantly the collaboration with my friends, other poets and artists I hold very dear to me, who helped me develop and reevaluate the work through each iteration.
Oakland writer, book artist and performance artist Kate Robinson was one of the main readers of this text, she also designed the cover image of the book and is working on an artist book interpretation of the text. She was a cast member in the adaptation of the play, “the meshes: an iteration in 2 acts” that I put on with the help of many of the folks already mentioned in this interview: Kate Robinson, Ivy Johnson, Zoe Tuck, Cheena Lo, Madison Davis, Tessa Micaela Landreau-Grasmuck and Stella Peach. These folks were my cast and collaborators during a performance residency at SAFEhouse Arts in SF in 2015. Stella and I created a score together. As a group we blocked, rehearsed, promoted and performed a production of the play.
I then wanted to also show the spirit of collaboration in the book itself. It shows up in “the play.” The footnotes throughout “the play” are intentional spaces for interpretation and imagining variations of the embodiment of this work.
GK: What kinds of thoughts/projects occupy your mind nowadays?
BBF: I have been thinking about a queer poetics through an occult lens. I started this process as a guest panelist at the Small Press Distribution event, Season of the Witch. The panel topic was, Magic in Contemporary Writing. I continued to develop this thinking as a guest blog contributor for S.L.O.T. series at Timeless Infinite Light and hope to continue thinking through this in other forms.
I am also looking forward to my forthcoming book SLABS, coming out in 2016 from Timeless Infinite Light’s Tract series. And am working on a book formerly titled “the shopgirl handbook” as seen in Mills publication 580 Split in 2015 and Elderly issue # 13. Now titled, “the shopgirl myth,” is a semi autobiographical collection of poetry on queerness, family, indoctrination, poetryland and Oakland.