Talking with Cheena Marie Lo About A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters

A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters (Commune Editions, 2016) by Cheena Marie Lo is a book of poetry that challenges what “poetry” can be. This text “[attends] to the sorts of mutual aid and possibility that appear in moments of state failure. As such it maps long and complicated equations, moving from Katrina to the prisoners at Riker’s Island as they await Sandy. It understands disaster as a collective system, the state as precarious, and community as necessary” (Commune Editions, 2016). While Lo’s original preoccupation concerned headlines of the past, in light of recent events in Orlando, I feel like this text, unfortunately, continues to be relevant today.

so what about the instinct to survive.

so what about birds and burying beetles.

so what about support and what about struggle.

so what about ants and bees and termites.

so what about the field upon which tender feelings develop
even amidst otherwise most cruel animals.

so what about migration. breeding. autumn.

so what about the numberless lakes of the russian and siberian steppes
and what about aquatic birds, all living in perfect peace—

Geraldine KimMany sections in A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters begin with some sort of carrier word or phrase that is repeated throughout that same section (e.g., “Because Another Tropical Storm is Looming,” with the word “because” or “Poor Marks for His Handling of Federal Response” with the word “poor”). Can you talk a bit about the function of this repetition in regards to the overall project/subject matter?

Cheena Marie Lo: Repetition is something that I use a lot in my writing because it reflects my thought process when I’m trying to figure something out. I have a tendency to relentlessly circle around things in my head. Some of these “carrier” words or phrases were part of the procedures I used when writing this– I lifted instances of “because” or “poor” or other “carriers” in the texts that I was working with. Reducing the materials to these words and phrases that surrounded them illuminated patterns and narratives in the source material. My intention with the repetition was to build and expand these narratives out.

GK: A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters feels less traditional “poetry” to me than a cross-genre exploration that includes non-fiction, statistics, etc. How did the form of the text come to fruition?

CML: For me, poetry is a way to think through and around something. I saw Rebecca Solnit give a talk at the Anarchist Book Fair in 2011, about how we become more human in times of disaster–how we don’t panic and turn into animals in “survival of the fittest” mode, but instead, we will help each other. I was interested in exploring the tension inherent of the notion of “becoming more human.” Who gets to become more human? I thought a lot about incarcerated folks, poor communities, and communities of color. And the proliferation of news articles referring to the citizens of New Orleans as refugees, an Other in their own country.

I was also interested in exploring the nature of disaster itself, what constitutes a disaster and who decides what a disaster is? Does there need to be an act of nature for something to be qualified as a disaster? What about the manmade disasters–the prison industrial complex and its disproportionate affect on poor people of color? Social and economic disasters? These things that happen long before the “natural” disaster ever starts, that are often exemplified once the act of nature occurs.

This book is my attempt to write through some of these questions. A lot of the language is appropriated from my research. One of the constraints I placed on the project was using the alphabet as an organizational tool—it is essentially one long abecedarian—as an attempt to find some order in it all.

GK: What other works influenced A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters (or, your work in general)?

CML: A number of works inspired and helped inform this project… Mutual Aid by Peter Kropotkin, Transcriptby Heimrad Backer, the visual art of Mark Bradford, Purgatory by Raul Zurita, Procedural Elegies/Western Civ Cont’d/ by Joan Retallack, Alphabet by Inger Christensen, the essay “Notes on an Oppositional Poetics” by Erica Hunt, Penury by Myung Mi Kim. Actually pretty much anything by Kim, including “Generosity as Method,” an interview that she did with Yedda Morrison.

GK: Do you consider yourself and/or your work feminist?

CML: Yes. I am a feminist, queer, genderqueer person of color. This is where I am writing and thinking from. My work seeks to name, interrogate, and critique the structures and relations that I find myself and those I love often pushing up against—white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, binaries, etc.

GK: What feminist writers do you admire?

CML: So many. The pile of books on my desk as I write this include the following writers: Brittany Billmeyer-Finn, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Cody-Rose Clevidence, Jasmine Gibson, Jen Hofer, Bhanu Kapil, Tessa Micaela Landreau-Grasmuck, Dawn Lundy Martin, Nat Raha, and Oki Sogumi.

I also feel lucky in that some of my best friends are also some of my favorite writers and collaborators, and that they are constant sources of inspiration.

GK: What was the process like for writing A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters?

CML: The book is research-heavy, and is comprised of a lot of statistics and found language—the writing process involved a lot of reading and note taking. Lots of compiling, stripping away, putting together. Some are poems were written in response to photographs. Some poems are procedural, written using the Google News search function. Some poems are simply lists of numbers, statistics, which are an attempt to write the disaster which is in many ways unwriteable, to gesture towards structures, violence, and absence that is unspeakable.

GK: What kinds of thoughts/projects occupy your mind nowadays?

CML: I’ve been working on this manuscript that is about debt, sociality, gender, and work for a while now. It might actually be two separate manuscripts, I’m not so sure. I keep putting it away because I can’t quite figure it out. When I put it away, I work on other projects—currently the project that is occupying a lot of my attention is HOLD, the journal I co-edit with Tessa Micaela Landreau-Grasmuck and Zoe Tuck. We’re working on putting out our second issue, which is about kinship. This project feels very near and dear to me because I get to work with two dear friends, whose poetics and politics feels very aligned with my own, and because we get to engage with the larger literary community and cultivate conversations and connections with some really important work that folks are submitting.

Cheena Marie Lo, Jacket2.

Cheena Marie Lo, image via Jacket2.

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