The first time I met Janice Lee was at an off-site AWP reading in Seattle. She was wearing a black leather jacket and looked cool and tough as fuck, and was there to read from the chapbook she co-wrote with Will Alexander, The Transparent as Witness (from Solar Luxuriance). Over the years since (and before!) I’ve run into Janice online and IRL many times, all of which attest to her way-of-being-in-the-world: cool and tough as fuck as her leather jacket promised, and also generous, supportive, and constantly working on her own books while also engaging with and helping sustain literature in her community. We talked over email about her book The Sky Isn’t Blue (CCM 2016), colors and textures, and how everything is everything– plus a brand new excerpt from her novel-in-progress, Imagine a Death.
Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), Reconsolidation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2015), and most recently the essay collection The Sky Isn’t Blue (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016). She currently lives in Los Angeles and is Editor of the imprint #RECURRENT for Civil Coping Mechanisms, Founder & Executive Editor of Entropy, Assistant Editor at Fanzine, and Co-Editor (w/ Maggie Nelson) of SUBLEVEL, the new online literary magazine based in the CalArts MFA Writing Program. She can be found online at janicel.com.
Gina Abelkop: I visited the Entropy post in which you first published a draft of “The Salton Sea,” a section in your book The Sky Isn’t Blue, and loved so much that an essay on the poetics of space engaged so closely with sound and image, referencing Django Reinhardt and Wilco, the sound of water in your video from the Salton Sea– it’s a multisensory reading experience on the level of the sensory in addition to language. What was it like moving a text from a home on the internet to a home in a physical book– how did that shift the parameters of the project?
Janice Lee: There were rewrites, additions, deletions. Also thinking about how most of the images were less necessary in the book. I needed to reframe the project. The essays online were more like blog posts, immediate reactions, confessionals. It was a way for me to combat my writer’s block by writing, by articulating what I was feeling, and the immediate space of the internet allowed me to be urgent and honest and open. So for the book, there was a little bit of “cleaning up,” bringing the slightly more raw writing to the page, but I also wanted to preserve a lot of that. So it’s not a completely rewritten, polished book because the original feelings and thoughts, even if flawed, were important to keep intact for me.
GA: What is your favorite kind of sky? (Favorite times of day to look at the sky, favorite places to look at the sky, favorite sky memories)
JL: I love sunsets, mostly because of how ephemeral they are. Often times, the most beautiful colors (the pinks, purples, reds) last for just a few seconds before fading away into oranges and grays. I also love skies with texture — with clouds, differently shaped clouds, and how skies change so much from place to place. One of my favorite views of the sky is from my rear view mirror in the car, it’s a slightly convex angle and so alters the perspective a bit, but there’s also something about looking at the sky or sunset that’s happening behind you, both in proximity and so far away.
GA: I love these lines from the book: “Lie in bed. Stare at the sunlight. Wonder what color is the sunlight coming in, what color is the light, what color. // The most suitable color for everything is the desire for color when is there too much of it.” I wonder what colors are most evocative for you, and generally how you might characterize the way color plays in your interactions with the world on a daily basis. Are there colors or combinations of color that are “too much” or perhaps not enough? Do you have favorite color combinations, and what are they evocative of for you?
JL: It’s changing all the time. Blues, of course, are interesting to me. In the context of the book, I think about how “blue” didn’t always exist as a color, and therefore the sky wasn’t always blue. I love colors that bleed into other colors, like inside of sunsets there are are so many colors between the colors. I love contrast in colors but I also love soft, subtle combinations. Lately I’ve been creating color palettes using online generators, not for design, but just to look at, to investigate how different colors and color combinations alter my mood or calm me or invoke nostalgia.
GA: You write that “One version of reality, of course, is that the sky is blue.” If you had to describe the color of the sky without using color/visual-based language, how would you describe it (through the senses of sound, physical sensation, etc)?
JL: I think it has so much to do with the kind of sky, the weather, the locale. We think of the sky as a visual phenomenon because of how closely we associate “sky” with “blue.” But the sky is air and light and atmosphere. Air is felt and can be breathed in or can suffocate. Light can be warm or the lack of it can be bitter. It might be bright outside, and we know it’s bright not because of color but because of the intensity on our eyes and so we blink or strain to keep our eyes open. The sky, too, is accumulation. Accumulation of particles in the distance, and so it’s only sky at a distance and just air in proximity. Rebecca Solnit writes beautifully about this, sky as distance, as desire.
GA: You are a founder/editor at Entropy, graphic designer, writer in several genres, and human navigating the endless difficulties and joys of being alive: does it all feel of a piece, or do you have an organizing principle for the way you manage all these different parts of your life? What parts do these different projects play in creating a sense of community or interpersonal connection in your life?
JL: Good question. For me, writing is the site of so much of what it means to be human. I sort out my thoughts and investigations. It helps me work through and around grief and mourning. It is a site for compassion and empathy. It allows me to gesture towards intimacy, both with myself and with others. In all the work I do, it’s important for me to keep spaces of articulation and expression open, to allow people to be honest through language and to have that space. So in my editorial work or other work, I’m constantly asking: how do we hold space open while maintaining intimacy? On a more logistical level, it’s a lot more chaotic than that. I’m always juggling things in my schedule, switching between different parts of my brain, but it’s all interconnected to me, and at the core, it’s really the people around me, the community, that drive a lot of what I do.
GA: What are your current creative projects? What prompted their beginnings, and what questions do you hope they’ll engage with?
JL: Most currently I’m working on a novel titled Imagine a Death. It’s a novel in which I spent a lot of time inside of before I actually started writing any of it. I was thinking about the apocalypse as a state of anticipation, about indifference and political apathy, about interspecies communication, about inherited trauma and silences around trauma, about memory, about the difference between ontology and perception, about empathy, and to be perfectly honestly, the beginnings of this novel came to be in dream form and via a very wise cat. Initially, I had several images that kept popping up: the desert, a girl washing blood off her hands, a cat (I think due to these two feral kittens that were coming by my house regularly). Then, while I was visiting Brenda Iijima in New York, her cat, Mr. Bungie, jumpstarted my novel by talking to me in my dreams, and then, after my return to Los Angeles, arriving at my front door in a dream covered in blood. And sort of disguised signs have been coming to me from other animals, and it’s sort of hard to explain, but the book in some ways has been a sort of collaboration with the various life forms and creatures I’ve been encountering.
Here is a small, brand new excerpt:
In a dream there is a small, huddled crowd of people, their faces bright from the encroaching lava that is slowly crawling towards them from all sides. They are surrounded, and it is obvious to all of the individuals that there is no escape from the fiery death. So they do not ask how it is that they got here and they do not ask what they might do now to save themselves. Rather, in these final moments together, they crowd closer together, not to give themselves an extra breath or two, though naturally that too, but to actually get closer together, that in these moments before death they want to leave in the intimacy of each other, whether strangers or family or friends, they want to feel what it is to be loved and to be in the entanglements of intimacy with other bodies, the warmth of limbs, the prayers received from others, the tears of terror that transform into tears of generosity and gratitude, and they all grasp at each other, trying to feel each other’s bodies, each other’s hands, just, each other, and as the lava creeps further and further they can feel the heat from the steam, the skin on their faces starts to boil, those on the outer perimeter start to scream as their outer layers burn away and their feet simply disintegrate into the mass of lava, the intense heat (heat, here is probably an inadequate word to describe the actual temperature of that fiery mass that is about to consume them in totality) for just a blink of existence reminding them of what it means to feel anything in life and to feel anything in death, both the joy and all of the pain, all of those human feelings as a giant and intense mass, before they are obliterated and relieved of their burdens forever.
GA: If you had to create a literary genealogy or family tree for The Sky Isn’t Blue, using art and literature by other folks, what might some of those be?
JL: Oh, so many! Including everything that’s referenced in the book itself. But a few:
Of course: The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. And also: Nashville (the TV show), Elliot Smith, Werner Herzog’s Of Walking In Ice, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Will Alexander, David Appelbaum’s Jacques Derrida’s Ghost: A Conjuration, Van Gogh and Emil Nolde, Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse, The Werckmeister Harmonies, Satantango, Damnation), Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Radiolab’s episode on colors, Amanda Ackerman’s writings on the compromised body, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Madeline Gin & Arakawa’s Architectural Body, Badiou on the event, The Last Books of Héctor Viel Temperley translated by Stuart Krimko, Jaime Sáenz’s poetry, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Alice Notley’s Alma.