Kate Zambreno is the author of, among other books, the novel Green Girl (Emergency Press, 2011; Harper Perennial reissue, 2014) and the nonfiction text Heroines (Semiotext(e), 2012), texts of women, of literary modernism, and of startling critical and emotional insight. She is at work on a series of writing about time, memory, and the persistence of art, including Drifts (forthcoming from Harper Perennial) and To Write as if Already Dead, a book about Herve Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life that is forthcoming from Columbia University Press Rereadings series.
Her most recent publication, Book of Mutter, was published by Semiotext(e) in March. Among its many concerns—the death of her mother, grief, autobiography, photography, memory—are the conventions of book-making itself: It seems as invested in unforming itself as it is in forming itself, and the result exists outside of any of the familiar expectations of genre. T Clutch Fleischmann has known Zambreno for all thirteen years of its making.
T. Clutch Fleischmann (Rail): I like the thirteen years of writing that brought us Book of Mutter. There are all these other versions of the book emerging within it, fragmenting off or embedding themselves as palimpsests to be written over, until at the end we arrive at a list of topics that lived in earlier versions of the text but found their way (nearly) out. It makes the shape of it different, one of those books that exists beyond the book, which feels more familiar to the shape of a life. It reminds me of all of the performance texts that summon in Bhanu Kapil’s work, or of that sense of the other books born in Guibert’s Mausoleum of Lovers, which escape into their own books, bearing a pressure on the journals.
Kate Zambreno: I’m working right now on a set of talks or texts called The Appendix that circle around what is left out of or continues with Book of Mutter—some of that list that’s in the back—and that also think through the work Barthes was doing in his period mourning his mother, which was also the last two years of his life. So I guess there are still texts escaping, becoming their own texts, from this mother text. All this new work feels like it’s emerging from the work I’ve done or failed to do on Book of Mutter. The truth is my mourning was opened up again, every year, every time I worked on the book, in this cyclical and meditative way.
I like the idea of an appendix, an organ that can be removed—also what is unnecessary and excessive. The first Appendix meditated on grief and its relationship to time—to Barthes’s thinking through exhaustion as an intensity in his lectures on the Neutral, his Mourning Diary, my own current state of sleeplessness being a new mother, and On Kawara’s date paintings, all circling around the publication of this book, which coincided accidentally with the fifteenth anniversary of my mother’s death. The question of the present tense is what is really interesting me in new work.
Rail: I’m also thinking a lot about the present tense lately, and ways I can write closer to it. You are thinking about it in terms of the day, which reminds me of the lack of explicit time markers in Guibert’s journals—how you gain the sense that days or months or years might have passed by the pulses in the text, but you never know for certain. It seems like an inverse of the On Kawara date paintings, although the ripple effects are familiar to each other.
Book of Mutter opens with a series of day-pages, each of which gestures a bit more into the future, until we receive blank pages and some paced, scattered memories. And all of that memory that opens the book is also a series of dreams, blurring the dream and memory boundary. How does your own attention to days pull you closer to this ongoingness, to the layering? Days seem very much to be a unit of grief to me.
Zambreno: I like thinking of his dateless series of fragments as “pulses,” the rhythm and form of that. It reminds me of this passage I just read last night in Camera Lucida, how Barthes speaks of the mechanisms of a shutter in a camera, the click click click, how pleasurable that is for him. “For me the noise of Time is not sad,” he writes. How form can somehow mark the passage of time, an ongoingness, but also how to shape the fragments, so that it’s in the shape of a life lived, is what’s interesting me in new work, especially Drifts, my novel that’s a diary of a year and a meditation on animals, time, photography, friendship, W.G. Sebald, artists such as Joseph Cornell and Albrecht Dürer and Chantal Akerman. Book of Mutter is much more collaged and formed over time, more layered. It is less a diary work, although like everything it began there.
There’s almost nothing in my current present day in Book of Mutter, none of that noise of time and distraction that I love so much to write. For Mutter, I wanted it to be like a series of rooms that the narrator walks through, moving from past to present and back again. Like a séance or autopsy or detective novel or maze of dream-like memories or memory-like dreams, as you suggest.
I think more than anything it’s the tone of Guibert I’m always reaching for lately, the tone and the longing towards literature.
Rail: What does it mean to inhabit or craft a tone in the timespan of a book that takes thirteen years? Even if your voice and tone in the present is consistent, as the writer moving through those memory-rooms, does the past voice still become a challenge for you?
Zambreno: I’m reminded of the beginning of an Amina Cain story, where the narrator wonders, “There is a tone I want, but I don’t know how to get it. A TONE IN MUSIC.” I love the capitalization of this last sentence; it’s so dramatic and weird. But that’s often how I think of writing now—that there’s a tone I want, and I exhaust myself trying to hear it in my own sentences. I exhaust myself so as to make it seem easy, I think.
There’s such a casual tone in Guibert—that’s what I love—but he’s also writing philosophy in this daily, casual, voluptuous way. I think the tone in Mutter is wearied and detached, yet obsessive, back to this concept of Mutter as an “autopsy,” a voracious desire to bring up the dead, like these memoristic works circled around within Book of Mutter: Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Violette Leduc’s La Batarde, Thomas Bernhard’s Gathering Evidence, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. The consistency came about with a great deal of rewriting. Just constantly rewriting, hearing the narrative voice as a still yet present voice in a room. I listened to John Adams’s Shaker Loops for hours and hours every day when I worked on it, over years, and just thought about the idea of looping back, of repetition, an economy, with moments of breaking through, disruption. Each year I worked on Mutter I started over at the beginning, with an empty page, and began to slowly fill it… The process was not only musical but also quite sculptural. I wanted it to be like Joseph Cornell’s boxes, every page or paragraph, a box. And then later, through rereading your Syzygy, Beauty, I began to remember, again, this form of the box, of Louise Bourgeois’s Cells. How could it be filled with sentences? How could a paragraph be a Cell or memory room? But like Louise Bourgeois’s Cells or Cornell’s boxes, a sort of nice imperfection to the collage, a sense of drift. This is still something I’m writing to, still. Danielle Dutton gave this interview recently about Margaret the First, saying she thought of each paragraph as a box, and I thought, Yes! A box! Or a room. To go into a series of rooms.
Rail: What has happened to that repetition and looping now that the project has shifted, now that the book-as-book is complete and the appendices become the main focus? If the book is a collection of rooms, how would you describe the form of these appendices, talks, and interviews and all that? I think about Joseph Cornell making his own boxes while caring at home for his parents and brother, and his connection with Yayoi Kusama—the letters and collages he would send her and she him, while she was off doing her own Walking piece, moving through New York and documenting her performance through color slides (not rooms, exactly, but ways to hold something).
One thing that has always been appealing to me in thinking about rooms in my own writing is that there’s a certain ease to leaving them. They accumulate, and they shape memory, but they are also something that nearly requires an exit. Even Henry Darger left his room, for example.
Zambreno: I love thinking about Joseph Cornell, at his kitchen table at night, making his boxes, once his mother and brother went to bed. His collaged fan letters he would send to Yayoi Kusama and everyone—dancers, Susan Sontag, young artists. And how does he know when a box is finished. How do we know when a piece of writing is finished. And Yayoi Kusama’s Walking piece! Thank you for bringing that in. And Chantal Akerman tracing her walks in News from Home. All of these New York walkers. Yes, Darger did leave his room—to work, his janitor jobs, to go to church, and then he was a walker, too—collecting his rubber bands on the sidewalk.
I need to leave my room more. My actual room. To me, there’s no ease in leaving a room—maybe that’s what I need more—emotionally and artistically and now with a baby materially—the ease of leaving rooms. I’m thinking of Robert Walser, at the beginning of The Walk, needing to leave the room of his writing, where he is blocked, and rambling about the country. I think I’m deferring your interesting question …
I like that there’s something ephemeral about a talk—an essay that is a performance, in the moment. I guess this Appendix was a way to be publicly thinking through the book—I guess like this interview—while trying to avoid the usual expectations of publicity. But now I’ve gone and gotten myself deep into it again, when I was supposed to be finished. I published Book of Mutter because I needed it to be finished and because I think it was done, formally, and if I continued to fuck with it because of a desire to still meditate upon its themes I was going to overdo it, ruin it as an object, like Louise Bourgeois throwing sculptures across the room.
I think these appendices are really a way for me to still work through grief—and then also the grief of a book, I always mourn it, and this one I’m mourning especially—that it’s never what I wanted to do, that it’s always incomplete, or being completed; I am supposed to staunch my urging towards it. I got the box of published books just two days ago and I immediately threw them in the closet; it was with the same distracted energy in which I put all of my daughter’s outgrown baby clothes in a trash bag, to give away—the bag sits on the box actually. And of course my grief is also incomplete. The repetitions and looping still continue.
And I’m still interested in what I only pricked the surface of in Book of Mutter—the relationship of photography to mourning, how to write a ghostly text, how does grief change over time. I’m still interested in my failures—in them most of all.
I’ve been thinking of everything I’m working on as a series; that helps somehow. Like the book is just one box. Or maybe the book is a series of boxes, like Cornell’s aviaries. And then I shift slightly into the next series. I have been using the room as a metaphor to think of my work, to encourage myself onwards, into new projects. Like in an artist’s retrospective, how you wander around these works, through the early stuff, where they’re mimicking other artists, or figuring things out, or working in a certain scale, and then you move into that room, where—I don’t know—On Kawara starts doing his documenting work and date paintings, or Mira Schendel starts reading Wittgenstein deeply, or Louise Bourgeois starts working in marble and bronze.
With Book of Mutter, hopefully I’m moving into the next room.
ContributorT Clutch Fleischmann
T Clutch Fleischmann is the author of Syzygy, Beauty (Sarabande, 2012).