Interview with GGP 2014 Contest Winner Anne Lesley Selcer
Sarah Marcus: What roles does feminism and the idea of inclusive feminism play in your life and in your writing?
Anne Lesley Selcer: Feminism is one tool thru which I understand the constant misidentification of my power. Its theories then help me understand the cumulative effects of those constant misidentifications (or obstructions, oppositions) and the structures which support, enforce and dictate them. I am interested deciphering the material relations which enclose my body and energy, as well as the language and the law. More than feminism as a discourse, I am attentive to how power gets accumulated consistently by the same forms of people (white, male) in the same places (the West). Feminism is one ground which provides traction to pull back, to pull for my own survival & thriving, and for my child's, which is inextricably linked.
This stance is not static. Like many women, I have cultivated a defensive presence in city space, protective of my privacy and closed against harassment. But when I lived next to the "poorest postal code in North America," Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a collection of city blocks of dispossessed resources workers, survival sex workers, addicts, and the unhoused, many who are survivors of brutal residential schools, I understood my privacy as the imaginary privilege that canceled a panoply of relationships. I understood my detached position as a synecdoche of the problems that had corralled those bodies into those city blocks, as a symptom of the power structure which created them. I began to understand commonality and social boundary differently. I intervened intensely when other women were at risk of sexual violence- like a woman on the nod on the sidewalk in a gentrifying area, or someone with pants down for a pee while drunk. Women (mostly sex workers) had been getting kidnapped and murdered from the Downtown Eastside for years. Maybe there are are theoretical critiques of how I acted, but my actions were not theoretical, nor charitable. In the US, the situation has a different set of complexities. The sedimented history of violent exploitation structures our segregated cities and suburbs, we live in its spatial residue. How could the poor air quality in West Oakland for instance, not also be a feminist problem? Though I cannot be static, I can be unwavering in my commitment to understanding mechanisms of power. Vancouver incited me to write about beauty, the commodity it sells when it sells off its city blocks to developers and speculative investors. Being a girl helped me understand that dynamic. Writing about art did too.
I spent the second half of the past summer in constant talks - email, text, & face to face - with almost every woman identified poet that I know in the Bay; several instances of sexual violence had surfaced simultaneously in our creative & social spaces. At the time I thought: Nothing will ever be the same again, it is happening, here is the great overturn, everything's about to change. I thought how could this community know about this & anything every be the same again? We wrung our hands, talked & talked more, wrote and revised. We worked really hard. A statement. A collection of paragraphs on the internet. I am glad those paragraphs got some transgressors out of our scene. I am glad writers all over began to talk about sexual violence in their scenes. So many things prevent solidarity between women still. We are constructed by and living in the structures we critique, which includes the frenzy of digital communication on which the economy currently depends. I think ruling classes of all kinds imagine undercultures that are strong, flowing and separate, which can be allied with, or accessed. I love Fred Moten's The Undercommons and feel committed to realizing new solidarities to the formless, active opposite of power & its potential & its teeth. In submitting my work to a feminist press, I am feeling for something connective and without limit. The choice of judges so far, Cathy Park Hong & Dawn Lundy Martin, this made me want to send my work. I trust their judgement & would like to be in conversation.
SM: What feminist writers do you admire? Who influences your work?
ALS: Most recently I've been reading Maria Mies and Silvia Federici. Their work deals with the history of capitalism by explicating expropriations of resources and people and thus establishing the material roots of structural patriarchy. These histories precede representative feminism's concern with individual rights, even as the concept of rights gives these accounts contemporary sense. They invoke the European commons however, and this does not consider all the unceded indigenous land in North America, at issue especially now as corporations attempt to built pipelines over it. Red Skins, White Masks by Glen Coulthard is at the top of my list to read. I am drawn to incendiary historical texts like "Let's Spit on Hegel" & "Don't Believe you Have Rights" & Rivolta Femminile's manifesto. I often like what Jackie Wang writes, and what's in Lies magazine. Lisa Robertson's writing accompanied my work for a decade. Kathy Acker gave me energy and permission before that. It was propitious to come back to the US in 2007 and read Ariana Reines' The Cow and Kenneth Goldsmith simultaneously. In tandem, a fight about the autonomy of art / versus art without the means to subtract its own subject emerged. I respond to that inside my book. Visual art influences my work. I am about to dive into The Conquest of Bread by geographer Richard Walker. It is a history and political economy of farming in California for a piece I am writing called "Lament of Certain Girls: or the Sadness of the Supermarket." I just read a great book called Formless: a Users Guide for a project which grows out of a pair of pieces on form and formlessness I wrote for SFMOMA. I love writing by artists & I love manifestos.
SM: Dawn Lundy Martin writes of your beautiful chapbook, from A Book of Poems on Beauty, that your work "challenges the notion that beauty and the feminine have no place in postmodern art as much as it reinvents these notions for contemporary readers." How do you feel this book works to recontexualize the concept of beauty? What message would you like your reader to walk away with?
ALS: Dawn's blurb understands that my book does not reconcile the definition of or set of issues surrounding beauty. My poetry is not rhetorical, but round, investigatory, like she says. The set of questions I was working with concerned the origin and reception of the aesthetic, its relationship to actual bodies, its relationship with the political. I was interested in the feminine and value, in correspondence, signification or meaning, and in abstraction and form, on which as I mentioned, I continue to work. I arrived at one aphorism which did not make it into the book, "The social must be reterritorialized by beauty which, without such locating concepts, is not a territory, but has more in common with transformation, that is, time" (which in another place is written, "Beauty must be reterritorialized by the social..."). The cohabitation of language and law is probably what I write poetry against tho, so I left it out. I am tempted to say the message of my book is the message-in-a-bottle which is also a Molotov cocktail on the back cover. (Pictured below: Abbas Ackhavan, detail from Correspondences, 2008.) I found Abbas Ackhavan's image after writing was complete, as well as his front image - a dead carrier pigeon tied to a brick and swooning like a figure in a fin de siecle painting - and I am not surprised at all how they punctuate my work. Abbas is a close friend. At one time we had endless talks in small apartments about value & eros in the immaterial markets that surround art. I mean, we weren't so abstract or neutral when we talked! We chatted endlessly about Vancouver as well & its desire to capitalize itself in international markets. Gentrification is a worldwide rhythm right now, re-enclosing city space for the ultra wealthy while it displaces lives and interrupts connective networks for all others.
It is more difficult of course, to talk about what it means for a female to write about beauty, but I have no desire to be coy, so will attempt that. My best friend was a model as a teenager and I saw her sense of self abstracted and dismantled into several nearly grotesque categories of self valuation. When I was 19, I was determined to train myself to draw through the old style of staring at people (in the library and on the subway) and sketching. It was absolutely impossible. I was the object of the gaze. I was disallowed the position of the classic, detached observer, the recorder, channeling the world through my powers of representation. When you begin looking at who can and cannot afford that position, you necessarily begin looking at the history of art, and perhaps of discourse. The writing that got me through my 20s was by all those feminists in the 70s and 80s talking about subject/object, projection, the gaze. These are not the set of political questions of our moment. Yet there is a way in which they archive a history important to understanding the absolute impossibility of resistance via representation right now.
I deleted a big section here about unexpectedly being defunded after my first year of college when I defied my father's wishes, and the narrow swerve away from sex work before going to work in the pink collar ghetto for the several years preceding my completion of three degrees. And a passage earlier about domestic violence which occurred after the birth of my child. I cannot end the interview however, without attempting to bridge the experience of not being able to sketch others on the streets of Boston at 19 with the material value assigned to female body in the social field.
Anne Lesley Selcer recently served as a columnist for SFMoma’s Open Space and has one book, Banlieusard, commissioned by Artspeak gallery. Writing has been anthologized in NW Edge III: the end of reality, The Physics of Context, The Feeling is Mutual: A list of our fucking demands, and most recently in It’s night in San Francisco, but it’s sunny in Oakland. from A Book of Poems on Beauty won the Gazing Grain Press 2014 feminist chapbook contest for poetry/hybrid manuscripts. A chapbook is also forthcoming with supersuperette press, and another was published with the Dusie Kollektiv in 2011. Poems have appeared in The Clackamus Review, Dusie, Where Eagles Dare, in the artist book Aunt Maude’s Scrapbook by Sydney Hermant, and are forthcoming in Fence. Writing on art has been commissioned by galleries Centre A, the Or, the Helen Pitt, and by artists Aurel Schmidt and Abass Ackhavan, and has appeared in Fillip and Doppelganger magazines. In San Francisco, she was a member of the now defunct Nonsite Collective. In Vancouver, she created and curated an interdisciplinary series for poets, researchers,