in conversation with
Aditi Machado is an Indian poet. Previous works include Route: Marienbad and her translation of Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia. She is the poetry editor of Asymptote, a journal of translation. Her collection Some Beheadings was published by Nightboat Books in October 2017.
ZACK ANDERSON: Can you begin by talking a bit about the title? I found myself thinking, especially with the saturation of the sun in these poems, of Georges Bataille and the acéphale. One example of many might be when Bataille writes in “Rotten Sun” that “the sun has also been mythologically expressed by a man slashing his own throat, as well as by an anthropomorphic being deprived of a head.” What sort of headlessness were you conceptualizing for this book? Can you outline how that informs the collection?
ADITI MACHADO: In hindsight, all that you say about the acéphale is apt to Some Beheadings, because I read Bataille plenty and he’s seeped in. When I was rewriting early drafts and putting the different texts together to make the book, I started noticing a number of decapitations and dismemberments—they are not so obvious, since not, I think, gory—and began to realize both that this needed to be reflected in the title of the book and that clearly I’d been working out, in the poems, some very rudimentary and not at all new thoughts about how the body is also a mind. I feel the thoughts get fleshed out (no pun intended) better in poetic form. So, for example, in one poem, the speaker is walking through a weedy landscape and “[a] decapitation, a lovely guillotine wind lays [her] mind / in the weeds.” And I think this is an image for a type of thinking where the head has been displaced in the conventional hierarchy as the seat of the intellect. It’s down in the earth, more like a sense organ, feeling the ideas/plants rather than simply thinking them—which I should hope is impossible anyway. So I guess it’s a kind of headlessness that makes the body open (even brutally open) but maybe the head is also around, just not “on top of” the body.
ZA: “Prospekt,” the long poem that opens your book, is held in place by “bracken, a tongue” and the word “coil,” which also appears as a motif. I read this poem as a meditation on the phenomenological membrane between the body and the world, the body and other bodies, and maybe most importantly, the body and language. It seems like one of the poem’s central questions is how the subject is implicated or interpellated by all of these relations. Would you lead us through the “coiling” of sun, fascist, citizen, I, and privacy in this poem?
AM: I don’t think I can do a good job of answering this question. It’s such a generous question because it’s full of your very astute reading that lays bare a number of strands that are, as you say, coiled—you’ve done the leading-through better than I could, for which I’m very grateful. I wrote the first draft of “Prospekt” over roughly a month, in the summer/monsoon of 2014, when I was visiting my family home in Bangalore, India. I’d write for a couple of hours every morning in my parents’ dining room. I don’t think this process is very important except that it shaped an attention to quotidian rhythms—even the simplest of rhythms like the sun rising every morning, which is anaphoric (from the Greek anapherein, apparently, to carry back).
The other elements (fascist, citizen, I, privacy) are harder to explain. But I’m remembering now that I’d finished reading Proust’s Search (tr. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, Enright) earlier that year and he has these recurring meditations on the absurdity of waking up and having the same self that you had the previous day. The very first of these meditations describes it as emerging “out of an abyss of not-being” and gradually, involuntarily, with the help of memory, piecing together the various aspects of your consciousness. But it’s very mysterious, because you end up with more or less the same self. Proust will keep coming back to the mystery. He’s very methodical that way. So I think I borrowed his question for myself and put it alongside the many frustrations I have with discussions about lyric subjects in poetry. Not that most everyone hasn’t been brave and sincere in their explorations, but many thoughts on the poetic “I” baffle me. For example, the notion that lyric poetry is a private conversation with the self that’s “overheard” by others. Or that a seamless use of the “I” might posit a stable personhood, impose upon the reader, over-determine a reading, be “fascistic,” etc. Or that the measure of one’s experimentation is the supposed fragmentation of personality or grammatical structures. It’s not all wrong, but it can’t all be right. This is not a direct answer, but I can say I was wrestling with these questions in “Prospekt.”
ZA: Your speaker is often occupied with the limits of Cartesian dualism, but it seems like a secondary question posed by the book involves the origin of the voice. I can’t help thinking of mythical connections to Daphne or Echo, where the voice invokes an escape from an unwanted encounter between bodies and where the voice becomes a sort of erotic apotheosis, respectively. I also am reminded of Alejandra Pizarnik’s line “I cannot speak with my voice, but I speak with my voices” in conjunction with Gayatri Spivak’s concept of subalterneity. How were you thinking about the voice in terms of singularity, multiplicity, animal, vegetable? I’m also interested in how voices can obscure things, as I see in some of these poems:
There is a speech
under the speech
as below the sea
For Piaf there was
singing & the wind
covered it. (8)
AM: Sometimes I’m jealous of poets like Frank O’Hara whose poems sound like how he probably sounded outside of writing poetry—this is not a fact about O’Hara that I know, just something I feel is the capacity and genius of his craft. Other times I’m afraid of the word “voice,” because of the platitude that writers come to maturity when they “find their voice.” And still other times, I find the word “voice” difficult to reckon with its other meanings, which seem closer to “identity” (as when one seeks to bring more attention to marginalized “voices”). Mostly, I don’t think I have a voice but I do have an idiolect. And even as my idiolect is always itself, I intend my writing to not sound like me. That’s part of the idea behind “a speech / under the speech.” I’m an inarticulate person when I talk, but I can be articulate when I speak in poems, having searched below and through the realm of talking.
ZA: Were you writing these poems concurrently with your translation of Prosopopoeia, another book about proliferation and excess, but in a different mode? There were some moments where I thought I heard a kind of overtone, like your line “worms & tongues” backlit with “vers et langues.” Did you find your translation practices making their way into Some Beheadings? Is there any overlap there?
AM: Yes, I was! I would alternate between the two projects and sometimes spend more time on one than the other, but overall they were concurrent. Prosopopoeia is the narrative of a young man mourning the death of his older brother by AIDS-related complications. His grief is focused on rituals of presencing (to counter the absence of the beloved), like describing the decomposing body as though to revive it. That book is so full and crawling with alive-dead things, I have no doubt I was influenced on the level of imagery alone. But I did also engage some other translative processes. For example, I would look up etymologies, which can sometimes make familiar words feel even more familiar or “true” because the Anglo-Saxon usage confirms our contemporary usage, etc. But I would be more interested in etymologies that would en-strange words. Like, the ME word “stem” comes from the Old English “stefn” (also spelt “stemn”), meaning more or less the same botanical thing; but in OE “stefn” also means voice (!) And I started finding grammar (tenses especially) to be fraught with all kinds of existential terrors (I mean this half comically) because of translating from French, compared to which, maybe you’ll agree, English is tense-impoverished. So in my poems I’d write sentences that explored those terrors.
ZA: Since there are so many plants in your book, I feel like I have to ask about how you were thinking about the pastoral, or maybe Joyelle McSweeney’s “necropastoral” as “a ‘surroundings’ rather than a place, syntactically multiple, a haptic, active sensory zone, the limit which is beyond the limit.” I was personally drawn to lines like “a floral incertitude moving like decay” and “I were an I wending the garden.” Can you talk a bit about how the plant life lives in this collection?
AM: You’re reminding me of a book I’m sure Joyelle loves, since she helped publish it: Hiromi Itō’s Wild Grass on the Riverbank, translated by Jeffrey Angles, which ends with a mini-encyclopedia of the plants acting in the book. I wish I’d had the intelligence to do that. My brother is a plant ecologist and some of the plants (especially lemongrass and strangler figs, featured in “Route: Western Ghats”) I learned about from him. Here’s a video of the lemongrass, which grows wild in some parts of the Western Ghats (a mountain range that runs parallel to the southwestern coast of India). The vigor of their movement (especially from 2 minutes on) is really an incredible instance of life. The plants seemed more alive than I was, and I felt pretty alive on that hill.
Maybe a better answer is this: there’s such a long tradition of writing about plants in poetry and some of it is troubled by this question of “pathetic fallacy.” I don’t know how to resolve that, or even if “pathetic fallacy” is all that troubling now. But I do sense that there are ways of engaging with the nonhuman that’s intersubjective—so that if I think the lemongrass has a voice the way humans have voice, maybe I have movement like lemongrass has movement. (The wind was so strong when I made that video, I could hardly stand straight.) All this happened when I visited my brother and some of his researcher friends “in the field,” as it were. It was the height of the monsoon (=rain every second of the day) and I was terrified of the leeches. But my brother & co. kept saying hokey things like “you have to give some blood back to the forest.” There’s a truth in that though, if you think of “giving blood” as a sort of desubjectivation, a receding in relation to the environment.
ZA: Possibly related to the previous question: in “Strangler Fig” you write, “Somewhere deep language sexualizes its horror over how it may be infiltrated is body where speech is movement and all you can do is move.” I’m thinking also of words like “tongues,” “copula,” “labial,” etc. where the grammatical might stray into the sexual. Can you triangulate these strands of eroticism and horror and language? Not to fall back on Bataille again, but I am reminded of the assertion that “the copula of terms is no less irritating than the copulation of bodies” (“The Solar Anus”).
AM: We read the same things! “The Solar Anus” was definitely the text that got me thinking about the copula. I can’t say I ever understand Bataille properly, not least that essay, but I remember reading it the first time and feeling almost angry that he’d pointed out this farce at the heart of language, when you say X is Y, and the “is” does all this stuff that we take for granted. The flipside of that anger is a kind of peace: that language is a way of knowing or figuring stuff out, which makes the copula an instrument of knowing the world. I’m always interested in language that seems to be touching the world even if that hapticity is a deception/poetic artifice. That’s eros. The horror has more to do with realizing what’s latent or occulted in language that’s violent.
ZA: What have you added to your personal archive recently? Any projects that you’re currently working on?
AM: I’m working on a book of poems called Emporium which thinks some about money and markets by inventing a sort of twenty-first century silk route that the speaker is traversing. But it’s hard, I hope, to tell whether she’s a merchant or consumer or commodity. I’ve also begun translating a novel by a young Canadian writer, but I won’t name the project yet. And then I keep meaning to write a recipe book . . .