An Interview with Joyelle McSweeney, Author of Death Styles

There’s an arbitrary, arguably American distinction between style and survival. Joyelle McSweeney’s Death Styles—out today from Nightboat—makes the argument that the two are inseparable. The poems craft a portrait of loss and livelihood, of “audacity and absurdity” (and other, stranger affects), to conclude that style is “not a what but a way.”

In our conversation below we discuss style, its aesthetic and political implications, and the “impossible seam” that is poetry.

—Dante Silva

Dante Silva: You’ve previously stated you set rules for yourself in order to complete Death Styles: “1) I had to write daily 2) I had to accept any inspiration that came to me, however unlikely and 3) I had to write until the inspiration was totally exhausted.” 

What came forth from such a disciplined approach to your work? Are there other poets or writers whose daily writing practice served as a reference for your own?

Joyelle McSweeney: Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, Mary Shelley’s Journals, and Hannah Weiner’s The Fast and Clairvoyant Journals were all with me in the writing of this book. I’m also strengthened by the visionary stamina of Alice Notley, Dolores Dorantes and Kim Hyesoon. I was thinking about how Suzan-Lori Parks positions her highly stylized theatrical pieces as events which add to and intervene in the Great Timeline of History as well as (perhaps the tonal inverse of Parks) the implacability of Antonin Artaud—the seam of audacity and absurdity that runs between them.

Speaking of dailiness, I also listened to Joy Division’s “Ceremony”—the noisy rehearsal version taped in some box of air just before Ian Curtis’s death, and New Order’s version, taped just after. I listened to them over, over and over again, the missing and the present voice, the lapse and the change, the synths, the noise, the drag on time, the deep and flimsy registers, the style.

Dante Silva: There are many different relationships with the “style icons” here, some short, some sustained. What work do these allow for? How do you “see around” River Phoenix to an “idea of art”?

Joyelle McSweeney: I don’t think the book can get quit of its icons or reach its idea(l)! That’s why the “Death Styles” series ends where it begins, with a vow to continue, which River Phoenix is directly called upon to witness:

I refuse

to shut my eyes

because I was robbed

of something

by a god

and I’m going

to keep looking

till I find it.

As any teen poet knows, when you center and bold something, you really mean it. This final poem is labeled the “conclusive” Death Style, but it’s really a “convulsive” Death Style—the book contracts like a uterine galaxy and starts again.

Dante Silva: One of your affinities is with Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, which I understand the title Death Styles comes from. I’m reminded of the similarities—Malina ruminates on the relationship between abjection and attachment, and is somewhat ambivalent about survival. (There’s the question of “What is life?” to which the narrator replies “Whatever can’t be lived.”)

Where has Malina led you? Where does Bachmann appear in the collection?

Joyelle McSweeney: Bachman’s phrase “Todesarten,” which has been translated as “Manners of Death” as well as “Death Styles,” names the unfinished trilogy which contains Malina and is also mentioned inside Malina as the book which the girl-protagonist is writing; so the title, which evokes something Anglo-Americans think of as superficial, i.e. style, actually opens up this flexing, vertiginous quasi-depth which in turn makes me think of the seam through which Persephone falls into the depths of Hades, with her hands full of flowers. This chain of flexing, now flat, now deep images, all touching at a seam, opened up my pondering. The phrase “Death Styles” seemed to mark the seam between life and death. The metaphor of a seam conjures fashion, mourning dress, and an ambivalence, as you say, about survival—such a taboo in American literary and grief/therapy culture. 

But I often think about ambivalence in terms of its Latin roots, as a double strength, a doubled valor, the taboo conversion of “or” into “and,” an ampersand, which itself is shaped like a ligature or not-quite-closed stitch. That impossible seam—another name for it is Poetry—is what each Death Style rides to its vanishing point.

Dante Silva: You articulate the regular, repetitive practices of survival here. What have you learned from that process of articulation? Where do you see style? 

Joyelle McSweeney: Again, I think it’s very American to see style as somehow separate from (and secondary to) survival, resistance, politics, etc. Reading Dolores Dorantes’ Estilo, translated by Jen Hofer, immediately disabused me of this provincialism. Style is survival. And survival may itself be posthumous—it may be what survives the individual. It might be what plants have, old ladies, communities, sundials. Style is not a what but a way—a way to dress, to move, to signal, to sing, to gesture, to speak, to refuse to speak, to live and to die, to show and to hide. And to survive.