KR Conversations

Writing On: A Dialogue Between Jan Clausen and Karen Malpede

clausen-malpede-microinterview-carouselAlthough both had been feminist writers and peace activists living in Brooklyn, NY for many years, playwright Karen Malpede and poet/novelist Jan Clausen didn’t know each other very well until they spent a night in jail together following a civil disobedience arrest at the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, after which they gradually became better acquainted with each other’s work. In the fall of 2014, Jan published Veiled/Spill: A Sequence, a lyrical hybrid text prompted by BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster and European laws against the niqab or full face veil worn by some Muslim women. At the same time, Malpede was directing her play Extreme Whether. As both are works of poetic fiction based on hard news, the two entered into a dialogic reflection on what it means to create works of art in the face of our unfolding planetary emergency. Responding to Jan’s question about style, Karen referenced her three most recent plays each of which is primarily concerned with the moral choice-making dilemmas of characters caught up in contemporary historical crises. “Prophecy” set in 2006 is the story of the ways the Iraq war impacts the marriage of Alan and Sarah Golden. “Another Life” beginning on September 11, 2001, is a meditation on the misuse of language as the events of that day lead to the creation of the U.S. torture program. “Extreme Whether,” whose title is a pun posing a question, is based upon the struggle of U.S. climate scientists to speak truth about climate change while they are sabotaged by the fossil fuel industry, but set as a family drama so that the national political conflict becomes a struggle between twins.

Jan Clausen: After seeing Extreme Whether, I realized that you and I are both engaged in writing projects that I think of as belonging to “the literature of going on.” Do you agree, and if so, what are some of your thoughts about that project?

Karen Malpede: There is really nothing else to do. At the top of Act II, the climate scientist, John, has a speech in which he announces that “we’ve reached the tipping point.” There are some scientists who believe this and many others who wait in fear of the moment something else happens to the climate systems and they will believe it, too. “The human brain can no longer comprehend because human kind is no longer at the center of anything except the chaos human kind has caused,” John says but very soon after that he becomes interested in his lover-colleague Rebecca’s research and her research becomes crucial to his own, and this leads him to a new and deeper understanding of the relationship between the Arctic ice melt and extreme weather events, and to the policy fix of a carbon tax. Then he will quit his job at NASA (as Dr. James Hansen, the major inspiration for this character, did) to become a full-time climate-scientist-activist. Reaching the depths of despair leads John to become more fully engaged in life, not less. And I believe that to be the choice before us now.

KM: What are the experiences you most seek to create for your readers? And if you had to describe your preferred readers, who might they be and why?

JC: Oddly (or not), I don’t think a lot about what I’m creating for readers. Certainly I do think about things like what references will be comprehensible to whom, and how to sharpen patterns that can help guide the reader through the text. But at this point (at least where my poetry’s concerned—it’s a little different with prose forms), I’m more concerned with writing to the world, creating something that pays tribute to what I see/feel happening out there. Which is amazing—we can’t forget that—even as it is so often heartbreaking and appalling. “I can do what I want with form because the world did it first” (“Veiled Spill #3). My tribute doesn’t aim to imitate or criticize directly; instead, I’m trying to work with language alongside what I perceive the universe to be doing with matter. The writing experience feels incredibly freeing, and I’d like the reading experience to echo that, but it’s not something I expect or presume to control. In part, this attitude may stem from my reaction to experiences I had as a very young writer in the 1970’s, when I believed my poetry needed to be responsible to a series of political movements. That linkage gave me an audience and taught me a great deal, but in the end it felt constraining, so in recent times my attitude has been: She who has ears to hear, let her hear!

Only after I finished writing did I realize that Veiled Spill is my prayer for the world to go on—quite an unexpected realization, given that I’m not the least bit religious in any conventional sense! It’s a shared prayer, now that the book is published, but nonetheless a text that I’ve built as a means of reaching towards something much larger and more fundamental than any defined human audience.

JC: Karen, your play artfully combines a good deal of physical, psychological, and social “realism” with a sense of the fantastical, mythical, and surreal, which seems appropriate to the strange wonder of any embodied existence, but particularly so at a time when we are in the midst of drastic, frightening changes to earth’s “body.” (Examples include Uncle’s regaining of mobility when he rises from his wheelchair, and the futuristic scene in which the characters inhabit a parched, burning landscape.) How, as a playwright, do you experience the opportunity and challenge of blending these modes or elements?

KM: Now that you mention it, I realize that my last three plays blend styles, modes or elements, whatever we call it. Prophecy, about an Iraq war vet and the tangled family relationships among the people who try to keep him from suicide, alternates memory scenes of various sexual infidelities from the Vietnam era filtered through the unreliable consciousness of the particular narrator, either Alan who fathered a child out of wedlock with a Palestinian human rights worker, or Sarah who aborted a child in order to marry Alan, with scenes in the present, and also with Greek tragedy, as it’s his work as an acting student in Antigone that brings to the fore the veteran’s traumatic memories. The memories of Vietnam that the invasion of Iraq caused to erupt inside all of us old enough to have been young then, and Greek drama, which to a great extent is about combat trauma and was written by generals like Sophocles to address veterans’ struggles to return to civic life, seemed appropriate juxtapositions within the forward narrative of an otherwise psychologically realistic play about the effects on individual lives of our persistent meddling in the Middle East.

Another Life, about the U.S. torture program, alternates scenes that take place on a surreal-fantastical level with near documentary reports. The half-mad linguistic flights of the narcissistically wounded-sociopath-war profiteer, Handel, jar against the tentative attempts of the other characters to bear witness, but they also have flights of poetry and fantastical story-telling, even in extremis, or, perhaps, because of it. For all that, the play is bitterly ironic. I like to use humor in my plays; though the topics are serious, people are quite funny.

In Extreme Whether I am, again, using factual research, not only about the science of global warming and climate change which, in and of itself, is enough to stand one’s hair on end, but about the ways in which that science was censored by the Bush administration and is being willfully misunderstood by the so-called climate change deniers (those with financial ties to the coal, oil and natural gas industries). But I felt that any play of Climate Fiction, as this emerging genre is beginning to be called, has an imperative to embody the possibility of possibility: Uncle’s regaining the use of his legs so that he can get to work constructing a wind turbine on land that has been marked for fracking shows that—hey, as dire as the prognosis is for life on this planet as long as we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels, we could still always revive at the nearly-last moment, and quite literally, come to our senses. Uncle walks because he has work to do. “I imagined it so, it became true,” he says. Annie, the precocious thirteen-year old who considers herself to be intersex, who loves amphibians, and who is Uncle’s sidekick, also shows us possibilities for reconnecting to the unboundaried world of nature. Uncle’s pond speech; the night the family lies down together underneath the stars, the prologue on the hill, when they gather before all emotional hell breaks lose in the most beautiful place they know; Sniffley, the six-legged frog’s funeral and Annie’s sung eulogy for her friend; and the epilogue which turns from a scene of utter climate devastation back into a beautiful world when the wind begins to blow and nature reforms because the characters have “woken-up,” these scenes are meant to evoke our connection to the natural world and to one another.

In Extreme Whether I want people to re-experience in the theater together those moments of absolute wonder, utter peace, and sudden insight we have all experienced alone in the natural world. One thing the theater does perfectly is tell a shared story before an assembled audience, creating the rare experience of being alive together, but at the same time the theater awakens private memories inside each audience member.

KM: Can you say something about the journey of creating your own book? Were you led by the news, what Julian Beck used to call “the atrocity of the day,” to make art of it? And, if so, why?

JC: The phrase “the atrocity of the day” is wonderful because it calls attention to our desolate sense of being unable to stop the repetition of types of events that never should have been permitted to happen even once; but it could also be problematic, in that it suggests a kind of jadedness, as in “atrocity du jour.” Isn’t there a shamefully ephemeral quality to our grief and outrage over almost any terrible event that doesn’t deflect our personal lives from their usual course? And yet: the atrocity of the day is, in fact, the form in which we can apprehend the movement of history. The way I feel about “current events” is very much connected to the way I feel about glimpses of a more quotidian, “private” nature that I often pay attention to in my poems. The ants that really infested my Brooklyn kitchen and make an appearance in “Veiled Spill #1,” the pest control guy who takes pride in his work and talks about the Second Coming of Christ, the “perfect fly” lying dead on the window sill with “veined, translucent wings/swept to one side/like a chic/dancer’s skirts,” the “silky sisters” in their shining houses, the pigeon guillemots with their “rosy extremities and madcap mating habits”—all of these glimpses belong in the poems because they represent moments of being acutely alive and conscious in the presence of my “co-beings,” as I call them. I know I cannot freeze the moment, but it seems wrong to me to let it slip by unmemorialized; and in a parallel way, I want to call attention to the moments of history that frame my daily encounters and that I feel myself intimately linked to, even when my/our distance from those events—their remote, untouchable quality—also becomes something I need to “call out.”

I am sure it has much to do with my generational consciousness that for me, public events are experience. I mean: it never feels merely theoretical to me, the notion of some linkage between the X that is happening in the public, political realm and the Y that I’m undergoing in my so-called private life. This is even more true in a time when so much of the news is about damage to the biosphere, whether it’s phrased that way or not. (An article about a company’s stock price rising because of the potential for oil drilling in hitherto frozen regions of the Arctic is, in fact, an article about damage to the biosphere.)

Veil and spill: my impulse to put those tropes to work in the same space and see what would come of it sprang from a strong contrarian impulse. During a trip I took to Spain in 2010, the news was all “veil, veil, veil” because of efforts in several European countries to ban the full face veil that some Muslim women wear; in response, I almost felt like I wanted to don such a veil myself, or at least to examine the ways in which veiling as a gendered experience has relevance for Western and supposedly secular women. I remembered, for instance, that as a child I had been fascinated by the head coverings that traditionally completed the habit of Roman Catholic nuns. Meanwhile, the incessant drumbeat of “spill, spill, spill” in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, replete with such bizarre phenomena as the Spillcam broadcasting images of unstoppable damage 24-7, actually made me not want to follow the news stories, not consent to be consumed with the media definition of an environmental atrocity. But then I thought that a way to respond was to take on the phenomenon of spilling, to say: OK, if I’m going to live in a world marked and marred by so much spillage, let’s really embrace that and see what it entails.

A key for me in writing Veiled Spill was the ecstatically defiant realization that with veiling and spilling as my central tropes, I could break form open as if I were smashing a piñata and let out what wanted to spill forth.

JC: How does your work stand in relation to the familiar genres of end-of-the-world fantasy and post-apocalyptic narrative?

KM: Extreme Whether has an epilogue that juxtaposes a dead planet with the possibility that we wake up and change ourselves. Both possibilities still exist, but not for much longer.

Enormous power, financial and military, is in the hands of the most destructive sort of people; people who seem willing to destroy the entire world for the sake of personal greed. Fundamentalist religious ideologies are damaging and violent wherever they appear, but the ideology of greed is staggering in the way it trumps all others in sheer destructiveness—and utter hypocrisy.

If writing, if theater, is to have a place in this current situation I think it is only to attempt to help us remember what is like to be human—and to be human is to be connected to one another; it is to feel empathy for all living things and for the planet.

KM: One element stands out for me in Veiled Spill is the recurrence of what I’ve called “torture narratives,” an important theme for both of us, it seems.

JC: In “Veiled Spill #1,” I use images like “Earth lay before me, disemboweled to the horizon”; a little later in the book, I work with images of torture at the hands of the national security state, in a poem rather unlike anything I’ve ever attempted before: using a two-column format, it pairs lyrical imagery and meditations on the freedom of art in the left-hand column with a right-hand column that is a dense mash-up of “found” language describing the U.S. government’s use of solitary confinement and other extreme punitive measures that in my opinion rise to the level of torture. I think that this material enters naturally into my poetry because of my lifelong concern with a phenomenon I call “killing the world.” Although I don’t use that precise phrase in Veiled Spill, it applies to a number of public events named in the poems, including, in addition to Deepwater Horizon and carceral torture, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the remote surveillance and execution-by-drone of Afghan civilians “mistakenly” targeted by the U.S. military, and the deafening of hundreds of thousands of sea mammals every year due to the manmade underwater racket from industrial and military equipment. For me, such events are not only horrifying in themselves, but partake of a wider horror because they evidence such an extreme will to dominate and such heedlessness of the ensuing damage (one might almost think there is a kind of unconscious glee in the refusal to observe rational limits) that they seem to foreshadow or stand in for the final extermination of the entire world—of nature itself, as well as all things human. For me, these are one among many spectacles of terror that recall my childhood sense, in the face of preparations for nuclear war, that we were on the brink of collective suicide. In my poems, for all their fancy dancing, I also approach the matter in almost simpleminded terms: “I think it’s sad to kill the earth our home.” In a way, this is my child-self speaking, but I have no wish to outgrow this extremely basic perception.

JC: How do you think about the potential of plays like Extreme Whether to move people to action?

KM: Through this very juxtaposition of linguistic and stylistic modes, I try to create a poetry of the theater that frees the imagination of the watcher without their knowing how. It just happens. When the theatrical experience works each person in the audience, insofar as s/he is capable of it, feels more alive, more aware of self and more connected to others. Thus, more poised to find meaningful expression of self in the world.

Nature and the imagination are inseparable. Sometimes, I say it simply: If you take the nature imagery out of Shakespeare you are left with series of meaningless sword fights. The irony, of course, is that as we began to write, as we moved from hunter and gatherer story tellers into settled and literate communities, we began to destroy nature. The Greek city states deforested the Mediterranean in order to build ships that were used for trade but also to maraud and invade. Take The Bacchae, for instance, perhaps the greatest of all plays, dramatic literature records the human battle against nature even as theater’s existence, and ours is utterly dependent upon our love of the natural world. Now we have to tip the balance from conquest toward embrace.


Jan Clauson’s recent book is Veiled/Spill. She is author of twelve books of poetry and novels.
Karen Malpede’s recent play is “Extreme Whether”.