Flame Launcher

‘You bring together the components of your art, and all kinds of energies are released, and you have to ride the rocket that you’ve constructed to whatever end it’s going to have.’

Author: Interview by Tess Gunty ’15

Gunty Bj 5 Photo by Barbara Johnston

Joyelle McSweeney is the author of as many as 10 books, depending on how you count. She writes poetry, plays, novels, short stories and criticism. A recipient of multiple teaching awards, she has been on the English department faculty for 15 years and has served multiple terms directing the Creative Writing Program.

As an undergraduate, I quickly came to think of McSweeney as a neon genius and was often moved by her generosity. In our meetings, she spoke in paragraphs as musical, electric and precise as her poetry, referencing an astonishingly wide range of literature, introducing me to texts that continue to inspire me today and radiating energy that seemed to generate its own light. Recently, as I revised my debut novel — a project that grew from my undergraduate thesis, which McSweeney advised — for approximately the 600th time, I took long walks around my neighborhood while listening to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, a radio play I first encountered years prior when Professor McSweeney recommended it. Whenever I feel trapped in a restrictive scaffolding of concerns in my own writing, I pick up a book of McSweeney’s and read until the traps deconstruct. 

We spoke by Zoom on April Fool’s Day, 2022. Among other things, we discussed McSweeney’s most recent collection of poetry, Toxicon and Arachne, published in 2020. In my apartment in downtown Los Angeles, in the blustery psychological weather of that first terrifying lockdown, I read Toxicon and Arachne in a trance, struck by the piercing and accurate prophecies launched from every line. Like a firework, each poem detonates in dazzling patterns of light and night, transfixing and transfiguring. The collection, like all of McSweeney’s work, produces an electrical storm in the brain. McSweeney is a detective of the “necropastoral” — which she defines as the “political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of ‘nature’ which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects.”

In his glowing appraisal of Toxicon and Arachne for The New Yorker, the poet Dan Chiasson writes, “As occult ideas about poetry go, McSweeney’s is surprisingly grounded: poetry isn’t a séance . . . it’s a biohazard, teeming with linguistic contagion.”

A few days after we spoke, McSweeney became one of seven poets to win a 2022 Guggenheim fellowship, which ranks among the most competitive and prestigious honors in the world.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gunty:  In 2014, when asked, “Why do you write?” you answered, “Rage and exuberance. I can’t get my exuberance under control; it’s more volatile than my rage. My rage then has to express itself with the items my exuberance has purchased at the mall, like a pair of Adidas and a copy of the Aeneid.” Is this answer still true? How might you amend it?

McSweeney: Well, I think rage has managed to finagle a little more airtime. But exuberance is an interesting thing. Exuberance feels almost chemical. Exuberance is an energy that’s released when different elements collide; we might associate it with joy, but it’s actually separate. It’s the thing that keeps the unicycle upright. It’s the thing that keeps Wile E. Coyote afloat when running off the mesa — on the strength of his exuberance — and it’s not until he looks down and encounters dismay that he falls. So maybe I would add “dismay” to this set of chemicals in the chemical equation that is my art and performance. One thing that’s remained is variousness; there’s still a variousness to the components, to the ingredients of my poems and my plays, and there’s a kineticism when those various things combine, and there’s energy that’s released to sometimes unpredictable ends. You bring together the components of your art, and all kinds of energies are released, and you have to ride the rocket that you’ve constructed to whatever end it’s going to have — in the sea, or on a planet, or just blowing up.

G: Another chemical reaction that makes your work feel so alive occurs between the otherworldly and the humdrum; your work engages with the sacred by engaging with the profane. The materials of some of your poems include viruses, Mishawaka, AT&T, the pink soap of public restrooms, the kinetic sand of children’s play. You’ve said you’re trying to build a bulwark against the mundane, but it also seems you’re weaponizing the mundane as a bulwark against itself. Could you talk about the role of the mundane in your work?

M: I am a Catholic, born and raised. I am certainly a heterodox Catholic, I put that right up front, but one thing that I really absorbed at the heart of my faith is Catholicism as an art theory, and vice versa — art theory as a way to think through Catholic faith. Here’s this painting, here’s this Station of the Cross, here’s this important object, and now it’s being transformed. Obviously, Catholics believe that to be literally true of Communion, but I also think it’s true of things like saints’ imagery. You’re contemplating the painting, and something about transfiguration becomes clear to you through the art experience. Being trained as a Catholic child to think about symbols as powerful sites of transformation, to think about the arrival of gods or angels in very mundane sites, opened me up to art’s possibility.

Separately: South Bend is my muse. I moved here 15 years ago to take this job. I’d never lived in the Rust Belt before. Everything about the Rust Belt fascinates me, including the word “rust” — rust as both an ecological phenomenon and a visual phenomenon of redness that reminds us that we are the ones on the planet with oxygen. Rust is a process, something that’s changing and dynamic. So to look at objects and realize that they’re sites where amazing cosmic chemical processes might be happening and are happening at all times — suddenly everything becomes electrified. That’s why I think that there’s no object that art can’t make use of. Any object can be the place where art arrives. Something that I ask myself a lot is: How does art arrive? How can we make it arrive?

G:  It is famously difficult to make art about a crisis as vast as climate change, but your writing attends to ecological collapse — which includes processes of decay that you just referred to — with remarkable exactitude. How do you think about your art, and art generally, in relation to the Anthropocene?

M: Geologists isolate different periods to describe when the Anthropocene begins, but one place to begin is the conquest of the Americas, when, in addition to everything else that happened, plants were transferred among continents, and you start to see plant genomes changing. All the crimes are part of one crime. The genocides, the centuries of enslavement, the displacement, the wars and the Anthropocene are all part of the same unfolding cloud of crimes. I truly believe that.

Those processes are consistent with the processes I’ve been talking about: rust, pollution here in the Rust Belt, the fact that it’s not really safe for kids to play outside because they get lead poisoning from the ground, and then the lead finds a home in the brain, changing the brain’s structure. There is no border between human and inhuman, metal and flesh. All of it finds homes in each other and works its deleterious effects. My writing and translating are also like this; art is in the dynamism. Art registers the harm, yes, but then unexpected energies can be released when unlikely things are celebrated and unlikely things come together.

There are species called the extremophiles that live in nitrogen vents — the hottest and coldest and driest places on Earth. They just dry up and suddenly come back to life. They’ve solved the problem of immortality. And I’m rooting for them. They are my model for art, too — the most ludicrous, microscopic animals that have made the most ludicrous choices about the shapes of their bodies through evolution. Now they’re going to be the survivors.

‘Expanding my sense of how bodies are made, how life is made, to a matter of chemistry and physics was the only way I could survive what had happened to me.’

G: You’ve said before that art is a crime in that it should break something, and all poetry is war poetry. Much of your work takes place in ambient war zones, filled with destruction that is both atmospheric and acute; catastrophe is always nearby. How do you think violence influences your art, and how might art influence violence?

M: I think we can grow away from violence on individual and collective levels, and I’m sure there are cultures that have managed to live without violence — maybe not for long — but violence seems to be a fact of human life. The Anthropocene is violence happening all around us. Petrochemicals are violent when they’re extracted, when they’re burned and when they enter the atmosphere. They are violence. They’re decomposing life forms from another era — an era that’s such a huge span of time away, the human brain isn’t even good enough to imagine it. And yet here we are, burning and destroying them, burning and destroying ourselves and all living things in the process.

So if you think of violence as a process, it does seem to be a part of almost every logic. Even if you think about why we’re speaking English. Why am I not speaking Irish, which is genetically probably the language I should be speaking? Why do we use so many Roman words? Language itself has empire written all through it. By using words, you’re jumping in the stream of these enchained violences. But you can also send a pulse backwards up that stream, and this pulse might hit somebody and send their thinking in another direction. When you send that pulse back out, you don’t know where it’s going — it’s on its own trip to the edge of the universe. It’s going to hit someone else’s brain or heart or body and go somewhere else. That’s exciting to me.

The great Chilean poet Raúl Zurita spoke of the military coup that happened when he was a young man. He was imprisoned and tortured. After he got out, he said that we have to make art that has the force of the military ­junta; we have to make art that can push back with the same force that has pushed against us. I think that way, too.

G: A lot of your work is about mothers and daughters, but the writing pushes back against restrictive, one-dimensional, inherited definitions of female identities, and you’ve said that in your experience, motherhood collapsed all binaries. Could you talk more about that?

M: Well, I would say that my views about this have become very acute in the last few years. I had a little baby, my third baby, who was born with an unexpected birth defect. She lived 13 days and died. So, I had to think a lot about that birth defect. It was congenital, meaning it wasn’t genetic, it wasn’t chromosome error, it was just something unexpected that happened when she was gestating. It was a coding error — I think “building error” is how it’s usually referred to — and it was against all odds. So, I had to ask: Why did it happen? And I had to expand my scale of cause and event as far as I possibly could — literally to the Big Bang. I had to think: Well, these chemicals were created in the Big Bang, and they behave one way in 99.95 percent of the time, and .05 percent of the time — for reasons we don’t fully understand — they behave another way. And that’s what happened in this gestation.

Expanding my sense of how bodies are made, how life is made, to a matter of chemistry and physics was the only way I could survive what had happened to me. It at least ran counter to all the guilt I was feeling as I tried to find out why this had happened to me, why this had happened to her. One difficult thing that you often hear is that if a baby survives the NICU, they’re usually referred to as a “miracle baby.” And my baby didn’t. So what’s the opposite of a miracle?

That was so painful, for me. Expanding my scale to the cosmos allowed me to step away from all those rhetorics, step out of the boxes that were harming me as I was trying to process what had happened. What could be smaller than a little building error in a baby’s tummy that led her not to survive? It’s the smallest thing, and yet that story is linked to the biggest thing ever: the Big Bang. Or, if you’re Christian, the biggest thing ever: the conception of Christ as a human. Unfortunately, he was a miracle, and my baby turns out not to have been a miracle, which is very hard for me to live with.

G: In an essay for The Yale Review, you described how you originally intended Toxicon to be a standalone collection, but in the spring following your daughter’s death, you wrote Arachne in a handful of furious weeks. Do you see any relationship between writing, rage and mourning? 

M: So, to tell this story from the top: I was writing Toxicon, my ninth book, my third book of poetry, and I was rushing to get it done because I was about to have this baby. And of course, the baby was born and did not survive. When spring returned and the baby did not, I became full of anger at spring. And spring is a classic trope for Western poetry, especially English poetry — the return of spring is also the return of hope. But here was the return of spring without the baby, and so it was the antithesis of hope.

I wrote in a kind of torrent of anger. The poems are not particularly angry, but anger is what drove them. In a way, these poems were the “easiest” to write, because they seemed to be moving through me, almost as if I received them from some other part of my brain. I was simply assembling them. Some people talk about the “work” of mourning, they say that mourning is a “working through.” I don’t think that was so for me. Instead, it was just another very extreme chemical process. The writing was almost beyond my control. I don’t know what people will find in those poems, and I don’t expect them to feel consoled, but it has been my experience that people connect to them.

But the reason the last poem of the book is the last is because that’s when I turned my anger on myself. I was angry at me for writing. How could you be writing when this terrible thing is happening? What are you doing? How could you be back at your writing? So I forced myself to stop. I closed my laptop and just stopped writing. And I really couldn’t write again. More than a year went by before I came up with a way to write again.

G: Years before you wrote Toxicon and Arachne, you wrote Salamandrine: 8 Gothics, a collection of short stories that insists on “gothic motherhood” — the bloody, scary, spiky motherhood that Western culture often conceals. In an interview, you discussed how capitalism preys on new parenthood, selling products that are then swiftly recalled because they turn out to be damaging, even deadly.

M:  I wrote Salamandrine after having my first child. Sinead is her name, so Salamandrine is a kind of anagram of her name, made a little more ornate and gothic. I was living in Mishawaka, I had just taken this job at Notre Dame, my family wasn’t here, I didn’t know anybody yet, and I wasn’t even working — that’s a situation that would happen to a gothic heroine. Isolated in a new location: That’s a gothic set-up. And that’s where all the thoughts creep in. But in most Western, affluent cultures, motherhood is supposed to be the opposite of gothic — lifegiving; I’ve accomplished something, I’m going to care for this child, keep them safe from everything but give them the best possible future. Of course, all of those things come with a sponsored product. No More Tears baby wash or whatever it may be, sold to you so that you can somehow interpolate your child into these “life goals” that also serve capitalism.

All of that became kind of unhooked and dislodged, because there I was in this place I’d never lived before, all alone with the baby. So when I was writing, I would ask: What if we were unhooked from this product-driven culture of safety? If we were dislodged and adrift in it, how would things look from the other side of the mirror, the other side of the seam? Rather than trying to block out all these fears with some wallpaper, what if we entered each one?

In a way, it’s difficult to think about that now, because 11 or 12 years later, I had my third daughter, Arachne, and I was not able to keep her alive, and I didn’t even know the threats that were coming because the birth defect was undetected. Salamandrine opened the ground for a story that only reached its conclusion 11 years later, when suddenly a baby arrived and could not live. That’s a basic human horror: to have a baby and not be able to protect it. And some cultures — such as ours — put up a lot of wallpaper between ourselves and the fact of death. Some people are brought right up against that fact by war, migration, or just by accidents of life. Gothic genres unexpectedly give us a way to think and write through the true textures and climates of these horrors, in a way that other kinds of literatures might not.

G: You’ve said that Toxicon, the first volume of your most recent collection, turned out to be prophetic of the second volume, Arachne. It also turned out to be prophetic of our global crisis, because the collection was published on April 7, 2020 — a month after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Both volumes are filled with viruses, contagion, injustice, destruction, fatality. What was it like to see those forces playing out on a global scale as the book entered the world?

M: It was shocking for me and for a lot of people who read it. I’ll say two compatible things that may seem incompatible. I started thinking about the world as toxic. When I looked up the etymology of the word toxic, I learned it came from the Greek word for “arrow.” So, in the Greek thinking, a toxin is like a poisoned arrow. I wanted my poems to work that way, too. To be very fleet and fatal and cutting. When I was writing Toxicon, I tried to create these superintense poems that would fly and then fall. But also, I was just paying attention to the world because I was always looking for language, I was always collecting. So I was just noticing things, the processes and networks that did eventually enable COVID-19 to spread around the world, and the ways we fail each other when it did.

So that’s one way to answer this question. But another way to answer it is to say that I’m very interested in the classical prophecies, how the Greeks and Romans went about it, how it was gendered, how it even sometimes involved toxic chemicals. Like the oracle at Delphi, the young girls who would sit on these tripods over a crack in the earth, and fumes that they believed to be the fumes of a sacred rotting python would rise up, and the girls would become intoxicated, and they would say things — the prophecies. So all of my pet themes are involved in that model of prophecy. In the book, I called these poems the “toxic sonnets.” I thought: What if the sonnet were a technology of prophecy? Just as in ancient Rome they would look at shapes of flocks in the sky or open an animal’s stomach and examine the innards — they had these very specific ways to frame the world, and then they’d look through that frame and see something about the world, about the future. Could a form of poetry also be that? You set up a frame and observe what passes through it. Then you’ve got a model of the world: where it’s been and where it’s going. Maybe the sonnet could be that aperture for prophetic sight and speech.

Tess Gunty studied English and creative writing at Notre Dame and New York University, where she was a Lillian Vernon fellow. Her debut novel, The Rabbit Hutch, will be published by Knopf in August.