by Sohini Basak
- The word ‘silk’ or its variant ‘silky’ is a by-product that’s constantly being sold to us – it’s a quality that we (especially women) should desire to make ourselves more desirable. And it’s omnipresent – you turn on the TV, the radio, look up to the skylines and you’ll find billboard adverts for hair oil, shampoo, waxing strips, chocolates, festival-season saris, interior wall paint, all being sold with the promise of ‘silkiness’. I’m not sure if it’s a conditioned sub-continental consumerist behavior, but my associations with ‘silk’ is overcrowded with products and ads! I wanted to begin by asking how you arrived at your personal silk emporium – can you isolate one moment or memory that sparked off this journey?
Oh, we(sub-continentals)’re certainly born into an onslaught of overt as well as subliminal silky messaging! I read your question and instantly thought of Sunsilk shampoo ads and then of endless visits to Mysore Saree Udyog (a saree emporium) in Bangalore with my aunties and mother, shopping for various cousins’ weddings. My home state of Karnataka produces nearly half of India’s mulberry silk. Silk is costly and luxuriant; it’s a status symbol—but also, weirdly, a symbol of love, or rather, of the strength of social ties (example, the closer a relative, the most expensive a saree you’d wear to their wedding). I have complicated, unresolved feelings about all of this—at the heart of which lies the fact I’ve grown into quite an intense love of/desire for silk. I “succumb” to it.
Which is to say, there’s plenty of stuff (literally, materials) in my personal silk emporium, as you call it. But if I were to isolate one thing it would be a film by Yvon Marciano called Le cri de la soie (The Cry of Silk). Years ago, a film club I belong to needed English subtitles for it. I gave it go and failed. I decided to try again in early 2016 and failed again, but this time the failure took the form of poems. The movie, set in Paris in the early 1900s, tells the story of a working class, illiterate woman named Marie Benjamin who gets arrested for masturbating with silk she snatches out of bolt in a department store. She develops an ambiguous relationship with the police psychiatrist who evaluates her. All this is a fictional adaptation of two psychiatric reports by Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, who did in fact evaluate four women with the same kind of “erotic passion for fabrics” as the fictional Marie. That was my next obsession: translating the reports, reading into the rhetoric of a scientific paper from a different era …
- Wow, such brilliant places to mine from, I’d love to hear more about your creation process! For a long narrative poem-book like this – and I’m especially interested in the fragments, the white spaces, the black-page pauses – how did such diverse raw materials evolve into their final forms? And, how do you feel about serendipities and accidents during research and/or revision/rewriting – are you suspicious of them or do you tend to welcome their disruptions?
Writing the book wasn’t a linear process, although I will likely make it seem so. The first poem I wrote was the prologue whose opening line, “I came along a silk route,” effectively summarizes the book’s narrative. It then seemed wise to reconstruct a global trade route. I remember applying for a fellowship, explaining how I would use allotted funds to research the original silk route, study maps, and visit silk factories. I did not get this fellowship, but I did try working with maps. It didn’t yield much, felt dry. Eventually I decided to write the next destination via a line in a poem I already had. So “I was told nation or rhapsody or wear simple clothes” led to three poems/sections called “nation,” “rhapsody,” and “or wear simple clothes.” That’s the closest I came to an actual mapping of the route/narrative. I moved one or two poems around in later stages, but for the most part I knew where things would go as I wrote them.
Maybe that’s already an answer to your question about serendipities and accidents: I love them; I can’t do without them. This manuscript formed the bulk of my dissertation at the University of Denver. At various stages, one makes proposals and plans. Mine were fairly regimented, as is expected by the institution. But I kept to hardly any of it, which my committee members permitted gladly. The research plans were just for the bureaucrats.
I’m not sure about the white spaces (louder line breaks, perhaps?), but the fragments are often a result of my thriftiness. I feel guilty “wasting” a bit of language I take out of a poem (the “darlings” you’re meant to kill), so I try to hoard them somehow. I guess they’re ephemera of the sort I keep around my home.
The black pages are my very favorite things and not entirely of my invention. My manuscript had them as blank (white) pages with text in a larger font; I struggled to explain to my editors that these weren’t section headings but didn’t know what else to call them. Lindsey Boldt of Nightboat asked if they were like title cards in a silent film; I said YES; and designer Tiffany Malakooti made it happen. I’m very grateful for their genius.
- That’s very cool! And yes, there’s so much to say about thriftiness and composition!
After reading the poem ‘Experiments with Aspic’, I kept thinking about the uses of the word ‘lacquer’ and it’s cultural, historical, commercial closeness with ‘silk’ – but not only that, in this poem, the word is attached (because of its shiny gum-like nature, perhaps) to a world of psychosexual curiosity that is also culinary. Which reminded me of another poem in your collection, where you write: ‘I’m only looking for a little/homophony. Others honey.’ The migration routes of words, trade history, how to sell desire – how did you select and map all the different layers to construct the silk route?
It’s exciting getting questions from a fellow Indian/South Asian [let me know how you identify, if you do at all, Sohini?]! The harvesting of lac—a secretion from the lac insect, used in the production of shellac and a number of other commercial substances—is an important Indian industry. It’s one of those things you learn in GK (general knowledge) classes as a kid.
On the one hand, the selection of lac(quer), silk, and other haptically rich substances happened intuitively; on the other, I’d been thinking about the primacy of the visual image in poetry, how to unseat it. I wanted to write with an increased tactile attention to the world. Around this time, the poet Douglas Kearney was visiting my graduate program. He was incredibly generous and conversed with many of us about our work. To me, he suggested doing somatic exercises inspired by CA Conrad. So I invented one in which I wrote while wearing the same silk shirt (the only one I then owned) for several hours every day for a week. I also made a list of words I “felt” were tactile: “okra cunt quaint quince gel Platina aspic vulgar lacquer þing रसना iodine interregnum.” (I wish I’d managed to write that poem about okra.)
Other, less programmatic, things I did: cooked, started learning Latin with Donna Beth Ellard (this helped with translating recipes from antiquity), consulted etymologies, translated … Translation is a mysterious activity that sometimes turns language physical.
- Gosh, yes, रसना brought back so many summertime memories for me, I think so many of us Indians feel nostalgic about Rasna! And damn, I would love to read poetry you’d write about okra…
Almost at the center of the book, the narrator traversing through the silk route stops and wonders: ‘if I did/what would I/sell?’. In her book Garments Against Women, Anne Boyer writes a poem about writing a book about women shopping. The poem ends with the lines ‘This book would be a book also about the history of literature and literature’s uses against women, also against literature and for it, also against shopping and for it…’ How do you grapple with the commerce of words and ideas (and the hierarchical frameworks they are forced to go through) while writing? Especially while making a book like Emporium, which is ironically aware of ‘an easterly mind’ and ‘my oriental mind’?
- I find I think better in poetry than in any other language or form. If ever I’ve achieved precision in the description of an experience, in the understanding of a particular question or anything approaching knowing, what it feels like to know, it’s because I was doing it in poetic language. I don’t know that that’s how the poems are received by those who read them, but that’s what they do for me. This answer is a rephrasing of your question: I grapple with the commerce of words, ideas, and hierarchies by writing (poetry).
- Prosody is the grappling. I mean, there’s context (obsession with silk, a movie; living on a modest graduate student stipend in an expensive city; constantly contending with immigration and visa issues; reading poetry, history, philosophy), there’s experience that needs to be dealt with, and then there’s just a lot of sonic mucking about. For example, there is a refrain in the poem “Experiment with Aspic” that goes “lacquer on this.” I’d picked “lacquer” for its denotation of a hard, glossy finish and it immediately suggested “lac.” “Lacquer” also bears a consonantal relationship with “aspic,” a gelatinous food item (different “feel” altogether) that has a similarly glossy finish. Both aspic and lacquer act as preservatives (for food and wood, respectively)—in the poem, they act metaphorically as preservatives for memory. And then much after I’d written the poem, I realized that “lac” is homophonous with “lack” as well as “lakh” (an Indian unit of numbering, equivalent to 100,000, typically used in money talk)—perfect for a poem that’s thinking about poverty. These kinds of meanings aren’t planned, aren’t theorized beforehand; they happen because you’ve decided to follow a sound; you’re letting the sound take you toward the edges of whatever question you thought you had so that, hopefully, you get beyond it. It’s like a glut of sensation that supersedes, rewrites, and reorients the usual hierarchies.
- The phrases “easterly mind” and “oriental mind” appear in the final and longest poem in the book called “Epistle to the Efficience.” This was the hardest one to get done. I don’t want to explain this much, except to say that I am indeed an “oriental” mind in the US academe. I say that with irony, yes—as well as bitterness and intent to provoke.
- Could you talk about the folding that occurs in the book – landscapes are folded into tapestries into postcards, then, a report on a nation unfolds under a ‘continual and cheapened light’, hands fold, a woman’s body folds, a film folds – I love how you have made this small but potent verb mess with time and space throughout the narrative…
I’m glad you liked it! It was likely a minor formal decision that gained … in currency (shall we say) as I kept working on the manuscript. It’s a wonderfully suggestive verb, sartorially and otherwise. Folding would seem to increase the surface area of a material without actually doing so; it creates an exterior and interior, a public face and an inner recess out of a plane. For Deleuze, the subject and the world constitute each other in a Baroque fold: “Forever indissociable from the body, [the fold] discovers a vertiginous animality that gets it tangled in the pleats of matter, but also an organic or cerebral humanity (the degree of development) that allows it to rise up, and that will make it ascend over all other folds” (tr. Tom Conley). But it is Lisa Robertson who writes about this (in the essays collected in Nilling, for example) with the greatest vision. Her language is all folds. I’m reading and re-reading her always.
About Aditi Machado
Aditi Machado is a poet, translator, and essayist. Her second book of poems Emporium received the James Laughlin Award and will appear in Fall 2020 from Nightboat. Her other works include the poetry collection Some Beheadings (Nightboat, 2017), a translation from the French of Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia (Action Books, 2016), and several chapbooks the most recent of which are a long poem called Rhapsody (Albion Books, 2020) and an essay titled The End (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020). Machado’s work appears in journals like Lana Turner, Volt, The Chicago Review, Western Humanities Review, and Jacket2. A former Poetry Editor for Asymptote (2011-2019), she works as an Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati.
About Sohini Basak
Sohini Basak’s first poetry collection We Live in the Newness of Small Differences was awarded the inaugural International Beverly Prize in 2018. She studied literature and creative writing at the universities of Delhi, Warwick, and East Anglia, where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury Continuation Grant for Poetry. She was awarded a TOTO Funds the Arts award for her poetry in 2017. She is based out of Delhi and works as an editor.