Julia Madsen is a writer who thinks like a filmmaker, a filmmaker who thinks like a writer, and an artist who thrives on intertextual uncertainty.
With the publication of The Boneyard, The Birth Manual, A Burial: Investigations into the Heartland (Trembling Pillow Press, 2018), the first-time author joins Anne Boyer, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, and a growing list of Midwestern experimentalists whose approach to genre and style seems as open as the landscape that surrounds them. Madsen’s work, which has appeared in jubilat, Black Warrior Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Flag+Void, darts between poetry, social documentary, and crowdsourced memoir to create a sense of place that is forever passing through the fingers, its elusiveness what Gaston Bachelard called “the hypertrophy of the dream.”
The following interview was conducted via email and Google Docs during a six-week period as a collaborative meditation on Post-Internet cine-poetry, the role of the working-class writer, and the real-life implications of situating a 21st-century rural poetics.
William Lessard: At &NOW 2018, you presented a series of poetry-films, or cine-poems, in conjunction with poet and filmmaker Adam Tedesco. The work combined footage shot at various locations with found footage, spoken accompaniment and, in a particularly striking piece, text with occasional soundtrack. How do you decide on the final form of a visual work? Is it something you start with, like a compositional constraint, or do you decide later on, after the piece has begun to take shape?
Julia Madsen: I think this question is important and deals with both process and methodology. I am really fascinated with the idea of a “handmade” filmmaker, an idea that has emerged for me recently through the process of making video poems. I believe that the handmade filmmaker is a true bricoleur, so to speak. In this sense, the handmade filmmaker uses the tools/materials at hand in order to compose a piece—that is, they use footage that they have acquired and gleaned for their own personal archive as a means of generating new work. Maybe they have taken some of this footage themselves, and maybe some of it is found. The process of montage—of arranging and piecing moments and images together—embodies the artist’s hand in the work, and I always know a video is starting to take shape when it evokes a handmade quality that points toward some feeling of “aura” or authenticity even if it simultaneously undermines this. For me, the process of montage is similar to writing a poem. When writing a poem, I never know where it will go or how it might finish, and I usually don’t know what the poem wants to or will say. Similarly, in my video work I let images and moments speak to/resonate with one another and reveal themselves in poetic ways––it really is an act of revelation that gravitates towards openness instead of closure. Another way to think about this might be the idea of wandering psychogeographically through the archive only to arrive at the “final” destination with the knowledge that closure is containment and that the archive desires to dissolve or erase its boundaries. I believe that the handmade filmmaker opens the archive through a pinhole, and that the archive is always becoming open.
WL: Drawing from Benjamin and Debord, Boris Groys’ In the Flow (2016) talks about the contemporary artist as a virtual intelligence that hacks the “feed” of 21st century algorithmic capitalism. Your practice seems to draw from a similar sensibility. Would you go so far to claim that bricolage is central to your work? The tendency of the casual critic, I realize, is to confuse gesture with praxis.
JM: I think bricolage is central to my practice in a lot of ways, both in my visual and text-based work. In my mind there are numerous and compelling connections between bricolage and the documentary, and my work finds itself in/is deeply inspired by the documentary tradition. I think of the documentary as an archiving of existing materials and elements and believe that everything around us can be documented and archived in some way as a means of relaying lived experience. At least, that’s how my poems tend to think. In my recently published book I talk about “a catalogue of things / that follows from looking: empty parking lots, fruit stands, / dead cattle, spoiled watermelon.” These are quite literally the materials at hand—they are right in front of us and all we have to do is look (with interest, energy, and intrigue). I’m so fond of looking and peering into the everyday or seemingly mundane things that we might overlook or take for granted to see what they might tell us about ourselves, our lives and desires. For me, the documentary is pure desire. To see into and within and beyond that which it documents, almost speculatively. When we think in these terms, everything is within our reach, and everything is within reach of everything else—connected by desire and what Selah Saterstrom captivatingly calls “animated strands of potential” in her book Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics.
WL: I am struck by how you think like a filmmaker even when working in pure text. In numerous pieces in The Boneyard, The Birth Manual, A Burial: Investigations into the Heartland, there is the sense that we are reading the subtitles of an imagined film. In others, the work suggests a form of ekphrastic.
JM: I’m so happy you mentioned this, and I love the idea of the book as subtitles to an imagined film. Writing the book, I was very inspired by the documentary poetics of place, attempting to write into and at times against this tradition. One of the most important elements to me while writing it was the idea of the documentary lens or camera-eye and how this eye not only sees, represents, and provides space for truth and presence, but also how it contains within itself a visionary function. The book attempts a sort of “re-visionary” history of the Heartland, one that is personal and political and meditative and complicates the “official record” as well as cultural ideas/myths of the Midwest. Broadly speaking, American culture has imagined the region as a wholesome Arcadia or peaceful “middle landscape” sheltered from urban industrialism’s ills. However, the book delves into the region’s disturbances, drawing attention to working-class issues and concerns surrounding labor conditions as a means of highlighting the hardships that many workers and families face, related to my own experiences growing up. There’s also murder and crime and violence cast through the fog of a disappearing lens, propped up against what it means to live through and survive lack. Ultimately, I wanted the imagistic qualities of this text to cultivate or imagine a new history of the region that begins to accounts for and uncover an unseen landscape, a place of suspension and suspense where the dream meets the document.
WL: “Investigations into the Heartland,” the collection’s subtitle, is emphatic about situating your 21st-century poetics in a rural context. It also seems timely—as the verse equivalent of Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland, a memoir about growing up poor in Kansas that arrives at a time of deep political division and income inequality. Was Shmarsh or McCullers or the work of William Eggleston on your mind, or were you following your own impulses?
JM: I absolutely had texts like these in mind as I was writing this collection! I also had Midwestern Gothic texts in mind, too, like Sherwood Anderson’s seminal Winesburg, Ohio and Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child. There’s this enigmatic moment in Buried Child when the son of a struggling, alcoholic Illinois farmer digs up the corpse of a child from the cornfield and brings it into the farmhouse, dripping in rain and mud. It was the child born out of an incestuous relationship between the son and his mother, which the farmer ultimately drowned in a total act of annihilation/repression/violence after it was born. I imagine this as a quintessential Midwestern Gothic moment, one that figures the return of the repressed emerging from the landscape itself. It also hints at the possibility of healing from tragedy and devastation, of recovering from wounds and ultimately freeing oneself and one’s community from repressed histories. As texts like Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland show, we are in a crucial moment and I think it’s important to understand how we got here and how we can begin, now and moving forward, the process of healing.
WL: I’m glad you mention renewal. Your book explores its concerns via a three-part structure that moves from acknowledgement toward actualization. Eschewing the too-easy choice of making “The Birth Manual” the final section, you make it the fulcrum, between the first section where the landscape is addressed as animus rather than place and the third, where the living speak as ghosts of a nation that has failed them. The book ends with a feeling of starkness that trails back to us: “We don’t let go. We live in. Absence. That irradiated, small road. And we will remember the signs.” Am I off-base admitting that I found the conclusion a firm—and affirming—call for the reader to make a new history from the information the book has imprinted? It seems like the only way to honor its many ghosts.
JM: This is such a wonderful way to think about the book’s ending and I think it ties back to my impulse to keep the text open and resist closure. In my own mind and to friends I’ve been referring to this book as somewhat conceptual in the sense that I think it exists more as a means of providing a way or path to imagine a new history from the information that the book has put forth in its pages. There’s really no end to the book in my mind—maybe it is like a quasi-conceptual piece for further engagement, a blueprint or guide for something beyond itself, something as-of-yet undefined but nonetheless (and hopefully) possible. It summons potential and I do attempt to reach out toward the ineffable and ephemeral, the half-glances of light dissipating on a somewhere else that’s both here and there and in-between. I think everything disappears, even in this text, and instead of wholly grasping the book we live with it and among these lives—both real and fantastical—both solid and ghost-like, just like ourselves. To quote Midwestern poet James Wright: “Inside the dream, I dreamed on.”
The Boneyard, The Birth Manual, A Burial: Investigations into the Heartland is available directly from Trembling Pillow Press, Small Press Distribution, and other fine booksellers. You can view her cine-poems on Vimeo.
William Lessard is HFR’s Poetry & Hybrids Editor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at McSweeney’s, American Poetry Review, Best American Experimental Writing, Prelude, and Hyperallergic.