“Sirens of Architecture”: Alexandra Mattraw & Jake Syersak on Their Debut Books of Poetry and Beyond

Alexandra Mattraw is a Berkeley poet and critic who has authored several books. small siren is available at The Cultural Society (2018), and two of her chapbooks can be found at dancing girl press (2013, 2017). Other poems and reviews have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Jacket2Interim, VOLT, and elsewhere. A mother and ecofeminist, Alexandra curates an art-centric writing and performance series called Lone Glen, now in its ninth year. We fell into weather (2020) is her second full-length book of poems.

Jake Syersak is a poet, translator, and editor. He is author of the poetry collections Mantic Compost (Trembling Pillow Press, forthcoming 2021), Vortex(t) (COAST|noCOAST, 2020), and Yield Architecture (Burnside Review Press, 2018). He is also the translator of the poetry collection Proximal Morocco— (World Poetry Books, forthcoming 2021) and co-translator, with Pierre Joris, of the hybrid novel Agadir (Diálogos Press, 2020), both by Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine. He co-edits the micro-press Radioactive Cloud.

In late 2018, Alexandra Mattraw contacted me after coming across a poem I had recently published in the Colorado Review. She had recognized the semblant rhiza of our work: the allure of abstraction, the neural world-building, the sonic luxe, all of which fed an ever-growing conscientiousness toward an ever-marvelous environment (in all senses and extravagances of the word). Exchanging books of poetry—her debut small siren and my debut Yield Architecture—we were pleasantly surprised to find that both of us had in fact taken architecture as the dynamos of those works. We were all the more pleasantly surprised to find that the softly glimmering ecological strains running through our books had begun to fully phosphoresce in our current projects.

Initially I had the idea to review Mattraw’s newly-released small siren, but after several months of correspondence about each other’s poetics, we decided it would be best to carry that correspondence into one collaborative interview, one that might mimic the organic and spontaneous flow of conversation that arose from interest in each other’s writing. What follows is that correspondence, which we contributed to in fits and starts, throughout 2019 and 2020. It is a portrait of two early-career poets feeling out the vibrations that bring single voices together.

 

 

 

Jake Syersak: When we first started corresponding, one of the things we immediately bonded over was the fact that both our first books of poetry find structure through architectural metaphors. In my own, Yield Architecture, I can say that this was born out of an ephemeral fascination with New Brutalist architecture. Some New Brutalists theorized, among other things, that the image of a building should correspond to the way in which it is used, and I wondered how that might translate into poetry. I thought that if a book could simultaneously preoccupy itself with images while remaining self-conscious of those images as preoccupation, it might actually occupy them, so to speak; and then maybe some revelatory residue between the constructor and constructed would be discovered in the nooks and crannies the images inhabited. I wonder if you were thinking something along the same lines with your own first book of poems, small siren. Wonderful lines like “When is a voice / a piano,” “Tulips aren’t / punctual or candy pink, but a green click behind / eyelids,” or even “Again, we awake to chatter of teeth hitting a concrete / heartbeat” suggest a tactile tension between human and thing. How self-consciously were you working with this tension?

Alexandra Mattraw: With acute self-consciousness. But first, why do you call your interest in “New Brutalism” ephemeral?

As far as our books’ commonalities: Yes, it’s astounding and near creepy that we released books within months of each other that grapple with architectural metaphors, and in particular, the motif of what yields. A former title of small siren is at the yield point, and as you know the epigraphs for the book’s three sections come from a related structural engineering term that is not a metaphor at all, but a state that can be mathematically calculated as the moment before a structure’s collapse (and, that can calculate which structural aspects will involuntarily yield). This definition is relevant to all structural engineering, and particularly forensics—connecting to the way homes and buildings erode with time, and of significant interest to me, seismic stress and other natural disasters.

But I’m not actually sure I see architectural dynamics as metaphors so much as direct parallels to the happenings of daily life. For me, the architectural language that appears is not exactly a likening of unlike things but a mirror between outer and inner systems/structures that have unnerving similarities.

You’re right that I’m thinking about the tension between human and object. One revision: In small siren I’m more engaged by a friction between the constructed and the constructor; the object and its human perceiver, and in that specific direction of relation. What is deconstructed, or as you write, “pulling apart” in the making of our perceptions? This tension locates my senses in an environment that feels very much alive and animate (objects, the natural world, the digital, all). Subject and object, animate and inanimate participate in a mutual process of projection, a process that is easy to be unconscious of as we hustle through our days. As in: the buildings we make are using us, not the other way around (perhaps a twist of New Brutalism); nature is a conscious, empowered force that writes our psyches (not the other way around). Look at the COVID crisis now, for instance …

In what ways are you, or are you not, thinking about the mutuality of this construction? I see it in so many places in your book, especially in the gorgeous, strange line: “I can’t hear inside my head thinking about a painting because of how the acoustics of a room carve room, crave voice; how hollows howl.” Such a line feels conscious of how the architecture of language itself acts upon us in slipperiness. You seem to play with words caught up in this circular process, and nod to what can or cannot be erased or sung out of such, writing of what is “circling the built-unbuilt like a crescent moon’s visual isn’t quite isn’t / so invis-enviro of you, architecture”, and asking, “what am I, supposed to that? / what am I, supposed.”

Can you speak more about your relationship to language and image in Yield Architecture, in relation to the “residue between the constructor and constructed” that you say initially interested you?

JS: The mutuality of the construction is at the heart of it, is what I’d say now. But that’s me responding in retrospect to this book that I more or less completed over five years ago now—yikes, seems like forever ago. At the time I was completing the book, I had a very sporadic, limited, and relaxed engagement with the ontological/phenomenological ideas you’re referring to.

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to steep myself in ecological theory, particularly of the Speculative Realist/Object-Oriented Ontology variety, and I now see the world much as you describe it—as objects, human or nonhuman, aesthetically relating to and ordering one another in order to be. But I didn’t have a clue about those things at the time. I saw it but had no words for it. So I kind of gave myself over to every poetic whim I had of it, whatever it was. I was trying to pull these cerebrally-wrought fragments out of myself that just weren’t shaping up to anything I could quite recognize on a holistic scale.

That being said, I guess I call my interest in New Brutalism ephemeral because New Brutalism is what pushed me to begin considering the object on an agential scale: as using me, rather as me using it, as you put it. I see it in everything now, not just architecture itself, but itself as architecture.

If reading Yield Architectural feels something like a delirious chasing-of-one’s-tail, it’s because it is. I think I was pursuing the reciprocal constructions with little to no end in mind. I wasn’t thinking enough about the consequences of the composing construction. I was thinking too much about the process of composing construction, and it was a very anthropocentric (however unconscious) conception. I was thinking more of what was saying materials together than what or how they could say.

I don’t think I could hear the sirens for the endless yielding, is what I’m trying to get at. Unlike the work in your book, in which subjects so often couple gracefully with their objects, looking back on Yield Architecture I often feel I was entwined, often unawares, in a suspended place between subject and object, until that became a means of expression, and maybe even formed the speaker themselves. I wanted the speaker to inhabit an always-on-the-verge-ness. Which isn’t such a bad thing! In fact, I think you need a heavy dose of it to move on to a stronger perception of the object.

It’s an impulse I see, in fleeting glances, in your small siren too—especially in your “Summary Between,” one of my favorite prose pieces in small siren: “Each pasture clots a day’s naming. We stop field center, but the green world sweats, thickens like hair. The way an orange unpeels itself in such heat. All bruised skin wants to give way in the manner of water.”

With this passage in mind, and in the interest of steering these “parallel” architectures, which you refer to as “unnerving similarities” (I love that, by the way) of the “inner/outer regions,” here’s a very open-ended question: how much of this book was unnerving versus nerving. In other words, did you find that writing this book more so took you out of or away from something or brought you toward or into something? Did you feel like the constructor or the constructed? Both? Where did all this take you?

AM: First, I don’t find the “chasing of one’s tail” delirium of Yield Architecture to be without reader payoff. I appreciate how our books both seem to agree on this cyclic notion of perception: In “Aught, unknowing, a summer,” I literally write, “I chase myself,” and in the “architecture, dear architecture” series, you offer a relatable social critique: “because I can’t see the economy I am I am the economy I see.”

However, I can’t pretend to be an expert on ontology. In fact, I’d say my comprehension of the “ologies” is based more in the emotion-focused way in which I experience the world, rather than on any book I wish I could say I have read. As an intuitive and neurodivergent person, sensory input seems to travel through my faculties at a rate and velocity that is likely more intense than the next person’s. I am so sensitive to sound, external stimuli, and others’ words that I often feel like a midcentury house antenna, ciphering what Jack Spicer might call “Martian” messages—the residues of my animate environment. There are many places in your book where I see a relatability to the way I see, and the way you do, such as what you describe in “Appendices to Jim Wilson’s God’s Cricket Chorus” as

noise [that] rarely comes to us from foliage
as noise & that’s why     I wonder if sometimes
you just want to worship the static,     more obviously be subsumed
in the trench of No-
Man’s Land replacing
psyche’s bridge …

It’s exactly in that “static” that I find space for “worship.” That space is the act of writing poems: a yielding between mind and body that reminds me of Edmund Burke’s ideas about the sublime, for lack of a better comparison. The “psyche’s bridge” metaphor you use here further addresses this question about what has “unnerved” me, or not, in this process. For me, life is often the “unnerving” part. You echo that mental state in your speaker who asks “if I open my eyes too wide will I collapse into my own museum?” Yet this sort of “unnerving” is not unpleasant when I can become an outsider to the images I have internalized. In other words, the unnerving experiences become my poems, whether I am able to admit to them as the stuff of trauma and joy, or whatever is between. The act of composition then becomes an act of yielding to my muses (and I truly do not know what else to call them), and feels central to my practice. A catharsis begins in a free form, undisciplined way, and then tightens itself into a condensery (yes, Niedecker-inspired) that psychically revises me out of anything unnerving. Or at least, that is the intention.

My concern about my process in small siren however is that this revisioning took many years, and now I see that I was willing to divorce the personal and real I from the poem’s reverie-scapes. Meaning in plainer terms that my book fails to adequately speak to social and political concerns. I’ve attempted to address this shortcoming in my second book, which came out right as the pandemic hit the U.S.

In seeming contrast to the surreal I and condensation/revision process I prefer for my images, your lush, long lines are adjective rich, and you shape your poems around a relatable and immediate “I” character who frequently speaks of other works of art via a “… portrait of a self-portrait as portrait of the artist speaking to the artist a mouthful,” to borrow from “Appendices to Rose-Lynn Fisher’s Topography of Tears.”

How would you portray your composition process for Yield Architecture, and what role did revision play? Does your more recent writing demonstrate similar practices, either in terms of composition or concept affinities, or not?

JS: From what I can remember, most of the poems that ultimately ended up in that book existed years and years prior to my actually sitting down and editing them into book form. They started as really personal, idiosyncratic, even narratively-driven fragments. And as I edited them I started seeing these invisible tendrils emerging between poems/sections/chapters, and I started editing them in order to emphasize what I read as symbiotic structures. You could look at this as a process of self-effacement, but I think I prefer to see it more as a radical calibration between self and world—a persistent recalibration of self in a much larger world of things and selves and perspectives and habitations and habituations and visions and revisions. In the end, I wanted to see how much of that gluey I you could bend and unbend back and forth between artistic thoughts and that artist until its tensile strength gave way or dissolved. I don’t know if either happens or not. I do hope, though, that the reader dwells on—or in—that question for a while after reading.

While situating the poems sequentially into the book, I started to pick up on and follow an arc that went something like this: a) the I thinks through themselves, b) the I thinks through themselves thinking about art, c) the I thinks through others thinking through themselves thinking about art, and d) in a collapse of the previous categories, the I thinks through themselves thinking about art and through others thinking about themselves thinking through themselves and art.

Yield Architecture was primarily an obsession with deconstruction, construction, and reconstruction. Nothing felt right until everything felt wrong in isolation. This attitude persists in my writing now, though I think I calibrate things less within my immediate surroundings and more with a thought toward our larger biosphere. In other words, the calibration has simply shifted in scope, to a larger habitation. Thus my shift to—as much as I find the term somewhat distasteful—eco-poetics.

In a way, this is what Kant and Burke were trying to do with their respective theories of the sublime—revise human significance in light of a world that, quite possibly, knows no bounds to insignificance. I bring this up not in some ill-fated attempt to conflate my own work with theirs but to suggest that this might be the start of all good or effective or progressive—call it what you will—politics: to assert that existence is coexistence and so necessitates constant perspectival shifts, persistent envisioning and re-envisioning of selves within a larger world. If that’s so, then I’d have a hard time divorcing your work, or mine, politically, at any stage.

The I in small siren certainly seems self-conscious of its re-envisioning or recalibrating of itself in a number of ways throughout the book. In doing so, perspective seems to take on a great deal of significance, not only in the frequent allusion to daily or domestic rituals throughout the book but in lines where perspective itself or maybe “the environment” at large takes on its own agency. The book is rife with examples: “Perimeters make a place,” “The faucet will someday outrun us,” “Sky falls inside my mind,” or “A reference to ocean suspended in rain. Evaporation as story, no straight lines,” might all serve as good examples. But maybe my favorite occurs in the poem “Kin”:

your window
clacks   /   tree-bones
branching back winter
/         and the
winter in your head

 

you return always here
a kind of   /   bending
flat sheet halo   /

I’ve always thought, personally, that poetry’s ability to accentuate the blurry line between dream and reality, subjectivity and objectivity, self and world, and letting the reader calibrate—or construct—themselves with attention to that space is one of its most unique and effective features. Moreover, I would credit those poets of extreme “reverie-scapes,” to steal your term, as vital to my development of political awareness, at least insofar as they provided a bedrock for critical/imaginative thinking. I tend to revisit these poets more than I do poets that are, by way of content, explicitly political.

This all leads me to my next question: do you see the same political potential in recalibration or re-envisioning? For me, personally, I’m always anxious about how didactic vs. how “poetic” a poem should be (especially when it comes to politics). You mentioned that you think small siren is failing to speak to social or political concerns. I’m wondering if you might say a little bit about what you believe a poem should or shouldn’t do or what your poems do now that they didn’t do before. In other words, I’m interested in what you want the prevailing force of a poem on the page and in the world to be.

AM: I don’t believe a poem or piece of art should do or be anything. I do believe good art has no should or censorship: The act of its particular utterance, in a larger grammar of confounding, patriarchally confining language, might itself be seen as a political act, regardless of the maker’s intentions. In my own reading, I find a poem most compelling if it changes me in some way, even a small way, allowing me to feel and think something I didn’t feel and think before I experienced it. I gravitate to poems that do this through filmic, open-ended poetics, perhaps through fragmenting a relatable but gluey I, but also through tethering readers with lines that, as you value, genuinely acknowledge the speaker’s relationship to a world larger than the author’s psyche. In fact, the idea that “nothing felt right until everything felt wrong in isolation” hits me as so authentic to the how of such poems. Works that reject closure, in the Hejinian sense, offer images that frame and reframe themselves within visually evocative forms of the page, pinwheeling turns of meaning that bend and recalibrate, to steal your terms, leaving room for each reader’s perspective. On this we seem to agree: A poetics of one gluey I to another—of one I to a genetic history of other I’s. Or, as I’ve heard you put it in our more casual discussions, the “I” of the poetry vortex.

In my new work, I’ve tried to maintain that rejection of closure while also remaining more aware of how my speakers can more effectively allow inclusive, connecting space. Like Yield Architecture, small siren was revised into a kind of layering of characters and life fragments, and I’d like to believe that in that vortex there is a reaching into the interconnectedness of things that make the poems relevant outside the bubble of the academic bookstore or the west coast’s experimental MFA factory (an institution I respect and enjoyed, and that helped me further cultivate my voice, but also one that sometimes taught me to question narrative, linearity, and the personal “I,” edging upon the cliff of uselessness). I do think my first book often balances those fragments in ways that might be moving to some. Generally speaking, such vortex poems are relevant and new every time you read them because they are open. But at their worst, they are pretentious, and the gluey I gets stuck in abstraction or even authorial censorship. They reject relatability, which as I said before, your poems do not. Not that I think small siren is stuck in that way, but I sometimes chose to be less explicit than I might have been.

For instance, would you have known that the poem “Kin,” about which you’ve offered generous compliments, is actually a piece about familial mental illness? Perhaps more explicit images to this effect might have diminished your engagement, but perhaps the poem might have been more relatable in important ways to some readers if there was less reverie. Less glue.

So, in We fell into weather, I’ve tried to consciously draw a line between the images of my actual life and psyche, merging those currents and their histories to our larger habitat, and to the people within it, and to the people who control or empower those people. In these ways, be they poems of the anthropocene (anthropocene being, of course, another problem word), exploring epigenetics, environmental toxins, or climate change, or be they poems about mental illness or domestic abuse, my new work includes fewer filtered images from my life but still kaleidoscopes the political and personal. The “I” is more sticky than gluey, but not confessional. This project, which I began in 2012, has been part of a self-reckoning, survival process written with urgency and discomfort. Put in another way: The characters are willing to reference perspectives relevant to my own identity as a queer, neurodivergent, and newly divorced mother. I have little sense that such an act makes the poems more successful, but as of now, I feel positive about them.

Despite all this, like many California poets I know in this moment, I still worry that my utterances are irrelevant, and that I should be using my imagination differently. I am becoming increasingly convinced it might be better to write essays about climate change, the BLM protests, or what it’s like to be a single parent of two young children during a pandemic. I worry that writing poems few people will read is a selfish act of my own privilege. 

Do you ever feel similar concerns? We’ve emerged from the white halls of expensive universities. We are (at least somewhat) enabled with leisure time to write about a you that, as you describe so beautifully, “you could bend and unbend…until its tensile strength gave way or dissolved.” Yield Architecture bends in authentic ways that offer all the things I want to experience in poems. Yet I wonder if you could speak a little more about the relationship between your identity and the act of writing. Has your experience been more or less complicated by your identification as a white, cisgender, assumedly straight male in the midst of Me, too and other fraught spaces? Can you say a little more about your relationship to that identity, and who you are as a writer?

JS: I do worry sometimes about the possible futility or self-indulgence of making art in a deteriorating world. But then I also remember the necessity of remembering what we’re fighting for: a world that doesn’t have to be in deterioration. There’s no shame in writing something that reminds you, simply, how or why things are beautiful. Honestly, in the sheer amount of cynical, self-defeating, and dystopian work I see day to day, often the most shocking thing in contemporary poetry is just seeing a fucking butterfly in a poem. Poetry is poetry exactly because of its resistance to definition. In that way, poetry is resistance. The way I see it, there’s no possible way that poetry can be confined, contrasted as it is to “information-centric” texts, to the page alone. I remember the poet Susan Briante once telling an audience during a roundtable even something to the effect of “every moment you take in a capitalist society to make or perform art is a moment of resistance.” That always stuck with me—the point that, in a world that often seems to value only cold, mechanical production and capital, just taking the time to turn away, to enjoy rain against a window, the vibrations of your own voice humming in your throat—whatever—is absolutely revolutionary in its own right.

Poetry isn’t the only art that calls this form of resistance into play, of course, but I do think that its aversion to the information-centric and thus to commodification, colors it as particularly—maybe even intrinsically—resistant. In a world that increasingly commodifies time and even our attention spans, enjoyment is a vital form of resistance. That’s why I can’t ultimately see it as selfish. Sometimes the struggle is bigger than yourself and sometimes it’s not. Some days the struggle is getting out of bed and some days the struggle is getting into the streets. It would be sad to live in a world where poetry couldn’t be a vehicle for both.

Concerning my identity, I’ll let assumptions be assumptions and let the rest dissolve into the poetry. I feel incredibly lucky having been a part of numerous communities (institution-wise and otherwise) of incredibly diverse and fascinating people contributing to world literature. What my poetry might lack I hope I make up for in some small degree in my editorial work: translating the Moroccan-born Amazigh writer Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, or what Paul Cunningham and I have achieved with our micro-press Radioactive Cloud (we just published two phenomenal chapbooks, by the way—one by bilingual self-described sick-poet Mai Ivjfäll called Sick Sonnets and one by the indefatigable Will Alexander titled The Contortionist Whispers). I’m thankful that poetry, both on and off the page, affords me the ability to be that gluey I. Everything comes back to that gluey I.

If anything, that glueyness is only getting more gluey. My forthcoming second book of poetry, Mantic Compost, takes its title from the multilingual poet and highly influential editor Eugene Jolas, who devoted his life to rallying new and exciting writers around the world and who speculated that it was only by reaching into the fathoms of multilingualism and multiculturalism, to find a way to transform the lyric “I” into the lyric “we,” that we could ever hope to produce a poetry that would produce revelation and revolution in unison and affect radical change on mankind. From certain perspectives, Mantic Compost might be seen as especially indulgent (or decadent, as the terminology often goes) in that it’s composed, overwhelmingly, in a Surrealist mode (which has, sadly, always suffered this largely-unfounded criticism). But that mode is in the service of seeking a new way of addressing manifestations of ecological crises around the world and in seeking to compose a poetry that might surpass what eco-poetics to date have been capable of. Whether it does or does not is up for debate, of course. That’s the fun. Nevertheless, it luxuriates, unapologetically, in the world’s flora and fauna, in quotes derived from beloved writers of the past and our modern era, across the globe, and in the pervasiveness of freshly-coined neologisms. It re-vitalizes and re-weaponizes Surrealism as the inextricably eco-oriented and materially-focused (Object-oriented, I would go so far as to argue) ontology it was from its very beginnings.

Yield Architecture tried to create a vocabulary to match the individual’s phenomenological experience of a world wrought by art. Mantic Compost tries to create a vocabulary to match the surreal phenomenological experience of an increasing surreal world wrought by the Anthropocene.

I’m trying my hardest to be gluey-er, but not gluey-er than thou.

 

small siren is available for purchase at Amazon, Small Press Distribution, and The Cultural Society.

Yield Architecture is available for purchase at Small Press Distribution and Burnside Review Press.

What’s HFR up to? Read our current issue, submit, or write for Heavy Feather. Buy our merch.