“Repetition Is Magical”: Jesi Buell in Conversation with Candice Wuehle, author of FIDELITORIA: Fixed or Fluxed

Candice Wuehle’s most recent poetry collection FIDELITORIA: Fixed or Fluxed centers around the magical elements of our everyday lives. Through cosmology, tarot, and alchemy, Wuehle is able to explore the dualities we encounter and transform them from binaries into continuums. I spent some time digging deeper into the collection with the author.

Wuehle is the author of the novel MONARCH (Soft Skull Press, 2022) as well as the poetry collections Fidelitoria: Fixed or Fluxed (11:11 Press, 2021); 2020 Believer Magazine Book Award finalist, Death Industrial Complex (Action Books, 2020); and BOUND (Inside the Castle Press, 2018). Her writing has appeared in Best American Experimental Writing 2020, The Iowa Review, Black Warrior Review, Tarpaulin Sky, The Volta, The Bennington Review, and The New Delta Review. She holds an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Kansas.

Jesi Buell: Can you talk a bit about how this work came about? In the acknowledgements, it says that the bulk of the first half (titled “fixed”) was originally a chapbook published by Grey Book Press. Was this collection a continuation of that work or did you repurpose the chapbook into something new?

Candice Wuehle: There’s a line in EARTH*AIR*FIRE*WATER*ÆTHER (the chapbook published by Grey Book Press) that acted as a catalyst for the rest of the collection: “No hinge to come / unhinged, from.” Lo Ferris, who I was in a workshop with, mentioned something about this line as the point of crisis in the poem, the speaker’s greatest anxiety. My memory is that Lo also asked why this would be such a point of fear—why having no hinge to come unhinged from, why being unmoored or anchorless, is so bad? I was pretty fascinated by the question and so the collection grew outward to deal with the idea of being hinged (fixed to this world and one’s sense of self within it) at odds with being unhinged (in flux and so liminal it’s possible you could pass a mirror and not recognize yourself).

JB: Who or what is Fidelitoria? The poems are written from the first person POV which makes the reader wonder if this is the author’s voice or if it’s an alter ego. 

CW: Lauren Berlant is an enormous influence on this project. I heard them speak in 2014, right after I wrote EARTH*AIR*FIRE*WATER*ÆTHER and just before I wrote the fluxed parts of Fidelitoria. To come to know Berlant’s work at just that point in my life—right when I was asking myself if there’s anything wrong with formlessness, with being unmoored—was miraculous. Fidelitoria begins with a quote from Berlant:

Since misrecognition is inevitable, since the fantasmatic projection onto objects of desire that crack you open and give you back to yourself in a way about which you might feel many ways will always happen in any circuit of reciprocity with the world, why fight it?

In many ways, Fidelitoria is a place (as opposed to an alter ego or my voice) where the circuit of reciprocity occurs, the crucible that constellates the nodes of affect that we refer to as identity. The word itself has several resonances to me—utopia, fidelity, and crematoria. These combine to become the axis where identity is made and unmade alongside the self and others. I took a look through my notes app just now, where I have about a decade of ideas and quotes and influences, and found this passage from Berlant (written down in July of 2014) that explains this idea beautifully:

I do not read things; I read with things. When I read with theorists, with art, with a colleague or a friend, to read with is to cultivate a quality of attention to the disturbance of their alien epistemology, an experience of nonsovereignty that shakes my confidence in a way from which I have learned to derive pleasure, induce attachment, and maintain curiosity about the enigmas and insecurities that I can also barely stand or comprehend. This is what it means to say that excitement is disturbing, not devastating; ambivalent, not shattering in the extreme. Structural consistency is a fantasy; the noise of relation’s impact, inducing incompletion where it emerges, is the overwhelming condition that enables the change that, within collaborative action, can shift lived worlds.

This idea of “structural consistency as a fantasy” really helped me think through that question of the hinged vs. the unhinged life, and ultimately helped me arrive at the book’s title.

JB: Can you talk about some of the spacing and punctuation choices you’ve made? For example, the spacing on pg. 51 or the punctuation on pg. 54?

CW: This also goes back to the idea of structural consistency as a fantasy. I thought a lot about this book as a location, a mapped terrain. More like composition by field than the “stanza as Italian for room” style of writing I was sort of trained in. Of course, there are lots of traditionally formatted poems in this collection and those poems are indeed reflective of a more interior and fixed belief system. At contrast, the punctuation often creates a kind of glitch in the flow of thought, which I’ve come to think of not as a mistake but as a moment sort of like déjà vu—an interstitial period when you get so much distance from surface representation that you actually see the whole picture at once and all of its contrivances. Punctuation is of course a contrivance to helps us communicate more clearly and it depends on symbols we all agree mean the same thing. So I’m just pointing to that agreement and the shared contract of it to sort of remember that it’s a reality that can change—a structural consistency that is actually fantasy.

James Galvin once started a workshop I took with him by giving us all a copy of a Wallace Stevens’ poem formatted into a block of prose and telling us to figure out the line breaks. Obviously, everyone does it differently and you start to realize that space and broken lines tell us a lot about the direction the writer thinks in, the moments when ideas transition of implode or end or flourish. Patterns of thought emerge (so I suppose a scholar of Stevens could absolutely pick the line breaks that Stevens himself imposed because they’re familiar with his thought patterns and tendencies) and you get to see something about the flow of the poet’s logic. My logic is pretty dreamlike and intuitive and always embraces the accident as gift and the glitch as ultra-real, so you see that in my spacing and punctuation throughout this collection.

JB: This book is beautiful as an object itself. How important was its aesthetic value to you (the images and symbols)?

CW: Thank you! Most of the credit for this goes to Mike Corrao. This book certainly could have existed as a more traditional collection—a stack of poems, without the images and symbols—but I’m really glad it got to have a totally different life because of 11:11 Press and their willingness to make this exactly the object I envisioned. The aesthetic value of the book was important to me partially because I think it makes this a more sacred object. The design influence was based on grimoires featured over at Treadwell’s Books, the archive at The Museum of Witch Craft and Magic, and various editions of Les Fleurs du mal. Here are a couple of the covers that I sent to Mike:

Regarding the symbols, I intuitively started using symbols as elements of these poems without really knowing why at the very start of the project. I’d use the asterisk to create some kind of etheric space, an indeterminate zone of flux. Then I began to add in some of the more blatantly symbolic elements in the form of emojis or the wingdings keyboard and this ultimately evolved into the collection as it is, which includes the sigils and tarot symbols. I think that this visual language is inherently more unstable and is sort of ideogrammic poetry taken to its most base form. An abstraction made concrete. However—there’s something about the moment of transfer in which the reader interprets what the original abstraction is that generates a space that’s almost telepathic between the reader and the text. A sensing of meaning that feels like (and perhaps is) certainty.

JB: How important are pop culture references in your work (iPods, Sweet Valley High, Forever 21)? Do these details serve to root us in time? Are you ever afraid of not having shared references with your reader?

CW: These references are more about language for me. Around the time I was writing the parts of the book with a lot of references like the ones you mention, I got a fortune cookie that said something like BAD THINGS ARE HAPPENING TO LANGUAGE and I was reading a lot of Jack Spicer and that very famous line of his, “My vocabulary did this to me” was always on my mind. So I think I started to be sensitive to the names of contemporary things and how the resonance of a name creates a whole part of the thing itself. The line that always strikes me most from the collection in terms of the way a name is presented sideways is, “I open myself to The Guardian.” And since I was going back to the Catholic church where I was confirmed every Sunday at this time, I was thinking about the idea of words as things in the sense of christening and transubstantiation. William Carlos Williams says there are no ideas but in things, but I guess I started to wonder what ideas do the things have? How does a thing generate its own name? And to return to Spicer, how do the names things generate generate new ideas in us? Essentially, I was more concerned with living language and the way language lives in this eternal web of meaning and symbol that is always weaving and unweaving and changing itself and us.

I don’t ever worry that a reader might not share a reference. I know a lot of people strongly feel that poetry should be what the SEO industry would call evergreen, but poetry is the opposite of a digital net. I’m not trying to catch any readers who aren’t there to be caught. If a reference doesn’t resonate, maybe it will later. Or, maybe somebody will get to have an experience that seems rarer and rarer to me—they’ll come across a reference they don’t know and can’t look up and they’ll have to ask another person. One of my favorite sensations is googling a question that has “no good results.” You can do this by googling: HOW DO I QUIT POETRY. I googled this question back in 2013 and, actually, it led me to a story about Chelsey Minnis. I didn’t quit poetry and neither did Minnis, but I got to learn about her. Learning is always liminal, and I love liminal spaces.

JB: The repetition throughout Fidelitoria becomes incantation. Does repetition add something else to this work to you besides a musicality?

CW: Well, repetition is magical. I read a gloss on Mercutio’s death in Romeo and Juliet that claimed that when Mercutio speaks the line “A plague ‘o both your houses!” three times, an Elizabethan audience would have connected this with Matthew 26:75 (“And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.”) That third recitation of the curse would have been the one that sealed it. Spacing the repetitions out, therefore, creates tension and drama because the audience is waiting to see if Mercutio will do it—if he’ll actually say the magic words thrice and damn the houses of Capulet and Montague. It occurs to me that this is a pretty high literary reference to explain the same principle as Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice. In short, I mean that repetition freezes and expands time, it messes with temporality and suspends the speaker in the orb of the dying breath, the moment where you decide if you’re really going to do the curse or summons, to turn the words into things.

JB: Can you talk about symbols from the Tarot that are important to your work? Rope and ash imagery appears quite a bit—do they mean something in particular? Snow becomes equated with the father.

CW: I love this question. I’ve never thought of this before, but I think this book was really the start of my more ekphrastic tendencies. I wrote it before Death Industrial Complex (which is a series of poems that are occult ekphrasis of the photographs of Francesca Woodman), but I was equally engaged with the images created by Pamela Coleman Smith for the Rider-Waite tarot deck (increasingly referred to as the Waite-Smith deck, finally!) when writing Fidelitoria. It’s Smith who is particularly interested in rope, often represented as an eternity symbol. This image—the binding object twisted into eternity—is very Fidelitoria in the sense that it is another representation of something seemingly fixed turned into flux. The abstraction of possibility made concrete. Many of the symbols used throughout the book (such as snow and ash) embody objects in a state of flux because of my obsession with the utopic potential of the liminal. Pamela Coleman Smith had sound activated synthesia and in an essay for The Strand Magazine, she said that many of her images were “Thoughts loosened and set free by the spell of sound […] Subconscious energy lives in them all.” It would be really nice to think that my own ekphrastic response to her work picks up on that subconscious energy and that this book is tuned right into her frequency. Who wouldn’t want to be on Pamela Coleman Smith’s wavelength?

Jesi Buell is a librarian and the head of KERNPUNKT Press, a home to experimental writing. She lives in Upstate New York with her husband and beautiful daughter.

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