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Interview with Ariana Reines

I first became aware of Ariana Reines’s work through her early poetry collection The Cow (2006), which went on to win the prestigious Alberta Prize. I was struck by its focus on abjection, female filth and the damage we inflict on animal bodies. Reading that collection marked the start of a full on, visceral engagement with Reines’s work. The expansiveness and courage of her voice has helped to build my sense of what poetry might be capable of at its best – visionary, politically engaged, wrestling with the point at which body and spirit meet.

 

Reines’s books are works of intellectual commitment and structural sophistication; at the same time, they allow the raw stuff of being, in all its messiness, to enter the page. Her work experiments with form and structure, often using long lines and unorthodox punctuation, alongside a rangy, conversational and slangy diction – all of which leads to a sense of delicious intimacy with this rich and dynamic poetic voice. It is poetry I continue to teach, read and respond to, a touchstone of inventive poetics.

 

Reines was born in Salem, Massachusetts, lending her what she describes as a ‘heavy Salem lineage’. The awareness of female agency as ‘threat’ is ever present in her books; that strange mixture of a power that is both terror and desire. As a poet, playwright and translator, Reines is concerned with the complications of female experience and liberation and how these meet the knowledge of the body, and in excavating the difficulties and strange pleasures of contemporary sexual and romantic relationships. She writes stringently about the death-cult of late capitalism, and its chaotic imaginary. Reines is also interested in the occult, and the ways in which it might open up new kinds of spiritual and poetic understanding. This is most clearly seen in her alchemical work Mercury, which explores symbolism and transcendent experience. It re-appears in the titanic ambition of her newly published collection A Sand Book, which explores Jewish identity, spiritual transformation, and the poison of climate collapse – interrogating the space between the divine and the self. The book is both a philosophical work of thought and politics, and a deeply human one that addresses trauma, sexuality and suffering. It is also a monumental object, divided into twelve twisting sections which make the average ‘slim’ book of ‘verse’ look like an appetiser. It is Western poetry returned to its ‘epic’ classical origins – meaty and full of drama, with more Big Dick Energy than any ‘Great American Novel’.

 

Alongside her poetry, Reines has published translations of Jean-Luc Hennig’s The Little Black Book of Grisélidis Réal: Days and Nights of an Anarchist Whore, Charles Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare, and Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by Tiqqun. She has taught at Columbia University and the New School, as well as organising classes in non-academic spaces, such as ‘Ancient Evenings’, a ‘writing sabbath’ of liturgical reading and sacred writing, which ran in Toronto’s Gallery TPW among other venues. Reines has worked as a translator for a group of trauma clinicians in Haiti, as part of the UN Mission in Port-au-Prince. She is also a professional astrologer, and offers readings in person and online.

 

I interviewed Reines shortly after the publication of my first poetry collection, WITCH. Unsurprisingly, thoughts of the occult and its liberatory potential were already on my mind. Over email Reines and I discussed astrology, Salem, gender freedom and escape through language, as well the possibilities poetics might offer to refigure and reshape our current capitalist rigidity.

Q

The White Review

—  One of the most interesting things to me about women practising magic is that it explicitly allows them spend time on their wants and needs, and to find language to express those needs and desires. Such explicit female desire is part of what gives the occult its taboo electrical charge. I was reminded of these lines from your poem ‘RITE AID’: I want to love myself for what I want, the way you do…/And watch the wanting itself change my life.’

 

To me this is a fantastic description of the power of female magic-in-poetry: whether the spells, poems or rituals always ‘work,’ the expression of wanting itself is life changing. It shifts the parameters of who we are and what we allow ourselves. Do you see a connection between writing the occult and writing female desire?

 

A

Ariana Reines

—  You are so right about the connection between desire and action being precisely what is – and always has been – considered scary and dangerous about magic. Neither the state nor religion, as planet Earth has largely known them, wants you monkeying around trying to marry your desire to the forces of nature or the powers of the universe!

 

Poetry shows up where language shows up – a mysterious supplement, to borrow or deform an old Derrida epithet, that we cannot do without, and that just might be the basis of the material world as we know it. Well, if not language as such, then sound.

 

Writing is a transformative act and writing the occult, which I interpret as writing what’s invisible, or apparently invisible, is inevitably connected to writing my desire as a woman. Since the beginning of my career I’ve been haunted by the old mode of writing, which I think of as ‘righting’ – seeking redemption, somehow, by rendering past events into art; into fiction, into vision, into some form of intellectual lucidity that could somehow free me from the shit of the real. This is how the old dudes used to do it, and it’s not without its value. But what fascinates me is writing’s relationship to the future.  Every book I’ve written has radically transformed my life. It has materially altered my lifestyle, brought me into contact with new friends and lovers, artworks and countries, ideas and vibrations I had neither the guts nor the imagination to visualise in advance.  

 

I have only very seldom cast spells.  I have only once made a sigil. One time I made $300 go into my bank account. This kind of trickery isn’t where it’s really at for me.  You can play around with the material world, and I tend to enjoy people who do, but if that’s what constitutes witchcraft, it holds no interest for me. What interests me is the subtle and wild way poetry produces more liberty in my life, the way it opens thought, feeling, past experience, and future desire to a much more quantum array of possibility.

 

We are barely at the beginning of this process culturally: women have not been in public for long, and have not been in public en masse since prehistory, when, I guess, what it meant to be public was something very different than it means now.

 

And yet there is an irony in talking about what it means to be in public by way of poetry, which has also, always been, for me, a beautiful way to hide, to remain occult, to stay veiled, and to leave ‘reality’ with its shitty Top 40 radio and necrosis patriarchy to rot.  Poetry has been the perfect reality distortion field for me, just above the real, and just below it.

 

Obviously there’s plenty of talk about what a scourge male entitlement is; I’ve certainly been on the shitty end of that stick myself.  But what about the childlike impetuosity and purity at the root of shameless and loving desire? I won’t put a gender on that kind of desire, though I will hazard that the heavy consequences the feminine pays not only for its own desires but for those of others is just a bad economy. When I wrote that poem I was nauseated by my own expert capacity to find reasons to invalidate my own longings and to push my desires into an infinite future. Writing Mercury, which was inevitably about transforming my life – the book was about alchemy after all –, forced me to face up to the many ways in which I wanted to change. It felt like it took forever while I was writing it, and then suddenly everything was different.  

 

Q

The White Review

—  I love the idea that poetry might allow us to leave ‘reality’ to rot. That part of poetry’s occult force can be its ability to either refute or refigure the false normalcy of life under what cultural theorist Mark Fisher termed ‘capitalist realism’. This idea feels crucial to your new collection, A Sand BookEspecially in poems like ‘Thursday’, which begins with an image of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore in a magazine and builds to the line, ‘People magazine will go up in flames’.

 

Do you think that poetry’s ability to bring into being other, more mystic ways of seeing means that poetry can be a political force for radical change? Or is asking poetry to fulfil a political function just another way to try and hold it inside a stale kind of enlightenment rationality?

 

A

Ariana Reines

—  I think an essential lever for the great shift in consciousness that is required of each of us at this stage on the planet is the writing of poetry, and the more people who begin practicing this art with curiosity, love and attention, the better. Yes, asking poetry to fulfil a (merely) political function would be a mistake. This tends to lead us to poetry that, however cleverly or inventively, can do no better than denounce the apparently evil and/or praise the good. Worse, we get something that is very much in fashion right now: the fetishisation and weaponisation of our own pain.

 

Paul Celan commanded himself (and us) to ‘keep yes and no / unsplit’ and I really believe that this is the crux of one of poetry’s essential powers.  When it’s working, poetry opens a space beyond praise and blame and mere fact that is nevertheless true. It can give your body back to you. It can give your brains back to you. It can restore your will to live, even if paradoxically it helps you to level with just how shitty your real situation may actually be. Language is a gift of our species and lately we’ve seemed totally inadequate to this gift: we elect politicians who lie precisely because they lie and reward scammers who do violence to the truth, perhaps out of some deep anxiety within us, some misprized notion that liberty means escaping the good and the true.

 

Everyone who can read can write poetry, and the overeducated, politically anaemic sourpusses need it as badly as the jingoistic meatheads. Poetry takes hardly any time and costs nothing, it is both more difficult and easier to do than it seems, it puts you in contact with the truth while freeing you from the burlesque of truth that shoots into you via the media you consume. No matter who says what is real, it is up to us to experience and discern, and decide what is true for ourselves: this is what it means to be human. It blows my mind how desperately we seem to want to abdicate this amazing gift.  We need more than experience: we need discernment. Poetry is a great tool for discernment, because you don’t know what you think beforehand. The poem happens, and it’s through it that you find out what you think, what is really happening, how your body is measuring reality for you.

 

Q

The White Review

—  You are also a practising astrologer. Could you reflect on the connections and links between your astrological and poetic processes? What do you make of the fact that astrological ways of thinking seem to be becoming ever more accepted and popular within literary communities?

 

A

Ariana Reines

—  I first started astrologising with people as a way to be less lonely at art residencies and while travelling for readings. The artist subject position can get boring and limiting, because people treat you like you’re special, and I wanted to talk in a human way with people about the real shit in their lives. Astrology satisfies my deep curiosity about human nature – about the heart and soul, the mysterious intricacies and agonies of family, and the incredible dignity of the work people do simply to be themselves. I’m less interested in certain internet dimensions of astrology – you may feel like this today; if your sun sign is this then you are like this – than I am in the potential for psychic surgery that it offers. Astrology’s emphasis is on birth, not death, and that alone seemed like a great reason to put my heart into it.

 

But I do love that the internet loves astrology. I think this is phase one of the feminisation of this very warped and weird caveman version of the internet.  Astrology answers our yearning to feel more connected to one another, to the planet we live in and upon, and to the tiny corner of the cosmos that we occupy, and to the beyond of the beyond of the beyond. Astrology materialises problems of infinity, longings for source, and the strange calculus of connecting the universal to the particular. I think the current craze for it is as much about the mass hangover from the old systems of knowing, which as everyone can see and feel, have made a hellhole of our strange and blue little home.  

 

We live on a planet.  We are part of a complex machinery orbiting a star in a universe of stars. For me, astrology is just one dimension of a much larger coming-to-consciousness that is beginning all around us while the most virulent forms of evil double down and metastasise.

 

Q

The White Review

—  You grew up in what is probably America’s most famous home of witchcraft, Salem, Massachusetts. What impact did your relationship with Salem have on your relationship with magic? What might it mean to you for someone to be a ‘witch’? Is ‘witchcraft’ a useful kind of thinking for you in relation to your own magical, poetic and esoteric practices?

A

Ariana Reines

—  The witch thing probably delayed my development because even aside from the heavy Salem lineage, there was forced hospitalisation of women in my family, in addition to Holocaust trauma and psychosis on my mother’s side. One the one hand, I grew up with Wiccan friends and spent high school playing ‘light as a feather stiff as a board’, and on the other hand I didn’t want to do anything that might make anyone question my judgement, intelligence or sanity, so I avoided crushed velvet, crystals, tarot cards, and The Mists of Avalon

 

For a few years I would find what I called ‘embarrassingly occult’ items in the street – a velvet bag containing a tarot deck and crystal; a genuine witch’s broom with its root for bristles and two frayed hands for praying arms; a garbage bag full of ugly astrological jewellery welded from old forks and spoons – and I’d start blushing, looking over my shoulder and around the corner, wondering who planted this stuff in my path just to have a laugh at my expense. Even in Haiti, when a possessed mambo throwing cards on the ground and speaking in groans and grunts which her husband translated, told me I had a talent ‘big like mine, why you don’t use it?’ what I felt was not only recognised but embarrassed. I now know if I’m embarrassed I’m in the presence of the truth!

 

This returns me to your opening remarks about desire because what embarrassed me so much about these encounters was I knew that deep (and not so deep) down I desired them. I am often a little embarrassed when someone I have a crush on reciprocates. Why is it when the world gives us what we want for free we tend to resist, freak out, or get embarrassed? Why is it we kind of want to work for and earn what is already given?  Maybe I should say I instead of we.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Is ritual an important part of your poetic practice and creation? How does it influence your work as a teacher of poetry?

A

Ariana Reines

—  I travel a lot, and I lay out an altar wherever I am. In New York I was always burning something – a candle, herbs, resins – but I’ve let go of that obsession somewhat, because fire is impractical when travelling. I wake up between 4 and 6 a.m. and do Kundalini yoga. I end up writing a lot between meditation sets. But one of the things I like about poetry is you can’t be too precious about it, or try too hard, it just kills it.  

 

As for teaching the primary medium of poetry is not language but breath, specifically the breath of the poet marrying the breath of the reader.  This is the key to its intimacy, its strange physicality, and the incredible excitement it can provoke.  This is also why bad poetry hurts so much.   

 

Maybe the most ritualistic I’ve ever gotten as a teacher is my Friday evening poetry Sabbath, Ancient Evenings, which I did for two seasons in New York and then reprised at a gallery in Toronto and at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard. I would choose a sacred text for us to read liturgically, without context, we would all write, and then we would read aloud, with no talk or comment until everyone in the circle had done their thing. It was kind of an anti-workshop, and an experiment in sacred imagination. Ancient Evenings turned out to be very powerful. Everyone produced incredible new work, and we also unlocked spaces in the imagination, both collective and individual, that none of us could access in more normal reading and writing spaces, or when we were alone. 

 

Ritual is, among other things, a way to fall in love with habits one might otherwise find difficult to maintain. It is also, like writing, an aid to memory (to quote Lyn Hejinian).

Q

The White Review

—  Where does the body’s sexuality and physicality meet occult practice and thinking, in your poetry?

A

Ariana Reines

—  I read a Tantric maxim the other day: ‘That which is not of the body is not of the universe.’

Q

The White Review

—  Which poets and artists do you look to when thinking about the possibilities of occult language and esoteric spirituality in writing?

A

Ariana Reines

—  The Nag Hammadi Library, the Guru Granth Sahib, the King James Bible, Marguerite Yourcenar, Antonin Artaud, James Baldwin, David Rattray, Alice Notley, Sylvia Plath, Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus, Charles Bukowski (yes, I’m a fan), Barbara Mor, Kabir, Amiri Baraka, Zora Neale Hurston, Aga Shahid Ali.

Q

The White Review

—  I’m certainly aware that even casual mentions of astrology, mysticism and esoteric spiritualties in conversation can bring snorts of derision – people (usually men) shocked that an alleged ‘intellectual’ or ‘writer’ might consider these areas part of their interests, life or practice. Have you ever come up against any sort of resistance or disdain? Did it have an impact on the way you write, and share that writing with the world?

A

Ariana Reines

—  I’m lucky that since my first book, my writing has always been taken seriously by enough people that a not-boring conversation can be had about it, that people can see that I am serious and I do real thinking in my writing, including when my subject is stupefaction and idiocy. I am not doing this for a job or for a reward. I am doing it because I will die if I don’t and because I have the romantic idea (or delusion, and if it’s a delusion I don’t care) that it makes my life more interesting. Comedy is a serious art.  Joyce practiced it. Proust practiced it. Rabelais, Chaucer, Villon. I want to be as serious as them. The reason I’m involved in poetry is because I wish I knew how it would feel to be free, not because I want to trick some boring asshole into considering me an intellectual. I should say, though, that there are definitely people who’ve been put off by my work. Probably the sexuality in my work dissuades some people as much, if not more, than its religiosity, hospitality or warmth.  

Q

The White Review

—  Your poem ‘TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES’ ends ‘My secular life/If I ever had one is over.’ Is that the case for you as a poet, and if you ever did have a secular life, when did it end?

A

Ariana Reines

—  That’s a great question. If I ever had a secular life, it ended a little bit earlier than the occasion of that poem, in 2010, when a truck drove into a car I was in, and should have killed me.

Q

The White Review

—  Towards the very end of your new collection A Sand Book, you write ‘The Time of Spectacle Will Pass.’ What is coming next?
A

Ariana Reines

—  Gosh I don’t know. I think if more of us become poets we’ll be able to figure it out together.

 

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

REBECCA TAMÁS is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John University. Her pamphlet Savage was published by Clinic, and was a LRB Bookshop pamphlet of the year, and a Poetry School book of the year. Rebecca’s first full-length poetry collection, WITCH, was published by Penned in the Margins in March 2019. She is editor, together with Sarah Shin, of Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, published by Ignota Books. 

 



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