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In conversation: Jacob Bromberg and Zoë Hitzig

Zoë Hitzig’s first book of poems, MEZZANINE, is animated by a prismatic intelligence that alternately focuses and refracts different wavelengths of power at work in society. Hitzig’s work is palpably enriched by her scholarly background (she holds an AB in Mathematics and Philosophy, an MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Economics), and though the poems are by turns direct and oblique, she cannily makes a key of her erudition rather than a lock.

 

As the collection’s title implies, the poems occupy an intermediary space – a ‘purgatory’, she says – in which Hitzig interweaves the factual and the experiential so that they come to buttress one another. Her poems sift modern history (of science, of justice, of feminism, of anthropology and economics), often in laconic and clipped constructions that assume a complicity with the reader, affording their gestures greater resonance.

 

Over the course of a quarantine week, Hitzig and I corresponded by email and a shared text document about the uses of poetry, the ethics of the paratextual, and more.

 

Q

The White Review

— What do you want from your poetry?

A

Zoë Hitzig

— For the most part, I feel as though poetry makes demands of me, not the other way around. So, mainly, what I want from my poetry is to do my best to keep up with poetry’s demands. What are those demands? They’re manifold and taxing and often in conflict with each other and probably every poet perceives them differently. To me, most of them are, on some level, about making tiny, faithful updates to the guidebook for this landscape of beauty and terror that we humans are forced to inhabit. As the entries in that guidebook accumulate over centuries, a record of the grace but also the brutality of the experience of being here emerges. With that record in hand we can begin to imagine better ways of organising – and relating to – ourselves and one another. On November 9, 2016, I wrote out the Czesław Miłosz poem ‘You Who Wronged’ in longhand, and taped it above my desk. It has now moved across an ocean and through several apartments in a handful of cities and it’s always above my desk: ‘Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.’ He writes, ‘You can kill one, but another is born. / The words are written down, the deed, the date.’

 

That makes it all sound quite serious, doesn’t it. When I started writing, I never thought anyone else would read my work. So it must be true that writing poetry affords me private joys, too. Ammons once wrote, ‘Poetry leads us to the unstructured sources of our beings, to the unknown, and returns us to our rational, structured selves refreshed.’ In normal life, I often feel like a contortionist, arranging my limbs in unnatural ways so that I can fit into the tiny glass box of logic and rational language. Poetry allows me to stretch out and wander into the backcountry and write the rules that define play in a sport that doesn’t exist yet. Then, when I return to the circus of rationality I’m a little more limber and can delight again in the challenge of tying myself in a knot.

Q

The White Review

— Power relations and morality seem to be a major thread in your guidebook updates, often approached through the prisms of the economic and the carceral. I’m thinking, for example, of lines like ‘Possession is a pledge and a pledge is proof / of what might have been but probably wasn’t’ in the poem ‘Pawn Slip’, which an endnote tells us is a response to the conviction of Glenn Ford, who was on death row for almost three decades before being exonerated and released from prison, and then died from lung cancer just one year later. What does it mean for you to be handling, kneading, stretching the serious and rational on the terms of the supra-/extra-/ir-rational?

A

Zoë Hitzig

— That’s a great question. Poetic investigation must be a complement to other, more linear and logical modes of investigation. ‘Pawn Slip’ belongs to a series of poems in Mezzanine about wrongful convictions of death row prisoners – I see these as humble, impressionistic explorations of the role of evidence and objectivity in catastrophic miscarriages of justice. Many artists and writers have embarked on much more ambitious projects aiming to speak to the horrors of the carceral state – I was particularly inspired by Etheridge Knight, Claudia Rankine, C. D. Wright, Deborah Luster, Taryn Simon, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Fred Moten and June Jordan.

 

Scholarship, journalism, advocacy, and firsthand accounts from the people whose lives have been forever altered by these systems, have a different role, a role that plays out in the rational world. The journalist or scholar says something like ‘Hey you, come over here and let me tell you about this thing that’s unjust.’ But a poet or artist can treat the same subject outside the strictures of rationality, and when they do so, it’s more like ‘I’ve got a small torch, let’s look at this thing together – this thing that’s usually hidden from view – let’s feel what we feel when we see it in this light.’ The two approaches are complements, not substitutes. Does that make sense?

Q

The White Review

— Absolutely! It makes me wonder, has poetry – writing or reading, ever or often – informed the frameworks, angles, or content of the work that makes up your ‘straight job’ as a PhD candidate in economics?

A

Zoë Hitzig

— Generally speaking, reading and writing poetry helps me figure out what matters, and so I suppose it helps me orient my research toward the kind of truths that might end up being worth the pain of discovery. In terms of content, though, more often the economics seeps into the poetry. Poetry can hold insights from economics in its ample bosom. Economics just isn’t very spacious – so it’s less likely to work the other way around. Insights from artistic investigation usually can’t compile on the economics machine.

Q

The White Review

— I’ve noticed a general trend to make greater use of endnotes in poetry collections. The endnotes in Mezzanine give further context to many of your poems, largely but not solely to supply historical information. At the same time, there are many features of your poems that require investigative sussing out (for example, the % signs strewn throughout the poem ‘Fragments from the Imagined Epic: The Song of Have Blue’). How do you decide what should be made explicit about a poem from the liminal within/without space of endnotes?

A

Zoë Hitzig

— I feel conflicted about endnotes. I am firm in my belief that poems need to stand on their own, without notes. But I also think notes can offer readers a foothold in a territory in which they may not otherwise feel comfortable. The endnote question relates to what we were talking about before – notes are necessarily part of the rational – the scholarly and journalistic – and end up being didactic to some degree. Some readers want that. Other readers don’t. It’s a compromise, I guess.

 

I think about ‘The Waste Land’; at some point in my life I was very thankful for the endnotes. They made me feel like I was allowed to read Eliot and talk about him. But now I resent the endnotes!

Q

The White Review

— Why is that?

A

Zoë Hitzig

— I resent the endnotes for two reasons. First, I think the endnotes intimidate potential readers, who see them and assume there is one strict way to understand ‘The Waste Land’. In other words, the notes make the sprawling messy mishmash appear to be a precious and precise exercise in erudition – as if only readers with certain kinds of analytical tools can engage with it. (Of course Eliot’s general snobbishness and awfulness, eurocentrism and anti-semitism also turn people off, for good reason.) Second, the endnotes at times threaten to undermine the power of the language. Here’s an example. There’s that amazing stanza in ‘What the Thunder Said’ that starts – ‘Who is the third who walks always beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another walking beside you.’ What a breathtakingly beautiful, haunting image. On its own it’s expansive, it’s epic. But then Eliot tells us that those lines were ‘stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions’. I don’t want to know that. Let it be! The fact that it’s inspired by Shackleton’s expeditions is scaffolding. And it’s not just superfluous – the note threatens to tame the ferocious power of the image. Some will read the endnote and think, ‘Oh, okay, this stanza is just about some dude in Antarctica’ and then their imagination doesn’t have to do the work of creating the haunting scenario and feeling it in full force.

Q

The White Review

— Eliot also famously said ‘it means what it says’. What do you make of this seeming double-bind whereby the rational saddle can alternately stifle the unbridled and make it possible to ride? Is it a question of who you think your audience is, or who you want them to be?

A

Zoë Hitzig

— Hm. I think it is a question of audience, and relatedly, intent. What are the demands to which the poet is responding? For example, protest poems are usually closer to the rational and the didactic. But it’s not necessarily static – beginning there can allow the poem to eventually lift off away from its circumstance. I think often about Abel Meeropol’s poem ‘Strange Fruit’. Meeropol cites a specific photograph of a lynching from 1930 as inspiration for the poem. I don’t know the full history of the poem/song, but I imagine that the concreteness of the photograph, the specificity of that lynching at that time, gave his audience an entry point. That concreteness allowed the poem to travel into the popular imagination, with Billie Holiday’s rendition, first performed in 1939. With the countless covers since then (e.g. Nina Simone’s, which is in turn sampled in Kanye West’s 2013 single ‘Blood on the Leaves’) the poem actually expanded in scope and power and in some ways subsumed the photograph. Now the poem has a life of its own; ‘Strange Fruit’ is no longer a poem about a specific lynching in 1930, but a boundless indictment of racism in my country. So in some cases, both the audience and the intent of a work of art evolve through a long process over which the originator has very little control. Maybe? What do you make of the double-bind?

Q

The White Review

— I think you hit the nail on the head – it is very much a question of intent, which brings us back to the beginning of our conversation. There’s something fetishistic about any practice to which you devote yourself, though I think that artists, broadly speaking, are more likely to spend time trying to understand the primal scenes that have shaped their intentions vis-à-vis their work. What you’re looking for then informs how you hold the balancing pole (or how you select your saddle). So perhaps I should rephrase my previous question and ask ‘how have you decided on your saddle and, to the extent that the decision is up to you, your horse?’

A

Zoë Hitzig

— When I get a first draft down, it’s like walking into a dilapidated old barn and throwing whatever dusty saddle is lying around onto the first horse I find. It’s dark out. I have no idea where I am or what I’m doing, whether it’s a high-strung stallion or a chilled-out mare. I’m getting carried away with this metaphor… the point is: when writing that first draft, I’m fumbling, and deeply alone. Then in successive drafts I’m a little more savvy, a little less alone, because I’m in the presence of all prior versions of myself that worked on all the previous drafts. So that quickly becomes a noisy congress once you’re putting together a book – each poem brings along all the prior selves that drafted it. And sure, sometimes (but not always) I imagine bringing others into the chamber – friends, teachers, acquaintances, strangers, people with very little in common with me, people close and far away trying to make the best of a fragile existence in the recent past or distant future or any time in between.

 

This revision exercise is complicated, because it’s not as if these imagined people and prior selves are the audience. They’re representatives I summon to help me figure out the poem. I summon them knowing that each will have their own idea of both who the audience should be, and how I might get that audience to trust the speaker of the poem. It’s messy. In politics, when we argue about whether to enact a policy, people differ in their ideas of both what the outcome should be, and how we should achieve that outcome. Just as in any political process, there’s no version of the poem that pleases everyone you’ve assembled – the perfect balance may not exist. Even if it does exist it may be very hard to perceive. Even if it does exist and you can perceive it, you may not be able to enact it.

 

So, aiming for the perfect balance is sort of silly with so many unknowns. And that’s why, to be honest, I didn’t think too much about audience when putting together my first book – in the end I just chose, somewhat arbitrarily, the compromises that felt right in the decisive moments.

Q

The White Review

— It’s interesting to think about this abundance of selves and others in light of the several poems where you give voice to objects. I’ve always found it a funny, strange thing to write from an object’s perspective. How do you think about apprehending the world in such a way?

A

Zoë Hitzig

— The objects are crucial representatives in the chamber! They have wisdom that can help us guard against catastrophic futures – many of the objects that surround us have been around for a while and will stick around in some form long after we leave. When I give an object a voice I begin to see it as a nexus of social forces, as a prism (to steal your word from earlier). Through this prism, a range of human, non-human and post-human cries are decomposed and distorted, refined and recombined, into one. The resulting voice is strange, as you say, and destabilising. But the voice is not totally unfamiliar because our human voices are also refractions of our surroundings.

 

Human-computer relations manifest this dynamic in particularly obvious ways – we programme machines in ways that in turn define how they programme us. When I start thinking about these feedback loops, I get confused about what people are really talking about when they talk about choice and responsibility, clemency and punishment, merit and fault, on the individual and society-wide level. The speaker in the poem ‘Object at the Department Store Speaks’ expresses a particularly dire position: ‘We are all stolen. What is possessing.’

Q

The White Review

— This consideration of objects and agency is both reflected and weighed in the language of many of your poems. Your use of scientific and bureaucratic language in particular – which has helped to build what you qualify in one poem as ‘the forensic attitude’ – is sometimes used as part of the speaker’s voice, sometimes as an obstacle, and at times makes the language itself object-like. I’m thinking, for example, of the medical parlance at the opening of the poem ‘Division Day’, ‘Perhaps a detailed appendix will do. / On the measurement of birthweight / in this environment. Triangulate / the measure across facility records. What / is record, I ask you. Neonatal / weight loss is known to be quite severe. / Who did not lose 10% (of something) / within 24–48 hours of being born?’ Would you be able to say more about your apprehension of science and bureaucracy, and whether or how this has changed in our current circumstances?
A

Zoë Hitzig

— Science is the language of progress as much as it is a tool for oppression. I think often, with the morbid fascination that comes with being a Jew, about Nazi science. What role did the appeal to ‘science’ play in the systematic killing of my ancestors? In the present-day US, too, warped science legitimates oppression. The fields of public health and criminology were invented and sustained with overtly racist findings. Science is bought by big business. Self-serving technocrats distort research to make their political points. Machine learning perpetuates race- and gender-based discrimination. Social science, when it aims to inform policy, is never not problematic. It demands that we translate suffering into numbers, and that we use those numbers to inform life and death trade-offs. Who can we trust to produce those translations and trade-offs? How can we create democratic accountability when the experts are making their translations and trade-offs in a language most people cannot understand?

 

Seized by the present maelstrom of crises, these dynamics are thrashing us more forcefully than usual. No one knows who to trust. We may be at an advanced stage of the pandemic – the health crisis, I mean – but in the US we’re just at the beginning of the economic and political crises that the pandemic has accelerated. And can we emerge with a better political economy than the one we had before? One that not only solves the crises presenting themselves most vividly but also thwarts the environmental crisis headed our way? The death toll from COVID in the US just surged past 100k. What do we have to do to wake up to the fact that a conservative estimate for the yearly worldwide death toll from climate change is 150k and climbing rapidly?

 

This moment, June 2020, is fundamentally transitional. While I’d love to be giving readings in bookstores with Mezzanine on the shelves, I think the book makes sense in upheaval. The mezzanine is a transitional space. It is purgatory. Mezzanine debt is when a loan is not fully secured by present assets nor compensated with future ownership rights. The loan floats, precariously, between the present and the future. Especially in the US, we’re all stuck on this mezzanine until we can see what was so wrong with the way we organised ourselves before, and find a better way to organise ourselves going forward.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a multi-media poet and translator, as well as a contributing editor at The White Review. His collaboration with Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue, won the Silver Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. His work has appeared in/been exhibited at The Paris ReviewThe Believer, The Palais de Tokyo, Le MondeColor TreasuryGruppen, and the Fiorucci Art Trust’s Volcano Extravaganza, among other venues.

is the author of Mezzanine(Ecco/HarperCollins, 2020) and a PhD candidate in economics at Harvard. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications in the US and the UK, including The New Yorker, Harper's, The Paris Review, and the London Review of Books.


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