In The Braid, Lauren Levin uses Ronald Reagan as a thread or recurring theme, weaving his presidency into a book that contemplates how political and ideological forces hook and worm their way into the self, and how the self shifts, expands and contracts as it blurs over and bumps into bodies, families, modes of sociality, ways of being and of resisting. Reagan’s 1980s presence is a loose thread left dangling in The Braid. Like a hangnail, it’s painfully perfect for the current moment.
Pull the Reagan thread, and up pops Trump: Reagan, too, was an actor/entertainer turned politician, who used his theatrical persona to con the American people, drumming up nostalgia for a whiter, more isolationist America to secure votes—while doing everything he could to secure the interests of the billionaire class. Reach into The Braid and pull the Reagan thread more tightly: Reagan’s campaign slogan “It’s Morning Again in America” becomes “Make America Great Again,” and we find ourselves, in 2016, in 1984.
The Braid draws readers into the long history of the present moment, reminding us of the ways we’re bound to the past, and the ways we try to bind ourselves to one another. The Braid, Levin explained, is in part a meditation about the constructed nature of these connections; the book is about “what we are trying to give the other through art or communication.”
At one point in our conversation, Lauren and I talked about visual art; her partner, she explained, is an architect and they like to look at art together. With The Braid, she wanted to include her “angels and devils” of the art world, wanted her love for “Ana Mendieta, Lee Lozano, Howardena Pindell, Pier Pasolini” to come through, but she also wanted to acknowledge the role of “devils.” On “the Satanic side” of the art world she listed Jeff Koons, Kenneth Goldsmith—and Ronald Reagan. Her inclusion of Reagan as an artist surprised me. Now I wonder: is it possible to read Reagan’s ascendancy—Trump’s ascendancy—as a triumph for poetry, a testament to the power of art to shape the world? In The Braid, the role and potential of art is drawn into a longer conversation about power and meaning, and how they may (and not) be shared.
Levin’s next project, a chapbook, will be published by Society Editions in spring 2017.
Emily Anderson: You bring up, early in the book, the problem of representing vulnerability—how it gets tangled up with the illusory nature of self-presentation. In your book there’s the double sense that we can and cannot know each other, can and cannot share feelings. Those contradictions, as you work through them, made me glimpse a little of what you meant by “the braid.” Which is a really abstract title. How did you decide on it?
Lauren Levin: I think that sense that we “can and cannot share feelings” is at the heart of a lot of what’s going on in the book–the struggle of what can be shared (between parents and children, or people in different subject positions). Or of what maybe shouldn’t be shared. To be candid, “The Braid” was a little bit of a title by default. It just seemed to fit many of the motifs in the book: to hold many of the strands together, as it were. I think Brandon Brown suggested it. And I have a lot of hair.
I love how “the braid” also becomes about that girlish activity of braiding hair.
Yes. And there’s a bit in the book about how braiding is a social art in part because we can’t see our own hair. So again, about what we can give or get from others or how to intersect, socially or politically. Am I sounding really pompous?
No, not at all! But as we think about sharing, the places we intersect, socially or politically—how does this book share space with Ronald Reagan, or how does Reagan share space with it? You use the phrase “my Reagan childhood,” which really resonated with me because that’s how I would describe my childhood, too. Can you talk a little more about Ronald Reagan’s place in The Braid? Did you start out writing Reagan poems, or did he creep in there?
Before I got pregnant I had been doing some anti-prison work. And lots of anti-prison/police state reading. And the Reagan era is an important time for that history, so I think he came up as a figure in what I was reading. When I was trying to do creative work, though, this question came up for me of why I would write about the police state, or how I would do so in a way that wasn’t an appropriation of an experience that isn’t mine.
I wondered what drew me to that work…I mean, anti-prison work is hugely important, but there’s no shortage of urgent political work to be done. When I really started thinking about it personally, the link I found was anxiety. I’ve been an anxious person my whole life, and I was a kid in the Reagan era. And Reagan was really masterful at causing and then assuaging anxiety: that kind of politics of fear. So I started thinking about Reagan in that way. What did he want me to be afraid of? How did my personal anxiety intersect with larger social anxieties?
What did he want you to be afraid of?
I guess Reagan, like other American presidents, would want me, as a white woman with a child, to fear social disorder. A kind of white supremacist way of looking at things: that our politics and society should stay as they are, and benefit me. Basically, as someone who is easily scared/made anxious, I felt shame to think of how useful my anxiety is to a police state. Not necessarily my “personal” anxiety, but the structural use to which my anxiety could be put. [Reagan] became, for me, a kind of metaphor for white innocence, in the sense of the James Baldwin quote, “It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.”
I love how you compare white innocence to a sleeping pill—and then also give us images of Reagan’s jelly beans. Something so horrifyingly cute about it.
Reagan’s jelly beans, exactly. What does one do with a folksy, cutesy murderer, who appears to have no inner life? But just how tremendously awful that is. That the evil of white supremacy (heteropatriarchy, etc.) regards itself with such unruffled serenity. Jelly bean jars with the presidential seal.
I was just reading about Claudia Rankine’s plans to use the money from the MacArthur Fellowship to found a “Racial Imaginary Institute.” One of its purposes will be to think about how whiteness is constructed and can be dismantled. Do you see The Braid as part of an analysis of how whiteness is constructed, or part of a literature of whiteness?
I don’t know how well I achieved it, but I do think I was trying to think about how whiteness is constructed, particularly around anxiety. Particularly white womanhood or white female parenthood. Though probably rather than examining all those things together everywhere in the book (whiteness, gender, parenting) they are strands that join and then separate. But there’s something about that moment of realizing where you are, structurally. That is, I may want to empathize with the person who is put in prison, but there’s a limit to that, for me. Because structurally, as a white woman, that’s not my role in our system. Our system wants to use me as a rationale for putting other people in prison. So if deconstructing whiteness can be part of disrupting that system, that white supremacist system that functions on behalf of some people to punish others, I’m all for it!
So, this question might come out of left field, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Basically: why publish? You write, “If I write all day maybe I won’t hate everything” and I get the sense of writing as a necessary way of being in the world for the poet. And you describe a book that “erases itself.” I think of this question regarding my own writing: I do it because I have to do it to be in the world, but I don’t know why it should go farther than that, or why I want it to, especially given the availability of so much language and poetry in the world. So—what made you want to write a book?
Well, it feels very gendered to me…I wanted to write a book that, as Anne Boyer says, “isn’t against us.” Since women are traditionally the objects of poetry, not its subjects, there are the contortions you have to do to write in a form that has traditionally been against you. Or at least not made to be an instrument of your subjectivity.
So I guess part of my motivation is to destroy poetry…[that is, poetry as] the form that offers flattery to aristocrats and allows white women a role as henchmen, or minor men, subsidiary oppressors. But is there a poetry that isn’t that poetry? Does it matter if there is? I guess I’m looking for that.
And I had postpartum depression (though it started during pregnancy) and so it felt crucial to me to come back to life, in a way. I think there’s something in the book about [my daughter] Alejandra’s shouts…the way that her desires came right out of her body. I wanted to get to that place. To be heard…Because I was struggling to represent certain mental or emotional states even to myself…it’s strange when you find yourself groping to construct emotions out of odds and ends of gender baggage. That’s where I wound up using the pastoral a lot in the book. For both Reagan and white motherhood. As a literary form that traffics in idealization, it has an interesting relationship to that language of innocence.
I love that moment when you say “Reagan meadow.” I also think “pastoral” has an archaic quality—it points to there being a gap in your language that can’t be filled.
It also occurs to me that the pastoral had been inadequate for thousands of years. And there’s something horrifying and fascinating about that continuity. The persistence of these explanatory through-lines that are so inadequate to most people’s experience. I’m thinking about the moment in the book where I mention all the rapey Greek myths I read as a child. It really points to the way that these cultural products are not “about” themselves, but about systems of power.
This interview first appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly, Issue #4.
Emily Anderson is the author of Little: Novels and a PhD candidate in English at the University at Buffalo.