This has been a weird year — and this could be said about much of the 21st Century thus far, as the effects of 20th-Century industrialization and globalization take shape in increasingly perilous ways. But, in a more direct way, the present disjunction between “normal” and what we feel as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and global political upheaval reverberates throughout our days as I write this in late 2020.
And it’s into this pandemonium that Claire Marie Stancek’s wyrd] bird emerges, fully formed and visionary, a voice from the years before that, incredibly, feels even more salient in light of everything we’ve collectively experienced. wyrd] bird is a book of days chronicling the author’s experience of grief, but it’s also a spiritual journey through life to the other side of death, following the 12th-Century Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen’s visions. With the hybridity of visions, the book weaves together elements of lyric essay, hymn, parable, and polemic.
Over the last several months, I’ve had the joy of corresponding with Claire about wyrd] bird. Our frequent apologies for our belated replies bely the unspoken understanding that time is simply different now, that the pandemic has rewritten our lives according to its own logic. But I do believe that the time we’re living through allows — perhaps enforces — the slow consideration that wyrd] bird demands of a reader. In this conversation, Claire and I discuss how writing from the body necessitates hybrid form, how the visionary can reflect on our present moment, and what it was like to publish wyrd] bird during such a time of collective grief.
Valentine Conaty: I want to briefly return to Oil Spell to talk about how your relationship to source text has changed between the two books and how that relates to the hybrid nature of the text. Oil Spell utilizes collage and assemblage to create spell-like meditations on industry and violence. One of the exciting things about wyrd] bird is its radically different approach to intertextuality. Where Oil Spell used a more “poetry”-oriented collage style, wyrd] bird’s relationship to source text is much more directly citational in a way that’s associated with prose writing. Can you talk more about how that shift in your writing came about? Did you go into the project intending to write a “hybrid” text, or did working with Hildegard’s archive necessitate a particular form of intertextual exchange?
Claire Marie Stancek: “What would it mean to write an utterly embodied book?” is one of the refrains of wyrd] bird, and I think it speaks to some of the differences between wyrd] bird and Oil Spell. The experience of embodiment is central to wyrd] bird not just in what the book describes but also in how it speaks and thinks. I wrote this book during a time of intense personal suffering, when my individual experience seemed inextricable from larger societal violences. And I kept a notebook during this time, carried it everywhere, and even slept with it (the book begins, “I slept with my book open, woke into strange thoughts pen in hand”).
My pain took the form of receptivity and I wrote the overlapping thoughts, synaptic conjunctions, coincidences and convergences that felt in my heart and lungs, in my body-as-brain. The body’s intelligence is not less than that of the mind, but is immersive, multivalent, and often exceeds the possibilities of language. And notebook writing lends itself to the fleeting and the temporary, the unfinished.
I guess this is a long way of saying that I think that embodiment demands hybridity. That the body’s experience of simultaneity, of being enmeshed in multiplicity, of the noise of the senses, lends itself to hybridity of form. And although Oil Spell has other forms of hybridity, I think it’s a book that is less interested in embodied experience.
But I love your idea that Hildegard’s archive necessitated a formal shift, and I think that’s absolutely right. Speaking across time to Hildegard, reading her writing and studying her artworks, listening to her compositions so that I could almost hear her voice in my ear, created a context for creation in which new ways of relating to text became possible for me. I don’t want to appear glib by saying that Hildegard was a collaborator in this text; I do feel that her presence was one that structured and informed, one that was active and alive. I had this recurring fantasy as I wrote wyrd] bird that Hildegard was my guide through the underworld. Citational writing is more conversational, more oriented in relation to the text it’s engaging. It doesn’t absorb or rearrange in the same way that collage does, but rather engages the other text on its own terms. Through the intimacy and directness of prose I could not only speak to Hildegard but also hear her speak.
The way you talk about writing with Hildegard almost reminds me of persona poems. The book doesn’t necessarily approach persona in the same way, in that its engagement with Hildegard’s life and writing is third-person, rather than assuming a first person narration — but it seems that Hildegard’s visions provided a blueprint for your own in a way that feels transformative, and doesn’t retain as much distance from the object as a purely critical exegesis. Can you talk more about how you approached writing not just around, but through Hildegard’s visions, and what this hybrid engagement enabled for you?
wyrd] bird is a vulnerable, raw, open book that explores the susceptibility of reading. The intimate permeability or suffusion of this text with Hildegard’s visions asks how the encounter with another being, another text, another voice, can profoundly shake, change, reconstitute the subject.
As you say, the way wyrd] bird engages source texts is hybrid, fluid. The book has a notebook form, a dream form, a form of fragments and uncertainties and questions and shadows and reverberations, permeable, transient. It moves between fragmentary essay engaging with Hildegard’s visionary writings and artwork, dream journal, poetry, grainy cellphone photos. This hybridity provided the medium by which I could engage with the subject matter — grief, climate catastrophe, political upheaval — and it also becomes an expression of this subject matter: shard-like, echoic, unmoored.
I think this has a lot to do with the space I was in when I was writing this book. I remember when I first “met” Hildegard — I was walking around the city enveloped in a feeling of total dejectedness, hopelessness about the future and about where I found myself in my life at the time. By chance I stumbled across a library and went in, and there on the wall like magic was a photograph of my mother — it was an old class photograph from when she was a student at the school. I felt an electric sense of connection across time, immediately elevated and shocked into a sense of wonder and coincidence, inexplicable connection. I started browsing the shelves. I was attracted to these large illustrated editions that included reproductions of Hildegard’s visions. I became fascinated by her work, Scivias as well as her letters and lyric compositions.
My writing to and with and through Hildegard in wyrd] bird is connected to my experience of receptivity at the time — the feeling like I was grasping onto her for life — as well as a feeling of identification. That Hildegard’s encounters with the inexplicable, with hallucinatory visions and terrifying dreams and questions about reality and her ability to exist within it had led her to intense creativity was, for me, a source of hope. And convinced me that the voice of a medieval Christian mystic was one that actually could speak poignantly to our contemporary moment, that could resonate for others the way it resonated for me.
I’m interested in the idea that embodiment demands hybridity, that we live in a constant state of simultaneity and genre is a kind of social categorization of experience that’s alien to the body itself. Speaking of embodiment, some of the most moving sections of wyrd] bird for me were those where you were looking directly into the face of mortality. I’ve been thinking about mortality a lot due to the pandemic and aging within this weird time we’re experiencing now. But I remember the lines,
“And half asleep I perceived that I had bled a hole through to the other side. A hole through.
Even alive in flesh, flesh rots: death laps at the margins. A hole through.”
In that last line, “death laps at the margins” and in the idea of “a hole through,” it almost seems like you’re drawing a line between genre and hybridity that is also a line between the experience of living and the experience of dying, which are always experienced in simultaneity, though rarely described as such. As if genre is a kind of boundary we implement to stave off the experience of death, and in writing toward that experience, genre begins to decay. And there’s a kind of abject ecstasy in that decay. I wonder whether you found it useful when revising the work to approach it with some detachment, or was your process of revision an equally embodied experience?
Yes! The fracturing and crumbling of genre on the way to expressing powerful and unknowable experiences like death (and, with the pandemic in mind, illness, brain fog, the loss of loved ones, the uncertainty of the future) feels right both for wyrd] bird and also for the way I read Hildegard. And I love the way you phrase it, the “abject ecstasy in that decay.”
I do feel there’s something embodied about revision, in that revising a text often involves this visceral experience of meeting something or someone again after a period of time. There’s both recognition and misrecognition involved in that meeting and what was once an intimate creation becomes half-strange again.
For me, successful revision requires a balance between detachment and embodiment. In order to re-enter the text — to move words around without upsetting the balance of the phrases, to feel the vibrations words make when they sound at the beginning and resonate throughout, to bend and pull and twist and cut lines without breaking them — requires a degree of closeness and familiarity. But I also need to have enough distance to be able to recognize what needs to change and how. In my experience, that’s being neither fully in nor fully out of the manuscript.
One striking thing throughout the book is the way that you transform the everyday landscape of American late-capitalism into visions using the repeated mantra, “And I saw …” For example, “And I saw an ungainly pigeon flap from railing to railing, the white undersides of its wings looking somehow festive, as though it were the one creature left over after everything, and it couldn’t help but enjoy the eerie emptiness.”
Birds, wings, flight, vantage — these are important images and themes throughout the book, echoed formally in these descriptive passages, utilizing a kind of bird’s-eye-view perspective. They imbue the collection with feelings of wonder and detachment. While working on wyrd] bird, what writers or artists did you look to for models of how to transmute the mundane into the visionary, beside the obvious example of Hildegard?
I’m really compelled by your reading of the “And I saw” refrain. As you say, the phrase directly alludes to Hildegard, who characteristically introduces her visions with this phrase. I wanted to adapt it to the present moment and ask, what is the possibility for visionary experience in our time? I wanted to include everyday forms of witnessing within her visionary phrase.
I was also attracted to the plainness of the words, and the possibility that in their very monosyllabic mundanity they could open onto mystical experience — through mundanity itself.
By beginning with the word “and,” the phrase “and I saw” suggests an ongoingness, an inclusive sense that experience, though not coherent, is accumulative and continuous. And of course, the form of the list, which in its everydayness and materiality, has always fascinated me.
But your question is about the writers and artists I drew from when writing this book. It’s hard to cast my mind back to that time to remember what was on my desk, but I know that Etel Adnan, Alice Notley, Lyn Hejinian are three major sources of inspiration always. I remember I was reading Kazim Ali’s prose with admiration, and Julie Carr’s wonderful hybrid essayistic poetry. I was also writing a dissertation chapter on Dickinson and sound at the same time at which I was writing this book, which I’m sure resonated in obvious as well as subterranean ways with wyrd] bird.
There are several passages where something changes in the language, prose sections are separated by lyric poetry.
from everything along under among, lightened i collect
alone so my power. chaoses except over from — or through
a familiar time the window edge the mind then what
stranger thoughts believed my dreams too. Everything
These intersections frequently draw in the same words and images as the prose sections, but something in the language has transformed, elevating words from prose to poem and then from poem to vision or spell. These moments feel somewhat processual, in that something is done with the language to transfigure it into something else. I’m wondering how your writing process diverged in the making of these lyric sections, and what you think language has to go through in order to become visionary?
My process was notebook writing, and I wanted to open myself to all the energies and possibilities that resulted. A notebook takes on a para-life, in the sense of being alongside or beside all of the daily events and little thoughts as they occur. Like, the notebook provides the space for meta-commentary, and scribbled thoughts take shape as life’s marginalia. In this way one can record and keep what would otherwise be fleeting and transitory. And attention changes, or maybe life does, in the way that anything observed shifts in unknowable ways under the weight of attention — but whether it’s the habit of attention that shifts or whether it’s life itself, a tuning takes place. And in that tuning, the everyday becomes visionary.
But then again, to say that the notebook exists merely beside or alongside life is not quite right. It’s more than that. I found that the notebook came to exert its own force. I took it to bed and it slept beside me on my pillow. I recorded dreams while still half asleep, while incoherent in language and in self, in that I had not gathered myself into any waking “I” that could say “I had a dream last night,” and so I existed still as a dream and was made of dreams’ ether. And I would often have the experience of being unable to read what I had written, whether because I had accidentally written over something on another page, having been writing in the dark, not seeing the page, or whether my writing was illegible because I had scrawled while still nearly sleeping. So the notebook presented resistances to my waking logic, my ordering mind. The notebook flouted my attempts to return to what it held, my desire to know what it knew of me, to my prosing and fashioning into the arc of narrative. It was like the notebook was a demon of the unconscious, and withheld my own insights from me, or taught me to reexamine my own assumptions about what were my thoughts and my perceptions, and what belonged more variously to the collective or to Hildegard or to nothing and no one.
Context becomes a field of possibilities over which the notebook exerts a strange sway. If an essay or a narrative usually occurs in an order structured according to the progression of logic or argument or time, the notebook refuses this reasoning. The recorded dream sits alongside the grocery list, and along the edge of the page a phone number runs, though I can’t remember why I wrote that number down or who it would call should I call it. Then a quotation from Walter Benjamin that I happened upon in a book about Hildegard which then reminded me of something my mom said on the phone. And there it all sits together on the page.
I wanted to find a way to express this disordering order of the notebook, the agency of the unknown and the unknowable within oneself. I was thinking a lot about dreams, about my own dreams but also what it might mean for the book to dream. And that’s what I call those lyric passages you mention — dream passages — as though in them the book were dreaming or re-collecting, if re-collecting were dispersing in every gesture of drawing in. Like breath, the drawing in to exhale.
So while I composed wyrd] bird in one direction through prose, I simultaneously ran in another direction through an inverse mode of composition. The dream passages came out of the same book but dreaming. I took all the language that occurred elsewhere in prose and broke the sentences apart and reordered the words. In an earlier draft, each phrase appeared at least twice: once in the prose sections and again in the lineated sections. But over time and successive revisions I pared the lineated passages down so that they became more like sparks or moments in language.
What does language have to go through in order to become visionary? I love this question and while I don’t know that I can answer it, let me offer some ideas that your question provoked for me.
One idea is about sound, in the charge that zaps into life between two sounds placed in relation, whether through rhyme or rhyme-like sonic effects. Irreducible to description, sound’s charge is one of the magic elements of language.
Another line I might draw from language to the visionary is through ritual, whether the ritual of a writing process or the rituals that structure everyday life. The repetitions that structure a ritual open one’s awareness to the visionary through the simple act of repetition and nothing more. Sometimes repetition alone is what elevates a word into an incantation with the power to invoke, address, or enact.
In both sound and ritual, the difference between the visionary and the mundane is not only elusive and shifting but also chimerical. I’m reading a wonderful book by Eric Falci called The Value of Poetry and he quotes a passage from Paul Valery about the emotion of poetry which I think speaks to this discussion:
The problem can be put in this way: Poetry is an art of Language; certain combinations of words can produce an emotion that others do not produce, and which we shall call poetic. What kind of emotion is this?
I recognize it in myself by this: that all possible objects of the ordinary world, external or internal, beings, events, feelings, and actions, while keeping their usual appearance, are suddenly placed in an indefinable but wonderfully fitting relationship with the modes of our general sensibility. That is to say that these well-known things and being — or rather the ideas that represent them — somehow change in value. They attract one another, they are connected in ways quite different from the ordinary; they become (if you will permit the expression) musicalized, resonant, and, as it were, harmonically related. The poetic universe, thus defined, offers extensive analogies with what we can postulate of the dream world. (quoted in Falci)
And, I would add, that the poetic universe offers analogies not only with the dream world but also with visionary experience.
Early in the collection, you describe Hildegard’s synesthesia in her writing as “a simultaneity of sensation,” which comes close to providing a functional definition for the visionary. You also switch between and combine different sensory registers in the book — I’m thinking in particular of where you insert a graph showing the acoustics of a medieval chancel — especially sights, sounds, and textures. I’m also thinking of more abstract senses such as proprioception, one’s awareness of their body in space, which are engaged or altered in visions. Especially in the passages on transit, close observation becomes almost an out-of-body experience. What senses are the easiest and hardest for you to write into? How do you engage different senses to different ends in your work?
Wow, I love your reading of the crossing of senses, sense confusion, and movement as an out of body experience — all of these between-senses feel really right for wyrd] bird, in which I was preoccupied with loss, absence, and displacement, or one sense felt through another. I come back to this line by Keats, “the feel of not to feel it,” which encapsulates for me that charged emptiness whose lack drives poetry’s longing for expression — which then ultimately falls short.
What you say also makes me think of other liminal sensings that feel important in wyrd] bird — the feelings of dreams, while they are occuring, while they are still fresh, and then the taste they leave when you no longer remember what they were, but their mood still alters the whole day; the feeling when you think you see something that isn’t what you thought it was, or isn’t actually there, a bit like Coleridge’s spectra, which Rei Terada describes as “optical illusions, hallucinations, and sensory oddities”; the feeling of a rhyme at long distance, which is like coincidence, or maybe even providence.
I think for me, the senses that are most slippery to categorize are the most interesting to write into while also being the hardest. I also really love writing about music — which similarly feels almost impossible to me most of the time.
What has it been like debuting this book, much of which is hinged on a deep exploration of the private life of the writer, and of the ecclesiastical hermit, in the middle of a global pandemic and another record-breaking year of climate disruption? Do you think that the context in which wyrd] bird is reaching audiences has enabled reading into the collection in a new way, and if so, how? Has this context changed your own thinking about the book?
Debuting wyrd]bird at this time has been such a strange, uncertain, and often lonely experience. I mean, I always feel dislocation and a sense of temporal or emotional mis-match when my books finally emerge into the world, years after some or most of the text was first composed. The book arrives anachronistically, out of time, and while all the intimacy I once felt with the material has evaporated, I also feel misrecognition, bewilderment, and embarrassment when re-reading it.
But on top of that “normal” strangeness that accompanies publication, wyrd] bird came out as you say in an acutely troubled time. Actually, I think that wyrd] bird speaks to this moment in ways that I would never have been able to anticipate when I was writing it. I remember after I gave a Zoom reading, someone mentioned how startling this passage was when I spoke about sharing air:
My body absorbs changes in the degrees and types of air staleness. What we breathe circulates within us and without us, binds and unbinds us, a loose and impermanent loop. If we could see the air we share, see it in cords that make visible our interbreathing, what thickspun tapestry would pull us close. Stale the air I breathe
is not your air we
Moon blue hair.
That passage takes on new viscerality after COVID-19 transformed how we think about the breathing that binds us together. And in the way the text toggles between — on the one side — an intense, echoic interiority and — on the other side — public unrest, protest, cops with machine guns. The balance or imbalance of inner pain set against public pain and outrage and a demand for social reckoning.
So paradoxically, at a time that is utterly upside down and out of joint, I actually feel like wyrd] bird speaks to the present in ways that do feel aligned with our messed up moment. And I hope it brings an orientation and an attention worth spending time with for readers who encounter it now.
Claire Marie Stancek
Claire Marie Stancek is the author of several collections of poetry, including wyrd] bird (Omnidawn, 2020), Oil Spell (Omnidawn, 2018), and MOUTHS (Noemi Press, 2017). With Daniel Benjamin, she co-edited Active Aesthetics: Contemporary Australian Poetry (Tuumba/Giramondo, 2016). With Lyn Hejinian and Jane Gregory, she is co-editor and co-founder of Nion Editions, a chapbook press. Claire Marie has a Ph.D. in English Literature from UC Berkeley, and currently lives and works in Philadelphia.
Valentine Conaty is a writer and editor from Birmingham, Alabama living in Brooklyn. They founded Bomb Cyclone, a journal of ecopoetics and mixed media, in 2018.