On the afternoon of April 20th, Syd Staiti and I met for lunch and a conversation about his new book, Seldom Approaches (May 2023), which the book’s publisher, The Elephants, describes this way:
A set of characters engage in a mission to destroy a building—a poem from the past. The narrator and writer intersect and part ways. The characters are extensions, fantasies. Time loops, events repeat. The book exposes its beams and scaffolding, as the writer’s body in transition bears its own process. Seldom Approaches is a collection of poems, transcribed readings, and prose writings spanning nearly a decade, presented asynchronously and interlaced with narrative passages, both abstract and autobiographical.
For those lucky enough to have heard Staiti read from Seldom Approaches—or to get to experience it, in the future—you’ll know as well as I that the complex experience of sequence and duration that structures this book bears out with a fresh intensity off the page. In our conversation, Staiti and I discuss exactly these terms: time, genre, character, fantasy, and the work of form.
최 Lindsay: I have so many questions. I feel like I should just first ask the clarifying ones. We’ve talked before about narrative, and also life writing. In Seldom Approaches, these seem to be two genres, among others—especially poetry—that the book moves through. What do you make of these terms? To what extent would you say that the book is invested in either of these categorical terms?
Syd Staiti: Of narrative and life writing? I don’t think it is.
Yeah. I don’t think it cares about those terms as categories. It might demonstrate forms or experiments of narrative and life writing. And I might have opinions about those terms, but the book does not care.
What does the book care about?
The book—I would say, setting up its own terms. Letting itself be what it is. Being taken on its own terms, I guess.
It reminds me of something I’d heard that Apichatpong Weerasethakul said about his films—something along the lines of thinking of his role as an artist as that of teaching his works to enjoy themselves.
I am so deeply inspired by him and his films. I watched all of them, basically—in the years of writing my first book. I very much share that philosophy. Although I think my work teaches me more than I teach it. Maybe I’d say my role is to set up the conditions that allow the work to come into being. My work is inspired by cinema as much as it is by writing.
I think I can see that—or there are certain things that come through in Seldom Approaches. Something about the logic of cuts and segues, maybe. Can you talk a bit about that?
I think in poetry, the places where one often looks for the logic of a cut would be in line and stanza breaks, or, rhetorically, in figures like chiasmus or parataxis. I can see that happening in Seldom Approaches, and I also get the sense that there’s a unique weight behind, or emphasis on, the logic of “cuts,” between all kinds of units, from lines, images, and scenes, all the way to different kinds of narrativity.
I think the transitions, and cuts, and shifts, and segues, are relational. They relate to one another to build the system of logic that is the book. It’s very different from my first book, where the cuts are intense—there are short sections that each have their own thing going on. You sort of enter into a new zone every few pages. But the structure of this book is more of a totality—each part relies on the rest of the parts. It’s been challenging to give readings from it, because I have fifteen to twenty minutes to represent what it does—which feels like an impossibility, and that’s interesting to me. But I put a lot of thought into the structure of the whole and how each section and element and cut and transition participates in the expression of the book. At first you’re not going to see how the pieces interrelate, or where one part is reminiscent of something else, but these things hopefully take shape the deeper you get into it.
It feels like something like an ambience takes shape. I feel bad talking about Apichatpong so much in this interview—but I recently saw a short film he made in the past year or so, which is a fifteen-minute series of shots of a river. It did take me about that long, just staring at running water, for it to make sense. It’s something about contemplating an object that isn’t really an object, it’s motion—contemplating that motion for long enough, something like a sense of a world starts to come on, but not one that’s fixed. There’s no principle of event and context, or controlling subjectivities, which is often what determines the logic of narrative—rather, by focusing on pure transition, you get something like a sense of world, without narrative, which is I guess closer to “ambience.”
Ambience is interesting when trying to convey a story that was real to you. You can lose yourself in questions of details. It really consumed me, the whole conundrum of what to put in, what to leave out, when I decide to say this, what other thing am I not saying? I think the realest thing is not in the details, but the overall ambience—the sentiment that’s left when someone walks away from it. And so the details don’t even matter, as long as whichever ones make it through and how they’re conveyed, which I think is really important, form and structure, and what kind of language you’re using. To me, it all goes along with the content of the story.
I think that’s probably why this book had to have both poems and prose—because they do different things. In the first section where I have these fragments of poems about transition as I’m experiencing it, the parts that are about like a stream and a bridge and an embankment feel in some ways more real and accurate to me than the parts like: I put gel on my shoulders. Do you know what I mean? It was exciting to me to have those parts next to each other because for me, I’m like, Look at the mundane details of what it is to inject T into your midsection or whatever. And then I’m like, look at something right next to it that’s more evocative, or poetic—I loved putting these things together and asking, what feels more real here? I think this book needed both—that’s what it asked for.
What is the real?
Oh god. No, it’s a good question. I don’t know what it is.
There are portions in your book where you express a real skepticism about the reality of your subjective interpretations. Like, on page 133:
I wrote a book that contains an I character that was never stable—sometimes a woman, sometimes a man, sometimes an ungendered person or person with an unmarked gender, sometimes a person who was a gender other than what was perceived. The character finds themselves in a variety of environments, carrying out experiments. The book felt cogent to me at the time, but I can see now how it starts and stops. The central character is fairly inaccessible, and the changing landscape never seems to settle. It doesn’t quite carry you through.
And on page 138:
The identifying words hold something, but they mean nothing without the lives that fill them. I use new words, have a new form, but I don’t renounce the previous iterations of myself, even those no longer visible. Every version of this book lives inside it. The “I” is a coagulation of timestamps resisting a wholly integrated present. The present is always complete in its shattered aspect.
I’m seeing a resonance between these passages and what you’ve just said—some thread here along the lines of: Subjective perceptions that become narratives of identification can’t ever be the “real,” though they have a kind of reality. I think what I’m getting from what you said is that being able to juxtapose, or create a difference between, these moments of personal storytelling, on the one hand, and then abstraction on the other, without resolving the differences, that allows something like the “real” to precipitate out. Is that it?
I think that’s the most generous way of seeing it that I could ever imagine. I’m glad you said that because I tried to bring forward some of my ambivalences around identity and direct storytelling, but yeah, having abstraction sit beside the more direct parts definitely allowed me to feel like I was getting at something that felt the most right for me.
Speaking of subjectivity and narrative, I’m interested in your use of character in this book, especially in the sections where Seldom approaches. And there are other names too—for example, Venn, as well as Libel and Hue, whose origin is explained in the book as coming from an earlier poem of yours. In Seldom Approaches, there are some names that seem to come from people in your life, and other names that seem to refer to fictional characters of your own making. Can you tell me a bit more about how you think of character? I guess another way to ask the question is: How do you distinguish between real people and characters?
Characters allowed me to be playful. Some heavy stuff comes up in the book and I think being able to create an imagined world where these characters are interacting with me and each other, helping the book get written, felt playful and light as I was attempting to narrate these things. I had characters in my first book too, but it was more of a nebulous atmosphere of people. For this one, I wanted to bring characters forward more. They’re all versions of me, but in particular Seldom and Hue are closest, and Venn and Chase are maybe one step removed. And there are named people who are real too—my partner, friends, etc. They don’t feel to me like characters of their own, though. They’re people within the narrative but they’re not being used as a narrative tool. Maybe that’s the difference.
That’s so interesting. I think that Libel, Hue, and Seldom have names that are so unlike normal human names, they stick out to me as almost like allegorical figures. And then when it came to like, Chase and Samuel, for example, that’s where I felt it was somewhat ambiguous how these moments of narrative are interacting with the parts of the book where real people’s names come up, where there might be some account of events that have actually happened.
I guess I’m trying to imagine what it would have been like to read the book if I didn’t know anything about you. Like, if I were a distant person fifty years in the future. And I think that if that were the case, it would still seem clear that there were two different kinds of narrative situations being set up. One of them feels marked as allegorical, I think largely through the names. The other is the parts of the book where, for example, you recount the situations behind your writing of other sections of the book. This seems to be operating at a slightly different level of diegesis, maybe—as if the allegorical mode is an abstraction of this narrative strand one might call an experiment in life writing. But maybe that’s the question. I’m curious about how you think about these different intensities of fictionality. I wonder if diegesis is an interesting word for you in the context of this book, because in a way, it does feel like there’s a narrative within a narrative. But it’s not clear whether one of them is the central diegetic web.
That’s a really interesting question. As for the life writing part, the writings in the book stretch over eight years (one piece is fourteen years old), which includes the years when I transitioned, and I wanted to use abstraction alongside straightforwardness to get at some of that. But I think the intensities of fictionality were amplified in the final year or two of working on the book, after I experienced a severe mental health crisis and everything changed. My life changed, my relationship to the book changed, and the book had to change. With paranoia and psychosis, it’s hard to distinguish what’s real and not real, what’s the narrative you’re living and what is being fed by the illness, and, in the aftermath, how to trust your own mind. I think diegesis in the book is a compelling way of looking at it but there’s also something about the “intensities of fictionality” that I can’t help thinking is connected to this in some way too.
I do have this allegorical world in my writing life that emerges through my writing. To me, it’s an equally alive and present world alongside my lived life. The collection of characters that involves Seldom, Hue, Venn, Chase, Libel, and Samuel, they make up this imagined realm, or the realm of the world that I’m building in my writing. It’s diegetic, for sure, but it’s maybe unclear which narrative is within the other—maybe it’s more like they’re all intertwined, or in a quantum-like relationship?
So within Seldom Approaches, what is the difference, for you, in writing the two kinds of characters? That is, the characters who are real people, and the characters who are allegorical figures. You said earlier that all of the characters are doubles. Do you think of the real people as characters and also doubles in your writing?
[Laughs] Like, is Trisha my double? I guess maybe, right? I mean—isn’t that how fiction works? Every character is a bit of the writer. I think the piece to talk about here is where I recount the night I met my friend Evan at a bar, and the allegorical figures show up there too. In this scene, there are two types of characters occupying the same space—a real person and the imagined figures. They’re different, but they’re all real. I can’t think about that night with Evan at the Port bar in Oakland in early 2019 without seeing Seldom, Hue, and Venn around us.
Perhaps another form of doubling is that this book feels like it’s about being a poet, how it’s integrated with my life in every way, like the book is my double and I’m its. I’m not glorifying it, being a poet, but it’s a thing I’ve devoted a significant amount of time and attention to for over two decades, so it has come to form me. I guess that Evan section of the book is a crux, because the imagined characters of my speculative writing life intermingle with me and another living person in the world. Of course, the Evan in the book isn’t the Evan in the world either, just like the “I” in that book isn’t the real me. They’re all ideas to play with. They represent different ideas.
I hate to be a dick, but is this the same “real” as the “real” we were talking about before?
Which one? Like the transition real?
I think the real of ambience.
I just think that, like, unseen realms are still real. The characters are all real, and also just my projections. I guess to push the question back to you, what’s not real?
I don’t know. I guess that would have to depend on what I decided “real” meant.
[Both laughing] Let’s try to get to the bottom of this. For centuries the world has been asking this question!
I think this helps me further flesh out my understanding of what you meant about levels of narrative in the book—that there isn’t a hierarchy to them. So I wanted to follow up on what you mentioned earlier—about having put a lot of thought into the book’s structure. In our conversation, this came up in context of thinking about the interweaving of the poetry and prose sections. And now, with the Evan scene, I’m curious about what concerns you had, or what motivated you, when you were thinking about structure.
I think that some of my concerns were about giving equal weight to all the things I wanted to say. I wanted the book to speak about how one narrates their life, the possibilities for doing that besides just telling the story. There are the things around gender and identification and subjectivity. Things about protest or resistance and how that carries through over decades of a life, how it gets talked about or not. About how to engage with older pieces of writing. About time and change and relationships with others and relationships to the self. There are all these things I wanted the book to do and say, among others. I just wanted to make sure—and I used form and structure to do this—that they were all calibrated to hold equal weight. I didn’t want one mode to dominate, so it would be read as a book all about my transition, or a book all about narrative and writing, or all about surviving a manic episode, etc. It was a delicate balance of holding all the threads and letting each of them exist simultaneously in this space with one another. I was obsessed with organizing the book structurally to make sure that everything was tuned to the right pitch.
I want to pick up on so many different things there. The first question that comes to mind is: While I was reading this book, there were certain sections that felt almost like notes for a reading—like introducing a poem that you’re about to read. And I was really fascinated by the integration of the introduction of the poem into the book. That’s how I phrased it in my mind initially, and then I had to rethink it, because these sections are given equal weight in the text. So: What was your concern when you decided to put in the contextualization of the poem next to the poem itself? I feel like I actually I see that very infrequently.
In the year or two after my first book was published, I wrote a few poems that I thought were building blocks for this book: one called “Utterance,” an untitled poem, and one called “Stranded.” I got kind of tunneled into gender stuff at that time, changing my name and pronoun, would I start hormones, get surgery, etc. And the Baltimore riots led to a lot of street demos in Oakland that I was going to. Trisha was around, we started seeing each other then too. So all these things were happening when I wrote these three poems, but the poems didn’t explicitly grapple with them. You could maybe see hints buried there, but not unless you were looking for it. The thing most interesting to me about the three poems was that they were written in this very intense time for me of questioning and change and rupture and transition. They were not very interesting to me as poems without this context. I was more interested in what they demonstrated than in what they were on their own. I couldn’t edit them because then I’d change what they were demonstrating, so I had to let them sit in the form they were in and I started building the context around them.
Yeah—I was trying to think of other examples of books that contain both poems and descriptions of the poems, and a text that came to mind was Zong!—the Notanda—and CAConrad’s somatic rituals. But in those cases, too, the descriptions are more like somewhat technically oriented descriptions of aesthetic constraint and conceptual concern. With the somatic rituals, too, the relationship between the ritual and the poem, even though the ritual describes events that take place around the writing of the poem, the relationship is more procedural. It strikes me that what you’re describing is something different—maybe what’s necessary for the relationship you’re describing is the sense of narrative reality you talked about?
You know what else? Time. You need time to pass to be able to look back at the time that you wrote the poem and write about it. Because if it’s something immediate—and this is maybe why few people do it, because typically people write poems and put them out, rather than sit on them for eight years like me. [Laughing] Now that this book is behind me, I’d like to try something that’s more fast and loose—just write some poems and put them out. What would that be like? I actually don’t know because I always belabor things. I sit on the poems and they ferment, they grow moldy over time and they start to look and taste different, and weeds start growing around them, and then I come back to them from a different place and offer it all up. That’s one way to do it, it’s the way this went. Partly because of the nature of it. The time in my life in which it was written. Transition. It required a lot of time.
Is that how Seldom approaches?
At a slow, creeping pace. I don’t know yet. Seldom . . . he’s a creeper. He crept up on me.
Based in Berkeley, CA, 최 Lindsay is the author of Transverse (Futurepoem, 2021), which was a finalist for the 2022 Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Poetry, and the chapbooks Who Can Remember His Past Lives (Belladonna* Chaplet Series, 2022), and Matrices (speCt! Books, 2017). More of their work can be found in Amerarcana, Aster(ix) Journal, and Nioques, 22/23: Nouvelle Poésie des États-Unis (New US Poetry), Edited by DoubleChange Collective and translated to French by Abigail Lang. They are a Kundiman fellow and a PhD candidate in English at UC Berkeley. They run the chapbook press MO(0)ON/IO. Visit them at lindsaychoi.com.
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