Photo by Heather Sten

Kate Zambreno’s latest book,The Light Room: On Art and Care, uses the crowded isolation of a family during COVID-19 as a springboard to address communal care, domestic life as a portal to the profound, and relational art. I read it in the bedroom where I’d spent most of height of the pandemic while skies outside oranged and darkened with smoke from the Canadian wildfires, finding solace in the leaps and juxtapositions of Zambreno’s writing as she finds connections and hope amidst dissolution and the unknown. I loved The Light Room and wanted to have a more formal, longer conversation with her about it, so we did while she was traveling to the Midwest.

Nate Lippens: The Light Room started out as a proposal for a different book, The Missing Person. How did it become this memoir?

Kate Zambreno: Going back to the past few books that have been published, there is often a project that needs to be cleaved into two so that they can actually become books. It’s true, there was a book I was thinking of as a collection that I’ve been trying to convince Cal Morgan at Riverhead to take on for years, that was thinking somehow through the idea of the father, and also through Kafka. “The Missing Person” was the title of a strange portrait I wrote of Kafka when he was beginning to keep journals, that was published at VQR. And actually a lot of what I wanted to write about in the proposal, that I’ve been thinking about for about four to five years, is in The Light Room—the extended movement on David Wojnarowicz’s filming of the beluga whales at Coney Island Aquarium in elegy to Peter Hujar, thinking of Wojnarowicz as an ecological thinker and artist, juxtaposing Derek Jarman’s gardening journals with my grandfather’s gardening, all of the Joseph Cornell stuff, the thinking through toys and collectibles, and children and mortality and photography. I wanted to write a series about children and zoos, which I’m actually still working on, even though there are definitely also visits to zoos in the book. The first long section, that is almost novella-length, the winter notebook “Lightboxes,” came as a surprise, and once I began to find this form, of writing these boxes, that continued the form throughout the book, and the book changed. But the book never changed to memoir. Memoir or essays aren’t really forms that I think about when writing, they are more generic forms, corporate publishing concepts, that often have a lot of baggage attached, often gendered baggage. I was surprised how much the publishing people marketed it as like a mom memoir. That’s not how I see the book at all. I am interested in first-person narrative, but of course the whole last section of the book is also third-person. I do see this book as being nonfiction. It’s a documentation of a time. The veil of irony or absurdity I sometimes write through in fiction isn’t there.

I love how the book has movements, how something musical is happening, the way the first movement “Lightboxes” has its own pace and time signature—indoors and outdoors—and “Medici Slot Machines” is slinky (not the toy, though appropriate) as it works through childhood toys and collectibles. How did you arrive at the form and structure of the book?

I’ve always been interested in writing that feels like moving into a series of rooms or spaces, that has a modular quality to it. But since the Guibert study I’ve been conscious that I’ve been writing in these boxes, and of course The Light Room is all about boxes, and artists like David Wojnarowicz or Yuji Agematsu or Joseph Cornell who had box practices, where the paragraph is about collecting or assemblage. Moyra Davey and her titles, her moving into portraiture, that first-person that feels like a way of observing and documenting, is a big inspiration, as are Fleur Jaeggy’s miniatures. So even though there are different feels to and syncopations of each movement—and I wrote them at different times—there are these boxes and title cards. Like in “The Wind Was Full of Spring,” I was conscious of titling and then also passages that felt like Jonas Mekas’s Walden. I thought a lot about Anne Carson’s “Glass Essay” as well as Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light writing the opening long section. I wanted to write, as Anne Carson has said of “Glass Essay,” with direct thought and feeling about a time, to write directly of that time and try to understand what I was thinking and feeling during that time. In “Medicis Slot Machines” I wanted each little section to feel like a Cornell toy box, like a puzzle or kinetic game to figure out, a bit like the mechanism behind my screen tests. There is a slinky rhythm to it, I agree. Each one has a ricochet at the end.

The toys in “Medici Slot Machines” are a way of exploring the possibilities of imagination, and how that can develop empathy and engagement with the world for your daughters. And there’s the juxtaposition with artmaking. Children are naturals at this, at making something of disparate bits, collecting and making patterns of random things, and organizing them by color or shape or size. Did engaging with your daughters’ toys and play change your art?

Watching my children, since they were babies, has taught me how to pay attention in a different way. It can be inspiring when I let myself just watch them at open-ended and imaginative play, and how they do gather and make patterns out of objects. And I think it did help me understand artists who made work somehow out of childhood—like Rosemary Mayer’s temporary monuments, or Etel Adnan’s paintings, or the box practices I mentioned earlier. But in terms of what has changed me as a writer—and a person—I think it’s that ethics of attention, and with that an ethics of care. My children have helped me value paying attention, and I think that has extended to the ability to be outside in the natural world and paying attention to the small and the cosmic, as I say in the book. My children will spend a lot of time watching an ant on a sidewalk, or wondering about what animal left tracks. And I think that attention to the small leads to curiosity, and then hopefully a desire to take care of the outside world.

Joseph Cornell figures heavily in The Light Room and his letters and diaries appear in Drifts. What was your introduction to Cornell’s work and how did he become so important to your work? 

In that darkened series of rooms at The Art Institute of Chicago, the Bergman collection, almost forty Cornell boxes, which are the boxes I’m still writing to in the book. When I was first figuring out the form of Book of Mutter while living in Chicago, I would often go to the Cornell boxes there. And so much of the fragmentation of the book—how a paragraph can feel like a box containing objects—is inspired by Cornell. Also, I mean, my Screen Tests are quite Cornell-inflected as well, like his fan homages. John and I took a trip to DC to see the Cornell retrospective at the Smithsonian in 2006—that and seeing the two Louise Bourgeois retrospectives, in NYC and London, were formative influences on me. We had absolutely no money, but I had to go see these retrospectives. I think starting to see art together—prioritizing it above almost anything—was how John and I began to learn how to see, how to think about art, as we didn’t come from those backgrounds, we’re both self-taught. And at the Smithsonian I was also really taken with the archive, with the poetics of his organizing and collecting, which is so much of what I write towards in The Light Room. I also felt something like class kindredness with Cornell—I recognized his family life, his circumscribed life, in myself as well as the extended family I write towards in this newest book.

Seasons are central to The Light Room. I thought of diaries but also of calendars, weather diaries, and the cloud cataloguing in Annie Dillard’s For The Time Being. It’s a way of recording and marking time, placing life in the natural world. Were there writers or artists whose use of seasons and time influenced your writing?

I don’t know that Annie Dillard! I have to go read it. Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is important to the book. That reminds me of John Constable’s cloud studies, which have been important to both me and my partner, John Vincler, for some time, and we’re never quite sure who’s going to actually write about them someday. (Now that I think about it, an essay on John Constable and Zoe Leonard’s cloud aerial photos was in the original pitch for The Missing Person. Someday maybe!) All of the writers and artists I write to in The Light Room—for it’s certainly also a work of literary and art criticism, even though it’s not being marketed as such—are those artists of the seasons and time and dailiness for me. Sei Shōnagan’s pillow book, Etel Adnan’s Surge, Bernadette Mayer’s projects like Midwinter Day, Yūko Tsushima’s I-novel Territory of Light, which takes place across seasons, Derek Jarman’s gardening journals, Jonas Mekas’s Walden, Yuji Agematsu’s zips. But this interest begins with Book of Mutter, my obsession with Henry Darger’s weather journals, which I read on microfilm now twenty years ago. I’ve always been fascinated with the impulse of the diarist, those who make art out of process, out of a desire to record the day.

Your daily walks and the trips to Prospect Park are so vivid in the book. There’s also the individual and collective experience of your family being together outside. A flaneur family. Can you talk about the community you found in the park?

It’s funny, I joke about being a flaneur in the book whenever I am trying to take a solo walk, which is so unfortunately rare in my life now, although it’s always on an errand, or being completely burnt out just escaping for a second, the opposite of carefree flaneuring (although I’m reminded of my friend T. Fleischmann’s excellent rant about the privilege of the “bullshit flaneurs” in Time is a Thing a Body Moves Through, not having to worry primarily about survival). I think part of this new body of work, whatever I can call it, beginning with Drifts, is wondering at the possibilities of being this Sebald- or Murnane-like writer of documentation and memory, while encumbered with multiple pregnancies or children. There is a collectivity to how I experience my body, and time, and the outside world—in the book I can’t even take a bath alone, children are always added in. I do think—I mean even thinking of my collaborations with Sofia Samatar, both as interlocutors in our books and then in our recent investigations into atmosphere, beginning with our Tone book—I’m beginning to find real meaning in thinking-with, thinking together, not thinking alone, in plurality. And ultimately the book begins in the solitary space and ends with at least a desire towards community and collectivity.   

The book returned me to Quantum Listening by Pauline Oliveros. She writes about her experience of very close listening, this way of rearranging perception, and you write this way in the book. The intense noticing and the way that springboards into associations and a connection. It feels like you’re developing a written version of Oliveros’s Deep Listening. Has her work been important to you? Did you set out to write The Light Room with a different kind of attention?

I loved this when you originally wrote this to me, Nate. John and I saw Pauline Oliveros perform twice in Brooklyn before she died, in 2013 and 2014. The first time, it was one of the most intense trance experiences either of us have ever had. I also talk about the tenets of deep listening when I teach my undergraduate nature writing class that I write to in the book. We often just sit outside and keep listening notebooks at first. The environment in which I wrote The Light Room was extremely cloistered—both that postpartum space, but also the isolation that happened during the pandemic, both of these intertwined. I do think because of this, because of this interior space I found myself in, I was able to have a different kind of attention. That I wouldn’t have now.

Part of your recent work—Drifts, To Write As if Already Dead, and The Light Room—deals with the struggle for time and space to write while taking care of your children, the demands of teaching, and surviving under the crush of capitalism. In The Light Room, domestic repetition creates a steadiness, a rhythm, during pandemic life, but you also show the exhaustion in care work. You effortlessly layer the personal, artistic, and political when writing about this. How did you arrive at this mix and tone?

Tone is an interesting question, one I think about a lot (and Sofia and I just wrote a book about tone in literature, and I’m still thinking about it). One of our findings about tone is that tone is relational—it has something to do with the space and feeling of reading a text, but also the narrative’s gaze on others in a text. There’s no question I keep trying to investigate this question of how to write amidst capitalism and precarity in the past few works, and how it connects to domesticity and the interior, and also that the tone of these works differ from each other. In The Light Room these questions of capitalism and precarity become a blurred background; I am beginning the book having had no maternity leave and exhausted and burnt-out from teaching a full-time schedule remotely while having a newborn and a small child at home—but it’s almost that I’m so focused on the interior, on the domestic space, that this is almost diffused. The relations are not with the institutions and the coldness and cruelty of their middle managers, but with my immediate family, and then these artists and writers I’m thinking through. I am still writing of this same space, really the events of the last year or two, but now I’m calling it fiction (or this genre I’m jokingly calling to myself “realisms”) and the tone has changed, has become more cued into the absurd, amidst the despair. I like these contradictions. But in this recent writing I’m more aware of capitalism and precarity as functioning like an atmosphere. The problem of tone is also the problem of genre. I have been asking myself this a lot lately, of my past year: What genre am I in? Is this horror? A tragedy? A comedy? All of it? But The Light Room is so focused on the repetition of the domestic, on lightness as well as heaviness. It’s a deeply sad work, with these ecstatic moments.

“The Hall of Ocean Life,” the second movement, explores grief and despair about the planet’s ecology (I was reading it as the second wave of Canadian wildfire smoke blanketed the upper Midwest). You find comfort in David Wojnarowicz’s grief journal. The section treats time as a palimpsest—early pregnancy, breastfeeding, pre-pandemic, mid-pandemic—and there’s a kind of a hopefulness—not the shiny kind, the grotty, real kind—in this layering. Can you talk about finding comfort in difficult art and emotional complexity?

It feels really gratifying for that piece to be read this way, by you—it clarifies something for me. I struggled with this piece of writing for years—and so it becomes about the layering of time, a palimpsest, absolutely. I’m trying to think through what I call in the piece a “history feeling”—thinking of Wojnarowicz’s feelings about history and others. The city is also a collage. I’m thinking about Wojnarowicz as a teenager standing looking at the same blue whale at the Natural History Museum as I am standing there with my children over two successive pandemic winters, about his ecological awareness and planetary despair, even while in the midst of his own crisis and bodily disintegration. This was a piece I began right before the pandemic, for a talk the wonderful scholar and kindred spirit Amy Hollywood invited me to give at the divinity school at Harvard, as part of a series on poetry and religion, which were concepts I had to wrangle with what that meant for me, and I realized for me poetry and religion meant the life and practice of David Wojnarowicz, his grief journals and his elegiac unfinished films he made after Peter Hujar. I went to the Fales archives and found the grief journal, and realized how much there was writing about the New Jersey swamp, about trees, about animals, I saw the negatives of the photos he took at a zoo going to Paris, and I felt compelled to think about Wojnarowicz’s relationship to nature and to beauty, as I think sometimes he is only read in the context of his activism, which is undoubtedly urgent, but I think flattens the depth and layering of his grief and awareness of the outside world. The dinosaur calendar he kept, that is at Fales, becomes a portal in the piece, to try to think through time, both these vaster questions, the questions of eternity and ocean life, of the abyss, and also the questions of the immediacy of time, the medical appointments, our own urgencies. David Wojnarowicz, in the intensity of his grief, in these overlapping crises, became a thinker really wrestling with ideas of transcendence.

The book is about parenting, caring for others, community, art, the movement of time, nature, and facing up to fear and grief, reckoning with deep sadness. The solace the book offers is genuinely uplifting because it’s complicated and allows misery and joy to coexist. We read our way through the process. Were you surprised at all by where the book took you?

That’s really beautiful, thank you. To have one reader like you honestly kind of makes it all worth it, despite how alienating publishing can feel. I’ve become terrible at writing emails to friends, so it’s like—okay here’s a piece of writing that tries to communicate the deep sadness as well as flashes of joy and meaning I felt over the past few years, here you go, please read. Maybe if I was a better correspondent I wouldn’t feel the need to transmit this all into writing. But the time you give to it is a gift and it always surprises me, this gift of being deeply read, the intimacy of it.

I was surprised the last section moved into third person. I was really influenced by Annie Ernaux’s The Years, but also it was a way into it, the way I knew how. Again, that palimpsest feeling. I began to regard the entire time with some remove, beginning to see it as a series of photographs, in a way. A series of holidays, events, how they all return. I think it’s a turn to fiction, but still I’m surprised how emotional the last movement is for me. I’m trying to capture that the time has already passed by the time I’m writing it, certainly by the time you’re reading it. 

Nate Lippens is the author of My Dead Book, which was a finalist for the Republic of Consciousness Prize in the UK. His new novel Ripcord will be published by Semiotext(e) in 2024, along with the reissue of My Dead Book.

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