Josh Christian: I wanted to start with a broader question to get us into your life and work. I think what struck me about it was that there were so many threads that are happening, and you’re introducing your reader to this whole world of disability that maybe they haven’t even begun to consider, right? So, as a way to start off, talking about your fifth book; can you talk a little bit about your trajectory to this point? When you started writing, what was it that you wanted to say? And how do you see where you are and what you are trying to do now?
Jillian Weise: Yeah, well of course it’s easier in retrospect to find the arc than it is when you’re actually putting together a manuscript. So in like 2005/6, when I was putting together The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, I didn’t even think it was called that. It had a whole bunch of difficult names that were Latinate or medically-involved phrases. And then eventually, in a band I played in, one of the bandmates said that this is the title because it’s the title that most pulls the reader in.
So that was the first book, The Amputees Guide to Sex, and I was completely not aware of disability justice of disability rights consciousness. All I knew was that the poetry world didn’t have many disabled poets or didn’t celebrate disabled poetry. And so, I was just entering the poetry world with that book. It brought me a lot of assumptions that I didn’t consent to. I mean I was on NPR with that book in a show called, This American Story, and the host asked “When did you lose your virginity?” I was like, what the heck is happening. Like, why are we even at this question? We’re talking about a book of poems?
So I left poetry and went to write a novel, The Colony, for the safety of fictional worlds. I also wanted to have fun in a genre where I didn’t know any of the rules. So that was The Colony, a kind of sci-fi speculative where a woman goes to a biogenetics facility to grow her leg from stem cells. And that’s got Charles Dickens and Peter Singers as characters. And a lot of it reminds me now of crisper technology that I’m hearing about in the news or that now forecasts some of the crisper tech we’re hearing about.
So then, I went to Argentina on a Fulbright and met with this woman, Delfina Muschietti, and she was translating a novel by Bob Dylan called Tarantula from English to Spanish. But I was there to help her with that translation, and I wrote The Book of Goodbyes there, and at the time, I just was writing poems from Buenos Aires and working with her at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, living in Ushuaia sometimes. And I was reading Alejandra Pizarnik and this guy named Antonio Porchia. So that was super fun, and that book did something different than the first one because I started thinking about my own people in that book. Instead of writing for a non-disabled audience, what does it mean to write for both audiences?
And by the time I wrote Cyborg Detective, it was entirely for disabled people, and if non-disabled people liked it, great. But mainly I was writing to mock the way that non-disabled poets have profited off of disability in their poems. And I was writing to have fun with them while underscoring the seriousness of actual deaths and the tax on disabled people in the world.
So that brings us to book five which is just completely spontaneous. A disabled publisher and poet, Su Zi who runs Red Mare Press, reached out and said “Let’s put out a chapbook. Do you have anything?” And I said no, I don’t have anything. But for the first time, I had hired an assistant to work with me, so the one thing I had was more time. Because suddenly all these emails I’m usually writing, my assistant is taking care of, so I put this chapbook together. Suddenly I had the chapbook, not that I had written it but there were a lot of poems that didn’t get included with other books, and then a lot of poems, me and my assistant, who’s also disabled and a poet, just wrote for fun. We wrote poems here and there and shared them back and forth, and I was kind of feeling sloppy about the book but kind of liking it.
And then I also loved that its purview was tiny, and it’s a textual art book and there’s only ever forty copies. And the fact that there were only ever going to be forty copies gave me a sense of privacy and freedom, and of course, the book is going to sell out and then that’s it. And the fact that it’s not digital is also pretty huge. First of all, it’s disobedient of accessibility rules so there’s that. Because everything is supposed to be digitally accessible, but I am taking that rule from my disabled publisher, who thinks like “I’m an artist. This is a visual text. This requires seeing the thread, the paper, and the stamp.” And so yeah, the idea of poetry being a finite thing is different because you can’t find it everywhere, or you know, I feel often like we’re begging people to buy our work and begging people to read it. And I liked the idea of this being a finite, very limited resource. And, of course, it’s where I felt most free to say things I don’t say in other books.
JC: I want to touch back on the genesis of the chapbook. Let’s start with the title. It’s called, Give it up to Alfie Tonight. I noticed that it wasn’t from a titular poem. I didn’t see that poem in text, and I didn’t really see it as a particularly important phrase or moment in a poem. So I was curious. Why that title? How did you come up with that title? How did you come to it?
JW: Well it is sloppy. It is sloppy in the sense that usually there’s a titular title, or there’s some sort of theme that the title comes from, but really I was just thinking it sounds right for a polyamory, dominatrix point of view, Give it to Alfie tonight. But what happened was I went to a play with another poet, to see a video play by Sarah Crane, and I went online during the pandemic because it was in the UK. Do you know Sarah Crane at all?
JC: I do not. But I do remember the poem in the chapbook about a video play.
JW: Right, right. Who knows what they are? Like I don’t even know if it’s a thing. But I went to this play. It’s calling itself a play. And I stayed after, when the directors and actors are talking, and I just thought the titles here in this talk between directors and actors. And it was there, in the context. A cast member was talking to Alfie, and they were talking about the lines and how the play was written experimentally, and so one actor said “Well one night I’ll give it to Kim, and tonight, I’ll give it to Alfie”. And I was like, Give it to Alfie Tonight. Here we are. Done. But ordinarily, I would never title a book that way. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do with the sloppiness. Like all of these conventions of poetry that I’ve been taught, I’m trying to let go of some of them, or find out what happens if I don’t use them.
JC: I noticed the byline of the chapbook was “the cyborg Jillian,” and I was really curious at how you define that? How do you identify as that? How was that identity influencing even this book which still contains so many threads of disability, but was obviously different in premise?
JW: Yeah, well this was a huge shift in my thinking. So, I’m going around writing about being a cyborg. I started doing it in 2010, in the New York Times, with an article called “Going Cyborg.” I thought that would be enough to be taken seriously as a cyborg, but it wasn’t because routinely people would things like “she calls herself a cyborg” or “she claims to be a cyborg” or make these word choices, these very small grammatical choices in my bio that suggested that I was not actually a cyborg. I was just claiming it or calling myself it. I realized, I’m tired of having to reinforce this all the time, and it getting misconstrued. So I’m just going to sign everything as “the Cyborg, Jillian Weise,” and be really upfront about it until the moment that disabled people are recognized as cyborgs frequently. Then, I’ll drop it. I don’t need to use it. I found my pronoun in the same process. The pronoun CY, CI, as a way to reinforce “Oh yeah, I’m a cyborg, my pronoun’s cy.” It’s really an identity that’s important, and it’s important because it’s influential to my entire body. And it doesn’t erase disability. I still claim disability as a category of identity. I’m proudly disabled, but it says like “I’m also, actually a real cyborg with a microprocessor that requires maintenance and some kind of wrench, and all of these characteristics are cyborg characteristics and unique to cyborg experience.”
So, I go by Cy, she/her. I’m just playing with, but I don’t want to be the gatekeeper. I don’t want to be the person who’s like this is what you use if you’re using Cy. I kind of want to leave it completely open to the community. I really want people in the community who feel that gender and disability are imperatively intertwined to adopt the pronoun. Because that is not something a pronoun has really done; signaling a disability and a gender.
JC: So, you already talked a little bit about the messiness in this process, in making the poems. But I was curious how you structure a book like this? How do you choose an order for something that has so many threads, for a project where you were trying to throw away conventions?
JW: Well, in a lot of different ways. I mean with The Amputees Guide to Sex, I was just so serious about order and put the poems up on the wall, looking at the poems a lot. Then, with the novel, order took on a totally different dimension. I can’t really get lost in a novel that I’m writing. If I get too lost in it, I will just have too much anxiety and drop the novel. Whereas, with the poems, you can always say “Oh, well that’s just one bad poem.” With a novel, you might say “That’s just one bad novel.” Let’s see, I’ll say with the most recent full-length book Cyborg Detective, I gave it to Natalie Shapiro and Constance Merrit and asked for help. It’s a book somehow, but I don’t know how. And honestly, they both were extremely helpful. Constance Merrit is a Black lines, queer poet living in Kentucky who’s been basically this role model to me because she’s been writing poetry since the 1990s. Very openly blind and queer and disabled. I absolutely adore her, and she knows how to order a book. I mean she really does. So I have her to thank her and Natalie for the order.
And then, when I thought about sloppiness, I first thought, it’s a chapbook with forty copies, so the pressure, the stakes, are different. The entire endeavor is suddenly much lower stakes. We’re not trying for a Publisher’s Weekly star review. And the other difference is that I’m working with a disabled publisher for the first time in my life who basically told me to do whatever I want. She‘s printing it out in her home office printer. So, it felt liberating to work with her and have these conversations with her about the book which were really just conversations about her horses or her life or my life. And the process was just like “Yeah, we’re putting a book out.” So, I mean the order for the book was organic. I just knew what it was.
I didn’t really think the poem “Journey with Horses” could go in the book because it’s a really long prose poem, and I thought the book kind of ended better with a penultimate poem. But she liked it, and she worked with horses. And I mean, I was thinking of her when I gave her the book with the poem in it, so it made sense that she liked it. And that poem comes from when I was a Ph.D. student in Cincinnati, when I was learning all the poetic theory, so it’s like a throwback poem.
JC: I was really curious about that specific poem, and this just nicely transitions to my next question, but I was really curious because you mentioned Sappho several times throughout, and then in “Journey with Horses,” you also talk about many different poets. I don’t know if they’re necessarily touchstones for you, but in the poem, there did seem to be an examination of the craft of poetry in and of itself. Can you talk about that a little bit?
JW: Yeah, I wrote it for an assignment in a Ph.D. course on poetics theory, and there had been no disabled theorists, none. Or conversely, there are disabled poetic theorists but we don’t know it. Or, we’re not talking about it in the classroom. So this accounts for my wiliness with the form and my rambunctiousness with the final paper. Because as far as the final paper goes, it doesn’t really look like a final paper. Nor, feel like one. So, yeah and I mean I’m still with Josh. I was with Josh in Cincinnati, and we were hanging out as friends, running around together, and when he’s in the poem, every time, it’s not really him. It’s some famous person from poetic theory, right? And so I was trying to figure out how to be a disabled poet when all the theory is nondisabled. Like what does that mean?
JC: Something I also noticed in these poems that was slightly different from your previous work is that in this book you openly discuss the use of opiates. You have “Klonopin, Come Back” and then, “Dream about the War on Opiates by Someone who Uses Opiates, Responsibly for Chronic Pain.” And there is mention of opiates again in “All the Telephones.” It seems you are wanting to say something different about opioids, something other than the narrative of addiction. Can you talk about that?
JW: So it took me to my fourth book to start dropping the names of drugs. I think ’cause of the narrative in part. I was raised in a very strange home. I am the daughter of a pharmacist, and I mean we took Advil and Tylenol, that’s it. We didn’t take drugs. The pharmacy was for other people; clients but not us. We were not supposed to need anything from the pharmacy. I think the only other drug my dad was really comfortable prescribing the family was Amoxicillin for colds. I mean it’s not him prescribing it but when the doctor prescribed it, he was happy to fill it. He thought that was a good drug. But was every drug good? No. He didn’t think that we should ever be on any of them.
I’m on them because I have metal in my body, and I’m a cyborg. So I am getting more comfortable with the idea that cyborgs take drugs. They take pharmaceuticals and that’s part of being a cyborg, augmenting your brain and your neurological system so that you can’t feel the pain you’re in. I don’t want to say “normalizing it” because I actually don’t care if it becomes normalized or if it doesn’t. But it is in my life. Like, Klonopin and opioids are in my life, and I write about things that are in my life. So why hide it? It felt like shame. It felt like I’d been shamed for years to mention that I’m on these things. But I don’t really have to be ashamed because I’m on these things, and I’m using them responsibly for the purpose for which they’re meant to be used, which is pain.
So you’re absolutely right. I mean it’s the first book where I feel free to do that. I don’t know how much of it is because there’s not a big audience for the book. Like there’s such a small audience, right? So we’ll see what happens, but the other thing I want to say that Jeni Olin, really fucking encouraged me. They have sworn off poetry forever, and they are no longer writing poetry, which is interesting. But the book, Hold Tight: The Truck Darling Poems has a bunch of drugs and drug names in it.
Particularly, I think the selection that I am talking about is called “The Pill Box” or something like that. It was just the first time I read in a poetry book, such an openness about these drugs, and I was really appreciative for it because my thought is that a lot of poets are on prescription drugs. We just don’t ever talk about it or mention it. I make this assumption based on the fact that I know a lot of poets who are on prescriptions. Just among my circle. So, why don’t we mention that? Like, why don’t we? I don’t know. Plath said she would never ever put a toothbrush in a poem, and I have thought about that. Are drugs equivalent to a toothbrush? But no, I don’t think so. Because medication is doing something to your mind, to your body, that might be relevant for your reader to know.
JC: So, you’ve written this during the pandemic. “What is a play” clearly mentions the pandemic, which I was struck by because it’s a really hard topic to try to get your hands around, especially because it’s not over. But you don’t even try to do that. You just hint at it or mention it, that this is a thing that’s happening. How did the pandemic affect the making of this book, but also your poems and your process in general? Do you think you’ll ever make poems the same again? I mean, this is a book where you’ve thrown all the rules out. Do you think the pandemic was a part of that?
JW: Oh, yeah. Maybe the pandemic did. I mean people were dying that I knew, but they were actually dying before the pandemic. So, I’m not going to speak for disabled people. But, for me as a disabled rights activist, the summer of 2019 was extremely difficult because we lost both Carrie Ann Lucas and Bill Peace, two civil rights icons, to insurance denial. So, they went to the hospital, and they needed a particular kind of drug but couldn’t get it. Their insurance denied it and they died, which is a kind of murder in my mind. And I thought it can’t get worse than summer 2019, and then there’s a plague. And of course, rationing is happening, and the prioritizing of ventilators is going to nondisabled people; disabled people are dying. I mean I don’t even think we’ve absorbed how very eugenical the situation is and has been. It will take years for that to come out.
So what? So I spent the first six months or so of the plague absolutely unable to make art. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read. I was just watching the news. And then I got to hire an assistant to help me get out of this, and we had to make something. So when I started making A Kim Dill Party: The video play for Public Space One, everything changed for me. It is a video play that I made with eighty-seven writers and twenty-four cover bands. So that is the video play I’m referencing. But when I had that assignment, Public Space One asked me “Can you make us something for this telethon and something video?” and I was like “Sure, I don’t know what.”
And then I came up with the Cyborg and Triborg trailers. It was very much, of course, inspired by Gertrude Stein and the idea of her plays. I was wondering “What would Gertrude Stein do during a pandemic?” Well, no doubt she’d freaking write a play. The more and more I was interested in Gertrude Stein because I think she was like stealing from disabled people, in particular, the mental health patients that she worked with for forty years under William James at Harvard.
So yeah, that helped me out. That helped me out of my dilemma. That helped me out of my deep sadness, and it gave me something to do, to rally together these writers. Eileen Myles is in it, Trisha Lockland is in it, Alice Wong, lots of people. And then Kim Deal tacitly approved it. I asked her to be in it, and she didn’t disagree with the premise, so I was pretty thrilled about that, making things that are unexpected. I started wondering what does it mean for this thing to be twenty minutes and twenty seconds long. There is a formal element to it, but it has a shit ton of people in it. It’s all covers of Kim Deal songs and it’s a party. Like yeah, what does it mean to throw a party in a play. Like, to be disabled you’re supposed to be sad and crying all the time. Instead, you go party. So that led me towards the messy and sloppy poems, you know?
JC: I’m listening to you talk, and young writers and those in MFA programs get hammered with craft, craft, craft, craft, craft. Everything has to be a specific choice that you think about beforehand, but what it sounds like from what you are saying is sometimes, or more often than not, it happens organically; something comes forward and kind of messes your plan up.
JW: Absolutely! But I mean I think it’s so hard or at least for me, with my experience with an MFA and Ph.D. Until I had a job, it was like I really need to do all these things that my mentors are suggesting to get a job. These are like good rules, which is to say, they work to make the kinds of poems that we already know exist. But the problem is that rules don’t work to make the kinds of poems that don’t exist. So in order to have a kind of audacity of spirit to make those poems, you need… well you need health insurance and some sense of stability. Or you need to be from a wealthy family or something. I mean Gertrude Stein was freaking wealthy.
So, yeah it’s really tricky. It’s really tricky because I want my students to feel completely at liberty to make whatever they want, even if it’s something that’s never been made before. But it has to be legible to an audience somehow. Plus it goes against the grain. Everyone was like “Well are you going to distribute the film?” “No.” “Are you going to submit it to film festivals?” “No.” “Are you going to sell it?” “No.” “Well, then why are you making it?” You know capitalism really wants a goal and some money. But to say I’m not going to do any of that, that I’m just going to throw a party for Kim Deal in the middle of a plague for disabled people is like really weird to some people.
JC: That leads nicely into my final question: What advice might you have for younger writers?
JW: I really don’t know great advice in the middle of a plague, other than just to get through it however you can. For writing, for making, I just write. I make whatever I want, and even if I don’t feel like it, I will make something or write a poem. I think that there’s a bit of preciousness around ‘making.’ Like, the mood has to be right, and it really doesn’t. It doesn’t have to be right. It can be wrong. Like, a poem is always in the wings, if you want to catch it, is kind of my thought. So it helps me to not feel like “Oh well, I’m not in the mood.” But also, I guess my advice is desire. Because I didn’t desire to make anything for the first months of the plague. I didn’t desire to do it. To force it was not fun for me. So there has to be some kernel of desire, or for me there does. For me, there has to be a feeling like “I want to do this. I want to make this thing. Whether it’s a video play or a poem, I want to make it.” Or, it just leads to like complete boredom for me and for sure for the reader. Because there isn’t any desire in it.
THE CYBORG JILLIAN WEISE is a poet, video artist, and disability rights activist. Cy’s first book, The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, was reissued in a tenth-anniversary edition with a new preface. The Book of Goodbyes won the 2013 Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and the 2013 Gardner Award from BOA Editions. Cy’s speculative novel, The Colony, features Charles Darwin, James Watson, and Peter Singer. Cy’s fourth book, Cyborg Detective, won the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award. Essays have appeared in Granta, The New York Times, Tin House, and other places. Cy has been awarded residencies from the Fine Arts Work Center, the Fulbright Program, and the Lannan Foundation. Cy worked in editorial at The Paris Review and The Iowa Review. In Fall 2020, Cy worked with disabled publisher Red Mare/Su Zi. They collaborated on the sold-out textual art chapbook Give It to Alfie Tonight. Cy’s memoir, Common Cyborg, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
JOSH CHRISTIAN is a poetry editor for MAYDAY and The Crab Orchard Review. He lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where he is pursuing his MFA in poetry at Southern Illinois State University. He also holds a MA in English from the University of Louisville and a BA from Campbellsville University.