Fresh off a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this is Senior Lecturer Amaranth Borsuk’s first quarter on the UWB campus. She hasn’t even memorized her office number yet.
“I know it by feel,” she said as we walked down the third-story hallway of UW2.
Inside, books of fiction run up the wall shelves and reach the ceiling. An Apple keyboard is plugged into a Dell computer, the monitor of which sits atop two more hardback books.
One book was noticeably missing: “Between Page and Screen,” Borsuk and collaborator/husband Brad Bouse’s interactive exploration of changing technology and its effect on poetry. Each page features a single black-and-white box that must be scanned and decoded by a computer’s webcam. The viewer watches as verse pops out of the poetical parcel, the text entering with a twirl then zipping away.
Described as “groundbreaking” by a piece on Salon.com and “ultramodern” by a YouTube commenter, the project earned the pair attention across the internet. Borsuk can be seen reading it here, and you can print out and try a sample page here.
Bright-eyed and engaged, Borsuk listened to each question with a succession of quick nods and halfway stifled smiles. She seemed excited, but never impatient or overeager to answer.
How did you end up here?
I saw an ad last Fall, for a position in the M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Poetics that they were starting here, and when I read that job description—at the time I was on the job market for an academic job, finishing a postdoc at MIT—it was the first job post I read where my heart literally skipped a beat. I said, “That job describes what I want to do.” That’s a great position to be in, because there are so few academic jobs—to find one that describes the kind of person you want to be is just marvelous.
Relative to where you’ve been—UCLA, USC, MIT—this campus is kind of unusual in that there’s only two buildings and they’re literally within a stone’s throw of one another. How’s this change been?
It’s been fantastic. I went to a very small high school, and my first college experience was a relatively small college.
Brandeis, yeah. I loved having that close relationship with my professors. When I got to UCLA I was really at sea because it’s such a big campus. What sort of saved me was finding a community of creative writers. I got into creative writing because it was not only the thing I wanted to do for self-expression, but it was actually a really close-knit, small community in a gigantic campus. It gave me an identity, it gave me a cohort, and it gave me really great, close relationships with professors.
Teaching involves falling back on a lot of conventions, and creative writing is the same—or maybe even more so—in that teachers use maxims to guide students. Things like “write what you know” or “know your audience.” When I was looking through your syllabus, you kind of subvert these notions by asking, “Do you even have any idea what you know or who you are?,” and “Do you even have an audience?”
I’m always trying to subvert the notion that you have to write about yourself and about personal experience. Especially in an introductory class, where a lot of the students may never have shared their personal material before, or shared creative work with a group before. Do you really want the first thing that you workshop to be the story of how you met your girlfriend? Or I don’t know, the story of when your dad was in the hospital? Those are very intense, personal moments that you may not be ready to share with a group.
I’m interested in forms of creative expression that don’t necessarily come out of personal experience, but rather an engagement with language itself. Language is this amazing material. We’re using it constantly, but we never quite exhaust it. So I like that it’s this kind of renewable resource that we’re always refreshing.
It seems like a lot of students you have will be coming out of high school with a very limited amount of poetry experience. Maybe they’ve done a Shakespeare sonnet, or the plum poem by William Carlos Williams, or “I took the road less traveled by.” Do you find students are adequately prepared to study poetry coming out of high school?
Yes, I think they’re definitely prepared. One of the things we spend a lot of time doing in my classes is close reading, just looking at works of literature and unpacking how they’re doing the things they’re doing, and then stealing those techniques. In many cases, they already know a lot about how to close read. I think that might be because all the time they’re spending consuming not only literature but media means that they’re engaged in actively thinking about the material that’s coming at them on a regular basis. They may not even have quantified that, but I think they do have these skills of unpacking what’s happening in a text, whether it’s a literary or a visual or a sonic one.
I also wouldn’t want anyone to think you needed special preparation to do what we’re doing in that class. It should be open to anyone at any level of experience. I hope that I’m creating the type of environment where there aren’t those barriers.
The word “barriers” is a good one I think, because poetry feels kind of arcane. It’s this thing that 150 years ago maybe everyone who was educated was reading a lot, whereas nowadays you don’t come across a lot of people who are reading poetry. So it does feel intimidating for people to step into. Why should an engineering student or a computer science student or a community psychology student take your class?
Mmmm. You want me to make a practical argument for the existence of poetry? That’s hard to do, both on the one hand because I don’t want to say that poetry needs to serve a practical function, but also because I’ve rehearsed to myself a dozen times all the very practical uses that I’ve gotten out of knowing how to read and write poetry.
I think that someone who takes the class and is not planning to continue to write creatively on their own will take away close reading skills that will be highly useful to them later on down the line. You’ve always got to know how to understand and read between the lines. I think they’ll also gain an appreciation for language itself, and maybe not take as much for granted about words being transparent conveyers of meaning, but question more the way we make meaning out of words—based on their relationships with one another, based on our social context, based on what we’ve agreed certain words refer to.
Like you said earlier, you and five other faculty members make up the new MFA program, Creative Writing and Poetics. The class you’ll be teaching for that is called Between Fact and Imagination. Tell me about that class.
That class is a sort of immersion in the work of other writers whose imagination is spurred by research and by using outside sources in their writing. So the writers in that class are going to be experimenting with approaches to creating literature that involve somehow working with outside sources. That can mean they’re doing research for their writing, it can mean using their own personal archival material. It can also mean doing experiments where you do something like Paul Legault has done. He has a book of Emily Dickinson poems that we’re going to be reading where he translates Emily Dickinson from English into English, taking a writer that we think we know and distilling her somewhat abstract poems into these tiny morsels, you know, two-sentence-long poems.
So, experimental approaches to working with other texts. Either appropriating from them, translating them from English into English, using homophony to play with soundplay, and other ways of approaching the creative act so that it is not necessarily all about the imagination, but the imagination in conversation with fact, or with source materials.
We’re also going to be doing erasure, which is a process by which writers will choose a source text and create a new text from it—by painting over or erasing or otherwise obscuring the words that they don’t want to use—and just the words that remain create a new text.
When people think someone’s plagiarizing in any way, they say “Oh he’s not original.” I definitely see how that could be a concern there.
Absolutely. Plagiarism is a freighted term for us right now in the academy. I think that we as creative writers have a responsibility to think about what is and is not plagiarism, and to encourage students to think about or bend the boundaries of what constitutes plagiarism. So the students will be thinking about ways that recontextualizing works of literature alters them for us, or changes somehow what we’re supposed to get out of them. Certainly an erasure text is asking us to look at the source material in a different way.
You mentioned Shakespeare before. There’s a great—I’ll say “great,” I like it—work of erasure by a poet named Jen Bervin, who took Shakespeare’s sonnets and did erasures from them that she calls “nets.” And the notion is that these are nets in which certain words get caught out of the original sonnet. And you can sort of see the ghost of the original sonnet in a slightly lighter typeface, and then the words she’s focusing on are in a darker typeface—so that they stand out from the background. You can read Shakespeare, and you can read Bervin against Shakespeare and see the way that she’s totally in a dialogue with this forefather figure. How do you write poetry after Shakespeare? It’s all been said and done.
Well, so much of Shakespeare’s work is kind of “nets,” too, because it’s capturing this history that he’s taking—you know, so many of these famous stories are direct history—and kind of touching them up and revamping them.
That’s nice, I like that. So history gets caught in Shakespeare’s net, Shakespeare gets caught in Bervin’s net, maybe her poems will get caught in someone else’s net.
It just seems to me that the public has a high sensitivity to plagiarism, this idea of plagiarism, when all these great authors of the past are constantly reworking things that came before them.
Absolutely. And what is the boundary between plagiarism and intertextuality—which is a highly lauded form of writing where you make reference to other literary works, and that somehow enhances what you’re doing and shows your range of reference and your knowledge of what came before. Couldn’t showing someone a little-known or lesser-known work of literature in a slightly different context provide us with a different way of seeing it?
On the subject of “between fact and imagination,” I was thinking about this Woody Allen quote. He’s talking about escapism in fiction—and this comes across in the themes of his films—and he says that “in the end we must always choose reality, even if it’s terrible.” Will the often blurred line between fiction and reality come up in this class?
Absolutely. I think one of the ways that it’s going to come up is in terms of the documentary impulse in writing, the desire to work through factual material that is in fact only factual to the degree that we agree that it’s factual. It’s very hard to pinpoint reality, what we can agree is reality. So the reality that Woody Allen gets to return to—or is unfortunately forced to return to—after escaping into the world of fiction is a very subjective and individual reality. The Woody Allen version of history is of course going to be different from, say, Mia Farrow’s version.
[Laughs] It is, yeah.
So that’s where we’re going to be playing with that line. My book “Handiwork” is a work of poetry that explores the place where personal history and public history meet, and where large-scale historic events perforate the personal. Members of my family survived the Holocaust, and they have their version of that story, but that’s a much bigger story than one family. There are a plethora of versions of that story, and depictions of that story in film and art and music that all infiltrate our own visions of what that story looks like.
As a writer, I’m really interested in accessing that history and remembering it and understanding it, but it’s a history that is always going to be escaping me. Every time I ask my grandmother to tell me about it, to recount stories that she wants me to pass on generationally, those stories are full of gaps. And those are gaps that I can never fill. They’re also full of slight tweaks, slight falsehoods—appropriations of images and of things that she’s inherited from the popular depiction of what that historic event looked like. I don’t fault her for that, I think that happens to us with any large-scale, massive historic event.
That’s what they say with the Challenger explosion, that people remember it so differently than it actually happened.
Yeah, because it was depicted on the news. For me, “Handiwork” was about taking responsibility as a writer for the desire to fill those gaps in history, and acknowledging that there’s a certain violence in doing that.
Your other book, “Between Page and Screen,” you kind of insert the reader in between page and screen, but they have to look at themselves the whole time [the viewer watches a live feed of themselves reading]. To go back to the Woody Allen quote, you trap them in between reality and this fiction. I didn’t know if you wanted to constantly remind people that they were reading poetry, or if the reader seeing themselves was a way to make them a main character in the story?
That’s a great point. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but we absolutely wanted to do both of those things! The text is so self-referential, so much about reading, that it is constantly reminding the reader of the fiction, as you say. And the medium itself plays with the line between illusion and reality—it’s “augmented” reality, a layer of magic on top of the world we know. I think the illusion is never complete because you can see the empty book in your hands in front of you at the same time that you see the poems hovering above the page on-screen. That’s part of the delight—the book’s utter improbability.
And you do become a character, absolutely. In the meta-narrative of this romance between the physical page and the digital screen, the third person in that love triangle is going to be the reader—the person who is ferrying back and forth between these platforms, and more and more today using both. They’re gaining a certain parity in our lives. The book is trying to make the case for a parity between them, that we need both, we need one to fully engage with the other.
What movies have you seen recently that you really liked?
Crazily enough, I saw the Joaquin Phoenix pseudodocumentary “I’m Still Here” (2010). I thought I would hate it, but it was really mesmerizing. It’s a story of someone with great hubris who wants to switch from a very successful career as an actor and become a hip hop musician, and his foibles along the way. Did you see it?
Yeah. “Between fact and imagination,” as you never know if he’s acting or if it’s real—if it’s actually going on.
Right, did it really happen? He seems really offended when people assume that he’s just playing a part.
And he’s just such a naturalistic actor in general. I actually wrote a review about “The Master,” his newest one. I noted that in all his movies he looks and talks exactly like he does in his interviews, so it’s hard to tell where he ends and where his characters begin, and that’s what made that such a perfect documentary.
So do you think of it as a documentary, or a fiction film?
I don’t know. I don’t really use those labels, I guess, when I think about things like that. I think he’s a great actor and either way it was great to watch.
I agree, and I felt one of the reasons the film felt so successful to me was that I stopped asking myself whether or not it was real. I just was fascinated by the story I was told.
Another “film”—I’m putting film in air quotes—that I watched just this past weekend that sort of fascinated me is R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet.”
The series, right? Like 15 episodes?
Yeah, it’s an extended music video, a “hip hopera.”
It’s great, I loved it.
It’s totally bizarre, what is going on there? You know, there’s a lot going on there. I want to give it the benefit of the doubt and say there’s some social commentary happening. The music is unusual, and repetitive.
Yeah, “In the closet, in the closet, in the closet…”
[Laughs] Yeah, I would love to just take a look at those lyrics and maybe do some literary critique of what is happening. What are the techniques that R. Kelly uses to drive his point home? How often is the rhyme driving the song? As opposed to the actual material. Like why is there a midget? Is it because “midget” and “Bridget” rhyme? Maybe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—constraint often drives us to wonderful innovations. [Pause] Did you write a review of that, too?
[Laughs] No, I saw that like eight years ago.
You minored in women’s studies at UCLA. I can’t help but think that this presidential election is minoring in women’s studies, as well—and majoring in economics. On the issue of women, both camps have such precise language that they use, scrupulous language, but it’s also really vague. As someone who’s really into language, who does language for a living, does it infuriate you that the language is so vague? Or do you like it as an art form? Political campaigning is an art, I think people who run the campaigns would argue.
Absolutely. There is this really controlled use of language. That’s because anything that anyone on the campaign says is going to be picked apart. And it always fascinates me when there are those moments where things that shouldn’t get through manage to get said, and fill up your Facebook feed with “binders full of women.” Those are fascinating moments where language that has been vacated of meaning to someone suddenly gets filled with meaning. A phrase that might be offhand turns out to be one of the more meaningful things that’s said.
We’re all engaging with language on a daily basis in a way that could be as self-aware as that. But we tend to treat language as though it were simply a conveyer of meaning, and that “no matter what I say, you’re going to understand what it is that I’m trying to get at.” So it’s nice to have those moments that remind us that language actually doesn’t want to be pinned down in that way. Those are useful moments, even if they can often be infuriating [laughs].
How many days are you on campus?
Three, usually Monday through Wednesday.
Do you bring your lunch?
Yeah, I do. [Laughs] Why do you ask?
We only have like two places to eat on campus, so I’m wondering how you’ve responded to that change.
Well, I’m used to bringing my lunch, even when I was at MIT and at grad school at USC. I’m a particular person, my favorite meal of the day is breakfast. I would eat breakfast three meals a day if I could.
What would you have?
In the morning I like to have cereal, at lunch I like to have granola and yogurt, and I guess my dream dinner might be something like chicken and waffles. Or… pancakes, maybe scrambled eggs and toast, or a bagel. I’m all about, I guess, carbs [both laugh]. But luckily I’m a responsible adult and I don’t allow myself to eat breakfast for dinner every day.
I think that’s a good place to fade out, the “breakfast three meals a day” will be a nice little denouement—is that the right word?
It’s a little personal thing about me that people might not know otherwise.
Well, I’ll just ask the last question. Are you a night owl or an early bird?
Hmmm… it depends on what you mean by those terms.
Amaranth Borsuk is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, teaching in the Culture, Literature, and the Arts and the Interdisciplinary Arts programs, as well as the M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Poetics. She has a B.A. in English from UCLA and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from USC. Her books include “Handiwork” and “Between Page and Screen.”
Interview & visuals by Quinn Russell Brown, Editor-in-Chief.