Edited by Blas Falconer | Amy Wright
Something Transcendent Which Bears the Word Truth on Its Back
An Interview with Christina Mengert
Amy Wright for Zone 3: What is your current relationship to fear?
Christina Mengert: If I were born with a giant leech on my back, I might assume that leech is part of my body. My imagination of the shape of my body would likely include that leech. When I looked at everyone around me, and saw that they also wore leeches, this would confirm my vision. My understanding would feel so complete that I wouldn’t think to ask how it could be another way. This is how I understand fear, as a thing we accidentally assume to be intrinsic, but only because we have been wearing it for so long. More and more I want to watch fear as if it were a distinct organism from myself. It is important for me to relate to fear with distance, to study it as if it were an exotic turtle I could hold in my hand, turn over, and poke in the belly.
AW: That is a perfect and gorgeous metaphor! May we all learn to watch our fear with similar remove.
You write in Anatomy of Ascent that “I never meant to care about true things.” Can you give us, to hold in our hand like a kite string, an example of one true thing?
CM: I think, for a long time, I imagined truth to be a kind of prison—a word or idea used to restrict the freedom of another person, to lock them into a specific world-view, to make their thoughts and actions predictable somehow. So in part I thought this because the word has been wielded so violently for so long and by so many. And yet, as we know, the word is not the thing. I am surprised by how much intellectual and spiritual angst we suffer because some, even many, things that have been called truth are not true (which seems to me to say very little about truth and quite a lot about the violence of those who abuse the notion). It seems easier to go forward with a recognition that while, by definition, truth would have constancy, we are inconstant, very human, and therefore must be flexible in our relationship to it.
The line, “I never meant to care about true things” I suppose I offer as a kind of confession: from an intellectual mistrust of the word and its use, an anxiety about these kinds of ideas in my own work, to a recognition of something transcendent which bears the word truth on its back because as yet we do not have a word sufficient to the task of revealing this thing. It felt deeply dishonest to pretend in my poems that I had no desire to know what is true, materially, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and so I wanted to invite this idea into my poems without being violent, narrow, etc. In other words, I imagined truth to be a prison and now I suspect that the prison was never truth, but my poor, anxious mind telling me that such a thing could never exist.
AW: Do you have recurring dreams?
CM: From time to time, yes. I usually take them as a sign that my psyche is trying to get my attention about something. In Augustine’s Confessions, he recounts his mother saying that a dream from the soul has a qualitative difference than dreams from the mind. I could never speak to this difference, but I can say that some dreams, especially of a recurring sort (but not always), do demand one’s attention more than others, or differently than others. On the other hand, it is easy to make too much from a recurring dream that, say, one is naked in a food market wearing underwear made out of pineapples. It’s good to use discernment in these matters!
AW: Have you ever done an experiment on yourself? If so, why and what was the result?
CW: Constantly. I mean this in the least glib sense. This idea of experiment is actually very guiding to me. I find so much freedom in it. What is the alternative? To inflexibly marry ourselves to certain actions or a specific vision of our life? So much is in flux, but if we fix ourselves, unmoving, we get dizzy in the flux around us. Or maybe we give ourselves over to the world in constant motion, but suffer from a feeling of disorder. Experiment, I think, is deeply useful as we navigate the terrain between order and disorder.
I have to assume that my experiments are too boring to interest anyone, as they are absolutely banal or else too private for me to speak to them here.
AW: C’mon, try us. I stood stark naked in front of a room full of art students to see if I could overcome my body shyness. The result? This guy Jacques, with whom I shared a temporary crush and a ten-hour car ride to Savannah, walked in and saw me in all my shivering glory. It was one of my more voluntary strides toward freedom from self-consciousness—which might anyway be a natural byproduct of getting older. But, such experiments, at the very least, enact our will. I’m curious what, in particular, you’ve willed yourself toward.
CM: Hmmm.. well, I am currently undergoing an experiment in which I no longer take in news, either in internet, paper, radio, or television. The experiment was inspired by a few different observations: one of which was the recognition that I was having a difficult time discerning my own mind, my own voice, in the din of all the external voices I was absorbing. What I observed is that I was surrendering the free-will of my mind (which, looked at closely, was frightening). Voice after voice (radio, television, internet, magazine) melded into my own voice, the expressions of those minds which were in turn parroting the expressions of other minds found their way into mine, and I numbly picked up their turns of speech and thought. And beyond the natural conventionality of language (which of course I acknowledge and do not resist), I would like to feel my mind to be flexible and new as much as possible.
AW: That helps explain how you get to a line like, “One shook to pieces the dirt of being and let loose to the sky.”