Coco Picard: What was it like to develop, compose, and revise a manuscript together? Did That Woman Could Be You begin from a conscious intention or did it come about organically?
Jessica Alexander: Both. It was both conscious and organic. We didn’t do much planning. We just wrote. We wanted to write about our developing intimacy, but from within the daily activities of commuting, grocery shopping, cooking, watching tv. We knew certain themes and preoccupations would emerge–Vi’s heart condition, my brother’s recent death–but we were interested in seeing how these larger themes were part of the texture of the daily, rather than thinking of grief or pain as these absolutes that exist or can be thought outside of eating toast, waiting for a light to change, the noise of construction up the street, or wondering whether to take one or two tylenol before falling asleep.
CP: I recognize a deep kinship between writing a manuscript and developing intimacy—they both feel like unfoldings, discoveries, also with effort. And maybe the banality of moving words, revising is a necessary labor, going grocery shopping, deciding what to cook, where to place a comma, commuting to work—it all has a place.
JA: Right. It’s about existing beside someone else or the banal beside the transcendent, which brings me to a question about The Healing Circle. I keep thinking about this scene in The Healing Circle, when Lena’s therapist breaks it off. She’s crying and embarrassed by her tears. Lena’s therapist, she tells the others, accused her of not being serious enough, despite her having told him of her journey through the astral darkness with a psychic masseuse. There are so many incredible moments like this! And, then, these blithely desperate women are terminally ill. So, while we may laugh at the absurdity of their tactics, they also reflect–I think–how little life equips us for death, how insufficient our spiritual tool kits are for the task. I think it’s this incongruous: blithe and desperate, the banal and the transcendent, this approach to the miraculous, the infinite, the eternal (whatever it is!) that must repeatedly be made in the insufficient language, gestures, concerns of the daily and mundane. I’m thinking here of the guru who insists that the stage be rebuilt only inches off the ground in order to do away with hierarchy.
CP: I feel like this happens in That Woman Could Be You too. In “Complete with Illustrations of Major Characters, Such as God,” you go from the study guide of Milton with “estimated reading times” to the details of his difficult marital relationship, his view on divorce and childbearing, then the origin of death: Satan rapes his daughter Sin who begets Death whose subsequent rape by Satan begets Chaos. A map of trauma is immediately linked up with parallel parking and the Ravens. Maybe because the language is so physical on the page—larger font-sizes feel like the crests of a wave that are closer—it’s like you’re showing how these systems of thinking, history, and material obligations—they all carry a violence that’s integrated into the most banal details and personal relationships.
JA: I’m thinking about this thing Sarah Schulman and Kathy Acker do. They gloss books like The Scarlet Letter and The Age of Innocence into this really accessible and almost gossipy contemporary language. Schulman’s narrator refers to May as the “acceptable and really kind of cool lady,” whereas Acker’s Janey Smith identifies with Hester Prynne, and writes these love letters to Dimmesdale which are just so utterly abject and desperate. There’s something really demystifying about this gesture. I don’t know how much my answer has to do with our book–but there’s this shroud around canonized texts or it’s how we’re trained to approach canonized texts—through this mystifying reverence that sets them apart from ourselves and disallows a really humanizing engagement. Like there’s this Sir Thomas Wyatt poem that’s so perverse and sort of pathetic. The first line is “They flee from me that once did me seek.” He’s talking about women who once had sex with him and don’t want to do it again. They see him coming and they run. It’s a trend. Maybe he keeps doing something wrong? But the poem isn’t self-reflexive like that. He concludes that there’s something fundamentally unjust about his situation and shitty about women. To my mind, there’s something harmful about being reverential to this work. About this repeated act of reverence. I wish in my lit classes we could just be like: ‘this self-pitying guy groomed girls, who now avoid him, and he’s sad because he feels entitled to them and their continued attention. Next.’ Like it’s not this lofty or profound sentiment. Why should we keep worshipfully seeking some key to life’s meaning here and keep feeling inadequate for not finding it?
CP: I’m so interested in tracing the body and bodies in your book—we talked about the voice-merge that happens, even as it’s disrupted by page layout and font size but then there are also cycles of bleeding mentioned, sports players, food that’s consumed, sleep, physical intimacy.
JA: I like how you’ve pinpointed the body as a kind of locus for this piece. I know, we somewhat, consciously, wanted to think about larger themes–like death, etc.—through the daily activities of living. Sort of like Audre Lorde’s idea in “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”—to consider how an idea feels on a particular morning, etc. I think in some ways that’s why Vi did not want me to have my coffee or desk for writing. Part of the experiment is to map how it feels to write in the afternoon in an aisle in target, etc. But in terms of the voices–we adopted each other’s voices at times. That was also another experiment. Sometimes, Vi would begin to write about her day and stop–so I’d continue. Sometimes we would remember and relate moments from each other’s past or from each other’s day in the other’s voice.
Vi Khi Nao: There is an amphibian – a lexical mammal that walks both on land (words/font size) and water (page layout) in the body of our work. I think Jess understands this newt or lexical salamander of ours very well. When she reformatted our manuscript to honor the removed visual components (mainly our photographs)—it was too exorbitant to publish a book full of color photographs—she understood on a subliminal ocular level that the body of our texts needed something fluid and majestic and accessible and made artistic choices that regard that shift. We didn’t want a massive block of texts–which traditional paragraphs hold such patriarchal space—we wanted something fluvial, feminine, and cold-blooded like frogs and toads—where there is water in our textual work that accompanies the different shifting psychological, emotional, physical landscapes of our shifting voices (of pain, pleasure, everydayness) and appetites.
JA: I think The Healing Circle is amphibian and fluvial as well. It’s full of instances of incongruence, hypocrisy, and absurdity. It’s hilarious and it’s devastating. This is an enormous question. I don’t even know how to phrase it. Having known you for some time now, I believe, I can see this as characteristic of your humor and your world view. I’ve noticed this, I think, throughout our friendship: your ability to approach tragedy with a keen intelligence, humor, and wit. It’s a gift, I think, that saves you from sentimentality: to engage such moments or events with all your faculties. In the past, I think, I’ve mistakenly reduced humor to a means of deciding what is and is not worthy of our reverence–in fact, I teach a class on comedy and the syllabus actually says this: Humor is a way of… I need to change that! Because now, I’m thinking, reverence might be a way of not fully engaging– Ok. That seems so obvious now. So, I think I finally have my question. What is the significance of humor to you–in your life, in your world view, and in your writing?
CP: I love the idea that reverence is a way of not fully engaging. I wonder if that goes hand in hand with the joy of reverence—that a feeling of reverence might be accompanied by relief, one can trust, relax, deferring to authority, feeling stable within a fixed structure. I’m highly suspicious of those structures. I like seeing where and how they crack, where people take accommodations, for instance, or imagine themselves exceptions. Life should be fair except I want to skip the line, for instance. Or maybe in the way that my character George is interested in systemic collapse as a means to an end, presuming that he would not suffer from that collapse. I think humor allows me to maintain an unstable framework while pointing out more human hypocrisies. Hopefully that acknowledges an overarching fallibility, making peace with the unsettled structure. I feel like this relates again to your typesetting, the movement of the fontsize and paragraph columns, I can never forget I am reading your book, and yea, maybe become more amphibious in the process.
VKN: An addendum to Jessica’s question: if the preexisting spiritual tool kits we are using ill-prepare us for death, what tool sets would you recommend we use so that we are more or better prepared for it?
CP: That’s such a great question. I have no idea. I think there is something important about sustaining eye contact with death, feeling the fleeting-ness of our experience and discovering where meaning might reside despite or because of that fleeting-ness. I legitimately like thinking about spiritual and physical frameworks for wellness, I think, because I just have absolutely no idea. Humor makes me feel better about it somehow but I’m no less helpless at the end of the day. What do you think? There are so many instances in your book, for instance, where the body feels compromised, legs up the side of the wall at night, the awareness of heart surgery that permeates the text. Maybe what astonishes me is the living-with-vulnerability and the real pain of it. It takes so much energy…
VKN: Frequently, I experience a sense of vulnerability in my body. I cannot stress enough the significance of stretching the body and practicing moderation in eating. Personally, I find satisfaction in consuming smaller portions as I prefer not to experience the sensation of fullness. In moments when my legs are in extreme discomfort, Jess has been instrumental in assisting me with stretching them to an extent that even Novak Djokovic would find impressive.
CP: Are there other authors that inspired your approach? What was dialoguing together about literary precedents and/or colleagues like? I love, for instance, the quiet cameos that literati make here and there but get the sense that there is an even larger room of authors that you are thinking about.
VKN: We owe our approach to contemporary poets who think outside the parameters of page layout and who understand that a book needs to breathe. Jess tries to format our ms so that it’s always breathing. That it can always come up for air after being underwater for so long. We understand that our salamanders also prefer to exist on land. We would like to thank the poetess, Ecnomiohyla Rabborum, and poet, Plynius the Elder, for the inspiration.
Vi Khi Nao is the author of six poetry collections, the short story collections, A Brief Alphabet of Torture (winner of the 2016 FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize) The Vegas Dilemma, Oh God, Your Babies Are Delicious , and the novels Fish In Exile and Swimming with Dead Stars. Her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. Her collaborative work, That Woman Could Be You, with Jessica Alexander arrived in April 2022 from BlazeVOX. She was the Fall 2019 fellow at the Black Mountain Institute:
Jess Alexander‘s novella, None of This Is an Invitation (co-written with Katie Jean Shinkle) came out with Astrophil Press in July 2023. Her story collection, Dear Enemy, was the winning manuscript in the 2016 Subito Prose Contest, as judged by Selah Saterstrom. Her collaborative project That Woman Could Be You (co-written with Vi Khi Nao) came out with BlazeVox in April 2022. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Fence, Black Warrior Review, PANK, Denver Quarterly, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM. She lives in Louisiana where she teaches creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Coco Picard is a cartoonist, writer, and curator living in Oxford, England. Her novel, The Healing Circle, won the 2020 Women’s Prose Prize and came out from Red Hen Press last summer and she is the author of one graphic novel, The Chronicles of Fortune (Radiator Comics, 2017). Short fiction, articles, and comics have been published additionally in Electric Literature, The Daily Beast, Hyperallergic, Art Forum, and The Paris Review, among others. I founded and ran a microarts publisher, the Green Lantern Press (2004-2022) until it’s recent adoption by the Hyde Park Art Center of Chicago, and am co-editing a book series for the University of Minnesota Press called Art after Nature.