Word For/Word [ Issue 17: Summer, 2010 ] [ Previous ] [ Next ] [ Notes ]

Kate Colby and Kate Schapira

Interview: On the Origin of Kate Schapira's TOWN

In 2009 Kate Schapira sent an email to a hundred-odd friends asking for contributions of details pertaining to an imaginary town she planned to create. She received 63 responses, all of which she incorporated into TOWN, her first full-length book of poetry, which
was published by Factory School in early 2010. In the following conversation with poet, friend, and “town councilor” Kate Colby, Schapira discusses TOWN’s origins, in addition to its problems with memory, identity, technology and tawdry cocktails.


Kate Colby: What first struck me about your town was its iconic “everytown” quality that made me think of things like Spoon River Anthology and The Music Man and the stylized artifice of the town in The Truman Show. But there's also a more contemporary, filtered, dark-corners quality to it that reminded me of certain depictions of place by Marguerite Duras and Jean Rhys. In addition to being stereotypically hokey (e.g., “Mrs. Lila Corning, the head of the Auxiliary”), the denizens also tend to be mannered and mysterious (they literally consume paper currency, for example).


And then there's the mythological quality to the specificity and exoticizing of detail that, along with the everytown-ness, made me think of Invisible Cities. And that Invisible Cities is built upon a deception and illusion also relates to The Truman Show and investigations of currency and economics that run through your book.


There is a specter of teen suicide that reminded me of the urban legends and suburban grotesque horror movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, shades of Metropolis in the factory workers...In his interview with you, William Walsh also compares TOWN to Spoon River, as well as to Our Town and Winesburg, Ohio. You have called up the whole history of the depiction of towns. But while you talk to Walsh about wanting to explore the psychological infrastructure of towns – specifically, how real communities resolve or absorb contradiction – what are your thoughts on the artistic history of town-ness and how it figures in the work?


Kate Schapira: A contributor actually referenced Our Town directly – something like, “In this town, Emily married Simon Stimson, the organist and town drunk, instead of sweet, bland George Gibbs.”


Of the things that you mentioned, Invisible Cities is maybe the one whose influence I was most aware of – the features that Calvino furnishes each city with (which are, as you point out, often the things that a traveler would notice as “different”); the customs that he explains, often without comment; and especially the extrapolation. That's the idea of town-from-the-outside – local color, created by remoteness and insularity. Something that town-from-the-inside and town-from-the-outside share is the idea of town as “authentic”.


Samuel R. Delany's novel Dhalgren is about a city  in anarchic dissolution, and the ways the people living there respond to it, how their actions always have an effect but not the one they intend – the people who intend to do harm don't, the people who want to fix things don't... This is another one that I was consciously thinking about as I worked with my contributors' material. It asks a lot of questions – about community, about whether what anyone does (within a community) matters in the way we usually think of mattering (i.e., making things more the way we want them to be), and is there another way to matter – that I think TOWN asks too. Dhalgren and TOWN also both have sexual and violent elements, which are at odds with the literary sense of town as the peaceful, equable place where no one has sex and no one harms anyone (à la Pleasantville, the movie) – unless someone/something comes in from outside.


The horror-movie aspects are a bit further back in its DNA: the idea that there's a “normal” town, or a normal-ness in town, from which things begin to diverge. I definitely had in my mind a trope that shows up in both fictional and real communities, which is that everything was normal and fine up to the point that [x] happened – in fact, that's one of the main horror narratives. It's scary because of the thing (sometimes with a capital T) that comes from outside town; people in town are reacting to that thing, or corrupted by it (Invasion of the Body Snatchers or anything with alien invasions, a Stephen King book called The Tommyknockers...). I'm not sure I was thinking about those things though – it's more like I can see them now that I look.


Looking back over what I just said, I feel like I'm seeing a lot of science fiction rather than “realistic” fiction or nonfiction or poetry. I don't know if that's because the more plain, uninterruptedly normative narratives of town are so far back in the DNA that I don't know where they came from. As early as Winesburg, Ohio, the disruption and dissension are taking place, although they're located in characters who are dissatisfied with or damaged by the town's insistent normal- or normative-ness. 


I never saw The Truman Show. But it seems like the challenge of making a town that wasn't really a town would be making it just real enough to escape scrutiny. The depiction isn't loving or self-sufficient; there's no joy of making; its purpose is to fool him, right? But nobody involved does any more than the minimum. It's the consumable town that just has to last long enough for you to get it home. I don't know; do you think my town has some of that in it?


KC: Well, Truman believes in the town because he has never had any kind of access to anything else. Do I see that in your citizens? Yes, definitely. There's an automation to their behavior and an insularity to their experience. But there's also a kind of objectless yearning to their rituals, a yearning which Truman develops only after 30-odd years of unquestioned, uninvestigated tedium, somehow.


Your citizens sing once a day – “trembly and tremulous” (shades of Whoville?) – but not songs. Songs aren't allowed. They chew and swallow their money with the rigor of the big-box consumer. The energy is in the consumption, not the acquisition. There isn't a lot of “stuff” in this town, actually. It's all movement and ritual. We get only occasional jolts of tactile, sensory information. Those watermelon margaritas feel awfully sweet and sour and garish for this story, but they belong there, too. Your town is sometimes insipid for lack of satisfied love.


Then the videophone (the X, the Bodysnatcher) arrives, and things change. We'll get to that later. But when you ask if your town has some of The Truman Show in it, I'm not sure from whose perspective you mean. Is there love of creation? On your part? I get a sense of the intermittently interested watchmaker. There's certainly no meddling angel of It's a Wonderful Life (yet another town that came to mind), but rather of your nose pressed against the terrarium in between other obligations. Things feel complex, not random, but not in an entirely organic way. Are chaos and complexity mutually exclusive or variations on the same concept? I can't remember the nuances.


In any case, you've invited and employed ostensibly irreconcilable constraints here – at least aesthetically incongruous ones – so there are capricious forces at work that save town from the saturated monotony of Seaside, Florida or Stepford or the city in A Wrinkle in Time where the children bounce their balls in tandem because they are under the control of an evil, loveless brain called IT.


You are not an evil, loveless brain, Kate. In fact, you are an especially invested member of many communities here in Providence, as well as in other places, both physical and virtual. I want to know more about your question, “Is there another way to matter?” Can you say more about how that plays out in TOWN?


KS: I didn't realize until you pointed it out that no one in town ever leaves. People and things arrive (and arrive and arrive and arrive), but no one even leaves-and-comes-back. Maybe that's why the yearning is there. I wonder if the people in town are satisfied when they become animal-people, toward the end. (Incidentally, I retro-recognized in that another set of literary towns, which are the human and human-alien towns in the Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia Butler.)


It's also potentially interesting that the only overt and quasi-public sex in town is teenage sex, which is often sex at its most sweet and sour and insipid and garish. I think there are moments of connection and warmth in town, but they often also feel defiant and/or are taking place at, for example, a public hanging, or a public service announcement. See more about that below.


I love the image of the nose pressed against the terrarium. I didn't get to choose a lot of the components and inhabitants of the terrarium, but I was responsible for adding what they needed to be able to coexist. I think  the comparison is complicated (or maybe made possible – you don't terrarium full-fledged people) by the fact that I didn't have very many characters. I'm glad that I am not an evil, loveless brain; I think I love the town in TOWN more than its people, though, which is the opposite of how I think my real-life community participation works.


A lot of my investment in community in real life comes from questions of what individuals and communities do for each other / owe each other / give each other, and in TOWN, a lot of times, that participation seems (as you pointed out) ritualized, mannered, largely unquestioned – very role-based. I think a lot of the ways people talk about community action and “making a difference” are also role-based – I, This Kind Of Person, am going to help These Kinds Of People. Looking back at it, it seems like all the large-scale moves (proclamations, ordinances, industries) in TOWN are impersonal, and it's maybe because of this that their effects on individual people are unexpected and even alarming. Some of the town's decisions lead to changes in it, and to some things beyond their control as well. To take the example of the most obvious change – their physical transformation, which seems to come hand in hand, or hand in hoof, with a cultural one – I think it's unclear why and how the transformations start to happen and who or what is responsible, but the element of individual participation comes in when people either resist these changes (acting like nothing is happening) or try to make the beasts' sounds and act like what's happening is, in fact, happening. That is, are they generous or fearful? But being generous doesn't necessarily protect you from what happens, or even guarantee that you will enjoy the results of your generosity. Maybe TOWN is part of the process of me learning that in my real life.


That sounds like I think only what I do (or what any person does) – and in what spirit – matters, and not the extrapolated or hoped-for results of our actions. I don't mean that at all. I think some of the kind of mattering I'm talking about is in the relationship between the girl ghost and the last witness. At the end, they acknowledge each other, and although I don't say this, I feel like this is the time when they're both on their way out of town – that is, the world.


KC: It seems we're having a hard time talking about “town” outside of its pop-cultural depictions, which highlights how wishful and utopian the idea of local (i.e., actual and non-global) insularity and interdependence can be.


I confess that I didn't get that they all became beasts in the end. I got the encroachment of beastliness, but missed the actual transformation. Was the transformation voluntary or involuntary or both or neither?


It makes me think of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, which is funny, since you and I were talking about Theater of the Absurd in an entirely different context just the other day. While Rhinoceros makes a pretty direct and transparent political statement, there is something of the absurd in TOWN – the apparently meaningless circularity and repetition of their rituals, the weird props with which people attempt to relate to one another (again, the watermelon margaritas). Is that a fair comparison?


KS: Well, you asked about TOWN’s literary and cultural genealogy, so I feel like we just kept going down that path. But I think another reason why that’s happening is that TOWN and the people in town privilege feeling and reaction over, say, logic and analysis and consideration, and that's something that pop culture and its offspring do, too.


Insularity of the kind that takes place in town is definitely wishful and utopian, but the closer something is to us, the more real it is, and I think that's something that often gets ignored or mishandled in efforts to consider things globally or on a large scale. I talked about this with poet Shanxing Wang in Mantis a while ago, and he made powerful points: that tyranny can be local / familial (and I think this happens in TOWN) as well as global or colonizing, and that recognizing worldwide patterns and interrelations is vital to surviving them – as well as potentially altering them, if you're into that. Which I am. But as one human, I feel my actions diluting, weakening, when I try to imagine applying them to many, many humans, remote from me, and I feel them turning into their roles or positions rather than themselves.


Speaking of which, it's okay with me that you didn't get that they all become beast-humans (which is really what I was imagining – a creature that partakes of both, and is not quite the same as the beasts when they entered town. There's another interview with me and two TOWN councilors at Trace Brimhall’s blog, where Adam Veal, who contributed the beasts, talks about what he was imagining). I think the transformation is more or less involuntary. My mental model, actually, was evolution and environmentally inspired genetic mutation – a non-lethal version of living in a carcinogenic place – literalizing geneticist Richard Goldschmidt's “Hopeful Monster”, which is apparently a lot less likely to happen in real life than he thought it was, but does sometimes happen). What is voluntary is how fast it happens and whether the humans throw themselves into it or resist it. The beasts seem to have less agency in that respect, which now that I think about it is maybe a flaw in this narrative thread – nature as inevitable force is not really a more exciting way to look at it than nature as something humans impose on. But they are also very calm and peaceful – they change the town, but not violently, although there is some suffering involved in the transitions.


KC: I just jumped over to the Brimhall blog and have to object to being credited as a collaborator on TOWN. I remember shooting off some uncontextualized nonsense to you. You made poetry out of it.


In any case, you call it collaboration and someone else referred to the contributions as source material, but, as I earlier suggested, they seem more like arbitrary formal constraints to me. They determine the physical parameters of town as much as any sonnet or mathematical sequence would, albeit on a different plane...which ties back in with the absurd, Calvino, OULIPO, etc. I hope I'm not being too reductive with these associations, but town also has a seductively coy, pataphysical, Old World overtone for me that's largely imparted by the ritualism and sense of tradition with faded or forgotten or fantastical antecedents. And yet, town is American, yes?


KS: If anything, I was afraid of giving too little credit to people whose work I included and transformed. I agree that all the contributions function as constraints on the project – and they are unquestioned because I committed to using all of them. So, in a way, the way I wrote TOWN is analogous to the largely unquestioned ritualism and the townspeople's conformity – not exactly with rules, but with their roles or “places” in the town – and sense of tradition you mention. The obedient process of assembling the town shows, is manifest, in ways that I didn't directly dictate or expect.


Town is American, yeah. Mostly because that's where I am and where I grew up (although not all the contributors live here or were raised here). Also,"town” as opposed to “village” or “city” or “suburb” has a U.S. feel to me, which may be wrong. The ways in which town is complacent, vaguely participatory, neglectful of its public space, all feel American to me as well, but I haven't lived anywhere else long-term and that may be common. I wonder if the Old World feel is coming from its more pageanty aspects – performing and stressing its history in a codified, recognizable form? I think we do that in the U.S. as well. But many of our pageants – I'm thinking of the Italian-American festivals on Federal Hill, or the Dominican Festival in and around Broad Street and Roger Williams Park, here in Providence – treat some sort of Old World as their source or root. “We happen to be here, but we're FROM there.” Whereas in TOWN, town is where they're from. Most of them. The one specifically noted set of incomers – the owners of the Delhi Express and their children – get stamped with their race and their immigrant (to town) status as soon as they enter town, and TOWN. That's an example of something I wish I'd done more with and thought more critically about, by the way.


KC: To shift the conversation a bit, I want to ask about the skewed sense of time and the role of memory in the book. Memory seems to – or is said to – play an important role, but its antecedents feel pretty dead and unrequiting. Often they aren't specified – possibly not known? We just have these weird, perfunctory rituals and blank monuments. While change and futurity are betokened by the arrival of the videophone, that realized future ends up being equally deadening and dead-end-ing. But everything and everyone in town seems hung up on the past or suspended from the future. Nothing feels terribly present.


So, which is more dangerously self-reflexive: collective, civic nostalgia or the technologically mediated social conditions of the futuristic present? Are the false “hoods” of municipal self-identity more insidious than the idea of “rioting by videophone”?


Those are mostly rhetorical questions, but...thoughts?


KS: People often talk about the future and the past as if they were places, but their place-ness is imaginary – a convenience. And town is an imaginary place and, in a sense, also a convenience – a terrarium? – in which to set these feelings, ideas, people and rules and see what they do to each other. I think some of the uses of future and past in town are, like the traditions, a shorthand or rhetoric, a way to evoke certain feelings of nostalgia or community. So memory as a unifying factor is sort of a decoy – a social convenience or fake consensus – but so is the idea of “where we come from” (in the sense of the past, or tradition) and “where we're going” or “we're going nowhere” or even “dead end” (in the sense of the future).


But something we haven't talked about a lot yet is the role of contradictions in the town and especially in memory. There is some dissent about whether the monuments even exist, whether there was a violent criminal at large, whether the railroad ever went through town. It's not always clear where people live or how they died. The ghosts of buildings and people reveal this – a ghost is simultaneously present and absent, possible and impossible. What I hope is that the clear contradictions and impossibilities will make that absoluteness, that routine and ritual, that stubborn official version, feel more crumbly and mutable.


But also, the town's ability to extrapolate cause and effect may be a little impaired or atrophied, perhaps because of the absoluteness and rootlessness of those rituals and the, “This is going to change everything!” industrial gung-ho-ness, which makes me think that they may have done this before – each new industry is the one that's going to “save” town, but they don't really believe it (and I don't really believe it, either).


KC: But the videophone is an exception in that it does change everything, doesn't it? It literally alters reality – “the trains have tiny cars” because of it. Everything in town seems to turn upon its introduction. Am I making too much of it? And/or is it really a stand-in for the internet? You say, “The town will believe anything in a picture,” and pictures tend to be a lot more truthful than Wikipedia. But then you also say of town, “Value furnishes all our images,” so these videos / pictures / images are both taken and perceived through cloudy or maybe warped lenses.


Tell me about the videophone. It's such a funny and naive characterization of dehumanizing technology – like something from a Richie Rich cartoon. And yet, it belongs here, perhaps because these townies are pretty naively visionary, as you point out – as we all are, without the benefit of foresight, of course. The staleness of the technology also underscores that.


KS: It's true, it does alter reality. The trains do have tiny cars because of it, and it seems to produce some weird dissociative disorders in people, and there's some suggestion that the chemicals involved in making it or leaching from it are contributing to the mutations and interspecies blurring – I was thinking of the “cell phones cause brain tumors” urban legend and also of the genuine problem of what to do with computer waste products. I guess what I meant is that it doesn't alter reality in the intended or expected or controlled way.


Is it the internet? Kinda, maybe, but that also seems stale in an alarmist, old-fashioned way – “Oh, the internet is dehumanizing us.” On the other hand, town is old-fashioned in many ways, and at least some of its people would claim that with pride – the kind of old-fashioned that's the implicit opposite of newfangled. On the other other hand, there does seem to be a naive pride and even delight in the technology itself – the “new toy” enthusiasm with which many people respond to various kinds of technology. There's an obedient quality to their hope and anticipation – it's new, it's exciting, it'll change everything! It'll destroy/revolutionize the publishing industry (or communication, or finding a pizza place, or whatever)! The words and tone in which we discuss that kind of technology (both marketers and marketees) are often gee-whiz and alarmist at the same time – I think there's a turn-of-the-last-century, Barnum-ish, snake-oil miracle cure quality to the ways we talk about it positively and negatively, and that seemed to fit in with the town's reaction to it and to its mental time frame.


The person who contributed the videophone also told me that the field of psychoanalysis was booming in town, so in some ways I had that connection made for me. The role I think  the videophone took on – in addition to what I said above – has to do with attempts to connect, but to connect easily and safely.


KC: One final comment I want to make about TOWN and all of your work is that in spite of how much thought and conceptual rigor goes into it, what remains in the foreground is the language and the precise, but light-handed way you use it. Do you think of the individual sections of the book as poems? They certainly work that way for me. The part
about the corduroy factory stands out:


          Mothers and fathers work
          at the corduroy factory.
          Cotton fluff like flocking on them.
          They're their children's toys, the
          mothers and fathers, and mothers
          and mothers and fathers, and fathers
          and fathers and mothers. Fluff settles
          on everything, thickens everything,
          brown and maroon, “Creamate” in


          company coffee thickening the break
          room. Working accordingly
          and respectively, they don't
          keep any of it, except in their lungs
          it lies in heaps the colors of bruises:
          maroon, dark brown, tan, olive
          green, cloudy blue, lavender.
          Fathers, some of whom are mothers,
          drive from their homes, drive back


          to their homes under ghosts of future
          trees and grown children, their
          colors made redundant by
          darkness and sodium vapor. The factory
          exists as a ghost of motes in
          air, paralleled, particulate,
          collapsing, illuminated. The fire
          of 1984 erected in the winter months
          with thirteen father and mother

          survivors spun out. Cotton lint went
          up like snow. The factory's gone


          and there, drifting in and out of sun.
          Everything—people, patterns—went
          along where only fire is made
          becoming what it is and isn't
          about the ghosts in the factory
          when they move themselves busily,
          sent up, still flecked and working.


I often think about what it is that binds me to my favorite poets' work. One wouldn't want to be able to pin it down, of course, but there's a formal identification for me along the lines of, “Hey, I hear it that way, too.” It's in the composition and dare I say the breath rate and depth and the sound of it. It's as though everyone's tuned into the world at different frequencies, but sometimes you find someone's listening at the same one that you are and you can really see ear-to-ear with them. I know nothing about physics and sound dynamics, but I repeatedly think of the film of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse that you had to watch in science class. Feats of suspension, frequencies matching, structures collapsing...it's too much, but something like that.


Not to say that your work has niche appeal; it's just plain lovely writing. I look forward to seeing more of your work in print.


KS: I definitely think of the individual sections as poems, each with its own impulse, order, and sound within it, as well as the resonances they create between/among them.


I like “seeing ear-to-ear.” I think that's right. When something you read, or something you hear, sets you humming because it's at your frequency or at a corresponding one – a harmonic? Is that a thing? I don't really know anything about that either – and then you go write, or at least you want to. I love it when work does this for me (as yours does) and I would love for my poems to do it for other people.


In setting up the project I sort of said, “I'll tune to whatever you all give me;” earlier in the interview, you said that you felt you gave me whatever and I made poetry out of it. I think both of these things are happening – I'm responding, at my “frequency”, to the words and images that people gave me – what they called out in me. But I also had to adjust my “frequency” (a bit more for some than for others) in order to respond, and throughout the project I can feel it sounding more and less like me (but always a little like me).


Thanks for these great questions – they've made me think hard while simultaneously having a ball (something your work does as well).