Frances Richard is the author of Anarch. (Futurepoem, 2012), The Phonemes (Les Figues Press, 2012) and See Through (Four Way Books, 2003). She writes frequently about contemporary art and is co-author, with Jeffrey Kastner and Sina Najafi, of Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates” (Cabinet Books, 2005). Currently she teaches at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I tell them “I teach.” They ask, “What grade”?” “College,” and they say “oh, wow,” or “uh, great,” but appear nonplussed—I (think that I) can see them thinking (reflexively flinching) with aversion about their own first-year comp class or debt burden—and also feeling ambiently disappointed not to chat about 4th grade cuteness or bullying. In sympathy with what previous respondents to this question report, the social effort of saying “I’m a poet” (read: acrobat—professional depressive—cuneiform copyist) is often more than I’m up for at the moment. Though I am mindful that in this intermittent self-concealment I flatline on a responsibility upheld by, say, Alice Notley or Claudia Rankine, which is to insist on the activity and mind implied by “poet” as a form of citizenship—to continue with the patience and relentlessness of a saint-dung beetle-geologic process to pile microscopic bits sieved from the gyre on to the scale opposite the ignorance, malfeasance, cruelty.
This implies that ignorance, malfeasance, cruelty are incompatible with claims on the identity “poet,” which is obviously false. It further implies that the identity exists. The contours of my own ego are like a….. plastic bag blowing around…. though I am encouraged when I read this statement from the president:
Well I’ll be a poet.
What could be more
foolish and obscure.
Eileen Myles, “An American Poem”— a work I often teach. Students love its fantasmatic true historical ambition.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
I remember being delighted when I heard about acedia, of the seven deadly sins—alas: misinformation. I learned it as the sin of despair, which seems a brilliant mnemonic to guide away from tragedy-indulgence. But it is actually sloth/apathy/torpor, which is not my anxious earnest problem.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Sadly, at this point, if a student says this about teaching and/or freelance-criticking, my impulse is to tell them not to (see next) though I kind of then can’t handle the twinge of biggest-struggle (see above). But isn’t it more or less the case that counter-affirmative projects draw from shared basics? Work with seething dreamy libidinal intensity on your thing; ever fail as Beckett diagnoses; become an unremittingly enthralled and unremittingly demanding absorber of precursors. For part 2, can I just quote Steve Orth?
Part 2 is the social aspect. Meet people. Meet artists. Meet them at poetry readings. Art shows. Be nice to them. Be honest with them. They’re not all going to be your friend, but have good graces. Don’t talk too much. Talk some. Smile at people. Remember their names. Shake their hands. Eye contact is nice. Don’t drink too much wine, unless everyone else is going to drink too much wine. And then other people will want to show you their art. Let them. Look at it. Comment on it. Be thoughtful. Put out a magazine featuring their art. Champion the artists you love. Help them with their art and they will hopefully help you with yours. But don’t get too upset if they don’t think about your art all the time. They’re all, like you, insanely narcissistic.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
No idea how to answer this but will take the opportunity to champion and thank and serenade with subliminal Woody Guthrie-Weavers-Almanac Singers the Adjunct Action union bargaining teams at CCA, Mills College, and SFAI.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Okay, on that note, how about:
Maybe that’s too plaintive. This one’s more rollicking:
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
Don’t know about favorite, but there are lots of stories I’ve inherited that move me, that vibrate as talismanic in more complex ways than I can explain in this space. One is about my father’s father’s uncle—who, half-mad and starved in the aftermath of World War I, walked from Russia home to Vienna carrying under his great coat the putrid delicacy of the super-fatty tail of a Mongolian sheep.
Here is one about my mother’s mother’s mother. She was the next-to-youngest of five girls, the five who had survived out of thirteen (diphtheria epidemic). She finished eighth grade. My grandmother adored her—but this is how she summed up her mother’s girlhood, opportunities, education, enculturation, role in family, and thus her own rage-once-removed: “She was the one who stayed home to wash the curtains.”
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
Laura Ingalls–Jo March–Harriet the Spy–Meg Murry (Madeleine L’Engle)…. I wanted to be a writer. Also Sparrowhawk and Arha (Ursula LeGuin). I wanted to know True Names (but won’t write theirs here, in case.)
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
I hated the recent profile of Thoreau in The New Yorker. Anyone who has read him in any quantity and can’t hear his crackling-dry humor should not write about him. Someone whose imagination re the invention of American letters extends no farther than “cabin porn”—as though this generation of Kantian contrarian Romantic prosodists were lifestyle entrepreneurs in little fedoras making bespoke cocktails at the ironic-woodsy Walden Room—should not write about them. A critic who has read Thoreau’s reports to Emerson on the deaths of Margaret Fuller and her husband and child in a shipwreck off Fire Island should reconsider his coldness or lack thereof. As Marcella Durand has written elsewhere:
And now I have to write yet another angry letter to the New Yorker over, this time, its beyond-stupid “exposé” of Thoreau, titled “Pond Scum.” Apparently, the crimes of not liking coffee, throwing a few parties in his cabin and being an unsentimental grouch far outweigh refusing to pay taxes to fund slavery and influencing the civil rights and environmental movements.
(My week in the wilderness would not include the magazine’s shabby, flabby, sycophantic profile of Kenny Goldsmith, either—the occasion for Marcella’s previous letter, and probably the reason the Thoreau thing bugged me enough to have it spring to mind here.)
I do crave a good mattress and hot shower. Can I have those in my cabin? (Can I have a cabin?) If so I will happily take a few months in the wilderness—any weather, any landscape. But after that I want to go to New York and see a ton of shows.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
Spent half the day tracking down the cause of the incorrect pending amount.
What’s wrong with society today?
Ignorance, malfeasance, cruelty.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
Hypothyroid meds, like lots of women I know. Is this a newfangled environmental micro-malaise, I wonder, or just something now measured and named where it was not before?
What is your fondest memory?
Right now, it’s as if I can’t think of a single thing that ever happened to me.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
Hummingbird at the hummingbird sage, angry-seraphim face of the feral cat, sound of rain, smell of rain, light-cloud-and-air conditions of rain, wetness of rain, my dearest in-house person, baby who stopped crying at the grocery store, student who got mad about commodity and habitus when someone else announced that soul protects the artist from contamination by mass culture. Everyone has a comparable totally other list. All the time, I guess. Bursts into existence and extinguishes itself in seconds.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
This question makes me seasick with fervency.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Brian Conley argues that it is a way of worldmaking, which is as good a definition as any for my purposes. It is necessary. Because it is our (people’s) need-desire to generate many many various contradictory intersubjective irrational crafted material thought-forms with which to expand repurpose reimagine save observe feel co-inhabit worlds.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
What are you working on right now?
Editing two forthcoming essay collections:
Joan Jonas Is On Our Minds: Essays from the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts (CCA/Wattis Institute)—tentative title—
The “Alette in Oakland” Reader (Hearts Desire), co-edited with David Brazil, Brandon Brown, Alana Siegel, and Laura Woltag.
Still working on my long-in-the-making study of the artist Gordon Matta-Clark and the role of language-play in his work.
Writing poems about lichens.
And just wrote a little text for Margaret Tedesco’s 2nd Floor Projects series, a short essay related to the answers here—more self-icity than I usually feel like revealing; political grief as subplot; the descriptor “ambiently”; my grandmother and her house. Laura Ingalls Wilder is named in both. So is Eileen! Hi Eileen
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I keep thinking, “I can’t answer any more of these enormous questions,” and putting this thing aside for a while, then coming back and finding I can answer a few more. I’m a completist. But all I can say for this one is that seeking to evolve or derive a new and deeper fail-better more sophisticated useful understanding of ambition (Notley-Rankine-Myles-Jonas) (grand- and great-grandmother) (worldmaking) occupies my thoughts these days.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Rain, rain, snow, snow, snow in the mountains, rain. Efficient, affordable, integrated system of public transportation. Bike lanes with dedicated curbs and lights. Wildly expanded diversity of contemporary art exhibitions. No more students in tears in class again because they still can’t write their papers because now it’s November and they finally found a place to live, but just realized they might not be able to afford it after this month after all. (I submit that, actually, these are all one thing.)
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Ended up not going to Kevin and Dodie’s book party. But we went walking with GE (who was visiting) to Inspiration Point at sunset, talking about a politics of language as a distributed calling-to-one-another the way birds or, say, marmots call—“you there? how are conditions?”—and GE asked, “can you articulate your aesthetic in a few sentences?” We agreed we could if pressed but didn’t want to at the moment. Talked about supporting students through class-and-color sufferings (GE’s phrase) and how difficult it is, at certain levels, given how racism and classed assumptions dye the fibers of the culture far beyond each local knot at school, but also how it’s not as difficult as institutions sometimes make it out to be. It got to be that secondary magic-hour when a band of sky at the horizon glows darkling lemon and the silhouettes of trees stand out against it in flawless black, and we talked about that.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
So many superlatives in this questionnaire. They make me nervous.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
Write the concise project statement for a grant application.
Automatic-deposit $50 per month into the credit-union account from which my family pays the maintenance on the matriarchal-lineage house. Just got an email from my uncle reminding me that in the near future it won’t be enough.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Lilac, lavender, peony, ripe peach. Beeswax. Coastal sage. French roast. The composite wind-bouquet rising out of the fields and woods (two different smells) around aforementioned house, and the cold-fireplace smell when you open the door if the house has been closed for awhile. Lest these sound fatuously pastoral, I’m trying to think of a truly satisfying mass-production smell. New-car just smells like off-gassing to me.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I’d love to go to Rome for a month or two—it would be especially great to go with Caroline and Roberto like we’ve discussed, so can they be paid for too, please.