Thing Is, the latest collection of poetry from Suzannah Showler, shares a tone that fits somewhere between the quirky intellect of This American Life and the dream-logic ambles of Sleep with Me. It explores and probes, but often chuckles at itself when considering its findings. As a longtime fan of Suzannah’s writing, I was thrilled to get the chance to talk to her, mostly about Zener cards, empathy and podcasts.
Can we talk about Zener cards and how you use their symbols to title the sections of Thing Is? Where did this concept for organizing the collection come from?
I’m really glad you asked me this because I’ve been looking for a rooftop to climb up on so I can shout that THE ZENER CARDS WERE DESIGNER ANDREW ROBERTS’S IDEA! (That’s me on a rooftop, shouting)
I knew I wanted the four voices to be identified by some kind of suggestive but plain graphic symbols, but I was just using Wingdings as placeholders (FWIW: ¤v¢✜). When Andrew Roberts came up with the Zener card design, it was like one of those moments of revelation with all the trappings: clouds parting, sunbeam beaming, choir belting, etc. It felt like the book becoming a book.
The Zener cards build a semiotic landscape that just felt right for these poems to live in. One of my goals for the project was to suggest something about what is universal about the private, subjective, even alienated experience of consciousness. I was working from a thought experiment something along the lines of: what if everyone is having the same thoughts, but in a different order? What if the thing that makes us feel the most special—ie. consciousness and its unshakeable turn towards self-involvement—is the precisely the point of access by which we can (and arguably should) learn to feel more the same as others people? Can we learn to take the thing in us that is both most amazing and most self-interested and re-imagine it as a universal condition?
What I like about the Zener cards for this purpose is that ESP experiments are all about the urge to see human minds as permeable and connective. I also love that the story of Zener cards has this element of failure built in. The results of parapsychological experiments that used the cards can be explained as the result of “sensory leakage.” Which first of all is an amazing phrase, and second of all suggests that something like clairvoyance is possible, it’s just that it happens in a more everyday way than you might think. The very fact of perception becoming cognition is, itself, a way to share things with other people on a plane that feels (is? maybe just is?) above and beyond. Extraordinary. Like, you don’t even need the ‘extra’: sensory perception alone is enough to make magic happen.
It sounds like what your describing is empathy. How close do you think we can get to pure empathy, to understanding each others consciousnesses? And how does poetry play a part in this approach?
Yeah, for sure. I feel like empathy (slash talking about it) is very big right now. At least where I (currently and or but a brief moment more) live. Which is the United States of America. (Maybe you’ve heard of it?). And it’s not like talking about empathy, particularly as it relates to reading or writing, is anything new, it’s just been especially buzzy of late.
There’s not a huge body of evidence to suggest that human beings are particularly good at empathizing, right? Like, I think you could argue that’s the underpinning of most if not all ethical and religious schools of thought: the imperative that humans scold their natural beastliness into servitude for something that is not-themselves. And maybe someone willing to make wild generalizations (me) could argue that the history of human intellectual and artistic production is, mostly, the result of that struggle: being obsessed by our own selves and feeling like we shouldn’t be.
Right, so we’re not good at it (empathy), but we acknowledge that we’re supposed to be trying. I guess what I was trying to do was play around with the idea of, like, what if rather than resist the naturally self-involvement of consciousness, we leaned all the way into it? What if that was a way of somehow coming out the other side, accessing some kind of commons?
As for poetry… I dunno. I’ve always been pretty reluctant to make claims about poetry having any kind of special claim or status. Like all media, I think it has advantages and disadvantages—effects it's better and worse at producing. One of the things it’s good for, I think, is hanging tone and mood on tenterhooks that are conceptual rather than actions. So for my purposes, poetry is good because it allows me to play around in intellectual spaces I have neither the aptitude nor training to get at any another way (ie. I can’t be a philosopher), and it allows for world-building (fun!) without plot (hard).
And actually, now that I think about it, when it comes to representing something like pure empathy or collective experiences of consciousness, podcasts probably beat poetry every time. Think about it. Earbuds, you know?
Podcasts are a great example! It seems they're filling a gap that that in the past fiction and journalism occupied. They're also a return to the oral tradition of storytelling, something inseparable from the human voice. For example, my personal favorite podcast is Sleep With Me, which is all about helping people fall asleep. It's a long-winded man with a soothing voice ramble about his day and old TV shows for 90 minutes. Like a very boring bedtime story. It works well for me (I rarely make it 10 minutes in before passing out), but it only works for me because of his voice. It's a special intimacy to listen to a podcast (especially on earbuds), because it feels like you are being spoken to directly.
So, to try and link this back to poetry, does hearing someone read aloud add a sense of empathy to the work?
Omg, can we talk about Sleep With Me? I am so fascinated by that podcast! I want to hear a linguist parse what the hell is going on there. I’ve only listened to it a few times, but I’m totally fascinated by the way he’s stringing together units of words that definitely are sensical… and yet somehow in the aggregate they build towards this disconcerting nonsense. It’s so strange! And the way it like casts some kind of sleeping spell? It’s so cray. And yeah, I agree that the intimacy of podcasts is really special. It’s kind of not like anything else. The way earbuds close off the outside world, cast a direct line to your brainspace. Plus the portability. It’s pretty amazing how closely it replicates inner monologue.
Ok, I know we’re supposed to talk about poetry… but another thing I’ve been thinking lately re: podcasts and intimacy is that at this point, they’ve been popular for long enough that we’re getting into longitudinal territory in terms of thinking about the effects of intimacy. Like, think about the affective relationship a lot of people have to Ira Glass’s voice, you know? It’s like some kind of equation: Ira Glass over twenty years times times the number of replicas to the power of improved technology = ??
Have you ever listened to the Slate Culture Gabfest? It’s one of my long time staples—I’ve been listening to it since shortly after it started airing (shout out to Peter Saltsman, who introduced me to it sometime in the winter of 2008-9). And recently it’s kind of hit me, like: holy shit, these people have been in my head for eight years. I was in undergrad when I started listening to them. I was twenty-two. And I genuinely think that the way those three individual humans talk and think about culture has literally changed me, like gotten into my brain on a structural level. I was feeling apocalyptic recently (see: I live in America, above), and I confessed to my husband that one of the things I picture when I think about everything ending and falling apart is the final, strained, end times broadcast of the Slate Culture Gabfest reaching us on some frail radio frequency, final voices coming through the dark… Andrew was weirded out by that one.
Right, so poetry, your actual question. I’m a pretty weak reader of poetry on the page, to be totally honest. And sometimes hearing someone read their work aloud complete transports me, lets me plug into the ways it’s beautiful or humane in ways I couldn’t get on my own. That’s so special when it happens. But to be totally real, sometimes at a poetry reading I’ll have a strong urge to dissolve into a puddle and be absorbed by the earth. Allergic reaction in the form of a wish to not be. Readings are a high-risk high-reward experience for me. I don’t know anything, what do you think? Do you find out-loud readings change your feelings about poetry?
For me, poetry on the page is always more immersive. I love hearing it read aloud and the act of listening often adds clarity, but I'm usually not that concerned with understanding poetry any ways. I can also be a nervous, fidgety person, so at readings I find myself easily distracted.
But back to podcasts.
There must be some real undiscovered gems out there, some weird geniuses toiling away in obscurity. Like John B. from S-Town. Do you think there will ever come a time when old and unknown podcasts will be discovered and become relevant to new listeners? Is there an Emily Dickinson of podcasts waiting to be discovered?
I totally love the idea of some future where podcasting is going through its canon overhaul/revision and all of a sudden the silky-smooth gold standards are being undermined and reconsidered. Like everything I love right now might be seen as only specious and something against which some enlightened future generation defines their taste. I realize I just said "I love..." and then went on to describe probably the most heinous parts of historical cycles of taste-making but... you know what, I love it all. I love the idea that for a quiet genius to exist the things I think are right and good will need to be re-examined.
I was about to say that the only doubt I have about the possibly existence of the Emily Dickinson of podcasting is a question about technology, but then I immediately talked myself out of it. So, I was going to say I wonder whether underground geniuses have the technical skill you need to translate their genius into the form as it stands, BUT then I talked myself down from that line of thinking. One, because isn't standardized punctuation the equivalent of technology here, and therefore isn't Emily Dickinson the perfect example of why it doesn't matter? And two, because I can totally imagine a world where the canon backlash takes the form of a thirst for audio that sounds, to my 2017 ear, like poor quality. Like maybe I can't even fathom how bad audio will sound meaningful in the future.
Uh, is this a bad moment to mention that I started a podcast last year with no technical skills? I made three episodes and then a deadline for a book of nonfiction about The Bachelor (forthcoming Spring 2018 shameless plug) ate my face, and I recorded a bunch of tape I haven't turned into episodes yet and a feeling of failure and guilt about that chips away at me daily. But I DO intend to make more. I'm going to keep doing this thing because it's hard and I'm not good at it and that feels somehow artistically healthy. To do things you're bad at. My amateur podcast is called The One Less and you can find it here: theoneless.com. I'm sharing it because it makes me uncomfortable.
TL;DR this is why I like your question: the internet has a way of making you feel like everyone everywhere with any aspiration to be so has already been exposed in some way (often badly, or in a misunderstanding way, but exposed nonetheless). What I like about imagining the Emily Dickinson of podcasting is that it lets me believe that even now, even in 2017, invisibility could still be (more than than just a tool by which power wipes out, or obscures, or denies) a function of some other, as-yet-unfathomable meaning.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.