‘The slippage of speakers’: Lia Dewey Morgan in Conversation with Shastra Deo

By and | 1 September 2023

LDM: That’s a beautiful inversion of the wasteland you suggest there, as a space fertile with non-human agency that challenges the limits of our empathy through its presence. I definitely can see your poems emerging from this space, disrupting where we typically see ourselves and inviting us to extend beyond traditional (literary) boundaries. 

Regarding the Expert Judgement, I’m struck by how a committee of experts (notably not including a poet) conclude that a poem is the best communication device to match the daunting half-life of radioactive materials. I have come to believe poetics exists at the very base of language, with metaphors fundamental to any word, as words necessarily refer to something outside themself. It is the ground on which other forms have built, as with the many epic poems that preceded novels by perhaps thousands of years. This is why I think ancient poems remain so much more accessible while other sorts of texts often fall away. Inversely, this is also an argument why poetry can so readily adapt.

Throughout The Exclusion Zone, the Expert Judgement is but one of many texts you inhabit. Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ is wrenched apart, forming the final word of each line in ‘Canto for Sumitomo Bank (Hiroshima Branch)’, while in ‘Aubade (Earth TRN-688)’ lines from the loveable villain Venom are built upon and extended out. If you don’t mind, tell me about how intertextuality plays out in your book. I’m particularly interested in how that might relate to the prominent toxicity and lack of safety you mentioned before.

SD: I should emphasise that the Expert Judgement message isn’t a poem, but I believe it can be read as one – the anaphora, the repetition of words and phrase structures, even the white space that creates the form of the text. But I completely agree with you – poetry is our oldest language art, and the epic poem finds its roots in oral tradition, in passing down messages through embodied speech acts over generations. Deep time and distance. Poetry has always had some illocutionary intention, be it praise or blame, promise or warning.

My practice is steeped in fandom – fanfiction was the first writing I shared in a public forum, and I still think of writing in fandom terms. ‘Aubade (Earth TRN-688)’, for example, is my Venom/Mad Max: Fury Road AU (alternate universe). Most of my output is built on hyper-fixating on a text (a film, TV show, video game, and so on) and finding gaps and silences to write within. I still consider myself a fanfiction writer first! And I still read every poem as fiction. I think we’re products of every text we’ve encountered and loved and hated (though perhaps not those we’ve felt indifferent towards), and I like to map those encounters in my work. If I could plonk myself within a tradition I’d pick modernism, because I narcissistically and naively think I belong there, but also because I like the slippage of speakers you come up against in the poetry of that movement.

I’m interested in your relating ‘lack of safety’ to intertextuality and how that could be interpreted –no text is safe from becoming an intertext, of course! And perhaps a lack of safety for the reader, because I’m finding that, more and more, readers desperately want the things they read (particularly poems) to be true. (In the nonfictional sense – not the ‘universal truth’ sense.) I find that unforgivably shallow. Abominably boring.

But I want to go on a tangent, because your question about the relationship between intertextuality (how ‘intertextuality plays’, phrasing that I love) and toxicity and lack of safety is making me think of Yakuza’s Goro Majima for reasons I can’t quite pin down. Majima was a difficult hyper-fixation for me because he was an ‘I’ I could not inhabit. So, strangely, a great many of the ‘nuclear’ poems in The Exclusion Zone are also Goro Majima poems (love being a baseball bat; a single eyelid, lifting; Sotenbori River at night). For a long time, he appeared (I could use a stronger word, like infected, or poisoned, but that’s not the vibe) in every poem I wrote. And writing around Goro Majima changed my practice considerably – his shadow is cast over everything I will write, probably.

LDM: I remember when I first read your book, that was something that really stood out to me – a Goro Majima poem?? Really?! It felt like something quite personal, the space of gaming, being taken seriously within a tradition of literary allusion that often snubs video games for being too low-brow. Coupled with the fact you’re writing from a distinct standpoint to the typical white male video game writer, it was kind of a revelation to see your empathy and embodiment of Majima in that way. Dare I say, it felt sort of queer?? Putting my gender hat on (as a trans woman), there’s an irony in video games more generally wherein boys and young men perform hyper-masculinity in a virtual space, all while sitting down for long hours, hunched over and antisocial. The characters played are often rigidly masculine with a carved physique and gruff voice, yet they are also perfectly pliable, able to be dressed in whatever ridiculous manner desired, and open to an endless barrage of violence. The Yakuza series seems playfully aware of this with breakdancing fight styles, a hostess mini-game, ridiculous scenes, and … well I’m not even beginning to do it justice.

Moreover, there are several more poems written in response to The Witcher 3, another game bubbling with violent desire for agency and exploration. I notice in your book a persistent reaching toward the fleshy presence games like these yearn for: ‘a wolf’s liver’, ‘the flesh caught in the ridges of his molar’, ‘the gutshot / split my belly’. What I’m scratching at here is, I’m really intrigued by how your book grapples with hunting, the predatory, violence and the masculine. I’m curious how you arrived at this interest, and what you learned writing (or publishing) these poems)

SD: I feel like there was a tweet one time that said something like ‘bisexual women [I’m ace but still] always have crushes on every beautiful woman and one questionable goblin man’ and that’s me with Goro Majima (who is also a beautiful woman on occasion). He’s a fascinating character. He’s been retconned so many times that his past is something of a quantum indeterminacy. He’s queering masculinity.

I love a game that revels in intricate rituals: ‘You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men’ (Barbara Kruger, Untitled). In a hyper-masculine landscape, violence is the only means of intimacy between men. Think war movies, think one soldier cradling another soldier as he bleeds out, think Tyler Durden (Fight Club of course being written by a gay man) asking ‘How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?’ Violence is an attempt at disrupting the boundaries of the corporeal body, at crawling inside somebody else. Just like gaming, I guess.

As an asexual person, violence as metaphor for intimacy has interested me for a long time, and this is most often found in hyper-masculine texts. But also in archetypal tales, in stories about hunters or fisherfolk or salt-of-the-earth men. Hunting is a base task – one hunts to kill an animal to eat it, to sustain the self. Violence is necessary. But what happens when hunting turns indulgent, greedy, what happens when the hunted is hunted in place of the object of desire or love? I’ve been interested in these sorts of questions even before The Agonist – what I’ve learnt is that they’re questions about the human condition, and they’re never going to have a single answer.

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