Q&A with Elisabeth Houston, author of Standard American English

Elisabeth Houston is the author of Standard American English (Litmus, 2022). Q&A conducted by Ashaki M. Jackson, Publisher. 

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I met the character, baby, in a Los Angeles art space during 2016. Baby — a persona created by author, performance artist, and professor Elisabeth Houston — was shy and preverbal. Despite a hoarse, seemingly under-used voice and a small vocabulary, baby was childlike and full of demands during the interactive performance. Audience members played along with baby’s call-and-response as we slowly learned about the main character. By the end, we pieced together that baby was a manifestation of fear —– an inner child silenced by the multiplex of harmful adults, control, hypersexualization, and splintered interpersonal relationships. Houston continues to engage these topics through and around baby who is older, curious, and part of a larger elaborate system of language-making in the debut collection, Standard American English (SAE; Litmus Press, 2022). In celebration of the book’s release, Houston and I discussed the evolution of her art and the story of baby.

Ashaki Jackson: You have long written about and performed delicate themes of body autonomy, sexualization, and violation. Where do these poems pick up in your larger body of work?

Elisabeth Houston: I struggle with defining what it is I’m going after in the work. I am driven towards conflict and contradiction. I don’t want to be limited by subject or form, but there are also always certain preoccupations I encounter. Violence and language are constant.

I began writing long before I came to performance; video, sound, and live performance each transformed how I make poetry in ways I’m still coming to terms with — and how these other forms shape my writing is really inscrutable. I try to stay fresh. I don’t get too analytical about the process. I don’t want to know what it is I’m creating exactly, and I don’t think I can know the totality of what this work means.

That said, SAE clearly addresses our cultural obsession with pleasure, sex, race, and money. It’s also about our addiction to violence. I find myself returning to these subjects, although I don’t begin with any clear intention. I am usually trying to work through a particular conceit, and the conceit can simply be a twitch in my stomach or in my thigh. I don’t know where I’ll arrive and the written work has radically changed through my time in performance. I couldn’t have written SAE if I hadn’t gotten into performance. I got clearer on the stories I wanted to tell. I got clearer about distinguishing what personas appeared in the text. Slowly the written work started to take shape. Performance also helped with confidence. There’s nothing like being on stage and showing your ass to an audience of friends and strangers to build confidence. Confidence is a cousin of grit, a quality that felt elusive before I started to perform.

I also couldn’t avoid the whirling world outside. I wish I could stay bound in the small square space of the page, but I can’t. I’m not that kind of writer, I’m not that kind of artist. I resist and return to writing, but I also resist and return to the world. I started writing baby poems in graduate school, although the earliest poem in the collection is from 2013 and the most recent is from 2019. Almost a decade had passed. Donald Trump was elected; Black Lives Matter ignited; #MeToo went global. These events transformed how I understood the poems I was writing and also performances I constructed. I changed, the writing changed, the performances changed.

AJ: How did the most recent (2020) Black Lives Matter marches or the #MeToo movement facilitate your work?

EH: Both have shaped me. They’ve been important, validating. I certainly felt a deeper sense of purpose as each movement gained traction. Day to day life has not changed much, but my political and aesthetic vision got sharper. Being Black and being a survivor is  marginally easier, but I have no illusions — the world is not safe for us, and we have so far to go. 

I still experience a profound sense of alienation. Activism hasn’t healed this. I am still so hungry for belonging, probably too desperate, and I still haven’t found it. I don’t know if this is a predicament of my identity or environment or being an artist or if this is simply the human condition. I don’t know.

There are many of us who’ve been challenging anti-Blackness and sexual violence for long before the movements got popularized, and it is disturbing to witness subterfuge around the language of anti-racism and misogyny within the mainstream. I remain skeptical of real progress. As an educator, I’ve seen tremendous harm to Black peoples, students, staff, and faculty alike. Yet I now live in an era where those perpetrators are assiduously trying to scrub clean any record of domination and oppression without accountability. It’s the same with sexual violence.

People might teach Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, and they might believe they are absolved of responsibility by making politically vain statements within the vein of white liberalism. There is no self-reflection. There is no remorse. There is certainly no accountability. It’s not rocket science; those who caused harm should not design the processes for reducing harm, but it happens all the time. This is what a university looks like today, and it’s scary.

Perpetrators need to leave and repent, as do their enablers. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on campus is used as a tool of manipulation and obfuscation, and it is difficult to know who to trust. The platitudes around diversity, inclusion, and safety are meaningless; DEI is a vanity project, and most administration and faculty have no skin in the game. Most are looking to polish an image – or save an image – and there’s no integrity, no authenticity, no vulnerability. The trend is frightening. These are confusing times.

I don’t know how this affects my work as a writer. I don’t track reputations because I don’t spend that much time online. I hear stories from friends, and I’m intrigued by the drama that surrounds how and when and why someone might get fired or resign; it’s a sort of guilty pleasure, but I also see a superficiality to the whole thing – so much mainstream discourse around racism and misogyny today reads as a tabloid story. Activists who’ve been in the struggle for decades know that the work is so much more than sensationalist news. It’s about dismantling oppressive systems, not only firing one person. It’s definitely not about a press release. It’s about fundamentally restructuring society. We need to restructure how power is arranged and how it operates; episodic changes that come at the whim of bad press are not enough. We can’t pretend that this is progress. The real work is so much broader, so much deeper.

AJ: I feel some literary work viscerally, especially if topics, environments, or lines resonate with me. Thinking of the two mediums by which you convey your work, does your writing feel different from what you perform?

EH: I started performing in 2014 without any knowledge of what performance was. I had no idea of what performance meant within art, and I didn’t really understand what it meant in life either. I didn’t think of what I was doing as performance. It came purely by means of necessity. At the time, it was practical. I wasn’t thinking about aesthetics, concepts, or theories. I wasn’t even thinking about history, even. I was thinking about survival, and I responded to primal instincts within me that urge me to create. I brought together text, sound, and video in space; I also decided to bring in an audience. I wanted it to be live. I was curious and I tried it out.

Performance was meeting particular needs that I had, but I couldn’t articulate. I worked with material that was so charged and it isolated me. I was scared, but I was also determined. I didn’t want to abandon these baby poems, but I also never felt satisfied with how others responded to them. Evaluative processes, like workshops, felt constraining. I didn’t like the power dynamics that can happen in workshops or writing groups. I didn’t want my work to be read within that context, but I also wanted my poems to exist. I wanted them to be read. I also felt ashamed of them. There were so many conflicts. The parameters I set in performance work assisted with this and helped me gain control over material that felt chaotic. They also allowed me to activate the writing I was doing, but I also wouldn’t have used the word “activate” 2014, and I probably shouldn’t use it now. The vocabulary of performance and its formal terminology is still foreign to me.

I’d been through an MFA program in poetry, but I often felt strangled by the constraints of poetry as it existed in workshops. We were making an effort, but I questioned the design. I didn’t understand what purpose there was in creating a poem inside a classroom. The poetic project then seemed so obviously influenced by the institution in which it was housed, and I wanted writing that felt more alive, raw and immediate. I loved reading and writing alone, but it seemed meaningless within classrooms. Books and literature had a utilitarian function within school, and it certainly seemed like my own writing did too. I didn’t understand what the purpose of school was and its own performance of power scared and infuriated me. I can see now that I needed to build a space for my own writing, and this space needed to be separate from the institutions that shaped me. Performance gave me a structure in which I could write and also challenge my relationship to words, audience, poetry, and subjects.

AJ: Would you consider your written work a type of script?

EH: It’s interesting that you ask. Yes – but its relationship to theater is also something that emerged quite unconsciously; the stage directions that got built into the book come as a result of experimentation and play. There are no conceptual conceits here. I feel as though I’m building a tiny diorama as I write, and this approach lends itself to theater. I also think, as I flip through the book, that many of the poems also function as a kind of score — a piece of music, a set of notes — in addition to the script. There are certainly poems in the book that look like a score, perhaps more than a script. Text as a visual form matters to me; I approach it as a material that works alongside, but doesn’t eclipse, voice – an attribute that one might consider to be a defining element of poetry.

AJ: I experienced an immediate sense of urgency when first seeing the collection’s language. You created a language for baby that is sometimes childlike, sometimes phonetic, and lures me to say the words — holding vowels and breath. It reminds me of Beloved’s hoarse, water-logged gibberish when she begins to speak to Sethe years after Beloved’s death in the film after Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel. The stretched language also reminds me visually of M. NourbeSe Philip’s arrangement on the page in ZONG! (Wesleyan University Press, 2011). There is also the feel of a child learning new slang from peers. What does language-making mean to the collection and to your speakers?

EH: I find the process of constructing language to be necessary and brutal. I always prefer to remain silent; I am not someone who arrived at language easily. It’s still a struggle. I did not speak in class for my first three years of college. I’ve had panic attacks reading aloud. Books come to us for a reason, and part of what brought me to writing this work was an urgent need to create a new language. I needed to construct a new vocabulary out of this simple alphabet; I needed to believe that it might be possible for me to enter into language and participate in it. I had been frightened for so long. Speech and words were what scared me more than anything. I’m not sure it worked; I’m not sure if it’s even a worthy project.

There is no single speaker in this book. I wanted to reveal the contradictions within language, voice, and narrative. How you read the book quite literally depends on where you are inside the space of the text. There are times when the voice is anarchic, spastic, confessional. There’s a smooth cold calculation at other points. There’s so much variance in voice here — simple sounds, text shorthand, baby talk, sexy talk, academic jargon. What is revealed in each voice is how language is corrupted and deformed by power, and yet — speech continues to babble on, meaninglessly or not.

There’s also a drama to the ways in which each voice interacts with others; each voice in the collection is shaped by the presence of others. A cacophonous dialogue emerges — or maybe it’s a noisy, raucous fight. I don’t know. It can feel like a battle of ownership over authorship when I think about the multiplicity of voices that emerge and how aggressively they vie for power on the page.

AJ: The collection is very weighty with sexual language. We begin with social hierarchy in school based on sex and sexual victimization. There is also mention of sexuality as it relates to racial stereotypes, familial relations, physical appearance, and shaming. In your work, and in this collection, what have you found to be the intersections of these topics and standard American English?

EH: I am absolutely interested in the representations of sex and also representations of violence. I am fascinated by shame and the ways it reveals itself. I think what makes people most uncomfortable about my work is how difficult it is to draw a bright line between pain and pleasure, race and sex, interiority and exteriority. It is difficult to distinguish. I find that to be fertile territory as an artist.

I also think that formal disorientation has also been important for me. I consider form to be a site of artifice, revolt, play, construction and deconstruction. It’s good to me that the reader asks questions. Are we reading a poem? A story? A play? A work of performance? How do we approach the object of a book? How do we respond to paper, ink, its spine and its splayed pages? How do we make sense of words sprawled across its pages? How can there be a poem if there’s also footnotes? Where do I look, up or down? What about stage directions when there’s also verse? What do I do with pop culture in poetry? Is this serious or is this really a joke? When should I laugh? When should I squirm? When should I vomit? How do I make sense of it all? I embrace these questions in content and form.

AJ: I sat for a long while with what I’ll call the group chat poems. These were the poems that were stacked on footnotes. I was receiving two narrations as I was settling into the book. There was one person in this group chat that told me a rich story, and there was a second person in the group reminding the first of the detail, the definitions, the unspoken context, the gossip that glues the story together. The idea of a footnote feels redefined in this collection, or I’ve been reading them wrong for a very long time, and that is also part of your language-making.

EH: Cool! I like your read of “group chat poems.” That’s a fun set of words, and I definitely think about technology all the time. It certainly defines so much of the aesthetic of this book. Contradictory narratives are also a part of what’s happening here, and I like it for my reader to ask – at the end of it all – who am I to believe? Which voice here is the real authority? Where’s the poetry in all this? I ask myself those questions as I write.

I like the use of footnotes because it gives the pretense of authority, and it also points to a hierarchy of language within this text. There’s also something compelling to me about the way the footnotes are stacked at the bottom of the poems, but they can also topple the narrative veracity of the “group chat poems” as well. I think a lot about who is listened to and who is ignored, and the ways in which hierarchies of language silence some folks and elevate others. Tech speak, text speak, and academic speak are various ways power gets played out in language and in the book.

AJ: I believe the collection centers baby, a character of desire, who is trying to build an identity and social relationships while being victimized directly and indirectly by bad-faith actors around her. The collection is riddled with origin stories about baby (“& the story of baby is this & the story of baby is this” is the refrain that sticks with me) even through the end of the collection. As an artist, you also perform baby in multiple settings. Explain baby.

EH: Who is baby? I don’t know why baby is, which is why I find her so fascinating. I want to write her down precisely because I find her shapes to be so slippery. I do see her as a product of societal projections; baby is an empty slate on which all of the terror and beauty and degradation of the world is deposited.

It’s also interesting that you use the word “desire.” I don’t think about baby as being desirable. I certainly don’t think about her being desirable in any traditional sense of the word. This may be because I usually think each piece in the book places the reader inside a landscape much greater than a character, and baby cannot exist outside of her environment. I imagine this has to do with the space in which baby exists, and space seems inseparable from how I understand her — whoever she is, whoever she may be.

There is brutality in the spaces that baby navigates; the construction of this brutality and the ways that the audience might witness and respond to brutality interests me. I don’t know if this relates to desire, if it relates to pleasure. The line between pleasure and pain is thin. It can be difficult to articulate, if you scratch the surface. People laugh in response to pain, people cry in pleasure.

I am also aware of the ways in which desire is socially constructed; how, why, and where we come to desire what we desire is confounding. I certainly think about the scripts that we’ve been given around desire, who and what we should desire. These scripts are so fake and annoying. I also think it’s a particularly gendered struggle, so much of what the binary has done to us is demand that we desire certain things based on our identity. It has to do with gender, but also race, class, bodies, body shapes, all the things. It can be hard to articulate desire because of the stereotypes that surround the bodies we inhabit and the identities we hold. It’s almost like desire is predetermined for us.

AJ: I’m almost embarrassed by the realization that baby has grown with you. While I didn’t think she was a static character by any means, I didn’t realize until much later in the collection (in “and then ‘voltron meets buns of steel’”) when she is assessing her body’s shape and clumsily trying to lure a boy’s attention, that baby has grown up. At the very start of the book, we’re reading about the odd rituals of teens and their social designations, which is a marker I just took for granted. I remember baby being young, vulnerable, and hiding in a closet speaking to her imaginary friend during a performance years ago. What does it require to slowly grow (and grow with) your main character?

EH: I am deeply engaged in the process of writing, and I’m much less interested in product. I also like to be surprised, and this commitment to surprise means that I’ve allowed for the evolution of baby, who shifts and changes throughout the book. I never conceived of baby as fixed; there is an emptiness inside of the word as I use it — baby — even though it also contains all sorts of meaning, depending on context. I suppose my own receptivity to this emptiness allowed for baby to evolve.

I also think your question points to the particularities of my own writing process. I know that the first thing I’ve written is likely not the best, and I have no illusions about entering into the slow, painful process of rewriting as I begin new work. It can be very, very hard. I expect to be engaged in a long, tedious battle with language and also with myself — it takes a long time. I wanted to be patient as I coaxed out the language in this collection because there’s so much violation that I was writing about and around. There could be nothing hasty in my writing process here; I knew baby deserved patience, respect and care.

I also keep everything! I’m obsessed with drafts, keeping and annotating each draft. It allows me to witness the progression of a poem or whatever piece of text I’m grappling with. I notice how language gets distilled and rearranged through each draft. This is probably more interesting to me than anyone else. It doesn’t necessarily signal that the work is growing, but I learn as I compare early drafts to late drafts. I’m compelled by how each stage of writing represents, in some way, my own relationship with language and how it documents my own preoccupations — filtered through the characters and voices that emerge on the page. What is fascinating, really, is how it all dissolves and morphs with each new draft. So much disappears and changes.

AJ: This book feels louder than baby in your earlier performances. I recall a character that operated in near-silence and directed the audience to 1) participate to the extent that they were comfortable to 2) follow baby’s instructions throughout the show.

EH: I’m fascinated that you think the book feels louder than baby in early performances. Both contain noise and long breathtaking silences; the ways both are understood in text and also live performance has shifted and likely will continue to shift. I write towards fear, and the performances have always felt risky. I often chart my own shifting fears that surround the performances; I’ve been doing this for a while and the fears have changed over the years, but I am always, always afraid.

It seems so curious to me that you think the book is somehow louder than when you remember it in performance. People always tell me the performances are so intense, so I’ve thought about how the live performance might compare to the book. It’s also hard for me to know when the volume is turned up and when it’s turned down. I’m always working towards a vision that is contradictory, fractured. It means that I can lose sight of how my work registers, but I mostly want readers to feel and think deeply—I want readers to be rearranged, deranged a bit. I also hope they can be transported to another place, enter other worlds, temporarily. You never know how readers experience that world completely, but I hope it is vivid and absorbing. At this point, I’m not interested in subtlety. There’s too much at stake; the world is burning. There is so much violence — violence is linguistic, physical, sexual, racial, homophobic. Violence is structural, and it’s also deeply individual and psychological. We all need to be screaming at the top of our lungs. We are living in a state of emergency. I may aim for subtlety in a future life, but this isn’t what I’m after now.

The beauty of reading the writing in performance is that the audience gets experience instructions, movement, sound, text. It is a full-body, multi-sensorial reading. Originally, all written work was experienced in the performance. It’s different now with the book as an object; it’s a product, it exists in a marketplace — and it can be purchased on Amazon without any knowledge of the origins of the performance series in which it was born. I can’t deny that there is loss here, and I feel less punk.

AJ: Are there instructions you want to give readers on how to engage the language?

EH: I don’t have instructions on how readers engage with the language in the book. I appreciate the mystery. I love to imagine how readers actually find the work and how they arrive inside the book’s pages. I don’t know.

I hope readers interrogate their own identity and position as it relates to the subject; you always read particular to your culture, race, class, creed, gender, and this is an inevitable prism through which we interpret the world, including the representational world of books, art, theater. I try to demonstrate this during performances, but it’s harder now that there is simply a book floating out in the world. I don’t have as much control, but I still hope readers think about where they squirm, why they squirm. One person might squirm at one point in the book while another laughs out loud. Same passage, different responses. This dissonance interests me as a writer.

I also think too much instruction in the interpretive process can act as a kind of veiled trigger warning; I’m ambivalent about trigger warnings in art. I am more comfortable with them in schools, community meetings, conversations. I often use community guidelines in my classes, not as a didactic measure — and  trigger warnings can function as this — but instead as a sort of frame for the classroom to create a sense of safety that allows us to go deep.

I suppose interpretation is a kind of instructive process; it is a portal through which the world, that includes art, is distilled. I am often troubled by this process of interpretation, and I suppose the use of paper sign instructions in performance spaces is a way to disrupt and also make visible the interpretive process and the ways power informs it, I guess.

There are also many ways I want to control how my work is interpreted, and I also recognize the inevitable futility of the project. I can’t ultimately control how it is received in the world. To be an artist in the world requires letting go. There’s such tension — my own irrepressible need to instruct, and also the inevitable failures of instruction. It also can feel like a great burden to make art that depicts violence, often grotesquely. I loathe the moral implications of what I make, and I don’t know why I continue to make it, but I’m driven nonetheless. It is not easy. Integrity has been an important part of how I navigate the world, and I live my values imperfectly. I’ve come to realize, though, that part of my responsibility as a human and also an artist is to shake people out of a totalizing complacency that comes with living in the US. Art is meant to wake us up, incinerate us. We need to be terrified because the world is terrifying.

Read and hear Houston’s poem “re-peat! re-verse! re-hearse!,” first published in Standard American English (Litmus Press, 2022).

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