La Roc Bio Pic

A Conversation with Claudia La Rocco

By Katy Dammers

Sep 6, 2014

On September 8 Claudia La Rocco will read from her new book The Best Most Useless Dress, a collection of essays, poetry and criticism published by Badlands Unlimited. La Rocco spoke with Curatorial Fellow Katy Dammers about the creation of this collection and her thoughts on writing.

Katy Dammers: How did this book project get started?

Claudia La Rocco: Several years ago, Paul Chan emailed me and said he had been a fan of my writing and he wondered if I was willing to have a conversation with him for the Brooklyn Rail. This was during the time of the ebook release of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Field Guide. I went to his studio and we ended up talking for four hours. We talked for so long I totally forgot I was on deadline for a New York Times piece, which I never do (I had all these exasperated calls from my editors when I finally checked my phone after leaving his studio). The interview, which we structured like a script for an interview, is one of my favorite pieces. 

A few years after that I had him in my class at SVA, where I teach at the MFA program in writing. Afterwards we were having sangria and tapas at a bar around the corner and I said, “that interview we did was so much fun – we should do another project together.” And he said, “I’ll tell you what we should do – you should let me publish your book.” 

He said it so casually, and it was so thrilling to hear. He has been a great and discerning editor—really special in terms of the attention and care he’s given; he has the magic combination of being able to shut down a writer’s bad impulses without squelching the good ones. Working with him, and everyone at Badlands, has been a delight from start to finish.

KD: How did you go through the process of choosing particular works and putting the collection together? 

CLR: Most of the work was done in two different residencies. The first was at Arizona State University, where I did a very first rough pass. I gathered all my writing from the past decade, went through and threw out the stuff that definitely wasn’t going to make it. Then I had a residency last summer (2013) at Headlands Center for the Arts. That was a lovely experience. I had the time to go through my writing slowly. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the span of it and when it’s your own work you begin to think—“is this all I’ve done?” or “why did I think this was good?” It can be emotionally draining. I went through it over that 10-week period and compiled things that were in conversation with each other, or that included an artist who made a big impact on me. Ralph Lemon is a good example. Sentences and phrases from a review I wrote of his work appear in another poem I wrote “ They Always Ask for Water,” which cannibalizes several critical pieces of mine. I wanted all these different types of writing to be interspersed—to let them jostle against each other. 

KD: Tell me more about your emphasis on “movement and rhythm,” which is a phrase mentioned in the press release. How did you find pieces that were thematically akin to that while you were going through the process?

CLR: Some of that refers to the organization of images and text and then blank pages, thinking about what kind of rhythm you’ll find when you read through it. One way to organize the collection was by type of writing: with poems in one section, essays in another, and so forth, and I felt very strongly that I didn’t want that. 

I’m always interested in the ways in which language, especially poetry I think, is in conversation with contemporary dance. As forms, they tend toward the nonlinear, the nonnarrative. And I wanted that relationship reflected in the book, as well as to underline that all of the writing I do is interconnected. Does that make sense? 

KD: I think that definitely makes sense. It’s both content and structure for the book. 

CLR: There’s a certain way in which the internal logic of a poem, as with a dance, can dictate the content; so that the sensual and textural qualities, the material qualities of the language, take over and drive the work. The logic is something that is revealed in the piece during the doing of it. I think of artists I admire like Jodi Melnick and Vicky Schick. What I love about their dancing is how it manages to be both mercurial and precise, and to hold so many different sets of meanings while not being beholden to any particular one. It doesn’t seem to me that they enter the studio thinking “I’m going to make a dance about this subject”—whatever happens, it happens in the doing.

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