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Wonderful words by writer Lance Olsen: 

“Fantastic reading/conversation last night with the ever thoughtful, existentially attentive, compassionate, wise, wildly talented, & fascinating Andrea Scrima about her post-genre autre-biography, A Lesser Day, its just-released German translation, Wie viele Tage, the spatial dimensions of memory, her use of the slippery ‘you’ in the text, the problematics of helping bring one’s own work over into a second language in which one is fluent, & so much more.”

April 12, 2018

me & rebecca lettrétage

Moderated by Rebecca Rukeyser.

taz article

 

Die Gegenstände werden das Ich überdauern, „nichts ist so ephemer wie ich selbst“, weiß die Erzählerin, die ihre Ambivalenzen, ihre „Schwierigkeit mit dem Präsens“ zum Ausgangspunkt ihrer Suche macht und sich im Schreiben mit ihrem Leben verbündet. Sie muss in Gedanken nur eine Schublade des alten Küchenschranks auf Staten Island öffnen oder die italienischen Lesefibeln vor sich sehen, oder sich daran erinnern, wie sie „in diesem riesigen Königreich unserer Kindheit“ für den Bruder „wissenschaftliche Tatsachen“ über das Universum erfand, und es ist, als würden die Figuren sich in Bewegung setzen, als könnten sie der Erzählerin sogar ins Wort fallen, so lebendig werden sie im Bild dieser Sprache.

Das ist hohe Kunst und beweist den Reichtum dieses Buchs, dem es gelingt, sich von allen Belangen der Selbstbehauptung zu lösen und einen Raum zu schaffen, in dem man als Leser tatsächlich den Eindruck hat, genauer denken, deutlicher sehen zu können. Empfindsamer zu sein.

— Elisabeth Wagner in der taz, Wochenendausgabe, 10. Februar 2018

 

“Everything I see around me, everything I touch: the chair I am sitting in, the paper I am writing this on, none of it is as ephemeral as I.” The narrator of Wie viele Tage takes her ambivalence, her “difficulty with the present tense” as the departure point of a quest in which writing becomes a means of merging with life. In her mind, she need only open a drawer in the old kitchen cabinet on Staten Island or imagine the Italian language primers from school or remember how, “in this vast empire of our childhood,” she invented “scientific facts” about the universe for her brother, and already the figures are set into motion, and it’s as though they could interrupt the narrator at any moment—that’s how alive they become in this writing’s imagery. This is a high art, and it testifies to the richness of a book that succeeds in freeing itself from any concerns of self-assertion to create a space in which the reader indeed begins to think more precisely, see more clearly—and become more receptive and sentient.”

Elisabeth Wagner in the taz, weekend issue, February 10–11, 2018

Berliners: I’ll be reading in the series “Literally Speaking” at BuchHafen in Neukölln on January 24. Along with Chris Chinchilla, Wlada Kolosowa, Rhea Ramjohn, and Isabelle Ståhl.

Come early, because Träci A. Kim’s series is usually packed! Looking forward to seeing you all. I’m beginning my reading with an excerpt from Marie-Luise Kaschnitz’s story The Fat Child (Das dicke Kind). 

 

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Literally Speaking

Excerpt:

My mind snapped shut like a box. I turn, perplexed: but wasn’t something there a moment ago? Waiting, waiting, looking on as though at a mute child, hoping to pry out a word, or a smile: patience is the essence. The child stands dumbly before me, and I kneel down with a friendly mien. What was that just now, what do you have in your hand, I ask gently. The child’s eyelashes veil its downcast eyes. I saw you putting something in your pocket a moment ago, wouldn’t you like to show me what you have in your pocket? But the child stares at its toes, suspended in a glistening bubble of impunity. Say something, I blurt out, growing agitated, and the child raises a grimy fist to brush the hair out of its eyes, gazing at me in sullen apathy. I hear the sharp edge in my voice, I know this tactic will lead me nowhere, yet I’m vexed, I want to drill the child with questions: what are you hiding, what have you stolen? And hardly an answer, a feeble shrug, and I, growing desperate, give it back, give it back, feeling the hand itching to slap the face of this stupid, torpid mind: will you come to your senses, will you give me back what’s mine?

I’ll be reading from A LESSER DAY this evening at a place called ausland.

How much of our lives is contained in the places we’ve lived in? And does memory have a spatial dimension? As the narrator attempts to locate meaning in the passage of time as it inscribes itself into the myriad things around her, she discovers instances of illusion and self-deception—the flaws in human perception that reveal themselves when we examine the mechanisms of our own thinking: “The amnesia that follows, when the mind carefully buries its new discovery, only digging it up some time later when it’s certain of being alone, unobserved, turning it over and over, sniffing at it as though it were a dried-out bone.”

Together with Ben Miller and Charlotte Wührer.

Doors open at 7 p.m.

Lychenerstraße 60, 10437 Berlin

Bildschirmfoto 2017-06-25 um 15.14.49

 

A Lesser Day by Andrea Scrima, published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2010, available for Kindle since 2014

 

me, goodies

Photo: Uli Sauerland. Schlachtensee, Berlin, May 2016

 

Hi Andrea, congratulations—the English print version of “A Lesser Day” currently seems sold out. What are your plans with the book?

I’ve just sold the German-language rights to a fine literary publisher in Austria; the translation will be coming out in the spring of 2018, and so it seems like a good time to plan a second edition of the book in English. It was a small print run with an independent press, and while it’s not entirely sold out, it’s getting close: there’s a small number left in stock at Small Press Distribution and in independent bookstores around the US, but I think Amazon still has used copies available. I was very glad that Spuyten Duyvil released a Kindle version two years ago, because it keeps the book available to readers—although the actual physical book is a nice thing to have. This might sound a bit strange, but I did the typography, layout, photography, and design myself: a luxury and freedom I never would have enjoyed with a mainstream publisher. The cover image, a dribble of paint on a sidewalk whose paving stones were at some point dissembled and put back together again, but in a different order, with the dribble no longer a continuous flow, but a fragmented line going this way and that, is a metaphor for the reconstruction of time and experience in memory—the way in which we perceive our lives in retrospect. It’s a metaphor that occurs in the same paragraph as the book’s title, the two are thematically intertwined, and so the physical book is like a small work of art.

I saw on your website that you transitioned from visual art to writing. Can you talk about how your art developed in this way?

I studied fine arts in New York and began my studio work as a painter. Gradually, I moved on to installations that incorporated, in various different constellations, small objects, writing, painting, and photography. At some point I began doing mostly text installations, that is, I wrote short pieces, essentially very short stories, and then painted the letters of these texts in Times italic onto the walls of various spaces. Most of these installations were site-specific: they were written in response to a particular location and engaged directly with its architecture. It was an exacting process in which doors and windows and, indeed, every last electrical socket and light switch fit precisely into the flow of the text on the wall. I did these works because I was interested in what happens to a story when it’s read in a very different way than, say, on the printed page. There was a choreographic element to it that fascinated me. It always sounds a little complicated when you talk about how something functions in an art context, and so I should probably say that the stories were psychological studies on particular states of mind, written in a language that sounded confessional, like a journal entry. I was interested in drawing in the reader/viewer, in catching him or her off-guard, in creating a kind of intimacy in a public space.

Gradually, however, after completing around a dozen of these large-scale works, I came to realize that my artistic process—the thing you do that keeps you “in the flow,” the way in which you do your creative thinking—had shifted from painting to writing. And so the logical question became: what would happen if I cut everything else out? Was it time to try to write a book? It was tempting, but it was also a scary prospect for me, because it meant that I’d be leaving one profession mid-career and trying to gain a foothold in another—as a total beginner. It didn’t matter that this transition had come about as an organic development in my work. In professional terms, art and publishing are two separate worlds, and there’s nearly no overlap. I had no idea if my writing would hold up in a literary context.

“A Lesser Day” feels very neatly organized, like a mosaic of small pieces fitted together. What was the writing process behind it: did you have the pieces or the whole picture first?

I wrote “A Lesser Day” in the first year and a half of my son’s life. In other words, during a period when I had very little time to myself. I kept a notebook with me, and I used every available moment in between nursing and naps to write. It was usually just enough time to home in on a particular memory and explore it fully before I had to close the book and attend to my son again. I began with short descriptions of whatever recollections I had of certain places I’d lived in over the years, and eventually pieced them together until I saw a kind of pattern emerge. It was a stroke of luck that I’d happened upon a form that fit perfectly with my life at the time—I mean, it’s very hard to think through even a single thought when you’re taking care of an infant, but for some reason the fragmentary form made it possible to concentrate in short, intense spurts. And then, one day, I realized that the page I’d just written was how the book would end. It startled me. There it was, the entire shape and structure: the narrative arc, all the themes and leitmotifs, the formal rhythm. And so I began to identify the gaps, and sew together the various narrative threads, and eventually I was able to make a cohesive book out of it, which I dedicated to my son.

The idea had been to explore memory as a thing that’s interwoven with the places we’ve inhabited, places that encapsulate a certain period of our lives in a particularly vivid way. But I think the experience of becoming a mother—of being the door through which another person enters the world—of no longer being merely a person, but also, quite suddenly, a “place” for someone else—is the fundamental metaphysical inspiration behind the book.

Do you ever go back to the settings where the book takes place? Areas like the Wrangelkiez are hotspots of gentrification in Berlin these days, and it must have changed a lot since you lived there.

Oh, yes, all of these places have changed enormously. Of the five locations in the book, one was an apartment in the East Village of the early eighties that cost two hundred dollars a month in rent, another a summer sublet in pre-gentrification Brooklyn, and another a beautiful waterfront loft I lived in the year before I became pregnant with my son, in a building that I can happily return to now and again, because friends of mine instrumental in getting the NYC Loft Law passed still live there. The two locations in Berlin are in Kreuzberg, but I have to admit, I don’t always feel comfortable returning to places I once lived in. There’s something beautiful about the way a place can be conserved in the mind, when it doesn’t have to compete with its own ghost.

I’m sure you have some new projects under way.  Can you tell us something about your upcoming book?

I’m currently finishing a novel, and the writing process has been very different this time. It’s a book in two parts, and it takes place over a twenty-year period in a woman’s life. Each of the characters in the book is traumatized in some way: a mother whose foiled attempts at achieving independence lead to an eating disorder that eventually devours the entire family; a daughter whose emotional outbursts lie beyond her understanding and control; a boy who sets out to find the father that abandoned him when he was three; a young man from the former GDR who was expatriated to the West after being released from juvenile prison. The book explores what all of these various different types of traumatic imprinting have in common: the ways in which pain is stored in the mind and body, and the detours taken to swerve around that pain in whatever way possible. The book isn’t quite as dark as it sounds, however—and in the end, art emerges as a powerful tool for self-discovery.

 

A Lesser Day

 

Excerpt from A LESSER DAY:

Kent Avenue, and the trees that had grown along the fences in the neighborhood, chain-link fences closing off empty lots filled with used refrigerators and rusty car parts. Weeds no one had bothered to cut back, supple shoots winding in and out between the diamond-shaped grids, weaving through like sewn threads and growing from year to year until their stalks began to stiffen into branches and there could no longer be a question of unraveling them; they were inextricable now. And then the spring came, and there was an explosion of green everywhere, the first fresh leaves sprouting from the bound trunks. And here and there a tree had been cut down, and a segment of chopped wood would remain caught in a fence, because the trunk had grown and swelled, incorporating the wire into its wounded flesh and covering it with layers of scarred bark.

 

 

9781933132778

Kent Avenue, and the trees that had grown along the fences in the neighborhood, chain-link fences closing off empty lots filled with used refrigerators and rusty car parts. Weeds no one had bothered to cut back, supple shoots winding in and out between the diamond-shaped grids, weaving through like sewn threads and growing from year to year until their stalks began to stiffen into branches and there could no longer be a question of unraveling them; they were inextricable now. And then the spring came, and there was an explosion of green everywhere, the first fresh leaves sprouting from the bound trunks. And here and there a tree had been cut down, and a segment of chopped wood would remain caught in a fence, because the trunk had grown and swelled, incorporating the wire into its wounded flesh and covering it with layers of scarred bark.

— from A Lesser Day

Excerpt from the interview:

A.S.: You ask about the significance of the locations in A Lesser Day: Eisenbahnstrasse and Fidicinstrasse in pre-Unification West Berlin; East Ninth Street in the early ’80s; pre-gentrification Bedford Avenue and Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Essentially, I’ve used these different addresses as a framing device, beginning each fragment with a place name to tell the story of a young artist’s peripatetic life: the never-ending scramble of hand to mouth, boxes stored here and there, works of art in the making, and always looking at things—looking and wondering. I’ve noticed that my experience of space structures my mechanisms of recollection; I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, but it’s certainly true for me. My memory tends to organize itself into blocks of time I’ve spent in particular locations. I have a coherent sense of the year I spent back in Brooklyn before my son was born, for instance—sitting in a chilly riverfront loft in the former Ronzoni spaghetti factory building, working on a first novel that was never completed with a blanket over my knees and my grandmother’s armchair nearby, which I’d rescued from the basement of the house I grew up in; staring every day at the World Trade Center across the river, the year before the towers fell. This time is clearly circumscribed in my mind, whereas other years blur together, years during which not much external change took place in terms of traveling from place to place.

What are these places in which we spend our days, live our lives—these vessels that contain us and keep us warm, that absorb our memories and store them in some mysterious form—and that have the power to reflect our selves back to us? What happens when we return to a place we used to live in? I’m interested in how a period of life becomes, in retrospect, circumscribed by the walls that contained it—the time I lived here, the time I lived there—in ways that go beyond a mere framing of experience. It’s as though a time and a place merged into some other synthesis of being that we become part of not only in a physical sense, but perhaps a mystical sense as well. And while the marks we leave behind are one manifestation of the time we’ve spent somewhere, I often find myself wondering if some part of our spirit remains as well, some part of whatever it is that perhaps transcends place and time.

Read the interview in the May issue of The Brooklyn Rail online:

http://www.brooklynrail.org/2015/05/books/in-the-gaps-between-things-andrea-scrima-with-leora-skolkin-smith

Is there a way to live between the lines, to suspend time? You would remain in Manhattan with your wife and son, I’d stay in Berlin, but there could be a sliver of space we’d inhabit together, a shelf where you’d place the things you still have and I’d place mine between them, like the small objects in tarnished teapots and carved wooden boxes we used to give each other as presents: the dried end of a vine branch tapering to a perfect spiral; a thin slice of sedimentary rock interlaced with transparent hues of violet, perfect haikus in lieu of the more sentimental declarations we shied away from. I still have a collection of bellybutton lint, numerous tiny balls I imagine to be baby blue from a sweater I gave you, a color that matched your eyes. When I check to see, I discover they’re all in shades of gray with the exception of two, which are dark pink.

I remember the blisters on each of your knuckles from stretching canvases for that elderly painter—what was his name?—who was finally, towards the end of his life, having a major exhibition of his work. I remember standing on the sidewalk on Westervelt Avenue after the building almost burned down, the dogs on leashes and the cat on my shoulder, or on yours, and I was suddenly infused with a sense of joy and limitless potential—the joy of sheer survival, no doubt, because I can still see you heating up a can of Campbell’s Mushroom Soup and stirring in pepper and maybe chives and all at once the kitchen filling up with white smoke, it took a moment to understand that the soup and the smoke were entirely unconnected, and we had just enough time to grab the animals and run, a matter of seconds—and I said if we can’t live here anymore, let’s move to Europe. I remember a night you didn’t come home; I stayed up late working on something and cut myself with an X-acto blade and had to go to the hospital for stitches, and when I returned early the next morning you still weren’t there, you hadn’t had a chance to be alarmed by the drips in the sink, by the bloody gauze, I had nearly cut off my thumb by mistake and left behind what looked like a crime scene, the kind of thing we do when we need to externalize something, to make a thing obvious that we already know inside, but you hadn’t had a chance to see it and feel sorry. These were the things we never talked about.

I remember sitting in a bathing suit on a craggy shore in the Peloponnese, turning my head and suddenly seeing you instead of the man beside me, my first real relationship seven years after I’d left. It was as close to a hallucination as I’ve ever experienced.

The first time I came back to New York I walked around the old neighborhood like a Rumpelstiltskin; I stood across the street from that pub—was it Third Avenue?—where you’d rented a studio on the second floor from a man who was a friend, but who’d charged us fifty bucks to drive a few paintings downtown, a man who let us do all the carrying, whose jaw shifted as his expression turned smug and he decided to rob us, but you no longer lived in our apartment and you no longer worked in that studio, you’d packed my things into boxes and taken our cats and moved to the west side, and it was my first experience with returning to a former life and finding the vital parts missing, like being back from the dead and discovering oneself invisible.

What was possible, you ask? In the end, is it only what we choose to do? Would I have stayed, would I have come back if you’d asked me to—back in the time before cell phones and email, Facebook and Twitter, the distance unimaginable by today’s standards and a telephone call to London far too expensive. I still have them somewhere: letters and postcards and a photo of you with a bandaged thumb, an odd parallel, now that I think of it.

These are the objects I choose to put on the shelf today: a baseball you kept in a box of old stuff; a sepia drawing your brother had made. An old Polaroid of a sweet kid with a sideways grin, leaning on the arm of a chair next to a handsome and valiant hound dog named Red, the picture you sent me a duplicate of after I’d come across it in a box of old photographs. And a faded green canvas bag among the tools in my studio, the bag you carried your laundry in even before I knew you.