Deforming Forms with Gretchen E. Henderson

March 21, 2012 · Print This Article

What follows is an interview with three voices. I only started asking questions at the end; the conversation — and introduction, for that matter —  began with Angelo Spoto at &Now Books.  The interview takes place with Gretchen E. Henderson, a writer (now based out of Boston) who published two books with different presses, almost concurrently. Both of Henderson’s books ask and explore artistic questions. Her first book, Galerie de Difformité (&Now Books/Lake Forest College Press), operates like a  kind of text-based exhibition space with pages. Her second book, On Marvellous Things Heard, was published by my press, The Green Lantern, and examines the relationship between language and music.  

Deforming Forms with Gretchen E. Henderson (an interview)

When I first read Gretchen E. Henderson’s Galerie de Difformité, I approached it like I’ve always approached novels; start on page one, continue to page two, then page three, etc. But even before page sixteen, the book called me out on my traditional approach. “Do not read straight through this catalogue from start to finish!” it said or, it seemed, yelled at me. At this point, I realized Galerie de Difformité is nothing like any novel I’ve ever read. It’s a chose your own adventure story meets poetry meets the essay meets art catalog, all mixed up behind the cover of what appears to be a novel. Galerie is comprised of “Exhibits” created by “Subscribers” (who, on the Galerie website, posted deformed versions of Henderson’s writing) as well as Henderson’s own poetry, prose, and essays. Galerie focuses on deformity, and a deformed version of Dante’s Beatrice is the readers’ guide. (OR, ask “Tell me about Galerie de Difformité”)

Angela Spoto: What was the genesis of Galerie de Difformité? Why did you want to write the novel in such an unusual way?

Gretchen Henderson: The novel began as an essay, which did not want to be an essay.(1)

AS: What is an exhibit?

GH: An “Exhibit” is a prose poem, more or less, narrated by one of my main characters: a deformed reincarnation of Dante’s Beatrice.(2)

AS: Why did you choose to write about deformity? Usually, beauty is a more common theme.

GH: Exactly. (3)

AS: Beatrice is a reoccurring character/guide in the novel. She is typically associated with beauty, but you chose to focus on her deformity. Do you think Galerie challenges the reader to question traditional concepts of beauty?

GH: If we look at representations of Beatrice across art history (see “Exhibit A“), they appear wildly different in a way that makes me wonder: Are these differences beauty or deformity in action?(4)

AS: How do you go about writing a novel so unlike traditional novels? Was it difficult?

GH: In some ways, it was strangely easy—not to say it didn’t involve logistical acrobatics, extreme labor and patience over time, while the “baggy monster” of the novel slowly (re)generated its form.(5)

AS: You have a blog that is a virtual extension of the novel. Why did you create this website and what can readers find there?

GH: The website isn’t a blog, per se—more a virtual gallery that documents and suggests how the book grows in and out of itself through collaborative (aesthetic, cultural, social) deformation.(6)

AS: You invite everyone and anyone to create their own exhibits on your site and some of those creations (or deformations) have been included in the published book. Why did you decide to open up the novel to outside “Subscribers?”

GH: By opening up the project, I as so-called Author(ity) of my book don’t know how it ends, either in form and content—among other elements, even that expected teleology has the capacity to change.(7)

AS: What emotions do you hope Galerie evokes in its readers?

GH: Readers will get out of the Galerie as much as they put in. (8)

AS: Is there any author that inspired you to create Galerie?

GH: Many more than those indicated by the 28 printable pages of single-spaced, electronic endnotes.(9)

AS: Why do you write?

GH: I never intended to be a writer and fell into it as a high school teacher, now thinking that it’s my attempt—in some small way—to invite (re)perception of our vulnerable, culpable, and capable place in this world.(10)

AS: How has writing Galerie de Difformité changed you as a writer?

GH: I gave up trying to fit a book inside its inherited box, or body, to let the novel (and other projects) be what each wants to be, engaged and engaging with this moment in time.(11)

AS: There seem to be two Gretchen Hendersons. Gretchen Henderson the writer (whose name appears on the cover of the novel) and Gretchen Henderson the character/narrator/Undertaker. Why two Gretchens, and are they really different at all?

GH: Yes, they are different: among other aspects, I never was struck by lightning, neither of my grandfathers had a secret family, nor was either a medieval scholar (rather, a mailman and a chemist), and I confess to being an academic (of sorts).(12)

AS: The novel is almost like a game, but it has a serious side, too, touching on real-life issues of deformity and self-understanding. How do you want your readers to approach the Galerie, and what do you hope they take away from the experience?

GH: Notions of self and authority are constructs as much as the BOOK—all of which have changed across history and will continue to change within and through their (our) deforming bodies.(13)

AS: You wrote, “By the time this book is printed, it already will be outdated.” What do you think (or hope) lies in store for the future deformation of the Galerie?

GH: As more sensibilities and perspectives and media come to bear on “deformity” (and “book,” for that matter), I hope the more static definition starts to vibrate and take on a kind of reanimated life. (14)

Caroline Picard: You have another book, On Marvellous Things Heard, that we recently released through my publishing house, The Green Lantern Press. This essay, which you write is a “deformation and reformation” on the traditional, explores the relationship between literature/writing/language and music/silence. Was this essay at all influenced by your work with Galerie de Difformité?

GH: The two projects were written more or less simultaneously, albeit separately, so there may be loose links threading in and out of one another, through echo effect.(15)

CP: In On Marvellous Things Heard, you again return to the classics, playing off of Aristotle’s book of the same title. Can you talk a little bit about the work you do using old works and characters, and recombining them into new compositions?

GH: It’s being done all the time—I’m just making visible (or asking readers to make visible) otherwise invisible traces.(16)

CP: OMTH seems to study and expound upon music’s resistance to language. What was your process like, writing this book, when the tools you had to address your subject were admittedly inadequate from the start?

GH: Therein lies a timeworn question—to arrive back where we started, changed—not unlike sonata structure: exposition, development, recapitulation.(17)

CP: Or too, what would music’s ideal description look like? Do you feel like musical notation is more successful than grammatical text?

GH: It depends on the form for the content—there are different literacies involved with reading language versus music, and it takes time to learn and notate (to write into, to write against) those literacies—to then suggest the right notation for any given project (disclaimer: I don’t believe in a singular ideal).(18)

CP: How would you describe the relationship between poetics and music and sound? Do these facets of expression belong in a family?

GH:  Listen:(19)

CP: What are you working on now?

GH: Ugliness: A Cultural History.(20)

 


Notes

(1)  Galerie de Difformité, began as a critical essay exploring aesthetics of deformity in eighteenth-century British visual culture. This was back in Fall 2004. As I wrote and organized my arguments around particular works of art—engaging an era dense with nationalistic enterprises, archaeological excavations of fragments, seeking and fashioning Ur-origins, outgrowths of private into public museums, varied notions of exhibition—the essay itself began to fragment into a kind of pseudo-exhibition. The final version retained the rhetoric of scholarship, if structured as a collection of curated micro-essays, each of which was prefaced by an image and captioned as it might appear in a museum or catalogue. Entitled Galerie de Difformité, that scholarly essay barely resembles the novel that came to be. That said, traces of the original remain in occasional sections titled “Deformity as…” (Curiosity, Misrepresentation, Caricature, Sa(l)vage(d), Sublime, etc.), heavily treated through constraints. Once the initial essay was completed, deformed aesthetics kept appearing in other material that I was reading—across literature, art, music, the gamut of disciplines—and the essay’s intermediate white spaces begged to be expanded through and into fiction and poetry, a kind of chorus, lulling and leading me to c(u)r(e)ate “Exhibits.” The novel just grew from there: suggesting missing parts, characters, narrative strategies, echoes, seams to stitch and loosen and tether together into this “baggy monster” (to borrow Henry James’ characterization of the Novel).

 

 

(2) “Exhibits” are so-named because they inhabit the larger Galerie de Difformité (as in a museum) and also suggest a kind of evidence (as with exhibits in a legal trial). Adopting alphabetic identities and allegiances, they are labeled “A” through “Z,” also archived thematically. (For instance, “Exhibit C” treads around color and chronology, and also might be classified as contortion or corporeal or _______ [fill in the blank]). A reader can bring their own sensibilities to bear on varied possibilities. As prose poems, “Exhibits” resist neat summarization. In the book they don’t appear alphabetically sequenced, nor do they congregate together, rather alternate with other genre elements (epistles, definitions, faux scholarship, images, etc.). Some even appear outside the body of the book—like “Exhibit Q,” which exists only in an endnote, and “Exhibit E,” which translates as a QR code on page 250 (the final page, where the colophon should be) and remains to be written (as a kind of End).

(3) Apart from beauty’s overriding positive connotations that often get attention, history has witnessed many cults of beauty where the nature of beauty (footbinding, corsets, etc.) changes. Beauty can be skin-deep, deceptive, even dangerous. Kathleen Marie Higgins writes: “[W]e cannot see beauty as innocent when the sublime splendor of the mushroom cloud accompanies moral evil, that aesthetic appeals congealed Hitler’s rallies, that beautifully embellished clothes and jewelry currently motivate teenagers to murder.” There are many examples that stretch this question into different periods and fields. (For instance, in 2005, it was estimated that Americans spent at least $12.4 billion on cosmetic surgery, which was more than the total gross domestic product for over 100 nations, including Albania and Zimbabwe, totaling over 1 billion people!) Beyond the usual binary that pits deformity against beauty, I am interested in muddying both waters. Deformity is fraught with historical baggage (see footnote 4 below) but also takes on positive connotations in different sociocultural contexts (like the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi,” or as Kakuzo Okakura describes in The Book of Tea a “worship of the Imperfect,” or as occurs in certain traditions of rug and other weaving, where a pattern is deformed deliberately at a certain point, to allow the soul to move in and out, to leave something unfinished for the imagination to complete, or so the weaver does not compete with a larger creator, or for other reasons). I am interested in deformity as a kind of investigation of these practices and priorities, not to mention the litany of terms that have kept company with deformity across history: grotesque, monstrous, ugly, asymmetric, crippled, handicapped, disabled, etc. Like Umberto Eco claims, “Beauty is, in some ways, boring. Even if its concept changes through the ages, nevertheless a beautiful object must always follow certain rules… Ugliness is unpredictable and offers an infinite range of possibilities. Beauty is finite. Ugliness is infinite, like God.”

(4) Deformity carries historical baggage, seemingly negative and static, but full of kinetic potential: deforming. In process. Within the word itself literally lies form—de(form)ity, dif(form)ite—evolving. Everything deforms around us: seasonal cycles, aging bodies, changes of all types. Beyond that, “deformity” becomes an aesthetic backdoor to the politically fraught term “disabled” and many types of “otherness”—like Aristotle’s claim that “the female as it were a deformed male” (or, in other translations, “a mutilated male”). Galerie de Difformité is packed with as many historical notions of deformity as possible, within a choose-your-own-adventure structure where a reader has agency to follow or break rules, calling attention to how we read books, bodies, and our perceptions.

 

 

(5) As mentioned in Footnote 1, Galerie de Difformité began as a very different project and for many years was a side-side-side project. It took time, too, to grope my way into my own redefinition of the Novel, first studying the long and rich history of that genre, then writing a first novel, wanting to offer homage and invitation through my reinterpretations. Rather than write into the too-strict triumvirate of fiction/poetry/nonfiction, I found that source material from different periods (alongside changing notions of genres and of deformity, mixed up by my background in music) encouraged a multifarious and malleable sense of form(s). Major life changes coincided and intervened along the way, some of which could easily have curtailed this project and more. I realized that, like life and all else, my novel had the potential to deform—physically, psychically, and otherwise—even to perform its deformity and be co-created as an aesthetic and sociocultural entity. This has encouraged me to chase down various paths, intellectually and technologically. The project tries to provide multiple access points, so any number of different readers can meet the chimeric creature on their own terms. Over a decade of teaching at different levels and in different environments indirectly influenced the interactive nature of Galerie de Difformité, and I’ve enjoyed working with the book in different classes to consider its pedagogical dimensions. Future documentation of the project will take on its own life, as the book will retreat into the background, as the larger collaborative deformation will swarm around it: slowly. Galerie de Difformité is like a creature that needs to be tended. I am constantly learning from it, as Subscribers’ contributions give me cues about how to tend the project’s future. (By way of example of a collaborative influence: An early Subscriber added his own constraint to the project’s constraint, choosing to submit four deformations in order to spell out a word (TOMB: see visualized alphabet below). Since his submission was early enough to be considered to illustrate the book, I chose two of his deformations to spell an embedded word back in the published book (OM). His dedicated involvement also encouraged me to go ahead with my plan to build an electronic library of deformity-related collaborative chapbooks, and he became the first guest editor.) Other future stages are planned, but along the way, plans will evolve based on collaborative interactions.

(6) The online Galerie de Difformité (sharing the novel’s title, since they grow in and out of one another) is a growing installation dedicated to deformity. It includes instructions about how to collaboratively participate. The site hosts “Exhibits” as downloaded documents (which were first mounted after they appeared in literary journals, to interface with contemporary print culture): materials that visitors can deform through whatever medium and concept. Deformants have chosen a range of approaches: from erasure and cut-up, to treating “Exhibits” as a canvas or freezing text in ice, carved in beeswax and soap, to more conceptual installations and videos, even floated away by balloons. The book is laced with QR (Quick Response) codes that can be scanned with mobile devices like iPhones to link to various parts of the online gallery and offshoots (a short film, an e-volume of archival papers of Ye Ugly Face Club, and other paraphernalia) that will change as more people participate in the communal deformation and bring their own sensibilities to bear on its constraints. Also online is the growing electronic library of collaborative chapbooks, broadly engaging deformity, both in content and form. The book is slowly being unbound, growing in and out of itself, bridging material and virtual realms, calling itself a book, functioning as a book, engaging the vocabulary of the book (i.e., What is a page?): to make visible that this technology-that-is-the-book has a long and rich history and is not at its apocalyptic end.

 (7) I am only one person, and to engage the questions that I wanted to ask, I needed to appeal to and consult many voices, bodies, sensibilities, perspectives, and approaches. Writers, artists, musicians, and other creators never work in a vacuum. Galerie de Difformité makes that process visible to work against the notion of Romantic genius, against Author-ity, even as it plays up and into the notion of Authorship. I call myself the author while also postmodernly twisting my authority (including a Gretchen Henderson who is not me), undercutting and duplicating and triplicating questions about my authority, culling sources and source material from across centuries, putting these in conversation with one another, threading my voice through different genres and appropriations, so the narrative(s) occur between genres, between the lines, into margins, beyond the book—tracing and illuminating reading strategies where the reader is invested with agency and co-creates meaning with the presumed, authoritative “original.”

(8) Whatever a reader wants or needs, I hope they find. Galerie de Difformité is many books in one: a book that can be read quickly and superficially, or slowly and deliberately, even over the course of years (given the choose-your-own-adventure and growing paraphernalia that is tethered to the project). Each reading experience should be different, both because the book and the reader are changing.

(9) Where to begin? Where to end?

(10) As John Cage described his motivation for composition: not for self-expression but for self-alteration. “How do we change with the ever-changing world in a compassionate and graceful way? How do engage with a kind of impermanence?”

 

 

(11) How does a writer adequately thank those who help to wing her words into the world? I’m ever grateful to &NOW and the Madeleine P. Plonsker Prize for supporting this process. To receive logistical and financial support to publish such an interdisciplinary, intergenre, intermedia project is a gift of immeasurable worth. I am especially grateful to Davis Schneiderman at &NOW and Caroline Picard at Green Lantern for advocating for my inclinations, when other editors might have tried to box up and down the work, to make it conform rather than deform, which would’ve worked against its organic intent.

(12) In the novel, Gretchen is a construct as much as Bea as much as Gloria: the last of whose name doesn’t double in the book (though admittedly, her surname isn’t entirely unrelated to that of William Hay, an eighteenth-century hunchbacked member of British Parliament, who wrote an essay on Deformity in 1754). The narrators of the GdD exist as a sequence of diminishing mirrors, also reflecting and refracting readers as they get more involved in the labyrinth. But to return to your question: there’s also a triplicating of Gretchen Henderson, since both the fictional and real author, and Gloria, all share the same initials—G.H.—quadrupled with Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to GH, as quoted at the end of the introduction (page 8): “This is a book just like any other book. But I would be happy if it were read only by people … who know that an approach—to anything whatsoever—must … traverse even the very opposite of what is being approached … Over time, the character G.H. came to give me, for example, a very difficult pleasure; but it is called pleasure.” By including multiplied Gretchens, I’m not only appropriating a common postmodern construct (see Footnote 7), but also trying to give readers spaces and license to multiply their identities, their selves, and resist whatever classifications they may be hemmed into at this moment in time. (See “Application to be a Subscriber,” page 12). Essentially, the novel is about adaptation and change, whether engaging with the history of the novel, talking back to the identity movements of the last half century, taking a kind of Buddhist journey, or _______ [fill-in-the-blank].

(13) See Footnotes 8, 9, 10, and 19.

(14) “Deformity” has a number of sub-definitions, as I have tried to unpack throughout the novel (see Footnotes 3 and 4, or page 237 of the book, for starters). Because the Galerie de Difformité is a perpetual work in progress, partly based in new and evolving technologies, some parts of the story may become formally defunct along the way, unless translated into readable media. Additionally, the collaborative aspect multiples the potential ways this might evolve. What components ultimately remain, what parts mutate, and what else falls by the wayside will be part of the project’s larger documentation. To speak about one technology: QR codes were barely used when the book was planned, but now you see them on bus advertisements, in libraries, on real estate signs, almost everywhere. I am interested in textual and visual literacies, and how these combine, how technology is shaping our strategies for reading both old and new texts, where and how and why we create, classify, archive, and access literature.

(15) Each developing book suggests multiple possibilities, and my projects constantly cross-fertilize. I can’t work on a single project alone. Many lead to dead ends, but the processes invariably influence varied products. I finished OMTH before GdD, but all of my work has taken a long time to find homes (i.e., publishers). More than the GdD, OMTH has more of a relationship with my musically-structured first novel, The House Enters the Street, which is coming out third in the line-up (in Fall 2012, thanks to Starcherone Books). If it hadn’t been runner-up for the 2005 AWP Award Series in the Novel and received other nods, I might have chalked up that project as part of my learning process and shelved it away in a box. The suspension of a project across years lends an interesting sense of time—particularly if the book works against chronology—like a sign I once read in a subway (also quoted in The House Enters the Street): “Sometimes you have to go backward in order to go forward.”

(16) Older works, characters, and motifs always lie at our threshold, at edges, beckoning to converse with the present moment, not to be forgotten, providing fodder to dream of alternative futures. In a project like OMTH, there are a number of recombinations of old and new. Aristotle’s essay of the same title refers to “marvels” more in the vein of Herodotus, so my appropriation of “marvellous things heard” makes a sensory shift into the context of music, sound and silence—an appropriation also indebted to translations of various types (across languages, eras, cultures, disciplines), needling what gets lost and found in translation. By way of another example: my replacement of “she” for “he” in Aristotle’s essay becomes a process of imagined restitution, as a way of talking back to the author who described “the female as it were a deformed male” (see Footnote 4), shifting the peripheral “other” into the role of protagonist, to ask “what if?”—in the way that Karen Armstrong describes myth: “Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking ‘what if?’—a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries in philosophy, science and technology.” Across time, how many stories share the same plot, retold afresh for each new generation, wolves in sheep’s clothing, or sheep masquerading as wolves? Beyond the story or poem or essay, or intermediate genre, are its building blocks—our living language—comprised of many languages, changing as we speak and write, malleable, deforming and interacting with other languages within our changing world. Etymological evolution is at work all the time. We live in a moment that’s rummaging through the scrapheap of history amid unprecedented change, trying to imagine possible futures, trying to figure out how to build into that process meaningful reflection, the art of listening, attention to conscience, and conscientiousness.

(17) Like the Galerie de Difformité, whose content took awhile to find its interrelated form, the material within On Marvellous Things Heard went through varied incarnations: from faux to scholarly essays to a pedagogical collection of music-inspired writing exercises, etc. (The poems that ended up in my cartographic-based chapbook, Wreckage: By Land & By Sea, also went through varied incarnations.) My first attempt to harness the musical material was a faux opera lodged inside my first novel, The House Enters the Street. The more that I tried to reduce something three-dimensional to two dimensions, it resisted that attempt, needed to breathe, needed white space, interaction, call and response, counterpoint of voices, where my voice became only one in a larger chorus (cacophonic as that chorus may be).

(18) The content of each project searches for its own form. Notation follows accordingly. Just because I read modern English doesn’t mean I understand Old English, just as someone who can sing from the modern five-staff system doesn’t mean they can make music from medieval neumatic notation (before block notes, essentially appearing as squiggles and dots above and below lines of text, denoting relative pitch and duration: monophonic, not polyphonic). Regardless of what gets lost in translation, traces remain, trails of breadcrumbs to follow, ways to educate ourselves to read backwards (so to speak). There are so many different kinds of literacies across disciplines, languages, historical periods, cultures. What feels generative to me is putting these different literacies in conversation with one another somehow, if only through sensibility, appealing to sounds and senses that shift us both outside and back into our skins.

As aside: I’ve been thinking for a while about a musical notational analogue for On Marvellous Things Heard. If any composer might be interested in collaborating, please contact me.

(19)

 

 

 

 

(20)  More important to me than creative writing is the enterprise of creative living: always a process in progress. I’m excited about the creative writing courses that I’m teaching at MIT, engaging interdisciplinary fields like book history and museum studies. But to return to Ugliness: A Cultural History, this might be considered another deformation of the Galerie de Difformité, growing out of a subplot involving Ye Ugly Face Club. (My faux introduction for the e-volume of this facetious society’s archival papers deformed into a scholarly essay delivered at the annual conference for the Association of Art Historians, forthcoming in an art history anthology, now deforming further into a cultural history of Ugliness for Reaktion Books.) While exploring ugliness, I will continue tending to the communal deformation of the Galerie de Difformité. If you’re interested in participating, please visit: http://difformite.wordpress.com. Thank you for reading. In the meantime, please listen to Footnote 19.

 

 

 

 

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