Terri Witek

Terri Witek

I’m definitely happier now as a mixed-bag poet.”

Interview by Jennifer Nelson, WTP Feature Writer

Terri Witek’s most recent book is The Rape Kit (2018). She is also the author of Body Switch (2016); Exit Island (2012); The Shipwreck Dress (2008), a Florida Book Award winner; Carnal World (2006); Fools and Crows (2003); Courting Couples, a winner of the 2000 Center for Book Arts Contest; and Robert Lowell and Life Studies: Revising the Self (1993). A native of northern Ohio, she earned a PhD at Vanderbilt University, and now holds the Sullivan Chair in Creative Writing at Stetson University in central Florida. At Stetson she has received both the McEniry Award for Excellence in Teaching and the John Hague Award for Distinguished Teaching. She has worked with visual artists throughout her career, and her collaborations with Brazilian new media artist Cyriaco Lopes have been featured in galleries and site-specific projects in Seoul, Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, New York City, and Los Angeles. Witek also teaches with Lopes in Stetson’s MFA of the Americas Expanded Field program. She is married to the comic-book scholar Joseph Witek.

See new poems by Terri Witek in WTP Vol. VI #8.

Nelson: Your recent book, The Rape Kit, depicts the horrors of rape through text, drawings, diagrams, historical overlays, and erasures. From explicit crime scene details (listing items such as tape and rope), to haunting sonic elements (clicking, sniffles, door slams), your words and images enact the traumatic chaos of sexual assault and its aftermath. How did you come to write about such a difficult past experience at this particular time in your life?

Witek: Like everyone, I used a writing prompt — mine was “I need to write a second letter to the parole board to keep the man who raped me in prison.” The technical difficulties of writing those letters got me thinking about language and its dangers.

Nelson: Throughout your career, you’ve worked with visual artists to create books that, like The Rape Kit, integrate language with images. What are the benefits and challenges of these collaborations?

Witek: Maybe the challenges can be described in the light of any relationship. How does the balance work? It’s easy for poets to think too highly of the words or too highly of visual images. For my part, I like to figure out how to strive against whatever-of-the-moment-prejudices I may have toward actual parity. This looks different with different people in collaboration. Cyriaco Lopes and I actually cut my phrases and his photos in two and reassembled them for Minotauros, a series we made in Crete that cornerstoned our 2017 solo show of the same name at Oi Futuro, a museum for visual poetics in Rio de Janeiro. We sat at his computer and just did it. When he and I and Laura Mullen made Prone—a video published in Interim (@interimpoetics) this year—we worked strictly by chance combination; we actually drew numbers to assemble the different parts. That way, literally no one good idea could overpower another. On the other hand, when I work with Matt Roberts I can’t do a thing he does—fly drones, code, etc. I’m the language person. So we choose the ensemble results together and are actually walking the wrack line together at Canaveral National Seashore now for a current grant project. I love the encounter of different skill sets and ways of thinking—who wants to be alone sans break with what we perhaps already know?   

Nelson: Since 2005, you’ve collaborated with Brazilian visual artist Cyriaco Lopes on performances, solo and group shows, and teaching. How has this relationship impacted your work?

Witek: My friendship with Cyriaco is one of my life’s greatest and most mysterious gifts. We are really different on paper—Brazilian/US, queer/cis,  -20yrs/+20years, male/female, etc. He says all the things we make together are the trace of our friendship, and as usual his English is better than mine about such matters. And in the language trade he also brought back the Portuguese I spoke for a year when I was a seventeen-year -old exchange student—he even took me back to Brazil decades later. We really don’t separate out much of what we do, including recently: teaching The Fernando Pessoa Game in Lisbon as part of the wonderful Disquiet International Conference; building an anthology of US poets translated into Portuguese; helping found and teaching in the Stetson’s experimental, cross-arts low-residency MFA of the Americas; making works on/in paper, cloth, video, ephemeral performance; and simply travelling together, the jewel of each summer. We ended this last one with a week spent basically in the Louvre—we’d meet at the end of each day with our eyes falling out. So great. At the same time we surely do have our own bodies of work—an offshoot of his wonderful Saints & Martyrs series, “Reliquary 1,” for example, anchors the cover of The Rape Kit.

Nelson: Can you describe your creative process from conception of an idea to execution as a poem and finally a book of poetry?

Witek: Wow! No! Hmmm—well, The Rape Kit began with the parole board thing—writing those letters—but really was charged by a very intense chat about Michael Jackson at an MFA of the Americas residency. This was at breakfast, 8:30 a.m.—with Ronaldo Wilson, Laura Mullen, Jacklyn Gion, and Carol Ann Moon. When I inserted some Michael Jackson lyrics into Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative afterwards as a kind of response, I had unwittingly found a strategy that would become a signature move in the book—putting texts inside each other and calling them “History of the US” or “Western Civ” poems. That opened The Rape Kit so it was at least linguistically larger than what I have in my own language kit. But different things take different ways to critical mass. At the moment I’m opening a book called The Louvre: All the Paintings randomly, and responding to one of the paintings I turn to. Plus I’ll use theorist Donna Haraway somehow so I’m not alone with all those Western male painters. Plus why not add in some Gore Capitalism (Sayak Valencia) so I’m walking with two interesting women. We’ll see what transpires—as in breathes through.

Nelson: Can you talk about your evolution as a poet from your earlier, formalist work to your recent, more experimental poems? What new methods have you incorporated? What is the importance of Greek mythology to your work?

Witek: It’s helpful for me to think of everything I, and maybe we all, do as “using constraints,” as my lovely friend Teresa Carmody puts it. Constraints of all kinds are formal. They are also a necessity—I really believed Mark Strand when he said that “one’s style is a matter of one’s limitations.” I’m restless and have tried different constraints over time. Scratch itch scratch. It’s true this takes one into different spaces in the US poetry world, but everyone has always been kind to me and I just do what I want at the edges of things. I was really surprised when Dawn Lundy Martin chose my book for the Slope Editions prize—what an honor. And you know, in the larger Americas, poets and artists and activists and dancers and sound artists haven’t historically separated themselves out so much, which is a great relief. I’m definitely happier now as a mixed-bag poet. And, ah, those damn so-well-loved myths—my wish someday would be to make work that works like myth without referencing any. I’m not capable yet and maybe never. But thanks Ariadne, explainer of two marriages. Eurydice of small-town hells (no one has to die). And especially Arethusa, swimmer of underground fresh water karstic pathways.   

Nelson: What, for you, are the values and challenges of poetry versus prose?

Witek: I’m never happy with dichotomies and immediately go into defiance mode. Use everything. Pretend they are the same if that helps you, divide to bits of bone (even sounds) if that helps. Use the myth that gets you through the dilemma.

Nelson: How do you think the medium of poetry has changed with the increased use of social media and technology, and could you comment on your collaboration with new media artist Matt Roberts and the interactive smartphone projects?

Witek: Why not use everything? It’s that simple. We don’t have to know how to do everything in order to activate it, either—as long as we aren’t acting naïvely. I have my colleagues Matt and also 3D animator Dengke Chen and sound producer/artist Amandine Pras, to name a few keep me from that. Our dear MFA students have used Snapchat poetics and Instagram novels. What exactly are we afraid of? It all will be retro tech soon, but so what. Objects have curious lives. This to say, if you want to have one of your seven-word dreams float around in the quad on my campus, plus on a lawn in Tennessee, plus at a cultural center in Lisbon + + + other national and international Dream Gardens—please text a seven-word dream (seven words only) to 904-337-9231. You can then see your dream at inthedreamgarden.com too, where it will be archived. And if you ever are onsite you can download the Layar app and see them for virtualreal (20–50 at a time) on your phones.

Nelson: And, finally, can you tell me about some of the writers and visual artists who have inspired you?

Witek: Today’s breathe-in: I am looking at Laure Prouvost’s installations; opening a Bosch and Brueghel book in preparation for the big Brueghel show in Vienna; have open (facedown) Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble and Roland Barthes’s The Neutral and (closed) Georges Bataille’s Encyclopedia Acephalica; I’ve just read fourteen good first student poems in draft, and am open to page 207 in the Louvre book. 

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