Taking it Lying Down: An Interview with R. Erica Doyle

“You have come to do an autopsy and at the first excision found a beating heart.”

R. Erica Doyle’s Proxy cuts with terrifying precision as it performs an autopsy on desire.  Proxy was published by Belladonna* and won the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award, and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist.  I sat down with Doyle to discuss.

Cecca Ochoa: How did Proxy begin?

R.Erica Doyle: The origin of Proxy was an exercise in exposure and vulnerability.  I was in Patricia Smith’s workshop, and there was an exercise to write about a taboo. Not something that is a taboo in society, but what is taboo to you. Maybe it is taboo to you to write about piercing your nipples, but I don’t really care. At the time what was taboo was writing about the really fucked up things that women did to each other in relationships. Right now there is this call out culture, but it’s not really happening in a real way, in my opinion.

CO: It’s a game, now.

RED: Yeah, it’s a game. People are not calling out some real things that they could call out. But, that was something that a couple of us started talking about and looking at- calling out the call out culture.
Another starting point was looking at my mother and her relationship to me and to my relationships. In the final version, the mother almost entirely drops out, but the formative question, the working question was “What is the relationship of my mother- and her being in the world- to my abjectivity?” The parts that are more direct about the mother I took out, because the work became about something else.

CO: Well, there are the primal childhood moments. The you explores sexuality through the mother’s references.  The whole book sort feels like wandering through these memories that are housed in connected rooms. The childhood and the mother were definitely present.

RED: Yeah, the family pops up from time to time, but they are like ghosts in a way and then this other driving obsession.

CO: Right, so Proxy centers around two characters, or more accurately the character you’s obsession with the character one.  Who is the you? And how did you come to write in second person?

RED: What’s interesting is that Proxy started out in the first person. The feeling was not right, there needed to be a distance. I think of it in a mindfulness sort of way. In mindfulness training they teach you to sit in the hub of your mind and observe what is happening. I feel like I switched to the second person because I started to talk to myself about these things. The more that I used the you the more distant that it became until it was a composite or proxy. So I started to write more experientially. I started to pull back and compose a little more. This allowed me to try on something that is kind of me, but not me. The you does things that I wouldn’t do or is a cover for things that I have done. I’m not making a judgement about these actions, I’m just seeing what they feel like. The you took on its own life beyond me. You is an invitation to inhabit, as a reader, multiple perspectives. There is the you that is I, the you that is all of you, and the you that is all of us. It shifts throughout the text. There are times when you feels really multiple and times when it feels very singular and other times when it feels inclusive.

CO: Tell me about one. In the same way that the you is malleable, one is sometimes specific and sometimes reads as a place-holder for everything that you wants but can’t have.

RED: I was exploring that part of us that creates the relationships we have with other people. I think personally, for me as a writer, constructing the “reality” of a relationship is endlessly tempting, it’s what I do. It’s also just what we all do. We construct a reality of what a relationship is, which lives parallel to the reality that the other person is constructing, and that the outside world is constructing, that society constructs. One, the beloved, actually says very little and is not so present. But it doesn’t matter, because the you creates everything else. You almost don’t need that person to be present. So, essentially what the relationship becomes about is the self.

CO: Unrequited love is a theme that you have explored before. What does it mean to you?

RED: There is something in Trinidadian music called Tabanca. Tabanca is a song that is about longing for something else. I think a lot of my work in general deals with longing: longing for what you don’t have, longing for what you used to have but don’t have anymore, longing for a place you used to live, longing for a way of life, a culture. I think there’s a classic raised by immigrants phenomena happening.  An interesting thing about unrequited love is that it is not something that is taking place in the present moment, and yet it is being kept alive in the present moment. There is a nostalgia for something that isn’t happening, that was never fulfilled, and probably won’t happen in the future. Unrequited love is made up. Sometimes there are good reasons for holding onto unrequited love, and sometimes there are lots of really unhealthy reasons for holding onto it.

CO: There are a lot of references throughout Proxy to the body and the person as text. You also employ quotations from the Tour of Calculus.

RED: These are abstractions. The presence of the Tour of Calculus is meant to reflect upon a tool that we use to understand what we have constructed, and what we encounter in our universe. Language is a tool, math is a tool. What is the relationship of those tools and what do they tell us about bodies and space over time?  You’s construction of desire happens in the mind and thus is infinite. Infinity only exists as an abstraction, and yet it is a necessary component in calculus.  There is a lot in the book about “not making sense” and confusion. A lot of that comes from you not using the right tools to understand the construction. I  think that is where the body comes in. It’s something that is not abstract, it’s tangible. The interaction with the body is sort of a shock to the system. It resists fantasy, interrupts all of the construction.  The physicality defies the attempts to be abstracted. In the book, the bodies, the people, the sex is never quite satisfying, in part because it can’t really be controlled.

CO: What about the presence of sickness and disease that runs through the book?

RED: Speaking of interruptions, there are these other interruptions that are things happening in the world. There’s hints that there is a war happening and sickness is a part of that. There is external and internal damage that refuses to be healed. There is sickness that is carried inside, and sickness that is being maliciously spread through certain populations.There is a hunger that doesn’t know how to be satisfied, there is something terribly wrong inside and all around.

CO: I feel as though I should ask you something about queerness…

RED: This is the world’s gayest book!

CO: It kind of is. This book is so familiar, and queerness is so central, it is only visible because it is rare for me as a reader to feel so at home in the language. So I guess I’ll ask if there was anything in particular you were speaking to…  But you know, it’s not like straight people get asked if there’s something specific that they are trying to say about heterosexuality.  

RED: I feel like there’s a lot of insider information in this book, and that’s why a lot of queer women identify with it.  The kind of pain that is in the language of our bodies is not easy to come by.  I think speaking about the particularities of our bodies, and reading that kind of specificity, even in the sex is really powerful and resonates with people. Also, the characters are not conspicuously gendered.  I’ve had readers tell me me “ I’m not sure what the gender of all of the characters are, or the genders of the all the voices.” There’s definitely a wink and a nod about gendering people.  Really, I just wanted to talk about the stuff that happens in an unabashed away, to take the lid off of the experience of intimacy and the struggle with desire, primarily with female bodies.

CO:I know that you have several manuscripts in progress. If today they materialized completed and ready for the world, what stories would they tell?

RED: One would tell the story of my coming of age poetry arc, one would be dreams of my parents, one is a trashy romance novel about a community of queers of color, and one is a fantasy that draws from many different traditions. I’m also writing some Americanah inspired meditations as a liminal being on my phone…A few things!

CO: Lastly, do you or you have any words of advice for addressing longing or curing unrequited love?

RED:  Stop making yourself available to people who are not that into you. What helps? Go within.

r. erica doyle was born in Brooklyn to Trinidadian immigrant parents, and has lived in Washington, DC, Farmington, Connecticut and La Marsa, Tunisia. Her first book, proxy, published by belladonna*, was a recipient of the Norma Farber First Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award finalist.