soft surface: Your residency work is a dialogue between Hypnos/Sleep and Oneiros/Dream, discussing “the power dynamics of desire, love, and pleasure while floating down a river (the blue page) between states of consciousness.” Do you feel the work(s) were successful? Why or why not?
Justine Highsmith: Thank you so much for the opportunity to show this work and experiment with the format on Soft Surface. The project was successful for me because I want to continue the work, and the conversation between these two states of existence.
SS: What questions did the work answer for you, and what questions remain?
JH: More questions remain open than answered, which is good because it means the work can expand. I am curious if the conversations between Hypnos/Sleep and Onieros/Dream were read as I had intended: as the same mind occupying the body (of water). When I read through the entire sequence, I identified a running theme of loss: loss of self, the other, loss of space. I question whether the work really touches on desire and the exchange of pleasure.
SS: How did the concept of a river (and the color blue) inform the work?
JH: The river divides a landscape creating two distinct spaces where a unified expanse might otherwise exist. Historically, the river is also a trade route which grants access to power and thus becomes a source of control. Many prosperous civilizations have been built around this lifeline. The river is an exceedingly dynamic site; it can be crossed, carry us away, flood, or dry up.
The concept of a river acts as a divider for language floating down the page, for Hypnos/Sleep ex Onieros/Dream to discuss and interpret their watery desires.This is part of the power dynamic.
There is a line on the 6th page from Onieros/Dream, that says “nothing is lost at sea” in response to an existential surrender from the previous stanza. The sea is so often associated with the subconscious mind, the sleep from dreams, a kind of endless expanse with undercurrents we cannot access:
“we are lucky
to continue touch
when love has no form
when there are no more shapes
to make my face gone
from your day to day”
The body of water is a language that allows two separate entities to communicate their mutual desire. My poetry sits atop a deep blue page, causing the reader’s gaze to drift from one side to the other. Can we dive into the depths of one another when our words float across the surface? What happens after we possess an object of desire, or when the object, or our relationship to it, changes? What’s left of us, of this language, this place? I don’t know (yet). I made this work to think about these things.
SS: What attracts you to sapphic verse, and how did it assist in the development of this work?
JH: Sapphic verse is traditionally composed of three or four lines or stanzas that elongate syllables as lines increase. Like Sappho’s fragments, I broke from these conventions frequently. The technical tradition of sapphic verse was less important to me: this work was more like an “ode” to sapphic language and longing, to Sappho herself, whose emotive poetry still allures and mystifies.
SS: What poets do you continually return to?
JH: Ada Limón, Anne Carson, Mary Oliver, and Ocean Vuong.
SS: What are you reading right now?
JH: I’ve been reading sections of Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry by Adrienne Rich, This Tilting World, by French author Collette Fellous (translated by Sophie Lewis), and the latest December issue from the Poetry Foundation. Honestly, I read a lot of little tidbits on various social media platforms. We all do it, and it takes up more of my time than I’d like to admit, but I find great resources and inspiration for further research.
SS: What's next for your writing practice?
JH: I’m always working on writing projects! Kalaija Mallery and I won a 2020 PICA Precipice Fund/Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts grant to produce a collaborative publication highlighting texts by artists entitled, “You Are Here.” Submissions open on January 1st, so look out for that!
I’m currently working on a new poetry book, “what it will have been” about different ways we interpret endings. I’m also planning on printing Hypnos/Sleep ex Onieros/Dream into a small, accordian-style booklet that unfolds like a river, printed of course on beautiful blue paper. :)