About the Author:
Eleni Sikelianos is the author of a memoir and three previous poetry collections, including The California Poem, a Barnes & Noble Best of the Year. A California native, longtime New Yorker, and world-traveler, Sikelianos lives in Boulder and teaches at the University of Denver.
She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, two Gertrude Stein Awards for Innovative American Writing, and the James D. Phelan Award for Blue Guide. Her work has appeared in many magazines and journals, including Grand Street, Sulfur, Chicago Review, and Fence.
Eleni Sikelianos in conversation with Selah Saterstrom
Selah Saterstrom: I wonder if you can speak to the title, Body Clock. What formal concerns, questions, and other ruminations necessitated this work? What kind of clock is this and how do we “tell time” by it?
Eleni Sikelianos: This corporeal clock started with an image that came to me when I was pregnant. I felt a bit suspended in time (time not stopped but liquid), though my body was moving within and toward this very timed event. The image, which I sketched in my notebook, was of the body as a clock, hands pointing toward numbers, six found at the hips, the center of the belly being the center of the clock. It was what I felt my body to be. The hands may have pointed to two or eight, but they were also pointing beyond those numbers, into other times—upward being galaxial time and the many rotations of planets around us, and downward being mortal time, the time below ground. I suppose there’s a conception of time as locus here.
There was a double clock—my body timing an event and a body inside my body expanding itself within time (how many minutes to grow a finger?). This twofold clock seemed to exist within a much larger series of clocks—the body-time expanding ever outward at the same time that it contracted ever inward. Both motions reach toward infinite time, I suppose—eternity and death. (I’m not sure why I’m thinking of eternity as outward and death as inward, but there it is.)
There was also in me the notion that when the baby decided to move out into the world was when she decided to move from timelessness to time. That seemed beautiful and terrifying.
Selah Saterstrom: Body Clock reveals the varied personalities and diverse textures of moments. In one poem you write, “A shaggy minute, hairy minute, lop-/sided/minute exploding at its edges. . . . The final stanza reads, “it broke open & cut/my lip – did – discover – what/the inside/of the body-minute (meat minute)/tastes like.” I find within this image of tasting a moment a hermeneutical opportunity concerning how we relate to time—what time does or is (other than just a principle that organizes utilitarian concerns and other anxieties).
What did the writing of Body Clock suggest to you about how (else) we might relate to time, or what time might be? What were your questions about time and what did you discover?
Eleni Sikelianos: The suspension in time that occurs in the pregnant body is awesome—that’s the word that comes to mind. I don’t think I have ever been in such a state of anticipation and unknowing, certainly not as an adult. Time takes on very corporeal attributes. I began to sketch minutes, trying to get at their fatness (which is how I was feeling them) as opposed to their flatness. I wanted to feel a minute—each piece of it.
When my daughter Eva was born, time took on yet another set of textures—a kind of rolling flood, or waves, with all notion of regular punctuation to the day overturned. Sleeping, waking, meal-making, bathing—all took on new posts (or no posts). Not too much later, I was suffocating within the closeness of minutes, and an hour was a precious eternity. That’s when I began sketching hours, trying to inhabit every petal that peeled off the hour.
In this period, I also began to think quite a bit about our cultural notions of production and productivity bound up with our notions of time. Time is something in which we get things done, that seems to be its use. We make shoes, money, dinner, pay bills, write books, etc. What I was getting done, in mothering, wasn’t those things. Could I quit my capitalist tendencies, stop worrying about how I “spend” time? Walter Benjamin’s (and many other authors’) idea that idleness is one of the writer’s indispensable engagements was in my mind. This was linked to my concern about the “professionalization” of poetry, through writing programs and such, that seems to have turned so much poetry-making into an idea of commodity (polish, package). I think the drawings, a labor at which I was unskilled, were both a way to try to inhabit time without ideas of production, and a way to try to resist the professionalized poem. I didn’t, by the way, think I’d be including them in a book when I was doing them.
Selah Saterstrom: Within this book, pages from your notebook are included—drawings, textual fragments. This is a rich visual/textual element, and also reminds me of Derrida’s notion that one must be several in order to write (and thus the inclusion of multiple books within any one book). Can you speak to the relationship between the books that exist within Body Clock?
Eleni Sikelianos: The drawings and fragments are from the various notebooks I kept. I think that my last few books have been, in a weird way, about including more of my self, and maybe that does mean a several-self, though the way I perceive it is allowing in the full range of possibility that happens to a self in a life or a minute or a day—that the poem doesn’t only have to be a mechanism for exclusion, but, like a body and its consciousness, pored and porous, permeable, working towards incorporation as well as containment.
Selah Saterstrom: Body Clock contains eight sections. In thinking about form—the form of the book as a whole and the poem-forms within it—how did the notion of the body clock reveal or create formal choices within the book? How does the notion of the body clock speak to the organizing principles that sequenced this work?
Eleni Sikelianos: Before I was writing the “Body Clock” poems, and while I was writing them, too, I was also writing poems that were engaged in the “outside” world, because it kept throwing its language and problems and ideas into my household. The first section of the book includes a long poem I’d written while living in New York in the aftermath of 9/11. It seemed important to have the world and home (body) side by side in this manuscript, so the sections alternate between something that might be called “world” and “home” sections. They begin to interpenetrate more and more as the poems go on, though they don’t ever totally merge.
Selah Saterstrom: One of the questions I asked myself while reading Body Clock concerns how I understand and engage with the condition of being between states—the gap or space between “here” and “there.” In “The Meridian” Paul Celan wrote, “The poem holds its ground….on its own margins. In order to endure, it constantly calls and pulls itself back from an ‘already-no-more’ into a ‘still-here.’ I’m reminded of your stanza, “You’re in the minute, and it’s not/history, then you’re on the other side, and/it is. What happened to/what happened there?” What did writing Body Clock reveal to you about this between-space? What do you think happened there?
Eleni Sikelianos: I think for me the question remains unanswerable. I don’t know what happened there, almost any more than I know what will happen there! (These days, I feel like past-as-told-through-memory is as unknowable as future-as-told-through-prescience.) But you’ve articulated this between-space so beautifully—it’s a state that I think I’ve existed in for much of my life, and it’s usually where and why poems arise. It’s certainly also resonant with the state of the pregnant body.
Perhaps the other way this between-space is at play in the manuscript is in the way a couple of the long poems (“Township of Cause of Trouble” and “Week-in-Review”) in the “world” sections are working—where the lines or stanzas both connect to and disconnect from each other. I think I’ve always worked like that to some extent, but more went into the stitching than the unstitching aspect. These poems hover around the edges of connection and disconnection with the world, and both take up shreds of “political” or “public” language, trying to retexture it.
Selah Saterstrom: While writing Body Clock, what surprised you?
Eleni Sikelianos: I think the drawings were the most surprising thing for me. That I was doing them. That I decided they should be part of a book.
Selah Saterstrom: What fascinates you these days and what are you working on now?
Eleni Sikelianos: I’m in one of those between-work-spaces now, but there are a number of projects I’m keen to pursue. One has to do with arrangements of memory (maybe a bit like a floral-arranging approach). This interest probably stems from living with a child, which makes you think about things like memory production and proprioception. Two other hovering ideas are continuations of the family history that began with The Book of Jon—one about my toga-wearing lesbian great-grandmother, and the other about my hard-drinking, hard-living, burlesque dancer grandmother. What will I have time for?
Selah Saterstrom is the author of the novels The Pink Institution and The Meat and Spirit Plan. A Mississippi native, she is currently on the faculty of the University of Denver’s Creative Writing Program.