The Rumpus Interview with Sandra and Ben Doller

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I first came across Sandra and Ben Doller’s work as an editor for Essay Press. We published a weeklong excerpt from a complete project, which came out this August. The full thirty-two days will be available from Sidebrow in October 2015, and this I read in one sitting on the floor of my mother’s bedroom in Bozeman, Montana.

The Yesterday Project is a blind collaboration in which Sandra and Ben each wrote a document recording what happened the day before. The collaboration took place in 2014, after Ben was diagnosed with melanoma cancer, stage III. They did not share their work with each other, and the beauty of this book lies in the intersections and gaps, the ways in which both writers process their shared days. These days are mesmerizing and tender, and Sandra and Ben are tough but raw, perhaps because they did not reread or revise, apart from minor proofreading.

Sandra Doller’s books include Leave Your Body Behind, Oriflamme, Chora, and Man Years. Her chapbooks are Mystérieuse (a translation of work by Éric Suchère) and Memory of the Prose Machine. She founded and edits 1913 Press and 1913: a journal of forms. She currently lives in California, teaching film, literature, and writing at Cal State-San Marcos.

Ben Doller is the author of Dead AheadFAQRadio, Radio, which won the Walt Whitman Award, and Fauxhawk. He and Sandra have also published two collaborative books. He is an associate professor of writing and literature at the University of California, San Diego.

This interview took place through email and Google Docs in the month leading up to the birth of their baby, Wild Alphabet Doller. The Dollers answered many of the questions together, indicating on the Google Doc when they were speaking as one and when Ben or Sandra was answering a question individually.

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The Rumpus: How did the idea for this project come about?

Ben Doller: We were in a rough patch, as the book makes clear. I had been diagnosed with cancer (stage III melanoma), and our world suddenly looked very different. It was difficult to see the significance of writing amidst the shock and despair, and I think Sandra decided at some point that perhaps a collaborative, ritualized project could benefit us both in different ways. We had significantly and rapidly changed our lifestyle, and there was a desire to buy into homeopathic remedies and cures. I’ve never been a meditative sort—most of my writing is anxiety driven. I think that Sandra thought this project could be a sort of Trojan Horse to trick me into a more meditative approach to creative practice and, in turn, life.

Sandra Doller: The answer above is interesting to me. The way this project is. I like to hear the secret thoughts of my constant companion. Even if we think we’re communicating everything, we’re not. There’s always some surprise in the revelation, the articulation. dollerEPcoverI don’t remember it that way. Not exactly. I suppose factually—I did decide we had to do this. It’s a way of being alive.

Rumpus: There must be something fascinating about reading the secrets of the person you know best, even if those secrets are perceptions of your shared days together. Ben, your last name used to be Doyle, and Sandra, yours was Miller, right? How did you get the idea to meld your last names? Why was this important for you?

Sandra: We’d been together/married (same thing) for two years and when we moved to California we made a new name. We like to practice androgynous shared identity. This is ongoing. Although when Ben got sick, I had to realize we don’t share a body. And now, pregnant as I am, that is apparent in every way. We share a body and we don’t. We share a name yet people still assume I took his. My father addresses my mail to Mrs. John Benjamin Doller, which makes me lethal.

Rumpus: And did the Trojan Horse trick have the effects you anticipated? Am I speaking with a more meditative Ben? Were there unexpected effects?

Ben: The project overlapped with a major shift in lifestyle, one that continues to this date. Meditation, or more simply, presence, has become a more regular part of my life and practice, as have numerous holistic practices. I have changed my approach to the teaching of writing—and even my own writing—to acknowledge, include, and embrace the possibility of writing as a contemplative and perhaps even therapeutic act. I had refused these possibilities before this project. Writing had to capture the essence and speed of the fucked-up world. Now there is room for the individual. Probably much of this shift is due to this project. I’m hoping for unexpected effects cellularly.

Rumpus: Virginia Woolf wrote a book called On Being Ill. She speaks of the astonishment we feel “when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view.” She is, of course, speaking of smaller illnesses. She’s not talking about stage III melanoma. Does having this illness change and open up the way you and those close to you view the world? Are there undiscovered countries, and how do you navigate them?

Ben: The illness has only made certain ambivalences I’d always been conscious of that much more acute. Life versus Death, the absolute randomness of one’s position, privilege, and place, the lot one draws, and so on. It has made previously suspicious-seeming clichés seem more tolerable. Love may not be all you need, but it is certainly a necessity. My desire to survive has been exponentially magnified by the fact that there is someone intimately tangled up in me who would be left alone with the world. That would be a new country, and I have to do everything to stay on earth, to stick around, for the very exclusive batch of people who need me here.

Rumpus: My understanding is that having a life-threatening illness is something no one can understand unless it is happening to you. How close can someone get to understanding how it feels to be at risk of potentially dying (though, of course, we all are)? In the last quarter of the book, you acknowledge a gap:

Is this boring or is this a record. Is a record boring. Is it playing with boredom. Is it evidence that we are not the same body after all. You get cancer, I don’t. We have our own days.

How close can a partner get? How to bridge this gap?

Dollers: Yes, that’s definitely a driving question in the book, something very central to this experience of being and being in relation.

Rumpus: Did you consider a certain tone or way of speaking that you wanted to stick to, from the beginning? Or did you allow the tone to emerge organically?

Dollers: We only considered rules and constraints. One of the few constraints was that we didn’t have an aim at all, outside of the content. Whatever happened the previous day. Really, outside of that, the project really grew organically. We tried not to even discuss any aspects of it with each other, and we didn’t look at each other’s pieces (or even our own, for that matter) until the project was finished. Sandra hasn’t even read the book at all, whereas Ben has proofed it a bit. Our only real exposure to each other’s writing happened on the last day of the project, when we read from the book in public.

And we did shoot for no tone. We talked a few times about writing in a not-trying-to-write kind of way. Not being clever, cute, sound-based, punny, poetic, or engaging any of our familiar writing habits or tics. This was difficult, but I think it changed writing for both of us in a permanent way. Just documenting. Just the facts. Though there is no such thing.

Rumpus: You’ve both collaborated in the past. How does this fit with other work you’ve done?

Ben: It is a very different project. When we first met and fell in love, ten years ago, we typed a sequence of collaborative visual sonnets together called The Sonneteers, which was recently made available online through Editions Eclipse. It’s interesting to look back at these pieces, many of which still hang on the walls of our house, to see us rhyming together in a much more pyrotechnic, lyrical, and ecstatic way, and to compare that project with The Yesterday Project, which of course is a representation of our relationship now. I think of The Sonneteers as a strange kind of courtship book, each word being a kind of proposition, a little show-offy, everything right there. In many ways there are overlaps. The Sonneteers was written in a similar amount of time, around a month, there could be no editing, and we were trying to be absolutely present. I guess it’s a bit like those Linklater movies—I wonder what we can do to mark twenty years together?

Sandra: Film ourselves recreating The Sonneteers and The Yesterday Project. Or, of course, the other options: The Today Project, The Tomorrow Project, the whole Linklater linked trilogy. The Yesterday Project is representation/real and The Sonneteers are presentation/challenge. I used to be wary of The Sonneteers, their flashiness, their sound-driven angst, but now I read them walking down the hall and I love these lines and whoever wrote this crazy shit. Maybe it’s a companion piece.

Rumpus: Did your attitudes toward The Yesterday Project change over time?

Sandra: Ben was fully traumatized having to write the documents by the end of the project. His writing is much more methodical than mine normally and daily writing practice is hard for him when there is length involved. We both dreaded the actual practice at times. Ben DollerThe amount of consciousness required was excruciating at times. When we read them aloud, I was incredibly nervous. They’re so very true. It’s a shock for a poet-pretender-performer. We both have a radical honesty and a radical dishonesty in our lives and in our practice, we can both move between these modes. But when it’s written down, it’s one thing. It’s there, it’s a thing. There’s no changing it.

Rumpus: What do you mean by a radical dishonesty? What you’re saying here reminds me of what Paul Harding has said about Cheever’s work, particularly “The Jewels of the Cabots”:

He wants to confess his sins, put all his cards on the table. But then he also feels an opposite, contradictory impulse, which is just as strong: to conceal.

It sounds as if once you’ve committed thoughts to the page, you’ve confronted, in a sense, both impulses and have come down on either side. Where do you think you’ve landed?

Dollers: I think something many of us grapple with are those times we dread the practice of writing, no matter the project.

Rumpus: What sustains or gets you through the times when you feel negatively toward what you’re creating? Have you put long projects down before, decided they weren’t working for you? It can be tough to see the beauty when you’re in the middle of a project. Are there times in when you considered quitting?

Dollers: Well really we didn’t conceive of this as a writing project with an audience, necessarily, so it’s different in that way from any other writing we’ve done. Which is funny because this book may have more interested audience than any of our poetry books, and I don’t know that either of us write poetry with audience in mind either. We tend not to work on “projects” so much, I think, so this is new for this time-based composition.

Rumpus: Can you talk about how the excerpt that Essay Press will publish as a digital EP? How does this first week relate to the whole?

Ben: The book is an appendage to what we were experiencing. Most of the first week takes place when we have decided to hole up in an Airbnb cabin in northern California, Mendocino, to bivouac, heal up, get away, and regain some writing momentum. Sandra liked the look of the cabin on the listing online. It had a vaguely New England kind of aesthetic, lots of little clustered collections in the photos, crystal balls and blue baskets and such.

The book as a whole takes place in a few other locales—in our home in San Diego, in Joshua Tree, California, and on the road. Bizarrely, the four weeklong chapters split up fairly evenly between these spaces.

Sandra: Yes, we became sort of miserable in the Mendocino cabin and left early. The fridge and the kitchen were horrible and cramped and nineteenth century. There was no place to take out the trash or compost. And we were trying to cook all the time—Ben was. I sort of overlooked that part of the Airbnb listing I think. I just wanted us to get away, to go somewhere, to be without technology and Internet and phone. It rained and was cold and we wrote all the time. It was horrible.

Rumpus: You write, “We talk about the trauma of writing, the trauma of writing post trauma. How everything else is a joke.” Can you talk about how trauma functions in this manuscript?

Sandra: We are both prone to trauma, I think, and have experienced different levels of this all-access human mode. I’m a survivor of abuse, rape, sexual assault, almost constant sexual harassment, yet grew up very privileged in many ways. Ben is a white male who lost his hair at eighteen and got life-threatening cancer at forty-one. This all sounds funny to say. It is funny.

Then there’s the fact that writing is traumatic for both of us in different ways. We’re not the “I love to write” types, not really, which makes our habits and practices sometimes self-destructive and sometimes we’re just bad influences on each other. A lot.

And we’re both aware of the trauma of the world and mindful of our privilege and want to constantly account for and look at, acknowledge, examine our role in perpetuating trauma, as white people, as professors, as writers, as generators of content, as recyclers, as energy-suckers.

The Rumpus: What about humor?

Dollers: There certainly was humor and irony in the horror of our story. We had somehow finally reached a moment in which our lives made sense, in which we were comfortable in certain material ways, and in that very moment we were faced with a medical situation that could only really be resolved with death or time. Suddenly we had become these people who didn’t drink anything but kale, who ended many of our conversations with tears, and for whom no future was guaranteed. It was kind of funny.

We got off booze, which is pretty radical for any poet. But it did lighten things up in a way. If we’d been drinking, we probably would have driven into the ocean.

Rumpus: You have a rule that you cannot discuss this project. You have to write your yesterdays the following day. Are there other rules? What effect do these constraints have on the finished piece?

Dollers: The rule of not sharing or discussing the writing was important for many practical reasons, namely in order to avoid being influenced by the other person’s writing or remembering or focus. Each piece also had to start with the word “yesterday” as a sort of marker. And we had a few days where we instituted another level of constraint—word count, for instance, just to add another formal level of control when we felt we needed it—but that was only once or twice.

Dollers reading The Yesterday Project for the first timeRumpus: I understand you’ve performed this out loud, where you hear each others’ entries for the first time. What was that experience like?

Dollers: The end of the book goes into that a bit, where we share some of the work in public and hear it for the first time. I like to think that the book exists in performance, really, that I won’t read it until I hear it aloud, or that it only exists in that space between two living people. We’ve tried various reading methods in the three times (so far) we’ve read from the work, including each just reading the same day one after another. Then we’ve tried reading back to back, literally, with our backs against each other. We’ve also read facing each other, walking around each other, reading alternating sentence by sentence, and eating apples.

Rumpus: Are there texts you’d compare this project to? Other texts that focus on the body, its physicality, what goes in, exercise, etc.?

Dollers: Various time-based, memory-oriented works by Bernadette Meyer are the primary comparisons—Memory, Midwinter Day, and much of her archival writing and collaborations, which are housed at the Archive for New Poetry at UC San Diego.

Rumpus: Did you aim for a certain writing style? These are journalistic, but I do see intention here, in the cadence, the diction, the entries’ shape.

Dollers: We were interested in avoiding style, in eliminating voice, in getting away from the poetry logics, textures, and propulsions that we normally employ in our writing. But we arrived at even this organically and separately. The subject matter seemed not to allow for any other approach, and in a sense I think that this was a project in which text took precedence over texture.

And yet that’s an impossible goal. I think style and voice do come through anyhow, as much as we tried to avoid it. One thing that struck us so often was how impossible it is to capture everything in straight reportage. Experience is so varied and deep and complex—every experience, every moment—that it would be truly impossible to “capture” it all, though people have tried: Bernadette Mayer again, or some of the stream of consciousness experiments.

Rumpus: The two narratives almost blend together, and I lost track sometimes of who was writing, but I didn’t mind at all. I enjoyed it. Did you deliberately refrain from marking who wrote what?

Dollers: Honestly, our only intention was to write every day. We did not intend for the book to make any kind of sense, or for it to be a book, or for it to have a home outside our laptops. At many points we fantasized about stopping, and finally we did, when it seemed like the right time.

As a book project now, it does seem important that the narratives blend together. That seems like a useful and meaningful way to engage with the work, since it’s so much about dependence and identity and these bleeds into one another.

Rumpus: Why every day?

Dollers: Every day because every day was one more day. We were on the one-day plan. Fully invested in this one, and then this one. Writing the days seemed to make them solid, yet also to release them. It’s a way of keeping something while not holding it. I think we were a little insane at this time, yet also more sane than ever. The project saved us from something, but it was also traumatic and painful.


Maria Anderson is from Montana. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Big Lucks, and The Atlas Review. She is an editor at Essay Press. More from this author →