The Rumpus Book Club chats with Trisha Low about her new book-length essay, Socialist Realism (Coffee House Press, August 2019), the relationship between suffering and art, exploring religion as a kind of sensibility, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Ayşe Papatya Bucak, Jeannie Vanasco, Leigh Camacho Rourks, Paul Lisicky, Samantha Irby, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club chat was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Welcome to our chat with Trisha Low about Socialist Realism! Trisha, thanks so much for joining us tonight.
Trisha Low: I’m so happy to be here! Still can’t believe people are reading my book.
Eva Woods: How does it feel having it out there?
Trisha Low: Very no skin—I mean, I know it’s been my thing to be super vulnerable but it always feels bad.
Eva Woods: You’re still human! Can you talk about the differences in reception between this book and your first book, The Compleat Purge?
Trisha Low: Sure. I don’t necessarily think in terms of genre—I came up in the poetry community but basically have never written verse/am really bad at it. For me, poetry is kind of a catch-all genre for really weird stuff and I love that. Some people will say this book is more palatable or mainstream, maybe.
I will say that the big change was working with super-brilliant editors who gave me a lot more attention on the sentence and structure level than I’ve ever had before. That was new and I learned a lot.
Eva Woods: I wondered about that! What was the editing process like?
Trisha Low: I worked very intensely with Ruth Curry on an initial edit, and then with Lizzie Davis at Coffee House, and both were very generous with their time and thought. They were often able to see things I couldn’t in terms of the structure of the work and clarity (which isn’t a big priority in more poetic writing/in poetry). I think with this book, it doesn’t have the kind of casual, broken quality of my first book.
Eva Woods: That makes sense. Sounds like a steep learning curve but it worked out very natural on the page.
Trisha Low: Thank you! I really wanted to make something that felt like how life happens.
Marisa: How long did you spend writing the book, before beginning edits?
Trisha Low: I’m a slow conceiver of writing, but a fast writer. So I spent about three or four years really only thinking and reading and experimenting with what kind of form/style I wanted the book to be in. But then when I felt ready, the actual writing was only two or three months. And then I did maybe a year and a half in edits, and it was nice to have that time so I could walk away and come back and really think about what I wanted the final iteration to be.
Eva Woods: I love that you brought up the vulnerable feeling of publishing right away. It’s something I think about a lot—the consumption of female stories and pain for money. How do you feel about the first-person essay’s evolution in the last decade?
Trisha Low: Oh that’s a big question! I do think that the market for lyric essay is very different now that there are a lot of great spaces and publishing channels for first-person writing on the Internet rather than say, in print literary magazines.
I think in my first book, I was really interested in playing with what you’re talking about—the fetish of the female confessional. And I do think the reception of any work that deals with female suffering can feel stunted or flat if you fall into those generic readings of it. But there’s such a range of style and purpose to females stories in the first person.
Eva Woods: One thing I liked about the book was you never conflated suffering with worth. I think there’s a trap there.
Trisha Low: Yes—even though I’ve often felt that way, or it’s such a specifically feminine way to think about one’s worth because of the way we’ve been encoded.
Eva Woods: Absolutely.
Trisha Low: I think suffering is still mobilized in a politically efficacious way, or as a form of relating.
Eva Woods: Do you see a link between pain and the ability to make art?
Trisha Low: It’s what produces empathy, and so I don’t necessarily think suffering in a relational way is bad. But I do think it means sometimes you can forget the commonalities you have with people otherwise; it can prevent you from looking outward. As a Scorpio I think about that a lot.
Eva Woods: As I was reading, the book felt like a part of the tradition marrying those things, but I couldn’t nail down your feeling on it.
Trisha Low: I used to think that, but now I think it’s more about intensity—I like to write when I feel like I have something to say, and pain is one of the things that makes me feel like writing. But this book is honestly kind of a happy book for me—it was about my thinking through what it would mean to want a better life, or to not be miserable. And whether that really always comes at the cost of others.
Mostly I do think that art has to have stakes; if it doesn’t feel bad to say what you’re saying you might not care enough. But that’s not necessarily about individual pain.
Eva Woods: I love that! One of the themes I connected with that kept popping up was religion.
Trisha Low: Did you grow up religious, too?
Eva Woods: Very much! I was born in an evangelical Bible cult; it was a whole thing. So when you wrote about faith, there was this longing and discomfort I recognized. Can you talk about that a little? How did you decide what measure of God to include?
Trisha Low: Well, I think that being religious as a young person was definitely something that helped me get out of the kind of self-destructive spirals I was getting into. So regardless of my beliefs now, I am attached to its forms as a way of coping. Which is an uncomfortable thing in a world where institutionalized religion is so oppressive to so many.
So, I wanted to explore God as a kind of sensibility—something that comes up when it comes up in my life, and how it has affected my thinking about or experience of the stuff I do value and believe in as an adult: art and politics, etc.
It’s also a way of relating to my family, who are religious. I’ve gotten into the habit of speaking that language as a way of relating to them.
Marisa: Do you feel like writing your way through these big questions helps lead to answers? Or is it more about exploring for you, without necessarily reaching conclusions. You mentioned that you were thinking through what it would to want a better life/to be happy. Do feel closer to that now?
Trisha Low: One thing I really wanted to reflect in this essay is this sense of the way everything is entwined—sexuality, religion, etc.—and how if you pull on one thread, another necessarily moves with it. Which is not a very good way to get to any answers. Or, a way to see that one’s answer might even change depending on context.
Eva Woods: That brings up your art criticism really neatly! Because in the book, art gets the same weight your personal experiences do, even your experiences of the art. What’s your background with visual art? You drew on such a wide pool of artists!
Trisha Low: You know, I don’t have a strong background with visual art—I never even took any art history classes in college. But my father was always interested in art and took me to see a really wide range of stuff from a very early age. He’s more traditional but we do still love to see shows together and argue about them—that’s probably my favorite activity to do with him.
Eva Woods: What about film?
Trisha Low: I’ve always loved films but I only really started getting deeper into the really experimental stuff when I started dating my current partner, Syd Staiti. Which interests me because I think the kind of attention you have to give experimental film is very similar to the kind of attention you have to give poetry.
Eva Woods: Oh that’s interesting! How do you mean?
Trisha Low: It’s not quite dissociative but it requires a specific kind of focus, like you have to zone out a little to see the big picture. It can be a little boring and you have to push through to be able to find the abstracted zone where the work is operating.
Eva Woods: Like one of those magic eye pictures, lol.
Trisha Low: But I also really love bad movies, or action movies with big explosions. I’m a big Fast & Furious fan.
Eva Woods: Saaaaame. Are you excited for Hobbs & Shaw?
Trisha Low: SO excited!
Trisha Low: Big horror film fan, too.
Eva Woods: And I get that from you! I’m a horror weirdo and you clearly get into the guts of things.
Trisha Low: I really wanted the art criticism in the book to feel personal.
Eva Woods: There’s a lack of squeamishness in the book for sure.
Trisha Low: Because writing about art is mostly about the person writing it rather than the art objectively, anyway. I do like awkward imagery that veers towards the grotesque but is more… embarrassing?
Eva Woods: Yeah, you can’t flinch from that in memoir, I think. What made you decide to write this book now?
Trisha Low: Oh, I wish I could say that it was kind of because of end times that I did, but I think I was really just interested in making something about the narratives we spin out to comfort ourselves about the world. When I started out I was like, I want to make something like a country song. But, I think as I wrote it, I wanted to capture this feeling of: we have a short time span, it might be the apocalypse, and yet we are still compelled to live.
Eva Woods: Haha, a Mitski song came on as I read that!
Trisha Low: We are still compelled to make art, and love each other—and what a strange and great thing. Like i just spoke to my grandma about the riots in Hong Kong. And I was like, Wow it’s really crazy; it feels like with climate change etc. we won’t have long. And she was like, Get it together; I lived through two wars and the world is still here. It just will keep happening day by day.
Eva Woods: Wow.
Trisha Low: And I wanted to make the book feel like that—that even if we have a nihilistic desire for the world to end, that’s actually an escapist solution, too, in its own way.
Eva Woods: So that brings up the structure of the book—is that why you chose to publish it as an essay mostly in the present tense? Like, did that bring the immediacy of day-to-day living to the text?
Trisha Low: Yeah, I was really enamored by these films I had seen by Maurice Pialat, who I write about in the book. He was a realist French filmmaker who kind of hated the New Wave, and what I loved about his work was that he used all their experimental techniques to make something that felt like the way life happened. I wanted to do the same thing, to write in the present tense to get the sense of memories that arose concurrently with experience or art you had seen coming up in the context of a relationship problem.
Eva Woods: Kind of the way an album can get tied to a breakup and you can’t ever listen to it again?
Trisha Low: Kind of! I guess in the sense of like, when you think about the Big Questions in the book, there’s never really an answer. You just get experiences from my life that are tangentially related. And I think that’s how it feels to ask yourself those questions. It’s never as clean or as theoretical as we’d like it to be. And it’s easy to make a problem about one thing into a problem about another.
Marisa: Were there writers you looked to in trying to do this, to write in the present tense as life is happening?
Trisha Low: It’s funny. I don’t think much about other writing when I’m writing; I tend to look towards art or film for form. But I had been reading a lot of Elfriede Jelinek, who uses this really simple present tense language to get at some devastating truths.
Eva Woods: Who would you have direct this book as a film?
Trisha Low: Oh, what a great question! Let me think—does it have to be an alive director?
Eva Woods: Nope, of course not.
Trisha Low: I mean, I think it would be wild to have Paul Verhoeven make it into a melodrama… but the truth is that the material is probably better suited to like, Andrea Arnold or something. Lol. Or Edward Yang.
Eva Woods: I don’t know Edward Yang! I’ll look him up.
Eva Woods: I have a thing called the Verhoeven Gambit where you watch the first half of Showgirls and the second half of RoboCop and it’s amazing.
Trisha Low: Omfg. That is… something i will be doing in the VERY NEAR FUTURE.
Eva Woods: Yesssssss.
Trisha Low: You’re a genius!
Eva Woods: Thank you; I’m very proud of it. So, coming from a poetry background, who are your predecessors, in your mind? I’m relatively new to poetry, and the genealogy of it is amazing.
Trisha Low: Wow there are so many! I feel like there’s a lot of poetry predecessors who have made work that’s not anything like what I make but I’ve learned a lot from. Definitely Hannah Weiner. Alice Notley.
Eva Woods: (This is blatant reading-list fishing.)
Trisha Low: I read a lot of New Narrative when i was writing the book, especially Bruce Boone and Bob Gluck. But also definitely my friends—I’ve loved making work alongside people who are interested in the same questions in entirely different ways.
Eva Woods: Okay, pretend I don’t know what New Narrative is… (I absolutely don’t.)
Trisha Low: Haha there’s no reason you would! It’s kind of lyric prose writing about queerness and identity coming out of San Francisco in the 70s and 80s.
People that I think probably also had some influence on me… Renee Gladman. West Coast writers in the 90s. I read a lot of Pamela Lu, too—especially her book Pamela: A Novel.
Eva Woods: This is kind of a left-field question, but what did you love to read as a kid?
Trisha Low: Oh, that’s a great question. We talking like really young, or like, YA?
Eva Woods: This always really makes sense for writers somehow. Either!
Trisha Low: I actually read a lot of Enid Blyton, who is out of vogue now for a bunch of racist imagery, etc. It was very traditional British children’s lit.
Eva Woods: Ahhhh I did, too! It was colonial trash but we had it!
Trisha Low: But I loved fantasy—the Redwall series. I read a lot of historical fiction, like imaginary diaries of important women like Elizabeth I or Cleopatra.
Marisa: I LOVED historical fiction—and also nonfiction, like biographies and autobiographies—as a kid. Which is only weird because I don’t especially seek that out now.
Trisha Low: Yeah, I was just thinking that! But i think it has something to do with my compulsion to examine interior lives/people’s social presentation of themselves.
Eva Woods: When did you discover poetry and when did you first write it?
Trisha Low: I really started reading poetry in high school, but it was all embarrassing stuff like Billy Collins.
Eva Woods: Do you snoop in medicine cabinets at parties lol?
Trisha Low: 100% I do. Also kitchen cabinets.
Trisha Low: I really got into poetry in college. I took some classes with Charles Bernstein who had this really flexible approach—poetry wasn’t so much taught as a strict form with rules so much as something you could play with the associations of the text, and really imagine around, andIi loved that. It felt like there was a lot of room for the reader in thinking about poetry that way, and so I started getting more serious about reading/writing it.
Eva Woods: That’s really interesting!
Trisha Low: I just think there’s so much room to misread in poetry, or be irreverent. More than in fiction or in nonfiction—and so I try to use that as a model of encountering any writing rather than a single genre.
Eva Woods: You said earlier that genre wasn’t something you were interested in, so that really makes sense. Do you see yourself ever writing more “traditionally formatted” prose?
Trisha Low: It’s weird because I’m super interested in it in movies! Especially B movies, where the conventions are really socially inflected. But yeah, the categorizations between different types of writing are less interesting to me.
Yes totally. I mean, I just kind of get bored easily. I think I intentionally challenge myself to make each book look different from the one before. And to find different ways of experimenting even if the core of what I’m interested in tends to be the same. Someone used the example of Bowie—every record was different but also the same.
Eva Woods: Writing scripts is HARD. I did it twice and they sucked.
Trisha Low: Yes, I can’t even imagine! What is dialogue?! What is PLOT?! These are things I’m interesting in learning about.
Eva Woods: B movies are where it’s at though. Although, between you and me, they’re almost all environmentalist films which gets boring
Trisha Low: That’s the other thing—it feels nice to always be learning when you write rather than feeling you mastered your style or something. Although i’m not sure anyone really feels that way.
Marisa: Trisha, are you already at work on another project?
Trisha Low: Oh totally not. I’m so slow. It’ll take me a few years to think and read through what I need to for the next project. It used to stress me out but I’m kind of okay with it now. I’m resigned to always having a day job.
Trisha Low: So it’s kind of like… I’d rather write four really good books in my life than just churn ’em out.
Eva Woods: So what’s on the docket in the meantime?
Trisha Low: I’m working on an essay for the next issue of Triangle House that has “desire” as the theme.
Eva Woods: Wow that’s big. What a topic.
Trisha Low: I’m also about to gear up to start organizing this film festival on celluloid I do with a collective every year.
Trisha Low: But once the PR for Socialist Realism is over, I really want to put it away and start thinking through a new project. Maybe a project with DIALOGUE. Haha—whatever feels difficult, that’s where i’ll start.
Eva Woods: We’re almost out of time but one thing I love hearing is, whose work can bring you out of a slump?
Trisha Low: A great question! Work that’s by people i love that’s also being worked on—so things in process.
Eva Woods: One of the best things is watching your people make magic!
Trisha Low: Yes! And feeling JEALOUS and therefore galvanized to make your own work.
Marisa: I miss the Bay Area writing community a bunch. I think it’s special… or at least, something I haven’t found elsewhere. Lots of collaboration and sharing of work.
Trisha Low: We miss you Marisa!
Eva Woods: She’ll be back.
Trisha Low: I hope so!
Eva Woods: I’m bullying her to California
Marisa: I hope so too! That’s always the plan.
Trisha Low: It’s a complicated place to live, but where people really care.
Marisa: Trisha, thank you so much for your time tonight!
Eva Woods: Trisha, thank you so much for this!
Trisha Low: Oh, thank you for talking! I had a great time.
Photograph of Trisha Low by Kari Orvik.