Poetry as Incantation: Talking with Andrea Actis
On a December evening in 2007, Andrea Actis found her father dead in her East Vancouver apartment. Her debut book, Grey All Over, which she sometimes describes as a “collaboration with my father’s ghost,” is the result of a decade’s worth of materials compiled into a poetic, funny, and deeply moving interrogation of grief, white working-class identity, false prophets, and whole seriousness.
The limitations of embodiment and language inevitably confront us when speaking of and to the dead. In Grey All Over, Actis attempts an incantation of sorts, collapsing time and space. Her work is not quite memoir, not quite experimental poetry, but a living account of a daughter and her now-disembodied father, Jeff, and the generational traumas, historical contexts, and spiritual dimensions that continue to tether them to one another. Through transcribed conversations, text messages, screenshots, photographs, typo-laden dreams, and emails about paranormal encounters sent to her dad’s email account ([email protected]), Actis employs the “pragmatics of intuition” as an organizing principle. With minimal aesthetic interference, she leaves us with a raw portrait of the haunting, messy, unresolvable nature of grief.
In June, at the beginning of Andrea’s summer break from teaching writing and literature at Capilano University in North Vancouver, BC, shortly after she’d arrived in Ithaca, New York for a six-week program at Cornell University, we spoke over the phone and through email about collaborating with the dead, the limitations of communicating grief through any one form or genre, and the stakes of self-disclosure.
The Rumpus: There is something loving (and perverse) about reconstructing a person’s consciousness after they die. Most people are given whitewashed obituaries, presented as saints. Were you worried about getting it right or revealing too much?
Andrea Actis: There’s this passage in Walter Benjamin’s The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire that I always want to cite despite having too-recently sworn off the habit of invoking German men’s ideas to ground my thinking. I’m going to share it because it’s been haunting me for a long time and really gets at what I might be doing in my book, especially in relation to “reconstructing a person’s consciousness” without reifying, or as you say, “whitewashing,” its complexities. In considering two different kinds of allegory, or art-making more generally, in the context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century commodity capitalism, Benjamin upheld what he termed “the Baudelarian allegory” (over the so-called “Baroque allegory”) for its capacity to “bear traces of the rage needed to break into this world, to lay waste to its harmonious structures.” In his appraisal, “Baroque allegory sees the corpse only from the outside,” whereas “Baudelaire sees it also from within.” With Grey All Over, I took the risk of seeing the corpse from within. Instead of writing about the things I now say the book is about (traumatic grief, white working-class identity, false prophets, whole seriousness), I lowered myself directly into my archives and trusted the material to illuminate and speak for itself. I hadn’t worried at all about getting it right or revealing too much until I started having to promote the book on social media.
Rumpus: In your notes at the end of Grey All Over, you explain a part of your process: “Most of the written texts in this book are (or emerge from) transcriptions of files in my iPhone Notes app or of audio/video recordings created between 2007 and 2018.” What was this process like? Did you start out with a vision for what you wanted the book to be, or did it reveal itself once you’d accumulated everything?
Actis: I’d had no idea I was writing a book, at least not this book, until shortly before it came together a few summers ago. I wasn’t totally convinced I’d written a book, either, when I sent the PDF to a few friends with the subject line “manuscript?!” right after wrapping up whatever it was in an enraptured fit of beginning to trust a fuller range of my hunches and desires at last. Before that, as far as I could tell, I’d just been miasmically grieving my dad’s life and death for ten years. I’d found his body one night in December 2007 and spent the rest of my twenties and early thirties drinking almost as hard as he had while failing to be very good at academia, relationships, or political revolution.
I was ostensibly a poet but basically never wrote poems, and though I’d been accumulating my dead-dad material for a decade, I’d never intended to invite anyone to look at it or identify with it or critique it. I’d shared a tiny bit of this material, a series of typo- and autocorrection-riddled dreams that now appears in the book as “Does Andrea Dream of Electric Dead,” with my therapist in Providence and with one friend back home in Vancouver who I knew I could trust to not tell me it wasn’t Marxist enough. But my vision, for a long time, had simply been to survive my traumas while causing as little damage to other people as possible—and to avoid publishing anything that didn’t tell “the whole truth.” Since it’s impossible to tell the whole truth about anything and dangerous to even posit something like the whole truth, I published very little. But there’s no doubt to me now that some covert aspiration to tell the whole truth ended up informing the vision of Grey All Over.
Rumpus: Your book could be (and has been) categorized as memoir, but it doesn’t fit neatly within that genre or structure. It’s nonlinear and makes use of various mediums (and media), combining the audio and video transcriptions with photos, drawings, questionnaires, logbooks, junk mail, emails, poems, and journal pages. It feels like a detective’s case file, where you’re piecing together evidence, in search of clues. What were you hoping to find?
Actis: In beginning to assemble my book’s case file of evidence (I like how you put this!), I was hoping, as one does, to simply not lose forever any of the traces left behind by my dad, Jeffrey, an Italian-English first-generation Canadian laborer obsessed with aliens and with “trying to get a handle on all of this,” as he writes in his journal of his desire to understand what leads people like him into addiction. I think I’d come to want everything kept in one place—unlike his ashes, which “Soul Ash” (the book’s opening sequence) will immediately tell you have not been kept in one place but rather lovingly separated and scattered around according only to “the pragmatics of intuition.” I guess this is one of the things I was hoping to find or confirm in piecing together all this evidence—that the pragmatics of intuition can be just as holy and precise and useful as any other way of ritualizing experience, and just as good (maybe sometimes better) at keeping a person in dialogue with their dead. One of the things I ended up uncovering, more uncomfortably, was evidence of how my and my family’s whiteness has at times operated as a structural, cognitive, and emotional barrier to connecting various dots between the personal, social, and spiritual realms of our lives.
As for categories, you’re not the first person to report that my “experimental poetry” book reads not only like a memoir but like a mystery novel or thriller, which I love because it probably means I’ve finally succeeded in not ideologically over-investing in any one literary or discursive genre. Not to say that committing to a single genre of reading or writing is bad, but that being committed to the belief that only one set of forms or practices can save you and/or the world is inevitably limiting and obviously, in many historical and present contexts, extremely harmful. Just like there can’t be only one good or right way to grieve, there can’t be only one good or right way to communicate what your grieving feels like or what it teaches you.
Rumpus: As much as you’re exposing your dad, you’re also exposing yourself. Is either one harder?
Actis: They’re both hard, both embarrassing, and both necessary as a way for me to clear the ground for further, more explicitly political and philosophical examinations of the things I’m interested in (like death, seriousness, and whiteness). I loved my dad so deeply and I suppose I like myself well enough, but I can’t let either of us off the hook for any of the stupidities we have both perpetuated in our speaking, dreaming, or other modes of being in the world. In “Seven Things,” a list-poem appearing at the very end book (modeled on an internet questionnaire from the early 2000s that my dad compulsively made everyone he knew fill out at one point or another), one of the things I say I “loathe” is what I call “my belatedness.” But as much as I loathe it, I’d still prefer to somehow scrutinize and own up to that belatedness than to arrive on the scene acting like I was born and raised woke.
Rumpus: There’s a lot of humor and playfulness and absurdity throughout the book, functioning as a kind salve from the horror and despair of death and grief. It’s your way of reassuring everyone around you (even your dead dad) that you’re okay, and that if you’re okay, they can be okay, too. What else is humor doing in this book?
Actis: Well, just like I didn’t try to make this book about any of the things it ended up being about, I also didn’t try to make it funny! Some stuff you just end up with, though, when siphoning off all the language and imagery you possibly can from a lifetime of fumbling your way through a little bit of knowledge but mostly ignorance about everything. I do think the funniest parts in the book are where white cultural signifiers and white ways of encountering otherness get unmasked and made tenderly pathetic, un-powerful. I think the humor, playfulness, and absurdity that I didn’t make up, or erase, but just let be in the found and transcribed materials are maybe key to anything serious I’m doing in here.
Rumpus: You talk to your dad a lot throughout the book. How present was he while you wrote this?
Actis: I sometimes describe Grey All Over as “a collaboration with my father’s ghost” because that’s how I experienced the making of it—as a true co-production. I’d put something down, then more things would arrive from (seemingly) elsewhere that somehow made perfect sense with the thing I’d just put down. Yet the word “ghost,” when I think more about it, makes Jeffrey sound a lot more dead and inaccessible to me than he actually feels. I’m not haunted by him; he’s literally in me and of me (as much as I might be working to dis-identify certain parts of myself from him). I feel the same way about my dead maternal grandmother and even my dead dog—that it’s annoying and confusing and sometimes still painful to me that they don’t have bodies anymore but that we can overcome the inconvenience and continue to commune, maybe even more effortlessly in certain ways now.
The last time I wrote to my dad was at the beginning of my Zoom launch in May (this time for a hundred and thirty people to witness live). My relationship to him hasn’t really changed since publishing the book, but what’s been cool is having people in my life who never had a chance to meet him now read Grey All Over then casually talk about “Jeff” like he’s still here and like they know him and love him and can easily predict what he’d do or say in a given situation. “Jeff definitely wouldn’t want to sit here,” my partner recently remarked at an outdoor gathering with some friends, pointing to a dilapidated purple Adirondack chair. Like how did my book give you that information, and why has this information announced itself to you in this moment? It’s all so hilariously mundane and sacred at once.
Rumpus: You include in Grey All Over an intimate, extremely what-the-fuck conversation you had with your mom right after your dad died. How does she feel about the book?
Actis: My mom, a florist and caregiver who immigrated to Canada from Romania when she was sixteen and who’s experienced a lot of violence and lost a lot of people, is probably the most anti- and allergic-to-bullshit person I know, and this is maybe one of the reasons she’s embraced my approach in this book. She and my dad had been divorced for years when he died, but they’d remained close and had just finished talking on the phone for an hour about my recent decision to donate eggs, my dad’s new job as a delivery driver for a print shop, and the awful Billy Bob Thornton movie The Astronaut Farmer, which my dad had been trying to convince my mom, apparently with the promise of weed, to come over and watch with him. Sitting together on my dad’s bed trying to process his sudden gone-ness, seeing The Astronaut Farmer paused three-quarters of the way through on his laptop, a Snickers bar three-quarters eaten, and a mickey of St. Rémy sitting three-quarters empty on his desk, my mom and I were ripped right open in the way that only death rips people open. It somehow hadn’t bothered her, had felt just as natural to her as it felt to me, when I turned on my camcorder to record these moments of navigating that total what-the-fuck-ness together. And she completely stole the show when we read our agonized dialogue together at my launch. My mom is just very, very good at wanting to tell, and telling, the whole truth.
Rumpus: There’s a part in the book where you include an email exchange between your dad and his friend Dave about their shared childhood encounter with an alien being they call “Moonface.” Can you talk about involving Dave in your work?
Actis: Dave had reached out to my dad in July 2007 in an attempt to trigger a memory that he’d been harboring alone for most of his life: “We were about nine or ten years old,” Dave writes, “and we were riding really slow, gabbing away, when something we saw stopped us dead in our tracks. Whoever was on the handlebars actually jumped off and froze as did the rest of us. Can you finish this memory, Jeff?” My dad hadn’t immediately known what Dave was getting at, but I remember being in the room with him when he opened an attachment that Dave would eventually send him—a drawing he’d made of Moonface peering out from behind the edge of a wall, with the backs of my dad’s, Dave’s, and their friend Jim’s heads labelled in the foreground. My dad’s face went entirely grey when he saw this sketch, and for the last five months of his life, things would simultaneously integrate and disintegrate wildly for him.
Adding the Moonface correspondence was the last thing I did in the initial assembly of my manuscript. It was the final piece of the death-love-universe puzzle, and while I’m still not a hundred percent certain what the nature of its power and importance is in my book, I do know it’s central (and that it’s most people’s favorite part). Before sharing the manuscript with anyone, I’d asked Dave for his consent and he’d enthusiastically given it to me, requesting only that I change his surname. We’ve had several conversations since then, during which he’s shared stories of his most memorable acid trips with my dad in their early teens and further accounts of his own lifelong engagement with the paranormal, which he approaches, humbly and wisely, with lots of questions and pretty much no answers. “Every time I hear strange stories or theories of ghosts, goblins, UFOs, aliens kidnapping people, inter dimensional travelers,” as Dave writes in one of the emails, “I think to myself, Well, that sounds pretty crazy, but me and my friends, we saw what we saw and it happened for sure, so who knows?”
Rumpus: What’s your best guess about what happens after we die? Is there any connection between the afterlife and the paranormal for you?
Actis: I identify spiritually as a substance monist, believing no more and no less than that everything is connected and that all substance emanates from the same whatever. I’m willing to believe in this belief because it isn’t structurally at odds with, and so doesn’t preclude, any of the other paradigms I might want or need to live by. I guess what makes sense to me, by extension, is some very basic version of reincarnation—where matter and energy are perpetually recycled and reanimated according to logics that can only remain mysterious to us but that we’re visited by micro-glimpses of as we move through our given contexts. This might be something like what Whitley Strieber calls “a life of ongoing contact” in the preface to his 1987 book Communion: A True Story, which a good friend recommended I read shortly after I’d sent him my manuscript. Strieber insists, there and elsewhere, on the likelihood that being contacted by aliens and being contacted by the dead are one and the same “super natural”—not supernatural—phenomenon, which I’ve started to see as one of the latent, tentative theses of my own book, too.
Photograph of Andrea Actis by Peter Bussigel.