The Rumpus Book Club Chat with Gabrielle Civil
The Rumpus Book Club chats with Gabrielle Civil about her essay collection The Déjà Vu (Coffee House Press, February 2022), remixing and revising, and the best cookies for difficult drafts.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming authors include Eva Jurczyk, Suzanne Roberts, Laura Stanfill, Yuvi Zalkow, Morgan Talty, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Alysia Sawchyn.
Alysia Sawchyn: Hi everyone! Welcome to this month’s book club chat w/ Gabrielle Civil about The Déjà Vu!
Gabrielle Civil: Hooray! I’m so thrilled to connect with everyone. Woo hoo!
Alysia Sawchyn: Thanks so much for joining us, Gabrielle
Gabrielle Civil: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Alysia Sawchyn: When I started reading, I was immediately hooked by the casual Magicians reference
Gabrielle Civil: Ha! That’s right at the beginning
Alysia Sawchyn: Can you say a little bit first about how other forms of media influence your work?
Gabrielle Civil: Sure! Well first I want to say, Helloooooo, to everyone out here. It’s my first time on Slack and it’s amazing to me how many media forms have come to take shape in our lives.
Growing up, it was all about television (at first without cable or even a remote), movies in the theater, and then the old fashioned telephone without even an answering machine—and I’m not that old! But there’s something about the analogue that’s important to me.
Getting engrossed in longer forms of narrative opportunity—an episode, the exchange of a phone call, the run of a movie–and how for me all of that too place within an appointment. It happened in a specific time and you had to catch it. That feels important to this book, how media operates within time and how different images or references capture or repeat over time. The Déjà Vu plays a lot with that and remixes all my far flung cultural references from The Magicians on the SyFy channel (an iteration of Lev Grossman’s books) to Waves, a film that really captured my imagination in 2019.
Alysia Sawchyn: Yes! I was going to ask … the show or the book?
Gabrielle Civil: Well the book is better than the show OF COURSE. I remember reading the book after teaching in a maximum security prison—I needed a shot of fantasy to help me shake the injustice of that place—but I did enjoy some of the twists of the show, like Santa Claus being played by a black man (also incarcerated).
Alysia Sawchyn: You used the word “remixing” when describing your process, and it’s obviously a perfect description for this text. I’m curious about how in your process you “bound” each section or each piece—like, how to know which bits of life go with others? Or maybe, when do you know what an essay is “about”?
Gabrielle Civil: Good questions! The different pieces in the book came about in different ways. “Waves,” which is my favorite essay in the book, was super hard to figure out. I knew that I wanted to write something inspired by that movie—and the fact that I kept going to see it in the theater—but it took me a while to understand exactly what I wanted to say: something about the need to expand our understanding of black feminist/ femme/ women’s consciousness in cinematic representation. I had to keep writing into it to understand it.
But then “Wild Beauty” was an archival timeline of a beautiful black movement ritual for MLK and the brilliant black dancers who shared time with me. “Blue Flag,” my piece writing to Wanda Coleman, and “On Commemoration” were probably the hardest pieces to write because they felt the most vulnerable. In both of these pieces, and maybe in all of them, it became crucial to find the form of writing. That became as much of what the book was about as the themes or events in the essays themselves. How the language was offering a shape for my memory/ my remembering and thinking.
You really see that in The Déjà Vu. I loved writing that so much and it was hard because I knew I wanted to talk about the moment of the writing—pandemic and uprising—and also that I wanted to introduce something to the reader of the wild play of the text and my interest in experiential echoes (of black feminist consciousness).
Alysia Sawchyn: I am delighted that you have a favorite essay. I often ask people if they have a favorite essay/story/character, and most people demur. Why is “Waves” your favorite?
Gabrielle Civil: “Waves” is my favorite because it reminded me of the power of writing to help us discover our own thinking and it also allowed me to be playful and joyful and imagine all the new movies that me and my friends could make. (We would remake Purple Rain and all of us would be Prince.)
Alysia Sawchyn: I would watch the hell out of that.
I really love the various synopses you provide; it’s like each one peels back another layer—ostensibly, ostensibly, ostensibly.
Gabrielle Civil: Ha! Those were fun to write too. It made me feel like maybe I would write a novel one day.
Yes to the peeling back of the layers. I also wonder if “Waves” was my favorite because I’m talking about myself but through the scrim of another artwork.
Alysia Sawchyn: I laughed out loud when I got to the “Boy, I’m not sure you should play this, Spencer K. Browns says to Kelvin…”
Gabrielle Civil: Yes! I’m in LA and want to send the book to Spencer and Kelvin.
My dream is to adapt this whole chronicle of performance body for a limited series: Swallow the Fish, Experiments in Joy, (ghost gestures), and The Déjà Vu. I haven’t seen a consciousness like mine in moving image and I’d love to make that adaptation.
“Waves” gestures to that. But so does a very old quiet piece like “The Spring Tour”—the kind of transformation that can take place in a long hallway with very simple objects. How artistic transformation can bring wonder and show under-noticed aspects of black women’s being.
Alysia Sawchyn: When you’re writing, is it a conscious choice to use one or the other? Or is it more organic? I’m thinking in particular of the shouting in “Tourist Art,” which was another wonderful moment, and, relatedly, do you think of that voice (or how do you think of that voice) as different from the “I” in, say, “Ostinato Vamps.”
Gabrielle Civil:I’d say it’s both/and. I do make some deliberate choices about things—the shouting in “Tourist Art” is one thing I knew I wanted—but other times it’s more organic. The language just falls the way that it does and when I try to change it, it resists me. I am an idiosyncratic writer. Ha! I talk about that a little in my letter to the reader at the end.
Oh but the voice in “Ostinato Vamps” and the shouting in “Tourist Art” they both are on the same continuum. I think they both are like me talking on the phone with a friend, where the cord is winding all around me in the kitchen and I’m making a sandwich or something and I’m totally getting into it and making you laugh and sharing gossip and shyly revealing my secrets
Alysia Sawchyn: I had a teacher who liked to make a distinction between “confessing” and “confiding” voices, and I think what you’re describing—the winding phone cord, the leaning in and sharing—is absolutely that confiding type. It’s like, “I’m showing you a side of myself not everyone gets to see,” but it’s not so messy as “confessing” where the reader feels like they need to like clean up afterward—so the reader feels let in on a secret and then turns page.
Gabrielle Civil: That distinction is so interesting! I want to think about that more. I’m way too reserved to be mainly confessional, but that transcript in the ~flashback~ in the middle of the book is soooo personal and confessional and feels so messy and painful. I worked hard to make it legible from the actual transcript that I had and then I could barely read it again during the copyediting/proofing process. It felt so raw.
Alysia Sawchyn: When I was writing my book there was one chapter that I just like nervous breakdown-ed the first three times i tried.
Gabrielle Civil: I hear you!!! How did you manage it?
Alysia Sawchyn: I used to smoke cigarettes, and I smoked a lot of cigarettes.
Gabrielle Civil: Ha! I ate a lot of coooookies
Alysia Sawchyn: That is now my go-to!
Gabrielle Civil: Which kind?
Alysia Sawchyn: All kinds! (But Milanos—orange, because i am a traditionalist)
Obviously, you’re influenced by and create so much art that isn’t written down, and so I am wondering a) what your drafts look like (handwritten? typed?) and how you deal with formatting and visual elements and also b) how that works in the publication process
Gabrielle Civil: (It’s Chessmen for me)
My drafts often start with scrawls in unlined notebooks, especially if I’m not sure exactly what the work will be about. Performances often start with drawings in pastel and diagrams or movements and images. When I want to move more directly into the realm of performance/ writing, I move into the computer. And I type things up and then print them out and work them over with a pen. Right now, my pen of choice is a Pilot Frixion erasable in .07, although my friend Madhu says that an erasable pen is an oxymoron.
Formatting is often a NIGHTMARE. Because all of my books are giant poems, and so the line breaks are deliberate (even in what should be paragraphs), but of course I’m typing on an 8 x 11 page before I even know the size of the book and so when a proof comes, the text is all over the place and it’s not the editor’s fault. It’s just that it’s super hard to translate the look of the work from one size to the other on the first pass. I often end up rebreaking lines to fit the size of the book.
Alysia Sawchyn: How does it work too with the black and white blank pages? Also the fonts!!
Gabrielle Civil: Oh thank you for that question because those pages are very important. Those pages are portals. (Bringing us back to the idea of magic where we began.)
Alysia Sawchyn: Oh i love that. Because it felt sometimes like this was secretly like five books, and those portals were like Whooooooooosh.
Gabrielle Civil: Yes! Exactly!
Alysia Sawchyn: I especially love that you can see them looking at the book when it’s shut, which is like a mystery before you start reading.
Gabrielle Civil: Right—they also look a little like geological striations which goes along with the idea of time when you look at the book from the side.
Alysia Sawchyn: Yes! Agate or something gorgeous.
Are you familiar at all with Anne Carson’s book Nox? I haven’t read it, but I think it’s a giant photocopy.
Gabrielle Civil: Oh, I love Nox. I got it when it first came out and I’m still reading it. It’s a huge time capsule. There’s so much there.
Alysia Sawchyn: Would that be the ideal publishing situation? Or do you like that work of translating the manuscript to the published book?
Gabrielle Civil: I think what would be ideal for me is developing a strong relationship with a publisher so we could talk a little about the design from the early stages of the book. Although I say that and I do like the freedom to play with form as I write (because I don’t always know as I’m making the work) and a lot of good things happen in the translation (tightening and expansion).
The other book that is a huge photocopy though that I love is “The Diary of Frida Kahlo: an Intimate Portrait.” It shows her drawings and writing just as they were and it is SO GORGEOUS. I’m prepping a volume of my Mexico performance writing, and so I’ve had that book with me as a talisman. I love it and I love her so much.
Alysia Sawchyn: Yes, I want to visit her house so badly!
Gabrielle Civil: I was blessed to live in Mexico, and so I went myself and then with friends when they came to visit. It is deeply inspiring.
Alysia Sawchyn: I am curious—I know we’ve been in the pandemic forever, but when I first started reading this I was like, “Wow when did you write this!” Obviously, it’s a span of years, once you get further in, but it seemed almost like there was a conscious choice to write as close to the now as possible, like, the Gabrielle of X date, the Gabrielle of Y date, but all with an awareness of the VERY MOMENT a reader will encounter the text.
Gabrielle Civil: Thank you for that, Alysia. It means a lot to me how closely you’ve read this book.
Absolutely. I was obsessed, really this book possessed me. It was such a terrible time and I felt like the only way I could get through it was to write into it, write of it.
I had only been living in LA (already a notoriously lonely city) for a year or so when the pandemic began. I was living alone far away from my family and closest friends and even my dear friends in LA were really far. I was forbidden from seeing them so all I had was Zoom (and those squares of conscious being—like the stanzas in “these bodies don’t touch” and my massive notebook where I was writing different sections of The Déjà Vu. It saved my sanity because it gave me something to do.
And the new writing about pandemic and uprising and LA created a scaffold to understand my subjectivity in earlier moments (like my hysterectomy and going into the academy). A lot of the book deals with contemplating my life choices at a time of intense social crisis: Did I do the right thing by not going to Paris and instead teaching at a women’s college in the Upper Midwest?
Alysia Sawchyn: Oh wow so it was the frame.
Gabrielle Civil: Right.
Alysia Sawchyn: Isn’t it funny how with nonfiction it’ll be like this random-ass thing that makes the book click? Obviously the pandemic is not random but like—you can’t create that situation for yourself, you’re just living life and then life makes sense of the earlier lives.
Gabrielle Civil: Nonfiction is gangsta. Nonfiction forces you to recognize and forge the structure of your life. (Of course so does poetry!)
Oh yeah to the other lives. That part can be painful but healing too.
And I want to give love to the novelists and fiction writers too.
Alysia Sawchyn: We should put that on a mug: “recognize and forge the structure of your life.”
Gabrielle Civil: It’ll be a set along with NONFICTION IS GANGSTA cause that’s the real truth.
Alysia Sawchyn: We are somehow pushing to the end of the hour! Okay one small question and then the classic final question:
a) YOU HAVE A SYLLABUS!!! How do you envision it as distinct from the note/acknowledgements?
b) What are some of the books you are reading and loving right now?
Gabrielle Civil: Oooh! I always love to leave a trail of books in my books, because books are created and create other books. That syllabus is a love letter to the books (and songs) that helped make The Déjà Vu and give a curious reader even more insight into the themes and vibe.
I am reading soooo many books right now because Santa was good to me. Anais Anaís Duplans’ I Need Music, The Sculptures of Jack Whitten, Frida Kahlo’s Diary (gotta say that one again), Gabrielle Union’s new memoir (I was walking to it this morning), and I finished Station Eleven because I’m into the show and knew the book was probably better
I also have Casey Plett’s new book by my bedside. She’s so amazing. And if people haven’t read Rosamond S. King’s new collection All the Rage they definitely should!
Okay I know we have to stop but these are a few on my table
Alysia Sawchyn: A fantastic reading list! Thank you so so so much for your time this evening and for creating The Déja Vu and sharing it with the world.
Gabrielle Civil: Thank you Alysia. It was a honor to be a selection for the Rumpus Book Club! Me and the book together lol.
Photograph of Gabrielle Civil by Dennie Eagleson.