We’re more powerful if we’re not so embroiled in illusion: A Conversation with Irene Silt

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Power, anti-work feeling, joy, and deviance are all themes found in Irene Silt’s writing. Earlier this fall they released two books through Deluge Press, an avant-garde publishing newcomer run by Hannah Baer, Cyrus Dunham, and Emily Segal: The Tricking Hour, essays about sex workers against work, intimacy, and bending time; and My Pleasure, an unerotic poetry collection covering love, sex, and boundaryless bodies.

Heralded by P.E. Moskowitz, Tourmaline, and Jackie Wang, both books gesture towards diffused scenes of bedrooms, clubs, and wastelands where the authority of work dissolves like aspirin in a glass of water. We watch cold neon light shine on the warmth of blurring bodies. Their essays and poems have been published in Mask Magazine, ANTIGRAVITY, Spoil, LESTE, Trou Noir, Poiesis Journal, and in the Tripwire pamphlet series.

I recently spoke with Silt about their new books to understand breaking down dichotomies, the wordlessness of pleasure, anti-work politics, and what the tricking hour really is.

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The Rumpus: How did these two books come to be?

Irene Silt: “The Tricking Hour” was a column that I started writing in New Orleans. I wrote a couple of write-ups about organizing we had been doing in response to raids on the strip clubs on Bourbon Street. A good friend of mine had been writing a really beautiful column on sex work in the same magazine, ANTIGRAVITY, called “Light Work.” She decided to close that and end her time writing for the magazine, and one of the editors, Beck Levy, asked me to take up the subject of sex work and politics. Since I was already coming from a certain political lens on the subject, we made it into a column. I basically wrote an essay a month spanning a lot of different topics. I would ask myself a question that I didn’t know the answer to and spend a lot of time reading, thinking, and mostly talking to other people about the topic and try to make some kind of sense out of it. Then I wrote one more recently, just last year, called “Feelings.” When Deluge approached me, originally they approached me to publish My Pleasure, partially because the editors liked “The Tricking Hour” so much and so I mentioned they could put it out. “The Tricking Hour” had been put out by Tripwire in a sort of free zine format. I told Deluge they could publish it again if they wanted. I was interested in pushing a sort of anti-work sex work position that could be understood by anyone and appeal to different sensibilities and offer insight into something that feels like a difference but could be mitigated by anecdotal theory.

Rumpus: Was My Pleasure written around the same time?

Silt: I’ve always written poetry and more experimental essays before The Tricking Hour and I think you can see how I got better at writing over the course of the book. My Pleasure was a more intentional time. I started doing a bunch of poetry workshops. I took poetry and my study of poetry a little more seriously in order to write the book and I just had a lot of really intense psycho-physical experiences, which allowed me to write.

Before I wrote The Tricking Hour, most of my writing was about the subject of wastelands and I would travel to a lot of superfund sites and I lived in New Orleans which is already in itself a progression and deterioration of the earth and is like a largely forgotten dumpsite in a lot of ways. I also spent a lot of time really deep in the wilderness so I would go ten, twenty miles into the backcountry and have a lot of physical exhaustion to power a kind of deeper access to a place in my body from which I write.

Sex work and the strip club and other things I write about—like being in jail, sex, self, rioting—a lot of My Pleasure was written during a time when my mother was very ill and in the hospital and I was taking care of her—all those experiences are getting to the same thing, the kind of sewer of our lives and what makes possible life. I aim to take myself back to those places and to inhabit that kind of forbidden zone. It’s less about understanding myself and about getting to something before you can understand anything. A lot of my self-development is about questioning whether something I’m doing or something I believe in is a coping mechanism or something I feel truly principled in.

         

Rumpus: What is the importance of breaking down dichotomies in your work?

Silt: If you get close enough to anything you see how it is porous. A path to liberation or a method of freeing yourself includes really breaking down those constraints within yourself. It may sound trite but it’s pretty amazing how so much that dictates our every move is such a sham or erected to distract us from the power of life. Some of my earlier writing around wastelands and wilderness comes up in the book. It’s the source of a lot of dichotomy, if something is designated as wilderness it makes the pretext of a waste-site. But in a more Eastern way of thought, the constant division of things only makes things more full.

Rumpus: You touch on jiu-jitsu as a practice a few times in The Tricking Hour.

Silt: Also a good way to talk about dichotomies. There’s always a push and a pull. Most of it is executed through attachment—how you’re making contact with your opponent. Unlike striking, it’s also progressive, you’re hitting closer and closer and more and more attached. It’s definitely a large part of my life and also at the same time, another place I like to go to disappear a bit from everything else.

Rumpus: But it also seems like a form of embodiment.

Silt: Not disappearing, more like… I have been interested in a fact about my life, which is that I often go into different places with different groups of consistently committed people where almost no one knows anything about me outside of that place and no one else from other places in my life knows about that place I’m in. It’s definitely a thing about sex work that’s very common. I don’t think it fractures the world at all; it sort of just makes you more aware of how full the world is.

Rumpus: In My Pleasure you talk about “the wordlessness of pleasure.” That rang really true to me.

Silt: Quantifying [pleasure] through language is not your first urge. In sex work the commodification of sex requires so much infrastructure around it and I know I have the ability to convince almost anything of anyone through the power of argument or through research or fact or logic but I know that when something is really good there’s no need to speak. It truly relies on feeling and actually just being able to wait until that feeling builds or changes or evolves before anything is said. This is the big thing about jiu-jitsu—instead of processing everything around you as data and looking for that kind of interpretation, you just allow your body to continue onto the next step physically and chemically. I know that the thickest, heaviest, most magical experiences I’ve had in sex work are when I can actually recognize that that is what I’m creating. It’s not a brand, I’m not tricking someone—I’m actually wielding something that exists and is not safe. Which is not to say that’s the best way of going about sex work; most of those experiences are so powerful and scary most people will probably scare someone. You have to be careful about how much pleasure you show someone in a client relationship.

Rumpus: Your own pleasure or someone else’s?

Silt: Both. True pleasure cannot be commodified. You can’t hold it over someone; it’s not for trade. Because it’s not in anyone’s control, we want to close in on it. In the poem “My Pleasure,” a lot of that comes from a personal exasperation in my life outside of work having sex and still being called upon to articulate. Don’t get me wrong—speaking about sex and communication is extremely important. But we become really self-conscious and scared about what we’re doing to each other, which often can come to a halt through demanding a certain kind of feedback that we’re used to in every other aspect of our life.

Rumpus: How do you construct your poems formally? There are a lot of commands and hanging prepositions.

Silt: I really do like commands. I like exploring—it’s probably around an interest in power and getting away from a really surface level of power that is just something people have over each other. Obviously, I do a lot of recalling of relation. I’m recalling a lot of experiences or feelings in which I’m almost addressing a supposed person. I just like to break that down more and more, so I start to understand that what I’m feeling is never confined to one place, person, dynamic, or interaction. It’s usually coming from a very old place. Most of our emotions and feelings, while often catalyzed by another person or moment, they’re often emerging from another place entirely. I kind of like to play with the infinitive and to play with using as few words as possible. That’s probably the majority of the editing I do: cutting things off. “My Pleasure,” the poem, is the first section of the book I wrote, so it has more narrative qualities and more in general—it just has more words. It’s very vast in its subject matter and it’s actually less disjointed than the rest of the book. I have a tendency to want to control and repress emotions within myself so taking on a dominant position, not over something but within a dynamic, maybe allows me to access those emotions in a way that feels more safe.

I was somewhat surprised when my poetry was described as being erotic—which is absurd— there’s so much about sex in it. It’s not really a judgement; it’s just a fact—but it’s because a lot of what people associate with sex has been obliterated out of that sole action and dispersed into any way I may entangle myself with any kind of relation or pursuit.

Rumpus: In “Private Booth,” you talk about needing another to differentiate the self. What are you getting at when you talk about the loss of distinct selfhood?

Silt: There’s something really basic about it—the need to separate ourselves from the process of life and birth and how to survive enmeshment and attachment and how to work out the tragedies of mortality and abjection. I’m much less preoccupied by sex and it is probably better seen as I write a lot about abjection. That’s kind of the place I’m always going—I’m seeking out an experience in which I can, through dissolving and no longer seeing or feeling these boundaries, realize it’s just not as important to be a discrete constituted self. Freedom lies there. The ways in which we are made into subjects is one of the most violent processes during our existence. It’s not to say that some of them aren’t vital or essential to life but it’s good to know and not be so scared at the potential of those things breaking down.

Rumpus: Can you talk more about the “sex workers against work” position these books take?

Silt: It’s a position that some friends and I are trying to elaborate on in order to strike a different vein in sex worker theory and organizing that is differentiated from an interest of constituting sex work as work just like everything else in order to gain visibility or political power within democracy, and instead thinking about why it is we do this work. Why have we found ourselves here? Why is this our means of survival? I think largely [this position] is interested in strategies that actually entail the end of work and not just the end of stigma. We’re not interested in sex work becoming a more viable way of existing within capitalism and instead not necessarily claiming sex work is in and of itself a revolutionary activity, but how are we orienting ourselves towards revolution in all aspects of our lives including the work we do?

Rumpus: Do you think there’s overlap between abolition and writing?

Silt: Real abolition and good writing both take risks and do not look to the circumstances we are currently trapped in as a measure of the potential for life.

Rumpus: How do you define the tricking hour?

Silt: Time is a material that is extremely well utilized by sex workers and whores to its last drop. I don’t even remember how I came up with that title. It kind of speaks to the lack of linear time and also a skillful manipulation of it. We exist in this margin of time between the normal functioning of capitalism and we kind of balance out their work life through entertainment and pleasure, so that already situates us in the nighttime. “Non-working hours.” Sometimes you just do not have enough time to work a full-time job. The tricking hour is every hour but it’s also only the hour that you’re in. It’s just the beginning thought of, What is happening in this simultaneous reality that is an integral part of the functioning of so many social norms? There’s an undeniable sensation of nightlife, of being awake consistently overnight, there’s an aspect of sleep deprivation, and all these collisions of the ways people order time. Of course, as we move forward in contemporary times, we’re all very aware of the complete collapse of time.

Everything has kind of upset both the clock and our ability to keep time as actual beings of the earth. It’s very specific that we live on earth; there’s a reason we have a twenty-four hour clock but because of work, we’re completely estranged from that so the actual functioning of our bodies becomes manipulated. That really quickly becomes super psychedelic. You start to see the cracks and you live in the cracks and things just start to get really weird. I think that’s the scary part about the impulse to manage crime and areas of cities that feel threatening to order or families or governance. The raids that lead to gentrification and sanitation—those things exist because of the power and strength of areas where people are extremely exposed to crumbling society. We’re actually much more powerful if we’re not so embroiled in illusion.

Rumpus: What is it like to attempt to transmute different emotions into text, like anger for instance?

Silt: With The Tricking Hour I aimed to move forward through proposals that incite the spirit of rebellion. I do the same at work; move the client forward into a novel and addictive sensual experience, into spending more money, into planning the next session. This forward trajectory can leave my own emotions in a private zone to be dealt with later. They present as inconveniences or obstacles. When we lose the ability to use emotions as regulatory sensations, feelings are wielded against us as weapons. The emotions of others gain control over us. Anger is an important emotion but it is one of the most difficult to use with tact. I wanted to understand my anger by admitting to it, seeing where it originates, and what it has become so that I may forgive myself and use my anger instead of just simply having it. I read a lot of stoics such as Seneca in preparation for this essay, read a lot of my friends’ tweets, read some Deleuze, and surrendered to the moments when I felt most powerless. I am a bit stuck in the tension between violence and love.

Rumpus: How do you think the State constricts “love,” or ability to “live freely and lightly”? I think we touched on this but would be curious to hear more.

Silt: Love as we have it in capitalism is a complicated network of emotion, financial need, and violence. How we share our lives, bodies, and fortunes is controlled by the state. Laws can easily fool one into thinking that falling into line is desirable. That if we have somehow avoided capture, imprisonment, and are afforded privileges then we have a good life. It’s like George Jackson’s question: Is it our personal desire to live long or chance living right? There is no love under the state, only the beginnings of it. You have seen love grow, but always to its demise one way or another, weighed down by what we can and cannot afford. What we need to do to get by is not good for love. The prostitutes who occupied the Saint-Nizier church in Lyons, France, said it so well. We want to be able to afford love and to discover love. We want to do it now, and we don’t want the law in our way.

Rumpus: “To confuse love with a crisis,” is such a touching line. What did you mean by that?

Silt: Love is just extremely terrifying and kind of abysmal. The processing of emotions not in order to use them or forget them or to make them less powerful—but to be able to live with them and to recognize them and allow them to be there without shame or fear—that’s an acquired skill. That’s the answer to your first question about whether something is a coping mechanism or an actual practice that allows you to live more fully, which I do believe includes love. To live fully you must experience love. Experiencing love does bring us much closer to the ability to fight against destructive forces, and that is really scary. There’s a lot at stake there that is dangerous and it requires sacrifice. And when you are doing something out of desperation it can just happen, but if you’re doing something out of love, you have to be much more self-aware. The good things, the beautiful and nourishing things can feel really scary because I don’t really feel like I have the proper neural pathways to process love and affection. If we’re motivated by survival and survival means reproducing ourselves in capitalism, love is not actually very compatible with capitalism and the more we fall in love, the more we have to find new ways of survival. And they’re much better. It’s so scratchy; it’s really painful because it necessitates transformation.

 

 

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Author photo courtesy of author


Grace Byron is a writer from Indianapolis based in Brooklyn. She used to make films. Her writing and work has appeared in the Baffler, LARB, Triangle House Review, and Xtra. She’s working on a novel about conversion therapy. She tweets @emotrophywife. More from this author →