A reflection on reflection: An interview with Katherine Indermaur
There’s a pun at the heart of Katherine Indermaur’s wonderful and illuminating book, I|I, an extended lyric-essay that is at once a reflection on reflection, a memoir in mirrors, and an excavation of that defining object of our daily lives—the looking glass. Winner of the 2022 Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize, chosen by Kazim Ali, I|I is at once a meditation on the author’s own fraught relationship with mirrors and a gripping adventure in thought that illuminates that ubiquitous companion, the mirror, even as its author interrogates the act of looking and language, image, reflection, sight, and the nature of self. Ranging widely over history, myth, fairytale, etymology, psychology, literature, religion, and personal history, Indermaur achieves in I|I what all the best essayists do—she makes the familiar seem extraordinary again and invites the reader along on the journey. Reading I|I, I was struck by Indermaur’s witty, sincere, intimate erudition, which recalls Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Like Bluets, it’s a small marvel.
The book serves as a sort of looking glass for contemporary culture, holding up a mirror to our image-obsessed age of ubiquitous selfies and social-media posts. In it, Indermaur takes a hard look at mirrors, which divide us against ourselves, holding their gaze and the culture’s with a long look that heals the self-divided self, embracing, like Whitman, its contradictory multitudes. A reckoning with image, it is a reflection on reflection itself.
After reading it, I won’t look at mirrors the same way again; you won’t either.
The Rumpus: There’s an uncanny quality in great art that makes it seem that it has always been here. Your lyric examination of the mirror in I/I has that quality for me, like it should have been here. Can you talk a bit about the genesis of the project? You’re a poet; how did you come to write an extended, lyric essay on mirrors, on looking?
Katherine Indermaur: Mirrors first began appearing in my poetry while I was in graduate school for creative writing, and I quickly became fascinated by them: Where did they come from? Why are they so ubiquitous now? What do we know about mirrors versus what we believe about them? I knew there was more to explore on the topic, so after grad school, I conducted a lot of research, which turned into notes, which generated more writing that eventually became a book.
As far as the form I|I takes, I so appreciate your comparison to Bluets, because that was a huge influence for me. I was also heavily influenced by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, Heather Christle’s The Crying Book, and Paisley Rekdal’s “Nightingale: A Gloss.” There is a rigor necessitated by the extended form of a book-length piece that wants to take on a topic as big as mirrors, or the color blue (Bluets), or crying (The Crying Book), etc., but the factual pieces of these topics intersect with what’s personally meaningful to the author in generative and wondrous ways. These works inspired me to meet high lyricism with the deep research you see in I|I.
Rumpus: I’m struck by the delightful lightness of your erudition, the punning leaps and linguistic play throughout. The material is at times harrowing, but there’s a tonic, even a radical joy in the language and in looking here; even as this records a painful reckoning for the narrator.
I wonder if you could talk about the role of delight in the lyric essay and in this project.
Indermaur: Because of the liminal place it occupies in genre, the lyric essay strikes me as an inherently playful form. This is true even when it takes on very serious topics, as here, with mirrors’ effect on human psychology. I also think that I|I, more than anything I’ve ever written, is a manifestation of how my brain works. There is so much curiosity driving I|I, and I think that curiosity often comes across, like you say, as “lightness.”
I can’t see the word “delight” these days without thinking of Ross Gay’s fabulous Book of Delights [interviewed in The Rumpus, February 2019] also a work of nonfiction by a poet, and also a practice that takes the writer from the page to the world and back and forth again. Gay taught me that radical joy has to reckon with pain, that we can’t disentangle them without risking misunderstanding our human experience.
Rumpus: One of the threads in I|I is the history of damage done by mirrors. You write about seventeenth-century Venetian glass workers poisoned by the mercury and tin; the paralysis of Narcissus; the narrator’s compulsion to rend their skin in dermatillomania.
At the same time, you offer a counter to that damaging past by proposing a practice, repeatedly, throughout the book. This seems intended to counter the unreflective habit of mirror gazing, to urge us to resist passive acceptance of the image. Can you talk about that exhortation to a practice?
Indermaur: The practices were inspired by CA Conrad’s “(Soma)tic writing exercises” from the 2014 book Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness. In I|I, they tell the reader to do things like using a mirror to test whether someone is breathing, or using sticky notes to number all the reflective surfaces in your home to reveal “How many you you live with. How many you you are.” Part of my interest in writing I|I was in healing—what it is, what it looks like, and through the practices, how ritual has historically played a major role in our healing. Through this lens, the aim of the practices is to instruct the reader to engage with their body in very specific ways as not just a reprieve from so much thinking, but also to fully inhabit the body and mind together as one experience. That inhabitation, that reunification, feels to me like healing.
Rumpus: Is this question of mirrors a gendered matter? You describe a curious experiment in which the subject has the number 3 written on their forehead, while their eyes are closed, then the subject is asked to state whether the figure written is an E or a 3. Men and women respond to this differently. Could you talk about that?
Indermaur: I think it’s more that the cultural expectation of appearance is gendered, which in turn has disparate, drastic effects on our psychological experiences with the mirror. (To me, culture feels like the psychology of a society made manifest.) I’m thinking of Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s poem “Mirror,” which begins—after an epigraph from Sylvia Plath’s poem of the same name—“You immaculate bitch of glass.” In Plath’s, which is written in the voice of the mirror, “A woman bends over me, / Searching my reaches for what she really is…. / She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.” Although male poets have also written on the tyranny of the mirror, Griffiths’s and Plath’s poems have such feminine anxiety driving them. I mean, there’s a reason it’s Snow White’s evil mother (in the Grimms’ version, or stepmother in Disney’s) chanting “Mirror, Mirror on the wall / Who’s the fairest of them all?” I can’t help but think about how the Christian masculine God is thought to use His mirror, in Roman de la Rose, to see everything but Him—yet both of these mirrors are considered magic.
We see these effects wreak havoc today as teenage girls’ mental health suffers due to the way social media confronts them with idealized female appearance and how their own appearance falls short of that ideal via selfies distorted by in-app filters. Teenage boys don’t struggle with the same issue at the same level. This is why I find the feminization of Griffiths’s mirror—“immaculate bitch”—so interesting. Magnifying mirrors, which I talk about in the book, perpetuate the lie that you can make your skin’s pores disappear with the right kind of makeup and the right kind of attention. Those are for sure the bitchiest mirrors!
Rumpus: There’s poignant punctuation throughout the book; in particular, you make repeated use of the Sheffer stroke—which you explain is a vertical slash from mathematics, which designates divisibility and also negation—by which you indicate self-division (I|I, my|my). I couldn’t help thinking how like a razor blade that punctuation mark is! How did you arrive at that? Can you talk about that choice?
Indermaur: Ooh a razor blade—I love that! (It reminds me of Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer”: “Tell them you’re a walking blade.”) I initially started using the vertical slash as a way to perform the mirror’s tyranny within the text. The reader is thus confronted by this punctuation mark that resembles the surface of the mirror and generates its same doubling with these personal pronouns, like you mention, throughout the book. But two things started to happen when I began using the vertical slash. The first was that the way I wanted to use it changed throughout the book, which wrought a poetic drama through that change. The second was that I realized I’d better bring the same kind of rigor I was bringing to the subject matter to this slash.
I did some research on how the vertical slash was used in different contexts, and fell in love with the Sheffer stroke. I always introduce the Sheffer stroke when I give readings from I|I, because it helps put the title into context and helps audience members visualize the repeated, stuttering pronouns in the book when I read them aloud. The Sheffer stroke means nand, not and—essentially, that either item astride the stroke can be true, or both can be false, but both cannot simultaneously be true.
I just love it when things work out like that in writing, when they begin to make sense sort of independent of me.
Rumpus: To follow up on that question, there’s a tonic shift to other punctuation later in the book that feels almost musical, like a shift from minor to major key, but from the start you employ my|self. Could you talk about that? My|self seems to be doing distinctly different work than I|I and my|my.
Indermaur: Yes, this is part of that change over time, the drama of the vertical slash. It’s like it has its own subplot! I had an instinct to use the vertical slash that way in the middle of the word myself, and I honestly didn’t interrogate that decision much at the time. Looking back, I think that has to do with the presence of “self” inside that word. “Myself” already sounds like it’s those two words, so the split between them isn’t hard to perceive. Also the use of the mirror’s surface here, if we are to read the vertical slash that way, is not to replicate but to cleave. Reading the vertical slash as the Sheffer stroke (nand), the slash in that word makes it impossible for us to claim the self. In a way, claiming the self is both what the mirror encourages us to do while also making that claiming completely impossible. The self becomes illusory.
Rumpus: We learn at an early age to watch ourselves (cue Lacan’s mirror stage), but your book seems to move us toward an ethics of the mirror more akin to that proposed by Levinas.
Could you talk about the ethics of the mirror, as you develop or explore it here? Or the possibility of a new way of experiencing the mirror and the other in it?
Indermaur: This is an incredibly interesting question, and likely more interesting in its question form than any answer I can muster, though I will try. The mirror raises many ethical questions—about self and other, about appearance and reality, about dichotomies and paradoxes, and about how meaningful any of those distinctions really are. The fact that the mirror drives us toward these questions says a lot about how self-obsession can really be a gateway to self-expansion, or, at the very least, to the interconnectedness of things. The mirror gifts us with the perception of the other, but primarily to see only ourselves. How doubly lonely!
I talk in the book about what I call “childseeing”: “I|I try to see my|self as a child, have patience with her when she’s tired and sorry…” In the mirror, because of how light travels and how the brain works, we are always seeing our past selves, though of course a more immediate past than in childhood. Perhaps that gap, of space and of time, leaves space for a little mercy. Immediacy is not healing. We need distance to see.
Rumpus: Is there a link to be made between I|I and our contemporary surveillance culture, which arguably encourages us—via social media in particular—to learn to love being watched and to watch ourselves? How has writing this changed your relationship to mirrors and/or to social media, if it has?
Indermaur: Your question has me immediately thinking of two things. The first is a recent study that determined that being able to see yourself on your computer screen during a virtual meeting was proven to cause a measurable distraction for participants. So I’m not the only one who, in a virtual meeting, finds myself spending as much or more time looking at my own image compared to those of the other people in the meeting! The second is these artificial intelligence-based apps that are cropping up that ask users to upload selfies, which the apps turn into similarly artificial renderings that look like fan art or semi-pornographic, futuristic cartoons. That one feels like a predictable progression from the filters people use over their selfies, which I mentioned earlier.
I read Jia Tolentino’s essay collection Trick Mirror recently (it’s not literally about mirrors—a sort of coincidental title, here), which interrogates this very aspect of social media—how we basically have to be seen and consider how to present ourselves (make a profile) before being able to see (scroll through our Facebook or Instagram feeds). And this is exacerbated by the way social media platforms’ algorithms work, by showing us what they’ve determined we want to see or what will make us spend more time on the app. Those determinations are made by what we share and how we otherwise behave on the app. Performativity is a necessary condition of presence and perception. You can’t just exist on social media; you have to perform existence. All this makes me think about what privacy even means anymore, especially to the generations who grew up with social media. Even choosing privacy can’t escape performativity these days; to eschew a presence on the internet is equally a choice.
As you indicate, this makes it hard for social media users to distinguish between one’s life and how one’s life looks to others. Spend enough time on your Twitter account and you start to think in 280 characters. It’s that influencers’ joke, “Everything is content.” What if everything is just, well, everything? Why should we need more?
Author photo by Diane Kelly