Thursday, March 4, 2021

Emily Abendroth : How to Be Broken Open and Not Be Broken, An Interview with Tessa Micaela


Tessa Micaela and I conducted this interview via email in June 2020. The causes of its occasion were several-fold: Tessa’s new book where bells begin had been published in November 2019 and I was using it as a core text for a class I was teaching called Genre Bending/Gender Bending in spring semester of 2020. During that class, my students and I had the exquisite privilege of having Tessa come visit to read from and talk about the work with us while we were studying it. During that visit, I also facilitated a small Q&A with Tessa about their process in creating this manuscript and the myriad of ways in which it did and did not overlap with other concerns, efforts, and projects that Tessa has been engaged in across this past decade.

Happily, I have had the opportunity to know about some of that history by more than just hearsay. Tessa and I met in the city of Philadelphia where we were part of shared literary, activist, and queer communities. We’ve read together on numerous occasions over the years and have tried to encourage one another’s carving of a creative and meaningful life. I’ve followed Tessa as a writer (of prior books of poetry like there are boxes and there is wanting) and as an editor (of journals like Hold and Never on Time). And sometimes we’ve had the shared luxury of stepping outside our daily routines to attempt (in the form of DIY writing retreats) to forge both lives of the imagination and words on a page alike. On one or two of those occasions, I had the chance to see early drafts of where bells begin, before it became the published Rescue Press manuscript that readers can now hold in their hands. All of which just added to my curiosity regarding how this work grew and developed and was shaped, including how it may have shaped Tessa in turn.

The sociologist Avery Gordon defines haunting as “an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known, sometimes very directly, sometimes more obliquely.” As such, haunting can serve as a pointing mechanism toward “singular and yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind field comes into view.” I found myself reading Tessa’s where bells begin with the constant feeling that I was being gifted an exquisite contact point with the layers of social, economic, and historical haunting that so deeply mark our collective contemporary moment.

The central figure of these poems “o” has “the hardest time holding it all together” and struggles – as we all do – to picture the “power and structures and systems” that hold such an outsized influence over the city and the relationships that o lives within. This struggle bears all the difficult and hard-to-finger weight that comes with trying to see something clearly, as if from afar, while being located dead in the center of it all. o’s dogged and tender efforts in this regard allow us readers to repeatedly “encounter our own hesitance” and – given that “we too, might have hands or have legs” – to use that space of overlap to resonate with o’s experiences of vibration and numbness, of desire and its absence, of the concurrent needs for stillness and swift motion, of the horrible mechanical banality of direct deposit paychecks and the terror of their end. Like o, we too are people who want things to hold onto, but also find it “soothing to go missing instead.”

EA: One of the projects you were working on most recently was created in the midst of the current shelter-in-place or quarantine demands that have been instituted across the country in the wake of the global outbreak of Covid-19. The project was titled “the analog map of (un)necessary survival strategies” and its end result was a paper map of names and phone numbers available to be consulted for (un)necessary tools, services, and entertainment. These offerings included 3-minute dance parties and dad jokes; knitting patterns and tiny concerts; book recommendations and blush worthy complements; and so much more.

It made me wonder, how analogue was your drafting process for “where bells begin”? How digital? At what phases? And how much did those choices matter?

TM: The analog map of (un)necessary survival strategies is a revamped version of the resource list put out by the punk DIY theater crew of the Missoula Oblongata. That resource list provided a web of once or twice removed strangers who could offer baking recipes, bike maintenance, etc. and lived on refrigerators in collective houses I lived in or visited through the last 15 years. (There is one still on the fridge of Fancy House in Philadelphia, I think). In the moment of physical isolation from Covid-19, and the intensity (and fatigue) from digital connection, Chenda Cope and I decided it was time to create a little artifact to remind folks that there is a stranger with a great tip on what to make for breakfast or videos of sheep as a buoy to the moment of fear, isolation, confusion, scarcity so many of those we know and don’t know were (and are still) experiencing. The analog element felt important – we were working to remind ourselves that there were other ways to be, more than the containment of being in front of a screen or in tactile contact with the same pieces from the day before and the day before that. It also came from wanting to send missives through the mail – at the moment when it seemed like the USPS was going to be defunded and people were desperate for contact that had some aspect of touch to it.

I was reading an article about intimacy in times of isolation and in it there was a description of the ways our brains interpret people on video chat as less trustworthy (more unsafe) than in person. The lack of eye contact, the subtle lags in timing, the dulling of the tiny movements of the face and breath signal to our mirror neurons that something is amiss (mis-attuned) and create the effect of more alienation and disconnection. Phone calls, said the article, allowed people to hear one another’s breath and to have a better sense that their interlocutor was in the room with them, better than with video. Our hope with the analog map of (un)necessary survival strategies was that people would get a surprise bit of co-regulation. By making a phone call to a stranger and having a tiny moment of intimacy, there would be the potential somatic experience of surprise connection, not to mention a counter to the constant digital activities of quarantine. I don’t know how many folks have made phone calls, and I wonder if our increased digital world made the comfort or propensity to cold call even further from our grasps.

In some tangential way, where bells begin is interested in the moments of somatic intimacy and alienation. My own relationship to digital processes, and screens, certainly showed up in the writing of it. I’m a luddite, in a big way. Most of my writing processes begin on the page, because tactility and the relationship between the ink strokes and my breath feel important to follow the threads that emerge. As more clear sections of the book came to be, and certainly at pivotal draft-moments of the manuscript, I would print everything out and work on the page as tactile object. It felt important to hold the object in my hands and then to speak the words out loud (to hold words in my mouth) and inevitably, I’d end up spreading things out all over the floor to rearrange, cut pages in half, move single lines from one place to another. Partly it’s me – I can’t think as well looking at a rectangle with blue light. And mostly it was about o – o already doesn’t fit. In working with the longing for o’s place, the dissonance/alienation felt more exaggerated when working with actual pieces of paper. What I mean is, the ability to hold o (as body/letter/name) in my hands made the experience of o’s struggle with (dis)location louder. The physicality of a book/of reading from a book is a somatic process that is unique (special) and as I wrote where bells begin, I needed the editing to be rooted in that experience. I am a firm believer in process and the way that process/making shows up in the end, even as just a felt-specter on the final text.

EA: As someone who was lucky enough to have the privilege of seeing a few portions of this manuscript during earlier stages of its drafting, I was really struck by how much more spare and breathy the look and page space turned out to be in its final published form. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how those shifts in composition happened and what led to them (maybe you even have an earlier incarnation of a page or two that you could show us by way of visual example). I have some thoughts about what this new material  spaciousness allows me as a reader, but I’m curious about what it allowed you as the writer?

I’m also curious about the figure of o and how o may have changed or developed across the drafting stages as well. I love the way you’ve talked elsewhere about o as someone/something whose figuration on the page fuses name, gender, and body as one – while also simultaneously implying action, in the form of mouthing. Was o always o in the various iterations of this text? How did you arrive at o, via what paths or journeys?

TM: At a certain point I started listening to o, and it turns out o needed more space.

This project had all these different iterations, and even as they were unfolding I’m not sure I entirely understood them. At first there were a lot of I’s and we’s and commands (take it luxuriously) and lots more details about the locations, sensations, interactions, visceral experiences in it. And, as you mention, long sections were compressed and knotted and placed in text blocks on the page. The shifts in compression and space came gradually, but the instinct to open up and parse down came after I arrived on o. Which leads me to admit that I don’t know how o arrived. I do know there was a mirroring process that emerged – a slow transition towards o that lead to me relinquishing all other pronouns and figures. Eventually, it felt like if I were to fully commit to what I felt this o character was asking, I was required to turn towards o. That required cutting out the other (unnecessary?) figures. To be honest, it felt like wrestling - or what I imagine those wrestlers feel in those holds that look like hungry embraces. I felt too close in – the images I was transposing from my own world onto the page and then the overlaps with o’s world were all a little too close for me to actually see o or to see the world o looked back at me from. I started replacing all the I’s and you’s and we’s with o and things became more clear. (Not all the we’s consented to being erased!) But after that I found that I (me, the writer) was still in a starved embrace that did not allow me to see the terrain. I suppose what I mean is I couldn’t get a sense of o’s shape amidst the images and details and markings all piled up on one another and around o. It’s like, those things were what was o was wading thru, but to do o justice I had to erase enough to be able to make the wading visible.

The moments needed to be broken apart. The moments o was moving through were piled on each other, and there was something necessary about that, but I struggled because all the piling up told too much of a linear story. o’s experience is one that is disparate, dissonant, hard to grasp. To glimpse at it, albeit sideways, I felt like it needed to be less busy, less overwhelming to allow access to the overwhelm and tumbling that is o. That is to say, I had to work not to locate o, to be able to evoke the dislocation of o’s experience, body, relations, homing. I started cutting things up and spreading them out.

Bear with me, but I think of the process that this book took like the process the brain goes thru when sleeping. There is so much input of each day and it’s impossible to hold onto all of it. When we sleep (if we sleep) our brain sifts thru those experiences, discarding some and putting others into memory “drawers” depending on how they registered on our nervous system (or how they smelled!) to begin with. It was like after many years of sifting and sorting, I felt I needed to make space and slow down everything to be able to have access to o. I had a version of this that was the one right before the final version that was still really compressed, and I had this sensation of o being obscured more than necessary. o is already so obscure, you know? And so I played with slowing down – a lesson from somatics is that slowing down will give you access to so much information you didn’t even know you were bypassing with such speed – and it was such a relief to me. Like o and I were released from our psychic wrestling match!  

(Here is an earlier version, from the Kelsey St. Blog)

I’m curious what the experience of the new spaciousness allowed for you?

EA: My own experience as a reader resonates with a lot of what you’ve said above, although I wouldn’t have been able to finger its contours that clearly. I think for me the impact of the compressed block text of the original was to put me dead inside that frantic act of constant navigation, to experience a sense of being inundated and stressed/distressed by wave after wave of competing (and often oppressive) urgencies. On the other hand, the much more broken up and shortened lines, surrounded by lots of white space allowed me (or maybe better to say invited me) to take those materials in differently, to be less pummeled and more meditative towards them. To encounter them almost as an ambient atmosphere rather than an encroaching storm front.

And the new format also did something for me in relation to my experience of how repetition was operating. Rather than feeling the linguistic recurrences (which also tracked recurring events and relations) as somewhat manic (and therefore potentially, at least in part, a product of o’s deep sensitization), they became instead more of a lyric measure that allowed me, as a reader, to see/evaluate the interconnectedness of these disparate dynamics and experiences. It’s not that there was no longer any tension there – there still very much was! – but it was a tangible pulse (something I could put my finger to my wrist and assess through touch), rather than a tangible panic attack.

Actually, trying to give language to my own bodily experience of the text leads me pretty nicely into another thing I’d love to ask you about!

In a recent bio, you reference the fact that you have taught somatic practice and writing workshops at universities, community organizations, youth programs and city jails. Can you talk a little about nature of your relationship between writing and somatic practice, specifically as it relates to the drafting of this book? I’m especially curious about this because where bells begin is a text that, as a reader, we experience (in its pacing and tactility) quite viscerally, and yet it is also a text which while of and about the body, is of and about a body whose self-experience is frequently displaced, anxious, and at odds with itself. And I’m interested in how those forms of tension/conflict might be occupied and/or experienced not only in its consumption (for us as readers) but in its construction (for you as the writer).

TM: I got into somatics and somatic writing (as many people do) from a place of working with trauma and (dis)ease in the body that I couldn’t think my way out of. I come from the school of thought that everyone has experienced some kind of trauma (anything that is too much, too soon, too fast according to Resmaa Menakem) and that those memories are stored in our bodies in infinite ways. Somatics is many things, and one of those things is an orientation to uncovering the wisdom of the dynamic organism in its wholeness – the body. I understand dynamic organism and body not as singular but as collective – an ecosystem is an organism, a family is a body, etc and also each body is uniquely experienced. While writing where bells begin I was thinking a lot about somatics, and writing a lot about what I was learning, but I realized I wasn’t doing it in a somatic way! I was watching the bodies around me and my own body moving through the days in anxious and displaced ways – and noticing all the ways that there was tension inside the demands of the days and weeks and months inside the structures that defined them and what bodies were needing. where bells begin was a reckoning with some of that – a way to feel into and reflect the tensions that are between body/soma and a world that puts bodies at odds with themselves. To do that I needed to use somatic tools – to be able to feel into the dissonances between o’s body and o’s experience of it. This as a way to feel into alienations and disconnection that resonate beyond this character and this text. Like most somatic experiences I’ve had, it was a journey in spirals that exaggerated and exacted what was there (tension/anxiety/conflict/alienation) and also gave some space to visualize and experience differently. My hope was to build a world/text that was uncomfortable and tolerable – resonant enough to illuminate elements of (dis)embodiment in the body of the reader. My own making of the book (especially the slowing down/spacing out editing process) required me to sit in the middle of the tension of disembodiment – that is, I think, just as you describe above – visceral and at odds with itself.

EA: You wrote “where bells begin” (or at least I think you did! Correct me if I’m wrong) primarily while situated in Oakland – during a period of years when it was becoming increasingly economically unfeasible for huge numbers of that city’s residents to find affordable housing and/or living wage work (especially given the ever-rising cost of living expenses there). To what degree does o’s distress and alienation and struggle feel of that city? And/or to what degree might o be anywhere? Or at least anywhere within the difficult picture of conflict that is contemporary U.S. geography, state policies, and racialized capitalism?

TM: You’re right, I wrote all of where bells begin in my last few years living in Oakland, where I lived from 2011 – 2016. I was there through the Occupy Oakland uprising, exploding gentrification and the rapid pushing out or further marginalizing of already struggling and oppressed communities. All of that felt almost tactile in the Bay at the time I was living there (and still does). And also, I am not from Oakland. My time there I felt mostly so aware of how much I didn’t understand – the gentrification I’d lived through in the Philadelphia neighborhood I grew up in had both all the same patterns as gentrification anywhere, and also was extremely particular and unique. I think that my own alienation and confusion from the subtle particularities of Oakland gentrification compounded the acute alienation, pain, dislocation that is so alive there. My lived experiences of neighborhood and community and race and class and gender and ability shaped the ways I understand connection and resilience and resistance in a city. In Oakland those shapes were kindred but very different, and I needed to relearn all I knew in my body and brain about landscape and how I interpreted experience in that landscape. I also needed to reevaluate my own complicity and ignorance and participation. All that showed up in where bells begin. So in many ways - yes - o exists in any metropolis in which such dramatic disparities of wealth and access exist. But also, every alienation and dislocation (every city) is so particular to itself that o became a way to grapple with alienation by degree – all that I could and could not understand about the landscape I was living in, all that any of us can and cannot understand about the particular experiences of locational and somatic alienation of those not us.  

EA: A couple of months back, I was revisiting your piece it all depends on who picks it up, a chapbook-in-a-jar (from 2012). And I was thinking about how much the physicality of that particular project matters, how its material elements are an essential part of its experience and composition. I was also recalling the fact of your years of work and training as a book binder and how much careful attention your work often gives to the assembly and physical ingredients of objects – attention that is extended both to the body of the work and your own body as the vessel delivering it. How are you weathering the fact that your newest book release has unfortunately coincided (at least in part) with these widespread necessities around physical distancing that have also resulted in the cancellation of so many literary and arts events nationwide? What feels hardest to navigate about this? And what, if anything, feels most surprising or interesting?

TM:. The coincidence of Covid-19’s emergence in the US and the release and reading tour for where bells begin was personally and professional painful. I literally stopped mid book tour – not getting the experience of seeing the object/book in people’s hands and of feeling peoples’ bodies respond as my body-vessel read those lines. This health crisis, economic crisis, racial and cultural crisis has impacted each of us in excruciatingly particular and collective ways. While my life was turned around in many ways, the personal heartache and disappointment of a life-journey being interrupted by a global situation of fear and loss was startling to the system. (In retrospect, and health-wise, I am so glad I wasn’t farther from home when acute distancing measures went into place, and am acutely aware of the privilege of such disappointment.) I think that there is something revealing about what happened to people in the face of “non-essential” experiences being thwarted – the depression, the fomo, the spirals, the disorientation. How clear and how confused the moment in March and April made our lives - of everything being made contained and close and paused and reconfigured. I watched myself and others re-evaluate, bargain, fury, fear, fall apart on all kinds of levels – and there is so much to unpack and investigate and grieve.

The physicality of moving o into the world felt necessary to the long process of where bells begin. Both because it was what I imagine o needs (to feel embodied), but also to my own body as vessel, as you mention. When that mostly didn’t happen, I was left with a tremendous feeling of truncation - of an incomplete process. I’m referencing here somatic and stress cycles, specifically. If a stress cycle doesn’t get completed it gets stuck, they say. (If you break a glass on the floor and it frightens you, run in place, shake your torso and limbs, shout! Really!) I think this experience of truncation and fear and alienation and loneliness of March and April of 2020 is widely held, and it also has a strange resonance with o. o is so stuck, so incompletely arrived to the other side of experience and then the vast majority of the world was forced to sit in their own version of that.

In sitting with that incompleteness, in the slowdown and locational compression of the days, I think I began to notice how much grief there was in my body in relationship to the book, and to o. I was surprised by that – and surprised by the vision of fevers and seeing people thru windows that landed so differently in my mouth as I watched thru a window and worried about fevers. There was some sense of grief into the future, which made me realize that was also what o carried. And that all felt very painful, in a way I hadn’t fully felt before. Feeling it allowed something to complete for me, although in a very private way.

I’m writing this to you today (in mid-June 2020), the second week of a national uprising for Black lives, against white supremacy, towards restructuring of the world as we know it. May it be so. Such debts are owed to the long-haul community efforts towards collective liberation, and it will continue to be a long-haul struggle. And yet so much – the very tenor – of the collective conversation right now is changed. From this vantage point, o feels even more like a figure that exists on a plane a few degrees away, because the world in which o came to live on the page is a world whose fissures are fast growing and will not mend, nor should they.

EA: In speaking about the text’s main character o, you have frequently described o as existing on a plane just a few degrees to the side of (or outside of) our actual lived reality. I love and am really struck by that description. Another way I sometimes described o to myself was that o seemed to constantly be situated (psycho-somatically more than geographically) just a little too close or a little too far from the places and conditions in which o resides. It made me think of this passage that Miranda Mellis has about writing, wherein she describes some of the many ways in which the act of writing process can be useful and/or transformative. She observes: “One of the many reasons I find teaching writing to be meaningful is that I know for myself some knowledge can feel too sharp, too intense, too overwhelming to access. Writing can allow a shift in one’s relation to the polarities of overwhelm, overstimulation, and collapse on the one hand, and numbness, evasion, and opacity on the other. Where there is numbness, evasion, and opacity, writing can create connection, aliveness, the possibility of action. Where there is overstimulation, overwhelm, and collapse, writing can dry things out, create distance and perspective.”

The figure of o seems to make space for both distance/numbness and overstimulation/tenderness alike in this way. What did o allow you to do or touch?

TM: What a brilliant inquiry, and in the most basic way I think that o allowed me to avoid touching this exact question. Or maybe to touch it sideways. When I started writing this book, I didn’t feel able to find language (or good enough language) for all that felt overwhelming in my own life, identity, relationships, in the environment I moved through in Oakland. And so I found my way to o. Well, at first, I found my way to language that spilled in dense blocks across the page, and then I found a way to have a figure and more space with which to see some of the most intense, sharp, overwhelming pieces inside of me. I think that I found a way to love o in ways I have never allowed myself to care for myself, or to be cared for.

Once o emerged as the character it allowed me to watch – to watch my own psycho-somatic situations and observe others differently. I started to watch the ways some part of me (and I think of many of us) is o, but also to allow o to move away from the pieces of my own psyche that I was (am) too afraid of. It allowed both a relief/distance and an access point into seeing my own experiences of alienation – that I could feel were in resonance with so many others,  with a collective awareness, but that I could not actually see, being too inside of it. So, then there was this character/body/gender who I could move with and through, who I could imagine on behalf of, who was not confined to my experience of body, gender, relation, ways of seeing. And that broke something open for me.

EA: I’m going to include (at the close of this interview) the set of somatic instructions that I wrote for my students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as an invitation for them to engage more deeply with your text through their own writing. Among other things, these instructions asked the students to respond to a few of the larger, haunting questions that grace where bells begin. In particular, they were asked to attempt to answer: “What is a body anyway?” and its other variation “What is a feeling anyway?” I’m curious if you have answers of your own for these two questions? Or if you think of the text itself as in some ways an answer?

Or, to pose still another possibility – if you see these questions as foundationally unanswerable, what makes them worth asking nonetheless?

TM: This question makes me think about the concepts of arrival and finality. It makes me think about how the English language has such a particular frame around question as preamble to answer, or question as a means to somewhere else. This takes me back to the idea of process and of somatics. What emerges because of these questions, what happens on their arrival? I have no idea if they are worth asking, because for me their worth depends on what happens to the reader’s body after they experience them. I think that if something happens – if another question emerges, if a sensation comes and there is curiosity there, then that is something. Those questions, for me, were a way to continue to circle towards o and o’s (dis)embodiment. The more I asked, the more possibilities there were and each time the answers depended on where I was, where o was, and what body/feeling emerged simply by the asking. I tried to use them as invitations towards o, towards the bodies in relationship to o - on and off the page. Offerings – for whatever they are worth (Maggie Nelson).

EA: In your book there is a line that reads “feeling unable to talk, o invented a bird-woman.” If it doesn’t feel too reductive to do so, could you talk a little more about the bird-woman.

TM: It’s interesting how much resistance comes up in me related to talking about the bird-woman. In the book that figure is not described and does not truly ever arrive into the frame. But in my mind, I have a very clear image of her – but it is a feeling image. The way one can picture a lover after they’ve gone – part memory, part longing, part imagination. o is lonely and longing – for co-regulation and connection. The bird-woman was some attempt to somatize the longing for intimacy that haunts o as o travels through a world where o cannot access it. And also, the ways that the image or fantasy of intimacy can create a sense that if one just finds it there is an escape. Partly I was playing with breaking apart normative stories of partnership and romance (you complete me) and also mirroring the ways that attachment and co-dependence inside bodies are both a result of and perpetuate somatic alienation under late-stage capitalism. With the bird-woman I was also thinking about the pain of separation and about mirror neurons. In intimate connection, however brief, the experience of having the mirror neurons of our body enlivened causes a surge of chemicals that cause euphoria and calm. Both of these feeling experiences are not always safe or practiced for many people’s bodies. When the moment of co-regulation or intimacy shifts, the pain of loss and the stories that get attached to that (even momentary) separation can be excruciating. All this is on the psycho-neurological level – mostly below consciousness – but it is felt. The bird-woman was some gesture towards an experience of that felt experience of connection, intimacy, the possibility and impossibility of it while also playing with the questions of reality, projection, fantasy. And maybe it goes without saying, but the queering of bodies and connection and desire – between bodies that come in and out of their own, that can see one another queerly and queered – flying and changed and transforming and with no arrival or permanence.

EA: I don’t know if you remember this, but there was a rather beautiful small exchange that happened between you and my students back in February wherein one of them essentially asked: “Why would you need an ‘o’ when you have an ‘I’ or when you have a ‘we’?” And then, not only you, but several people in the room remarked on how often “I” and “we” are not enough, not ample or supple or variable enough for all that we as individuals (or communities) are confronted with in our lives. And a bunch of other heads in the room nodded in concurrence with this fact that, of course, we still do need the space that o provides – in fact, we probably need an o more often than we know.

What about o did you need most?

TM: I needed to be broken open and not be broken. Paradoxically, not because I as an individual did (although that too). I needed o because I needed (need) to be in connection and because I needed that connection to exist exactly as it was – sometimes hazy, often anxious and sad, hard to reach but also reaching. Round and slowing my mouth down. A body (my body) that was in a transformation, where witnessing was needed but not visibility. I needed a place to write into a reflection and then be able to see that reflection shift and change and know that it was not static or stuck. It was a process of seeing and being seen (even if it was imagined seeing) that required a freedom. I needed not to be beholden to what formed in that process. I’m thinking of imaginal cells here: the cells inside a chrysalis that are pure liquid and each individually carry the genetic possibility of the butterfly to come. The soupy mix I was moving through needed to stay inside the container it was in (not made visible) to emerge on the other side in the dynamic shape of being alive after transformation. I needed o to write through my own transformations – of desries, genders, life-visions, homes. All this existed alongside and in relation to where bells begin. Ultimately, I needed my own possibility of permission to be exactly as I was – as mirrored in o. I needed to know there might be an o out there –  that I could see an o from the corner of my eye, or on my way to work, or before falling asleep - as a possibility of other and elsewhere and more and enough. And also, I needed comforting, and I needed to comfort. I needed an o to turn to.


Somatic Instructions for where bells begin
By Emily Abendroth

Before you begin, you will need to have five things with you. The first three are easy: Tessa Micaela’s text, a pen or pencil, and a notebook. Now, take a moment to look about your surroundings for the last two objects. Your task is to find two small objects to place in the front pockets of your pants or jacket: one object should be hard and the other should be soft. Put the soft item in your right pocket and the hard item in your left pocket. For this writing exercise, you need to situate yourself in some place that you think of as “in motion” in some fashion – a location that is not entirely static and/or unchanging. Make sure the place is large enough that you can find someplace within it that you can sit/exist undisturbed – even if there are other things about you that are shifting. After you’ve gotten there and seated yourself, place your hands on your own shoulders and leave them there for one minute, really let the weight of them sink in. After a minute move them to your knees, leaving them there as long as you please, and then shift them to the top of your own head. All of your movements should be slow, not quick. When you’re done, take a long breath. Now turn to page 43 of where bells begin. Study the line: “o’s hands place value, make other values disappear.” Recall your own recent hand-placing and how it felt. In your notebook, explain how the placing of one’s hands might place value, and then how that placing might make other values disappear. What sort of values? In what sort of way? Explain. If possible, write about an example in your own life where the placement of hands either conferred or subtracted value and how.

Now turn to page 45 of Micaela’s text. Focus on the line “o feels and want to strike it all out.” Take a minute to feel first the soft object in your right pocket, then the hard one in your left. Give yourself some time to truly occupy this line, to really land yourself inside it. In your mind, recall a time in the past year when you had a feeling or feelings you would have loved to strike out. Go ahead and strike them out. Instead of those feelings, in your notebook record in detail three specific things you remember about the peripheral physical surroundings in that moment (i.e. the quality of the lights, the colors or ornamentation of the wall, the texture of the carpet, etc.). Write these physical qualities down with great care and attention. Now, in the form of a focused free write, respond to o’s question: “What is a feeling anyway?” Write for at least 3 minutes without stopping. Set your watch. Now respond to o’s second question in the same manner: “What is a body anyway?” Write for at least 3 minutes. Finally, turn to page 48 of the text and consider this line: “feeling unable to talk, o invented a bird-woman.” Make a list of four things that you have invented in the course of your lifetime in order to provide yourself with a voice, or perhaps even with a feeling. Describe each of them. After you’ve finished, choose one of these four things to become the title of the poem you are about to write.

Go back through all the notes that you’ve just taken and using only the language that you have generated there, craft your poem. Make sure to include at least 3 instances of repetition. The poem should be a minimum of 15-20 lines long.





Tessa Micaela is the author of where bells begin (Rescue Press, November 2019), there are boxes and there is wanting (Trembling Pillow Press, 2016), and the chapbook Crude Matter (ypolita press, 2016). Tessa writes poems, essays and letters, some of which have appeared in jubilat, ELDERLY, Make/shift, and Dusie. Tessa was born and raised on the Lenni-Lenape land of Philadelphia, and resides on the unceded Abenaki land of central Vermont. Tessa is a clinical and community herbalist, care-worker, educator, facilitator, and editor, and is currently completing training as an out of hospital midwife. More information can be found at and

Emily Abendroth is the author of the poetry collection ]Exclosures[ and The Instead, a book-length collaborative conversation with fiction writer Miranda Mellis. Her newest book Sousveillance Pageant (which coasts restlessly between poetry, novel, and research essay) is forthcoming from Radiator Press in Spring 2021. She has also released chapbooks with Albion Press, Zumbar, Belladonna, Little Red Leaves, and Horseless Press. She has been awarded residencies at the MacDowell Colony, the Millay Colony and the Headlands Center for the Arts, and was named a 2013 Pew Fellow in Poetry. She is a founding member of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, as well as the LifeLines: Voices Against the Other Death Penalty Project.

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