The Something in Things: a conversation with Lucy Mercer

Micaela Brinsley

As a beginning to our conversation, perhaps I’ll just say a little about what I’m thinking about at the moment. After my previous work on the hybrid form of emblems, I’m wondering how text and image are relating to me now. I've also been thinking about solid fluids, fluids in solid, transformation, vortexes, dripping, melting things in motion. And my childhood, because I’ve started a postdoctoral position at a university close to where I grew up in Devon. I often think in a visual way, and sometimes—like an emblem—in threes, so here’s three images related to these things:

A picture of me as a child wearing some kind of text/image thing I’d made, with a mouse or rat and cheese that I must have drawn on my face to 'represent' myself, or else, perhaps someone else did. I like la piccioletta barca’s idea of anti authorship—which I feel at least, conceptually aligned with in my previous work on recycling texts, and also feels relevant to wondering who we even are, are we consistent in any way…

This mouse reminds me of Serres’ The Parasite, which has little mice and rats embedded in the title pages—and writers. Another image is this emblem from Claude Paradin’s Devises heroïques that I have carried around in my head for some time, that makes me think too, about this question of authorship and things 'raining' through a self/selves and a kind of porosity—I see it as water rather than wheat, which it's supposed to be.

University of Glasgow

And finally, here’s a picture of a candle, burning on top of the massy mess of other melted candles that I make. I burn them by my bath at night, which is really my best thinking time because I listen to podcasts and relax. One of my favourite podcasts is This Jungian Life, where three Jungian analysts discuss different topics—it's wonderful. I find it really useful for thinking about poetry and writing as well as life in general, as they often analyse stories and fairy tales.

cc: Lucy Mercer

Interviewer: The lists of states you mentioned you're currently absorbed by and the image of candles mid melt next to your bath made me think of what it means for an emblem and its significance to dissolve as it encounters everyday life. When thinking or writing about these sorts of states, how much or little is language itself melting for you?

Solid fluids in everyday life! Being ignorant about chemical science, I’ve only just discovered the term amorphous solids—which happily for me includes wax, glass and plastics—materials that make up all sorts of ubiquitous objects surrounding us. I kind of want to call them amorphous fluids, thinking about prioritising the liquid in the solid rather than the more prevalent conceptions of stable matter that circulate, a misleading idea of stability.

For me, slow moving, transformative solids that become liquified, like wax dripping down a candle, have a viscous texture or motion that is similar to poetry and particular, poetic logic—a logic that I see as a kind of movement in obscurity through associationism that turns away from the known towards the unknown. I suppose with emblems, I have always been very much drawn to their protean qualities that as you say, dissolve in encountering everyday life, while also dissolving our everydayness—as a candle also might do, or a window in the rain. I think of emblems in this way as Foucauldian heterotopias in this sense, not as only windows to an alter world but as alter worlds in themselves that are embedded in this one.

There’s an important emblem of Proteus in Alciato, who to me pervades the background of his Emblematum liber, and who I would like to think of as a more ancient symbol of these amorphous solids—and also, we could say language. With melting language, I suppose that is also the task of poetry, which uses language as a material. It just happens to be a material that we use all the time for other things. I often think of Elizabeth Bishop writing in her notebooks about writing poetry: ‘the material, the material eaten out with acid, pulled down from underneath, made to perform and always kept in order, in its place…’ She’s actually talking here about ‘the poet’s proper material’, that she sees as ‘intense physical reactions, a sense of metaphor’… etc., but I like to distort that and focus on this ‘material eaten out with acid’ quite literally. On the actual materiality of things, which we also find in words, which are also things.

I am always drawn back to the idea of writing as drawing, or inscription—the surfaces being as important as the page—the page as just one moment in the life of a tree or trees, and to be a future compost of sorts, or dust.

In terms of what’s changing with writing, this question feels very timely, as I’ve started making what I’m provisionally calling ‘glass poems’: very short poems or phrases painted on glass. I’ve also become enamoured with lichens, which are also very ubiquitous, everyday [organisms] and have wonderful names like Graphis scripta, or Candelaria concolor, or Agaricus occultans. At present, I’m aiming to make lichenous wax splatters on the glass surrounded by these poems and lichen names.

I’m not sure where they’re going, but making poems that are somehow even more difficult to circulate and read—and read differently in different lights—appeals to me, as well as to return them to these amorphous solids. Little heterotopias to distort our surroundings, which may feel too rigid or solid at times.

cc: Lucy Mercer

On the eighth page of The Parasite, Serre describes a parasite as an 'abusive guest, an unavoidable animal, a break in a message' while also a page earlier defining 'to parasite' as meaning 'to eat next to'. You seemed to conflate writers to parasites. Would you mind expanding on what you mean by this? Serre also posits that the 'parasitic relation is intersubjective', suggesting that rather than being scavengers moving towards one direction, they're engaged in a reciprocal interaction with the environment they're investigating. In that case, would you say that language itself is as parasitic as the writers navigating it?

I think Serres examines the idea of parasites—and that we are inherently parasitic, or that we are clearly inextricably interrelated with our environments, despite fantasies of being autonomous—in a sort of tumbling, fabular way where the figure of the parasite continually morphs—I love this kind of writing.

The break in the message that you refer to, what he also describes as static, I think this could be language, yes—and also when the material of language becomes ruptured in some way, in the way I associated with poetry.

As well feeding off—or eating next to—an old emblem book in my own writing, my interest in writers as being parasitic and Serres’ text, comes from more recent experiences of collective organising for a trade union. That work suggested to me that meaningful political action, in my opinion, has to work through and with bureaucratic organisations and using neoliberal terminology in order to hold workplaces—in this case, a university—accountable, and for change. In essence, that kind of strictly political work is not exciting or dynamic and uses dead or abstract, administrative language.

That is quite different from what I said earlier about working with language as a material and a common conception of writers having political agency in the world—whereby it is imagined what is written might bring about a shift in consciousness. I don’t mean to say that this isn’t possible, but given the myriad complications involved in cultural production, the time and labour of a writer and reader—who has the means and time to read texts—as well as all the possible permutations and effects of interpretation, to me the impact of literature on socio political change is greatly exaggerated. This is because in a world structured by what could loosely be termed neoliberal capitalism, the kind of perceptions offered by literature are valueless—and perhaps not even in a threatening way.

In our society at least, writers must be parasitic in order to make the work, which in economic terms we can say is of little to no benefit to the labour of those who create the conditions for the work. This often involves writers being parasitic on their own labour, as most writers do not make a living from writing and are dependent on other work to be able to write.

I think rather than thinking about what can come out of writing, more important questions for writers are: what conditions are needed for me to make work, to write? How can I help bring about these changes, outside my writing? Turning it round so being able to write is the end point, rather than the beginning. This also frees up the work to let it go where it wants to go.

In relation to my work and this idea of parasitism, I have consistently been funded and employed by universities. When it comes to the marketised university, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney tell us in the Undercommons, ‘it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment’. Universities are still at base a structure that can harbour writers. But these spaces are very much dwindling in the face of this relentless marketisation. I have been lucky enough to just have been given a research post for the next three years—a real shelter, one I’m very grateful for, and I now feel a sense of great responsibility in terms of using this time wisely.

I think a lot of this involves time—the reduction of time by a frenetic 24/7 information economy, the faux constant urgency propagated by management structures as a means of disciplining workers. There is no time. But apparently there is also too much time—as evidenced by the impossibility of instigating political changes or accountability immediately or even within years, where acknowledgement of problems is offered as a panacea in place of action. There’s also, the undoing of seasonal stabilities and ritual markers by climate change and the market economy—all of these collapsed temporalities have a complicated relation to writing and dissolves the possibilities of living a contemplative life, or at least a life where work and thought needs time to develop.

There is another aspect to parasitism that Serres barely mentions—that of fungi, which we now know that as well as feeding off, or at times possessing others, support the environments they live in, in diverse and mysterious ways. Going back to lichens, lichens are in fact a type of fungi, but they are entirely self-supporting—they are not parasitic, but attached to the surfaces they live on, algae-fungi. Can fungi and lichen, as Vincent Zonca writes in his wonderful book Lichens: Towards a Minimal Resistance, offer a vision for a different way for writers to live in the world?

cc: Lucy Mercer

Thank you for the invocation of lichens! I'm reading a book called On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera (translated by Christina MacSweeney) at the moment and though I adore lighthouses, I've often felt as if artists of all sorts have been portrayed more like a lighthouse, looking down from above at the world, then a lichen, a mutable and nature bound substance interwoven throughout its surfaces. What about them is particularly attractive to you as a way of thinking about poetry and artmaking, as you begin to incorporate lichens more and more into your work?

Of lichens, Brenda Hillman says, ‘Anything so radical & ordinary stands for something’—I think in terms of how lichens seem to appeal to poets, the finding of a ‘something’ in things that surround us every day is at the heart of many, if not nearly all, poetic practices. I particularly like it when this something turns out to be metaphysical—like Marie Howe, who does this so beautifully in her poems.

I think if the lichens become more incorporated into my poems it might be in a sort of layering way, perhaps even as a mode of thought, thinking about the wonderful names in the lichen structure that are like our brains—cortex, medulla and so on. As well as the glass experiments, I’ve become more drawn to reading and writing longer poems that try and contain a series of thoughts that also are in some ways elliptical and reflect dream logic, or poetic logic, that can traverse ‘layers’.

I like the comparison between lighthouses and lichens—looking above and looking within. I suppose I see there the li—joining them both, and this is very much swerving from what you meant but I am now associating a lighthouse down to a lichen, in this strange spatial way that kind of associationism can give us.

It can really go anywhere.

I found how you described the sterility of bureaucratic language in comparison with its plastic potential through poetry really potent, that comparison had never struck me so clearly before. Your emphasis on collective organising as the necessary beginning for the endpoint of writing as the freedom from the impact of neoliberal capitalism so, so moving. You also mentioned that you're particularly interested in making poems that are built for the sake of their own disappearance, or for an eventual dissolve into nature. What about making these kinds of poems creates the space for you to engage with the kind of freedom you’re describing?

I’m glad that some of these ideas resonate. I suppose in terms of poems disappearing, I think all material poems disappear quite rapidly, probably quicker than we think. I’ve noticed how quickly books I’ve bought recently start yellowing after a few years—and also sometimes think about the shift to cheap paper that we use now and really doesn’t last very long compared to paper made from cotton, or earlier wood pulp processes. Not to mention all the digital texts that can just vanish. It’s amazing that for example, copies of Alciato’s emblem book the Emblematum liber are still pretty much intact—texts from the past are hardier and may outlast ours, though that’s not to say that they should either. This is all straying away a bit from the glass poems, perhaps what I’m mostly interested in about them rather than dissolving per se —or say also with poster poems—is poems as visual objects, that are ‘poems for the home’ as it were, as semi-disposable forms of ornamentation that embed texts within shifting contexts and environments and can be moved around, decorating surfaces like lichens, in ways that poems in a book can’t do. And for them to be perhaps literal ‘windows’ to see things around you differently. In terms of how this relates to freedom, I think William Morris’ principle of making houses beautiful as a necessary part of living a good life is still a great socialist aspiration despite the obvious fact that we can’t move for stuff to buy for our houses. But are the things we can buy useful? Are they beautiful? Depends on what you think use and beauty is, which really means what does something subjectively mean to you and what does it help you think about. As I rent my house, I’m aware that whatever I put in it needs to be at the most, semi-permanent. These things become even more important I think, when we think of precarity and at least in the UK, a housing crisis—but most of all, as we were saying, when we need to create the conditions for the work to happen.

The emblem you sent over, theoretically for wheat, made me think that another way we could think of the position of the writer is not as a parasite, but as a sieve with a history. Perhaps the scope of how each engages with the world is simply contingent on the environment each is occupying at any one time. What would you say to this?

I think watching my son grow up has brought this question back to my mind. What parts of us are somewhat immutable, and what parts change? Perhaps it’s all a matter of which potentialities are repeatedly given the space to develop by surroundings, as well as what happens to us. So yes, contingent on the environment as you say.

I can see though, that my research interests and work has been in many ways simply a continuation of what I’ve always been interested in and at times I’m not sure I’ve really changed much at all. That thought however, doesn’t necessarily bring me much consolation! I can relate to the idea of being a sieve (I love the idea of being a sieve with a history), as someone who has a very visual imagination and is easily impressionable and perhaps not good at compartmentalising or distancing. Unlike a sieve I find it difficult to filter things out and find the world raining through—porous! In recent writing about candles, which are culturally associated with mortality and the body, I have also been turning more to ideas of decay and the inanimate in the animate.

I think all of this—the amorphous solids, the sieve, the changing body, the parasites, ideas of transformation as well as the practise of poetry—also relate to the alchemical—solve et coagula. In the last week even, I have been drawing towards an idea of a prima materia to try and frame this, the idea of a prima materia which for the alchemists was to be found everywhere—as ubiquitous and everyday as lichens. I’ve been listening to some psychoanalytic podcasts about this and from a psychoanalytic perspective the prima materia is the unconscious—which we project upon everything we encounter and look [at]. It is also therefore perhaps the base of metaphor and poetic thinking, the logic that I see as having a quality of obscurity to it.

I think there’s more to it, but I haven’t got there yet…

I have to confess, I really identified with how you described yourself as being impressionable. Maybe this is silly, but were you implying that you made potions of any kind growing up? And more solid forms of potions—candles or other objects—that through your own manipulations, you might have made dissolve. Would you share a little bit more about the continuity between your childhood play and current artistic explorations?

It's funny you ask that, because although I wasn’t thinking about it, I did make potions, with my best friend at primary school in her garden and on my own, with mud and bits of stuff in the house. I always loved cooking stuff up. This was around the time I desperately wanted to believe in magic, probably as a dream of agency that children often have. Is not a lot of magic, a fantasy of control of sorts?—and also though, is not writing too, as a form of ordering a kind of magic? I had one of those file folders and printed off Wiccan texts from the internet and put them in little laminated pockets in the file so they wouldn’t get wet, making a book of them of sorts.

I’ve just remembered all of that now.

I also practised, after reading Roald Dahl’s Henry Sugar, staring into the flame of a candle for perhaps hours, hoping that like Henry in the story I might be able to see with my eyes closed, and also like Henry, go to casinos and cheat at cards with this ability.

With the candles, I first made a candle with my lovely aunt who had sparkly earrings and curly red hair, a bit like Eddie Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) in Ab Fab. This was a special occasion, perhaps the only time we did something together just her and I—because my cousins and sister must have been out doing something else. I had a candlemaking kit and we made this pink candle using a silicone mould covered with roses—it was quite phallic and I think she laughed at it when it was ‘unveiled’, but I’m not sure I got the joke at the time because I was quite naïve. She died from cancer far too young and I didn’t make a candle again for more than twenty years.

But I started making them in lockdown with my partner because I remembered the candlemaking kit, and the fascination of watching the wax turn to liquid and then solid again in the mould. There’s a lot of absence both within and around candles, they have a great capacity for acting as substitute bodies of sorts—like the phallic candle!—but also as containers for our feelings, projections, memories…

With the glass poems, I think all children love to make marks on windows, display counters, showers, wet mirrors, car windows. There’s something endlessly fascinating about glass and mark making, touch that dissolves or turns into water, but glass is also of course inherently bound up with ways of seeing—as I look through my glasses writing this—and the very frequent appearance of glass and windows in poetry as metaphors for, or as symbols of, ways of seeing and modes of representation. I prefer in terms of difficulty of reading, through a glass darkly. Which is not unlike trying to read cards with your eyes closed.

Thank you so much for sharing that story about making that candle with your aunt—it sounds like she was such an incredible force as a person. I noticed that following your joint effort to create that rather phallic pink candle (!!!) you didn't make one again until the pandemic, twenty years later. In making these glass poems, would you say that you're searching to somehow contend with and reform the boundaries of the inside and outside of the 'something in things' specifically in relation with objects whose impermanence you're highly aware of? Does your artistic point of view emerge in the specificity of this entanglement?

I think what you say here about attempting to contend with and reform the boundaries of the inside and outside of the ‘something in things’, especially the impermanent, is exactly what I’m trying to do, and I’m grateful for it being delineated like that back to me!

I suppose if for example, writing about a kind of inner world, I’m interested in what landscape makes its way into that world, how many selves might be presented as fragments and in dialogue with external things—as the psychoanalysts say, we don’t and can’t know ourselves—I find it fascinating that the deeper you go in the weirder and less personal it gets, the more the outside comes in like a mobius strip—or conversely, how much we project onto external surfaces and objects (candles, windows here, but also landscapes) that bring us into or onto them as another layer—like lichens perhaps!

I think yes, a point of view does emerge in these entanglements. Hopefully a surprising or unexpected one as mentioned above—I tend to think our sense of self or identity or artistic point of view comes out of this work. A textual self that is both distinct from our everyday selves but also coterminous with it, that perhaps can bring another dimension or aspect to our everyday realities, complicating things—things are already complicated because of their impermanence as you say.

Perhaps there’s basic questions of existence going on at the back always—What is going on? What is it?

You also wondered whether magic is a 'fantasy of control of sorts'. Were you implying that writing or the work itself is a kind of spell and its movement through the world and its eventual disappearance the magic releasing its essence into the air? In other words: are the spatial dimensions of poetic logic somewhat intangible and if so, how would you map it?

I think there’s different aspects to magic perhaps here, that I jumbled a bit together in my reply—on one hand, there’s an idea of magic (particularly liked by children and folk tales) that is in the main, an act of controlling things (objects, people, environment) to one’s own ends, in order to gain agency and power—which as you get older seems (hopefully) not something to aspire to, if you are lucky enough not be in a state of oppression, or have some agency in your life.

I think we can see parallels here too with for example, how conspiracist or apocalyptic narratives are often turned to in similar ways whether in religious or political contexts. In the end, it’s a form of reductivism that is mostly harmful.

But there is perhaps, still a residue of this desire to control—which might be understood better as ordering or reciting a narrative, or moment—embedded in writing. For me, what is more magical and fundamental to writing a poem, is when you relinquish this initial desire to control, which may be a kind of initial prompt or nudge as it were—and let poetic logic take over the writing of the poem, which is letting the material (of language) move forward, as well as the unconscious.

I tend to find that if I’m happy with something I’ve written when it’s finished, it’s probably failed to do this and has to be binned—ironically, perhaps it’s a state of becoming uncomfortable or allowing for the unexpected.

If there’s anything truly magical about the work to me, it’s that it can be permeated by an outside as it were, and also propagate itself in strange and unexpected ways once it’s out in the world. Like Alciato’s emblem book, or like how you might read something someone’s written at a particular time and it consolidates a meaning or brings a new perspective to you. I suppose in a way I’d see that more as a form of ‘cultural ecology’, this porosity, rather than magic, but I do think as you say, the spatial dimensions of poetic logic are intangible and mysterious, and probably going on across multiple planes at once as they move in and out of us.

You wrote, 'I prefer in terms of difficulty of reading, through a glass darkly.' Did you mean that you prefer reading 'difficult' texts, or those where reading feels like an act of wrestling or in some ways parasitic? Or were you (also) referencing the phrase from Corinthians, 'Through a glass, darkly'? Perhaps neither interpretation is correct, but what would you say about the layering embedded within that phrase that entangles text, image, and spirituality to create an idea specifically beautiful in its usefulness to point to how you read—an act you obviously care very much about?

I think both.

Often in poetry at least, what are labelled ‘difficult’ texts are works that either include lots of external references, ask us to engage with new concepts, and/or move away from literalism to forms of open reading—where the reader has to enter the spirit of the poem and be comfortable with not necessarily ‘understanding’ the poem but be carried along by it and think/feel their way through its web of possible interpretations. With all of these things, staying with the element of not knowing (references, ideas, language, etc) I think is entering into a kind of obscurity—the glass darkly, a kind of reading that I think is more rewarding as we find more meaning in it, for ourselves.

But I was particularly thinking of the bit from Corinthians. I’m actually not a Bible reader (or churchgoer) at all, but remember and appreciate some bits—I think Through a glass, darkly has wormed its way into culture in the form of cultural ecology I was talking about before.

I read now that the KJV [King James V] added this comma, and the prior translation was ‘for now we see through a glass darkly.’ Isn’t that fascinating? It’s such a shift in tone, that comma, to me—that pause. Wikipedia says this phrase originally had to do with mirrors or polished surfaces rather than glass—like polished stones—then brings up one of my favourite words, the Latin specular; mirrors, reflections, lens, poetic seeing and also the root of to speculate and speculative thought, speculatio, the work of the intellect. Looking poetically/philosophically, and pausing.

When I look at the phrase through a glass darkly, I also see the la in glass (‘there’ in French/ Italian), the da in dark (also to me, ‘there’ as in fort da) and ark. I suppose in the way I read this, through a glass, darkly could be interpreted as: ‘Going through there, which is now over there, I am being carried as if on a boat by the unseen river of things.’

I perhaps unsurprisingly also have another interest in this phrase that relates to obscurity and its more mystical aspects. It makes me think of Robert Fludd’s black square in his History of the Physical and  Metaphysical Cosmos that is accompanied by the inscription Et sic in infinitum—‘and so on’, or Bataille’s cephalophore, the symbol of mystic headlessness.

Nicola Masciandaro has written beautifully on this [and] Bataille, and says, ‘there is an intimate relation between the mirror and beheading. When we look into a mirror or speculate, we are non-violently beheaded.’ I would say I think the same if we see our reflection in glass, and perhaps even more so with murky glass. For Bataille and Masciandaro, beheading or decapitation in this symbolic sense is also a symbol of mystical union, in that separating something also opens it out into new relation with the outside, which we can never really be separated from.

I think there are parallels here with what I think about the ‘magical’ properties of poetry, if it’s allowed to be separated from a desire to control the self and make its way into the world. There’s also to me the question, returning to Foucault’s heterotopias, of many worlds embedded or surrounding this one, and how we might perhaps enter into these. Whether they’re literal places or ecosystems we haven’t been, metaphorical, or mysterious—quantum worlds, and/or the world of the dead which is also to my mind, a plane existing within the world of images, inside a kind of collective unconscious of sorts.

cc: Lucy Mercer

Lucy Mercer
's first poetry collection Emblem (Prototype, 2022) was a Poetry Book Society Choice. She was awarded the White Review Poet's Prize and her writing has appeared in Poetry Review, Granta, Art Review, LA Review of Books, The White Review and others. She is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, and with Livia Franchini, the co-editor of the forthcoming Royal Society of Literature-funded publication and podcast Too Little / Too Hard. She lives in London.

Micaela Brinsley

Micaela Brinsley is one of the co-editors-in-chief of La Piccioletta Barca and editor of interviews, as well as fiction and essays.

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