Safety Book #20 (Joyelle McSweeney)

1. A Book I love and Why: I love The Fast by Hannah Weiner because it’s alarmed, alarming, and sounds the alarm.

2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?

I believe that for knowledge of The Fast I am indebted to Patrick Durgin, who has been doing so much to make Hannah Weiner’s work available both online and with the Selected he edited a few years back, Hannah Weiner’s Open House. By exposure to her writings, performance documents and recordings, photos, interviews, and other texts, I feel that I’ve become like an interactive surface or playback device for Hannah Weiner, I feel linked to her server, to switch metaphors, totally wired in. And of course she herself was a relaying device, totally wired in to her silent teachers who relayed text to her by making it visible on the air and on her body and on the world around her. She then translated this revealed language into reproducible text by really ingenious use of typewriters and early word processors, using typefaces to capture the different ‘voices’ of her spirit teachers. When I went and tracked down The Fast, which is her account of the fast which marked the inception of her clairvoyance, I was really amazed that such a slim book could make such a rupture in the world. It was like Augustine: Open the Book and Read. A cascade of linked possessions and revelations. Since then I’ve bought and lost several copies (that’s the only drawback to such a slim volume! Too easy to lose!).

3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?

This and the rest of Weiner’s work split me open and remade my thinking about art and literature. I now think of the artist as a medium for media, saturated by media, possessed by media. Since then I’ve felt totally penetrated by Art, its presence and its pressure, its need to rework and improve and sometimes damage my surfaces to better serve its transmissions and productions and spectacles and prerogatives. The recent Eurovision Song of the Year contest in Baku might be a good analog for my ideas about Art: live, scrambled, loud, long, spectacular, kitschy, polyglot, ridiculous, rife with expenditure, pouring out streamers, twins, costumes, applause, wasting money, running on occult currents of politics and violence which sometimes push through the surface, rupturing the torso of some pirate-styled Turkish boy-band member with its bloody head to address the audience in writhing semaphore.

4. Give us a line etc.

Two paragraphs from the first pages of The Fast:

I had an “at home” experience and spent 3 weeks in the kitchen sink. Partly I spent 3 weeks in the kitchen sink because I had no bathtub and partly because I became sensitive, magnetic to metal, and couldn’t take a shower in my metal enclosed shower. A lot of water relieved the pain that I experienced. I lived in a loft, about 1000 sq. feet, trickle shower, gas heater, etc. The north end faced the trafficked street and the south end the dark backs of factories. At the south end, with the shower and double sink, was a blue nylon rug on top of brown jute mat wall to wall. I am electrically antithetical to nylon carpeting—it pains my bad knee and my bad right groin and hip. So on

Monday FAST DAY 1, Oct. 26, 1970, Kevin came to take up and take home the blue nylon carpet. We sat having tea at the narrow counter that extends out from the double sink. “What is that terrible smell” said Kevin. “That is from the exterminator” said I “who came early this morning and exterminated for roaches and rats. Last week a rat ran over my hand in my very own bed.” So we sat drinking tea. It was then I noticed a bright green triangular feather shape coming out of his right eye, a bright green feather shape with red and yellow streaks. It is remarkable to me now that I did not question the bright green feather shape. I simply got up and went shopping at the health food store. I bought Tiger’s Milk, eyebright, fennel, fenugreek, rose hip teas, cashew nut butter, blueberry syrup and a little plastic bear full of honey. I had a large shopping bag full. What I didn’t buy was a large bottle of thick pink liquid shampoo which I could have used later to help the pain. I had in my refrigerator four gallons of spring waterr and goats milk. I had two vivid dreams about pollution that night.

I quote at length here so you can see the infectious agent that is Weiner’s prose. The short phrases in the long sentences addict the reader; you become just as feverish and worked up for each next phrase’s revelation as Weiner. Meanwhile the sentences are also hilarious—by phrasal turns totally quotidian or cosmic. I love the grousing about the exterminator, followed by a spectral vision of her friend’s eyes extruding feathers, followed by a matter of fact trip to the health food store. HW is a prophet who did a lot of shopping! Her accounting is really an accounting, a record of expenditures, consumptions, damages, impressions, favors, gestures, maneuvers, recoveries, witty remarks, revelations, and what each of these things cost her, in terms of pain, illness, solitude, assaults of the senses, etc.

5. Who did you send this book to, why?

I sent this book to my dear friend, the writer Kate Bernheimer, the author of a gorgeous and vertiginous  and luminous and devastating trilogy, The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, and The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold.  Kate’s writing process is the most exacting I know of among contemporary writers; she spent years crafting and recrafting the first book in the trilogy, which is barely two hundred pages long. She then used these sentences as the models for the sentences in the subsequent books in the trilogy. This painstaking pursuit of Beauty, the solitude and even imprisonment in Time required of it, recopies the themes, motifs, and engines of the fairy tales of which she is a scholar; this current of writing as vocation, ordeal, and quest, runs back and forth between Weiner and Bernheimer, even though the genres in which they work is so different. I firmly believe that there is a true occult insurgency running across and through this writing, across and through time periods, materials, authors, languages, and genres, bubbling up in black and radiant and cosmic materials like The Fast.


Joyelle McSweeney is the author of five books, including THE COMMANDRINE AND OTHER POEMS (Fence Books, 2004), FLET: A NOVEL (Fence Books, 2007), NYLUND, THE SARCOPHAGER (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2007) and PERCUSSION GRENADE: POEMS & PLAYS (Fence Books, 2012). Her book THE RED BIRD (Fence Books, 2002) was chosen by Allen Grossman to inaugurate the Fence Modern Poets Series in 2001. McSweeney is a co- founder of Action Books and Action, Yes, a press and web-quarterly for international writing and hybrid forms, and a contributing editor of the culture blog She holds degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and is an associate professor in the creative writing program at the University of Notre Dame.