The Assay Interview Project: Sarah Minor
April 1, 2021
Sarah Minor is a writer, interdisciplinary artist, and assistant professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art. She curates the visual essay series at Essay Daily, is the video editor at TriQuarterly Review, and the assistant director of the Cleveland Drafts Literary Festival. Her writing has previously appeared in Ninth Letter, Black Warrior Review, Conjunctions, and Creative Nonfiction, and her second book, Slim Confessions: The Universe as a Spider or Spit, will be published by Noemi Press in fall 2021.
About Bright Archive: In Sarah Minor’s debut collection of visual essays, Bright Archive, she writes about river towns, soffits, treetops, family rifts, pearl-forming, friendship, and caught knots using an assortment of shapes and containers to complicate the active trajectory of her explorations. Minor’s subject matter is as compelling as her inquiry into the ways readers interact with their experiences of reading. I had the pleasure of participating in the making of Bright Archive with team Rescue Press and witnessed the ways in which Minor’s text prioritizes dynamism and flexibility, using the limits of the book-as-object as inspiration for visual experimentation, formal possibility, and thematic complication.
Caryl Pagel: Bright Archive explores the radiant possibilities of shape, play, movement, and the limitations of a page. These essays are a joy to look at, to touch, and to turn, their invitation to be physical such an overwhelming relief that it’s often the first quality readers delight in commenting upon. I’d like to start with a question about how the architectural aspects of the book are reflected in the essays’ themes and thinking as well as their forms. So many of these pieces are about the beauty, mystery, or betrayal of how things are designed and constructed. I’m thinking of the opening essay, “The New Age / Below Ground,” which describes the obtuse and somewhat illegible rules of an Italian commune, followed by pieces that interrogate the Mississippi River’s human-manipulated flow, the secret pockets of your grandmother’s house, and a particularly sinister angle of toxic masculinity (dubbed “the lean”). The essays regularly consider how something (object, system, pattern) was created, its strengths and pillars, its holes and mold. Could you talk about your interest in structure, order, and architecture, however literal or metaphorical? I’m also interested in how this relates to your sense of logic or generative process… do you find that your way of approaching inquiry is to focus on the integrity of an idea’s parts, the details of its construction, or how it was (or could be) made?
Sarah Minor: The “betrayal of how things are designed” is a perfect phrase, and I think it’s true that attempts to unpack the inner workings of (power?) structures is a gesture the essays in Bright Archive share. By “structures”’ I’m also thinking about the myriad scaffolds, systems, institutions, and processes that seem “natural” to us but were once deliberately designed based on a list of specific intentions. To say it very generally, I think whenever we can reveal both that and how something was made, then the structure and the ideas it was based on become open for reassessment. To say it specifically, when I begin writing it is often because I have a sense that something is wrong but I can’t quite name it. Writing is my process of searching to describe that sense as specifically as possible. In the process of writing, I am interested in dissecting an idea’s parts, and my strategy is often to work diagrammatically, or symbolically. So the visual mode ends up being the way I communicate both the search and any gradual revelations to the reader. Looking “back” now on Bright Archive, I realize that when I am repurposing an object—using a shape-as-signifier for something other than its original function—I am also trying to reveal something wrong with belief systems that informed structural design, and how we read that signifier today. None if this was something I could have articulated in the early stages of the project, maybe subtly, I can see now that these essays are trying to nod to power dynamics that are built into structures we treat as inherent—family, landscape, temple, passionate angle.
Maybe relatedly, I think I’ll always feel like I’m playing catchup on the rules and traditions, the “scaffolds,” of literature—syntax, plot, line breaks, character, canonical references, etc. I’ve sometimes said things like “I came to writing through visual art” but that’s not actually right—studying art only meant that I came to writing with a firm understanding that form was equal to content, and that text is just an object that can take on many forms. I also think this is why the human hand is a motif in Bright Archive (most obviously in “Handling the Beast”). Because when I think of reading I still picture hands, the connection point between the body of a text and the body of the reader. I didn’t know what all the hands were doing in this book at first, but near the end of the project I began to understand them as a signal to the viewer to think about this text as a structure too, and one inviting their reorientation, their subjective control of its meaning through physical manipulation.
Last fall you kindly visited a graduate class I was teaching called “The Forms of Love: Writing a Community Memoir.” I thought to invite you because the writing in Bright Archive is so often inclusive of the words, opinions, and behaviors of others, everyone from the “Critter Gitter” (an exterminator interviewed for “Into the Limen”) to your family, friends, exes, old classmates, and various professionals in their field. Could you speak to the ways in which other people feel important to the process of writing (not just as characters in the essays)? Do you talk about your work with others? Do you share drafts? Do you feel called to respond to certain groups or communities? I’m curious about the social or collaborative aspects of your practice…
The frame of “Writing a Community Memoir” and also “love” as “form,” feels like such an expansive approach for students, and especially any student working towards memoir. In our discussion with your class we talked a bit about essays in Bright Archive like “Foul Chutes,” which feature (among many things) a narrative thread in the form of a conversation with a friend. One half of the essay is “Meg and I go on a research trip” as I alternately I reflect on the history of our friendship and shared antics. Other people are important to my process perhaps first because they are with me during “research.” I wouldn’t have driven 12 hours to a rural abandoned Army Corps project without Meg. She made that possible. That Meg was there meant research was happening, so her presence throughout the experience was integral to my understanding of not just what we found, but how I thought about the questions that brought me there. Later, when writing the essay, I became interested in how to feature a friendship as part of a process of thinking (/dissecting), and I was also interested in the ways a friendship could become as strong a force in the narrative as we might expect a romance could might be in other narrative forms (of love).
Two years ago I tweeted something glib like “my friends make my art.” What I meant was that, in the making of each of these essays, there was always a moment when the text was dead in the water until a conversation with a friend jolted me forward. Sometimes it was a chat about a subject related to the essay itself, but more often the conversation was about something else entirely. “Unrelated,” I could say, though I always see friendship, community, being in the world, talking, joking, as related to my writing process. Reading also helps, but not as much as talking to other writers. These visual texts have gone through so, so many drafts, and friends have read them at every stage. Reading drafts by friends and talking through feedback also teaches me more about writing, shifts my perspective, deepens my connections to other people, and keeps the writing energy around inside us when we’re not writing.
The writer Makenzie Wark has described a “politics of selfishness” that is long present in the ways, historically, we’ve talked about literary work that has not referenced the author or their subjective context, and how this work has been considered more “literary,” more objective, or more artful as a result. This has meant that work (primarily by women) that has used the self as a lens has been described as selfish or unworldly. In the past decade I think the internet has maybe reframed what our culture thinks of “selfishness” or selves (selvesishness?), but I think this bias, especially in discussions of nonfiction and the inclusion of “personal” experience in essays, is still present in contemporary discussions. I wonder if this might be one of the trajectories that the “Writing the Community Memoir” seeks to reframe. For young writers, especially, there seems to be aesthetic (political?) pressure to conceal, in the work itself, the role of many people and places in its making. That aesthetic pressure for “objectivity” might also perpetuate the ol’ myth of the artist as a maker toiling alone in their study with no day job or family and dinner slid under the door, which is likely much less true than “I, the writer with many selves” or “my friend came along with me.”
I don’t think of Bright Archive as a memoir, but I am very interested in the inclusion of “the self in conversation” as a way to signal subjectivity for the reader—much more so than in the self as a stand-alone subject. When I built my first big text installation in Arizona, my mother, my father and my grandmother traveled separately to Tucson to see it. The three of them haunt all of the essays in Bright Archive, but in life they aren’t on speaking terms. During that visit they all ended up coming to the gallery to help me frantically finish installing in the last hour before the show opened. The work was pretty silent until this moment I remember when each of us was pulling on a rope to hoist a massive tunnel book into suspension—I don’t know how I imagined doing the job myself—and when it was finally up these three people with so much between them just paused to stare at each other with glee.
Will you say a bit about the word “archive” in the title? To me, it gestures toward the inclusion of histories (family, art, feminist, ecological), as well as to the object of the book itself as a marker in/of time. But also, those two readings of the word “archive” stand in wonderful opposition to some of Bright Archive’s other objectives: to lend a traditionally static object (a book) qualities of improvisation, performance, and dimensionality; to include essays that could be both permanently literary and wildly distinct, specific, or fleeting. The simplest example would be the essay “Log Cabin Square,” which is printed on a 13 x 13-inch square page that can be pulled out and spun around; it can be shared, framed, damaged, or lost (unlike what we might typically think of something bound for the archives).
The writer Aisha Sloane mentioned recently that “archive” might be the word of our moment. At first I worried secretly that this meant Bright Archive’s title was somehow gauche, but I recognize now that it means the book is part of a group (community?) of texts coming-to in a shared cognitive space. I think this period is one in which we are asking hard questions of our archives. Who chose to preserve this? What criteria did they apply? Because we are only beginning to recognize how much we have lost and how permanently we have lost it through what once seemed like casual forms of “leaving out.” We are yearning for histories whose records have been wiped violently. I think this book is maybe only in part about grieving the archive. But these essays, as you say, are thinking a lot about the tactile nature of archival material and research. This question makes me realize that the modalities of this book perhaps also reiterate for the reader the many challenges—and the stark pleasures—of navigating old files, dusty libraries, stacks of books and microfiche, and also recall the many contradictions and contrasting formats those embodied processes offer a reader of archives. I think “bright” is the search light, a process of uncovering things forgotten.
Since Bright Archive has (at the time of this interview) been in the world for a little over four months, you’ve had the chance to hear how some readers have responded to the book’s designs. You’ve mentioned that some people are baffled, some are thrilled, and some have recounted that they were unsure how to approach the essays at first but quickly grew accustomed to learning how to read each piece as they went. All of those responses feel right to me—this is a book that requires participation; it requires flipping and turning and unfolding as well as chronological leaps, disrupted expectations, and a kind of willingness to be in a space of not-knowing, if only for a moment. I admire this “difficulty”— the “difficulty” of anything novel—and read Bright Archive as being in conversation with other contemporary writers pushing the boundaries of genre, layout, material, and shape. A few who come to mind are Douglas Kearney, Jen Bervin, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Jenny Boully, Anne Carson, Renee Gladman, Ander Monson, and Jenny Holzer. How do you see your work in relationship to various avant-garde practices: concrete poetry, artist’s books, weaving, computational modes, collage, vis-po, text off the page, etc.? Maybe you could discuss one specific essay’s association with an artistic tradition that informs it?
It’s maybe interesting to note that since BA came out, I’ve made many more connections to visual poets, who have generously expressed curiosity about the book and also welcomed me as one of their own even though I’m a writer of “prose.” The vispo community is international and extremely inclusive of what a visual poem can be—anything from concrete texts, to letter-paintings, to poems translated into strips of color. It’s been both lovely and concerning to further understand how many contemporary writers are working in visual modes of poetry, and how few examples I’ve seen of visual poems in literary publications anywhere.
The list of writers you mention are all makers I admire, and who have certainly informed this book. In reading works by folks like Douglas Kearney and Jenny Boully, I’ve come to realize that for many poets what is visual about a piece of writing is often about communicating sound on the page—about visuality recalling orality—one media conjuring another—which seems a type of magic to me. I think my visual forms are doing something different, which falls more closely in the lineage of works by Jen Bervin and Renee Gladman whose visualities are interested in what the reader sees while reading. “Difficulty” is certainly something my essays aim to offer, but only fleetingly and in the form of a moment of uncertainty for the reader, which is meant as an invitation.
During the class visit with your “Forms of Love” class another thing we talked through was the ordering of the essays in this book, and the fact that the first essay “The New Age Below Ground,” is the only text that requires a reader to spin the entire book on every page. I shared that it had been fascinating for me to hear from various readers that this very first essay was especially challenging for them to adjust to, but that every essay that followed seemed easy or intuitive afterwards. I’ve heard Ander Monson describe this as the job of the opening section of any project to “teach you how to read it.” I think this first essay teaches you not just how to physically read, but it more explicitly invites the reader to be involved in conceptually bridging prose fragments.
In a recent interview with Naoko Fujimoto, the visual poet Amanda Earl (one of the most active makers and critics in the vispo community and the author of the ongoing project the “Vispo Bible”) Fujimoto asked Earl why visual poems seemed “difficult to read,” and suggested that the first difficulty for a reader might be simply “where to start.” In her reply Earl said, “I don’t agree that my visual poems are difficult to read. I think there are many ways to read, but they aren’t read in the same way as a traditionally formatted poem is read…. For me visual poetry is a response to literalism and how language can be used by those in power for propaganda, manipulation of people and lies.”
I’ve learned a lot from looking at and reading visual poets on my way to making visual essays because my works borrow concrete forms while also pushing the limits of the page. Earl reminds me that fundamentally, I don’t think my visual essays are difficult to read. I know well that a reader used to traditional formatting might feel a “hitch” at first, as they reorient to the page, but (as Rescue Press knows) that’s not a design flaw, it’s the point.
You’ve previously talked about how, in the years before Bright Archive was published, some of the essays took the form of performance art, object, or instillation, and I know that in the last year or so you’ve been experimenting with film, gif, noise, and moving-text pieces. Can you discuss making digital work in these remote times, and if this interest is based on a desire to continually translate your work to other modes which, this past year, has required one to do so within the constraints of a laptop’s software and camera?
It’s fascinating to answer this question after the previous one because what I immediately realize is that when “translating” visual essays for a live performance (especially virtual live performance), the challenge I experience is that of communicating the elements of a visual text to someone who is receiving a text audibly, rather than visually. Because form is not separate from content, but integral to it, how is a visual essay’s form (both reliant on and responding to the body of the codex) translated to an audience from a traditional podium or stage? Does it subvert to the framework of the “reading” using the same methods as it would offer a “hitch” to the “page.” How is it translated from my laptop screen to many others? Maybe these are the questions poets have always been answering at podiums, but they are better friends with sound than I am. It’s been fun to have to learn more about video, animation and orality in these virtual performances where both more and less is possible. What I’ve liked best is being able to think of the screen as a screen, a colander through which I see the audience, a plan where activity can happen. What I’ve been attempting to do is make use of that barrier as part of the performance, rather than a hinderance to it, in examples like this reading of “Log Cabin Quilt Square.”
As a follow up to the previous question, could you tell me about a performance—the reading of an essay, theater, slam, improv, dance, puppetry, anything—that you recall from our previous in-person lives that couldn’t happen via Zoom, and that inspired or changed the way you thought about art?
I love performance! In some ways I wonder if encountering performance as a mode in visual art spaces has informed my tendencies toward the visual performance of text on the page. Is a visual form a performance of “thinking” through arrangement? One performance I’m still thinking about ten years later was a by a graduate student in studio art at the University of Arizona. I don’t remember his name. He set up in a gallery with a 400-year-old tree stump and a power sander. He wore ear and eye protection and a jumpsuit with “The Great Eraser” stitched to his nametag, and every so often he would pause his sanding to sweep up the dust he was sanding from the ancient stump and collect it in a jar. He stacked jars in a shelf along the wall, all day for a week, and when I came back the stump was nearly gone. Arizona is not a landscape of trees. This piece could seem very literal when described in language for our contemporary context, but at the time, as someone who had encountered performance as a place of well, mostly body paint and screaming, it startled me that a performance could be entirely made of “found” objects and could very simply meditate on a kind of destruction-measurement that I still can’t articulate here. Perhaps I also see performance in places that artists might not traditionally name it. In the past decade I’ve been lucky to travel to Bread + Puppet and The Museum of Everyday Life in Vermont, which I think of as two different performance spaces, where I was introduced to the “cranky,” a folk object for storytelling, and which have influenced my own understanding of screens and live texts.
My first book of essays came out around the same time as yours and, like yours, took just under a decade to write, causing you and I to occasionally remark upon the obvious-but-somehow-still-shocking time-melting quality of nonfiction to each other. An essayist might, for instance, labor over a single brief experience for days or weeks (causing it to take up much more time in one’s life than it actually did) or endlessly condense drafts of an anecdote, layering the narrative with the ghosts of shifting versions. From the second one decides to write about a memory they are erasing it, replacing it with language, unmooring it from reality, a notoriously discombobulating quality of memoir. Can you point to a moment in Bright Archive that no longer feels accurate (emotionally, factually, contextually), or that seems totally foreign to your understanding of your own past? Which essay’s “self” is most distant from your current self, for better or worse? Would you disagree with or revise any of the characterizations or sentiments that you’ve frozen in time for us?
Time-melting is right. There are so many ideas in this book my current self (February 2021) would disagree with or refute. Today I think much differently about chosen names, the expectations placed on parents, the role of place, of tourism, and the thinking about lineage. But I’m also sure I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t written it—which may sound trite, but is also true, and not limited to writing nonfiction. I think the oldest essays (“Mississippi Pearl,” “Nest,” “Into the Limen”) are ones in which I feel most distant from the speaker. Mostly, I recognize now that the way I feel about something or someone, however strongly, will likely change. This wasn’t something I understood deeply while writing most of the book. The memories in BA I still remember, but their recording has changed them, and I also understand what is happening in those memories differently than when I first wrote them down. They mean differently today, which means that sometimes when I am reading the book aloud for an audience I feel I have to adopt a kind of persona. In the last editing stages of Bright Archive, I actually had to work to prevent myself from further cutting by repeating a sort of mantra to myself about how removing evidence of the original “self” in a single essay would also begin to strip the book of deeper inter-workings that weren’t so easily tweaked. Sometimes when re-reading Bright Archive I have also “learned” a word—re-learned a word I myself once wrote but do not consider part of my vocabulary today. I guess it’s not that I disagree with or revise the sentiments in the book, but that they seem to me now like a document, frozen only as the subject in a photograph is—stuck in time and persona—rather than the final word on anything.
What do your notes and scraps look like? Do you keep files of fragments in your computer, hand-written notebooks, wall charts, marginalia, models, or doodles? How do you organize your thoughts and materials? Does most of your writing end up in your writing? Does most of your research and planning?
I love this question, and I want to know every writer’s answer! I do keep hundred-page digital documents of fragments, research information, quotes, notes, that sometimes end up becoming a kind of outline for an essay. I trick myself into “writing” by going into those documents and typing below a fragment. Then I’ll scroll crazily start writing somewhere else. I also keep one lined notebook every year, which I ignore and abuse and don’t prefer to write in, but which often contains most of the writing that ends up in an essay (shhhh).
Less tangibly, I think whenever I’m working on a project I also have an image in mind—usually something I’m having a hard time visualizing fully—the guts of a house, the Mississippi watershed, the last nest I saw—though rarely do I have images pulled up digitally or available to me visually as I’m writing. Instead, what I have around visibly are big old books. I like to check out the oldest, fattest library books related to what I’m working on, and stack them around my space. I’ll page through sections to pull various information, but almost never will read the whole volume. I think those books and their spines kind of scaffold the mental space where I’m writing, and I’ll return to the same physical space they occupy when I’m trying to work on a draft. The title of the book I can see from where I’m sitting now is Purposes of Art, which is a joke I have with myself.
What’s something you’ve read recently that’s made you giddy with joy?
Lately I’ve been thrilled by theory (??) and pretty worked up about contemporary poetry. Some recent friends are:
Your second book, Slim Confessions, will be out in fall 2021 with Noemi Press. What’s it like? Would you like to say anything about what you’re writing, or making, or mulling over today?
Pre-pandemic, I read from Slim Confessions for a crowd at the BeWitched reading series in Nashville, which was part art installation, part poetry reading, part light show, part dance party. When it was my turn to read I projected short clips of women getting “slimed” on the wall behind me while a “cocktail waiter” passed around a tray of plastic cups filled with (inedible) slime for the audience to engage with. This is an experience I hope reading the book—a long essay about gazing and loneliness and digital touch—might come close to mimicking.
It’s maybe interesting to compare the two books in terms of time-melting as well: The first was written across ten years and deals, as you describe, with trying to unify lived experience and diverse conceptual approaches to meaning-making, using space. The second is interested in the limits of compression, and in editing Slim I’ve tried to limit myself even more to honoring the thinking of a text that was made by a past self, in a kind of fever, during a period of intense focus and isolation. Through my trajectory as a maker who wanders between image and text, Slim Confessions and Bright Archive might serve as antidotes to one another. Where BA is interested in responding to the codex through various explosions, and by testing the meaning-making powers of shape, Slim responds to the codex by ignoring it, or by reminding it how much it is like a screen. Slim Confessions is also “space-less” in that, wherever a gap between paragraphs would normally exist to signal a transition, there is an image causing further compression.
Caryl Pagel is the author of two books of poetry, Twice Told (University of Akron Press) and Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death (Factory Hollow Press), as well as a the recently published collection of essays Out Of Nowhere Into Nothing (FC2). Pagel is an editor and publisher at Rescue Press and the director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She’s an associate professor at Cleveland State University, where she teaches in the NEOMFA program.
For Further Reading