Last year, I was having a conversation with Rainer Diana Hamilton about our collaborative project of conversational poetry. We had completed a suite of forty sonnets that felt relatively self-contained, and we were unsure where the project wanted to go next. Since the project had begun partially out of our shared interest in the lines that writers must draw between what they will say in private conversation and what they will say in published work, I proposed that we each make lists of topics about which we love to speak but loathe to write. Writing my list did a number on me—I have not been able to meaningfully work on our collaboration since. When I was asked to be the blogger-in-residence at futurefeed, I decided to revisit this list, figuring that writing about some of these topics would be the juiciest and most generous thing I could do.
My list (which I will not be sharing in full) contains about forty topics which I prefer to discuss privately. This particular set of topics called out to me as a prompt for this series of blog posts, partially because they are about the nature of private conversation:
Conversation as avoidance of sex
Sex as avoidance of conversation
Sex as conversation
Conversation as sex
How certain sexual preferences can be unfair or violent
How certain conversational styles can be unfair or violent
In my three forthcoming blog posts, I plan to take up these items two at a time. In part, I hope to continue thinking about Rainer and I’s interest in the differences between what is said in more private and more public uses of language, but I confess my interest is much more centered on the relation between sex and conversation. At the outset, however, I would like to recount some of the conversations (and perhaps some of the sex) which led me to thinking about these questions.
The year before last, I was having a conversation with Christina Chalmers, Sophia Dahlin, Benjamin Krusling, and Rosie Stockton at a bar in Brooklyn. At some point, maybe after Ben and Sophie had left, with the intimacy that inheres to a small group which has just recently been part of a larger group, we started talking about sex. I don’t remember exactly what we said, but I remember thinking about the crudeness of the distinction between open and closed relationships, this strange but powerful feeling that exercising control over a single expression of erotic energy could channel its generally chaotic flow. I think in a certain sense we were simply wondering together about where exactly sex begins and ends.
Within a week of that conversation, Christina texted our group the first paragraph of Alenka Zupančič’s What is Sex? and I texted a sonnet from Lyn Hejinian’s Oxota, which I had been reading on Ben’s recommendation. (I will return to both of these texts in subsequent blog posts.)
Around the time of this conversation, I was also going on a lot of dates. I recall encountering imogen xtian smith on a dating app after having already encountered her via poetry and quickly spending six hours in conversation. We talked about everything, quite often about sex, although we seemed to be slowly in the process of realizing together that we would not be ‘having’ sex that evening. We both wondered if talking too much on every first date could be considered a form of promiscuity, a sort of emotional sluttiness. I started sleeping with a woman who I will allow to remain nameless in order to protect the innocent (by this I mean that she is not a poet), and our fling was partially premised on a mutual desire to nudge each other into saying things that we both seemed reluctant to say, both ‘during’ sex and ‘outside’ of it. Sophie was dating around as well, and while we often struggled to understand how to talk about each other’s affairs, we certainly seemed to know how to have sex about them.
In an unsurprising but perhaps disappointing shift, I started out being more interested in sex and ended up being more interested in conversation. While I will consider the possibility that sex and conversation are identical, here I must note the great discrepancy in the quality of reading material that explicitly concerns itself with the two topics. Theoretical writing about sex-as-concept and personal sex writing are both available in glorious abundance. Who has written sensitively at length on how it feels to have a conversation with someone, about what we are actually doing when we converse? The question is not rhetorical; I welcome recommendations. I do not doubt that the literature is there, but I have been unable to find it. I am interested in textual records of verbal conversations (and I am tickled by the coincidence of writing these blog posts just after Futurefeed has published a textual record of my recent conversation with Wendy Lotterman), but I am more interested in writing which attempts to consider conversation in general as a relational form or embodied experience rather than document its occurrence.
In a process as stimulating and maddening as therapy itself, I have felt compelled to turn to reading more psychoanalytic texts in order to scratch my itch. Intimacies, a book which could be described as a sort of non-conversation between Adam Phillips and Leo Bersani, begins with Bersani quoting Phillips: “Psychoanalysis is about what two people can say to each other if they agree not to have sex.” Here, certain conversational possibilities emerge from the avoidance of sex (and we might thus wonder what sorts of conversational possibilities are foreclosed between people who do have sex, or what kinds of sex are possible between people who agree not to talk). How conversational exchanges relate to sexual exchanges is an open question, and Bersani makes clear that these kinds of conversational intimacies do not emerge only in the psychoanalytic encounter.
It makes me think about Rainer’s joke when introducing our collaboration (“while I would never want to reduce friendship to a sublimation hack…”) to which I now find myself wanting to say: perhaps there is no reduction, not because the pleasure of friendship (conversation) is on par with sexual pleasure, but because it may be indistinguishable. Still, before running towards this conclusion of identity, I must address the important question of avoidance, the sense that sex and conversation must be kept separate in order to make sense of friendship, psychoanalysis, and all the other strange manifestations of our endless interest in each other. The possibility that sex and conversation can be ways of avoiding one another will be the subject of my next blog post.