Art, Ritual, and Life: An Interview With C. Bain

"Sex Augury"

Augury once referred only to the form of divination that read birds, futures read from the types and flight and behavior of birds. It was a kind of literacy. Now augury means future-telling in general. Of course, the thing about the future is that we know, broadly, what is happening. The circulation of the Atlantic ocean nears a tipping point where the currents will stop, wildfires in California, in Turkey, heatwaves in south Asia. It’s pretty clear what’s happening. So telling the future is an obsolescing industry, and as such, poetry can get in there. SEX AUGURY (Red Hen Press, 2023) is the second book of poetry by writer and performance artist C. Bain, applying a mystical literacy to the saturation of image, violence, and erotic alienation we are surrounded with, and infiltrated by. Just before the launch of SEX AUGURY, C. began a Fulbright fellowship in Leipzig, rendering the book launch a bit muted. On the belated occasion of the book, Rosemary Carroll, a colleague of C.’s through the brotherhood of negative prophesy, interviewed C. about the book and creative process.

Did you use witchcraft or divination to create the book?

Not really, isn’t that disappointing? i think that a lot of the poems that happen in the more mundane sort of world (the ones titled “Metamorphosis,” for example, or the ones about early covid lockdown) are really just me processing and trying to get my head around my experience and figure out how to be alive and how to want to be alive, which is magic in a way. Many people need to do this kind of magic, all the time. Really i almost never know what i am working on until i am most of the way through it already, so there was no book until suddenly there was, there was no “plan” magical or otherwise for making the book.

One thing my first book really taught me, though, is that writing a book of poetry effects almost nothing, but it does have a very spooky action on the shape of your own life and personality and relationships. So in that way, yes it ends up being witchcraft but not in a way you can control, haha, or foresee.

In the first section of the book you have a knockout poem to the Goddess of Witchcraft, ” Pasiphae      witch queen            oracular           brilliant             cursed with desire”  How did working with  Pasiphae guide you?

Aw thanks. i got interested in Pasiphae after the Minotaur showed up, i hadn’t planned to be working with him either, but then there he was really telling my story. So i started looking around him for other figures. (Daedalus is also in this universe, the engineer, Icarus’ father.) i learned about her a bit and then i was writing, again just trying to keep up with myself and sort out my thoughts, about a sex party in Gowanus. It’s a monthly, it’s an incredible party. Really it is a space of such integrity, in my opinion, i loved having access to it when i lived in New York. And the quality of anonymous sex for me is so primordial and transcendent– Sam Delaney famously has that beautiful passage in the Motion of Light on Water, talking about seeing the mass of men having sex with each other and realizing the insurgent, exquisite power in that kind of anarchic sexual expression/relating. So Pasiphae was with me, at Inferno– the cow-disguise is also of course a glory hole, so even architecturally, she’s there. Later i found out Ron Athey, a performance artist i admire, had been working on a big Pasiphae project too. So she’s in the zeitgeist. An It-girl.

Pasiphae is also important, in a way i try to show in the movement of the poem, because as queer people we often get hung up on various kinds of dads, but underneath dad there is usually a mom. This is a way i am inspired by Alexandro Segade, as well, who is a performance artist and writer who i’ve been able to work with a few times. He really has an insistence on acknowledging the role of the mother. Because without her, there is a quality that we’re trying to shut out of erotic life that is actually the precondition or foundation of erotic life.

The book is an Augury – an Omen – which I read as ending on a hopeful note.  I was surprised because you have described yourself as negative.  But in the end – you land on hopefulness. 

my wanting

pulled itself up from the ground again

coal streaks around her eyes

i cannot justify it but i can continue

among my burning 

to love her

to love us

not because i think love will save us

or because i think love is enough

i know it’s not. i turn my practice

and pleasure and duty

my message to our future discoverers that at last i knew

to love

Hm, well, that poem is from 2015. i wrote it at a point in time when i was, literally, uncharacteristically, quite hopeful and in love with the person who is also the subject of for example the series of poems called “Letter to Her Rapist,” which i wrote later. So it’s two questions, it’s how did i write a hopeful poem and then why did i sequence the collection so that the hopeful poem is last. 

How i wrote a hopeful poem is an impossible question. Ask me in 2015. As general writing advice, i think it’s good to try to write a poem when you notice yourself feeling a way that is not how you usually feel, and even at the time i knew i was not in my regular emotional wheelhouse. It’s good practice to write into unusual feelings and also to ignore it if what’s happening is an erasure, a way of staying with what is familiar and therefore comfortable even if in this case comfort = pain. 

Why i put it last– i think, it is nice to allow a reader to have that as a closing moment, even though the “real” end is an unimaginable horror, lol. Someone told me once, during colonoscopies, they leave the probe in for a full minute at the end without doing anything else in there, just so that the person’s memory of the procedure has an ending that is more or less tolerable, so they think the whole thing was not that bad. As opposed to ending with pain, even if it means a faster, more efficient process.

Another way to answer, is that hope is a practice. Nihilism, accelerationism, these are very white, very privileged positions, and they don’t really help me to live my life or make good decisions day to day. So when i can talk myself into a hopeful position i go for it, although sometimes the most meaningful and active hope is really about the annihilation of the world as it is.

Each section of the book has a poem titled “A letter to Her Rapist”, providing one of the main structures of Sex Augury.  

Yes, “rape is structural,” as you know, one of my slogans. i’ve been writing and thinking about sexual violence since i was a kid, at most 13 years old. It is one of my life’s big questions– what does understanding this enmeshment of sexuality and power give me access to, what does it allow me (force me) to understand? And what is a relationship, not a metaphor or a diagram, but an actual relationship between violences that happens within intimate relationships, and the political and economic forces that structure the world we live in. i know it’s the work of my life, and i also see a really rapidly changing social landscape. i’m 40, #metoo and precursors of #metoo that unfolded in subcultures/creative communities started happening when i was in my late 20s, early 30s, so after i had already been writing and performing work about sexual violence which no one else wanted to talk or think about for about 15 years. 

(i’m saying “no one wanted to talk about it,” but that’s not true– in the performance community i was in, Tara Hardy and Daphne Gottlieb were doing incredible work on these themes, although i know Daphne in particular is annoyed at being kind of pigeonholed into that reading of their work. And outside that universe, there are writers of course like Ai or Lucille Clifton, so amazing. But it was really like finding a spring in the desert, for me, when i came across these writers.) 

And i think the visibility of discourse around sexual violence has changed some interpersonal norms, very meaningfully, but i am not convinced that the political forms which map onto those ways of sexual relating have changed; i’m not sure you can end rape culture while living in technocapitalism, and vice versa, it’s a question i have. i also fall into some thinking that is ultimately pretty conservative, that i fight against inside myself, about how important sex and violence are– i think one way of reading all these articles about how zoomers are having less sex or whatever is just that they have different priorities, and maybe the fact that i prioritize these interstices of violence and the erotic is more about my addiction to intensity than about some authentic reality of what people need to care about.

I’m reminded of some lines from another title that appears throughout Sex Augury ‘Pornography In Wartime”

how i learned what we were – i saw us

used the image harvested from our bodies

how i learned how we fought as though trying

to take her body like a territory 

Pornography in Wartime poems recur throughout. 

the signal is garbled to protect me but

will unlock if i pay. 

the vomit yellow carpet

Pornography In Wartime is one of the oldest, maybe the single oldest thread in the book chronologically– a version of one of them was published in decomP in 2009. And again, I’m terms of divination, it feels at this moment like perhaps the most timely one.There’s a problem for me not just in that sex has this undercurrent of violence, but also in that violence has an undercurrent of sex. We remember this, we see this, for example in the Abu Ghraib images which i refer to obliquely at one point, which were „shocking,“ if they were shocking, partly because of the participation of woman soldiers in the sexual abuse of prisoners. (Coco Fusco‘s body of work on this is so strong, Atropos and the Field Guide for Female Interrogators). So it presents this difficulty, that the roles can be reversed within the system of sexual dominance, without there actually being a rupture of the system. Politically, you see these passionate right wing women who are so useful to their party interests– certainly the first female US president is going to be one of these ladies. Here in Germany the co-chairwoman of the AfD, (Alternative für Deutchland, the political party that has basically done some light rebranding on Nazi ideals) is a blonde femme lesbian, because of course she is. So one thing that i hope to convey is that the weaponization of sexuality can work in ways that are not straightforward-stereotypical.

It seems possible that, because sex and violence are encoded together, there could be a way into reorienting towards violence by rethinking sexuality, (and by extension gender relations.) i’m not trying to sanitize it, i’m trying to stay with it, as it is, for long enough that i can understand what’s happening. So that’s my excuse for being obsessed with it, but the truth is i’m obsessed with it, and that happens I think out somewhere beyond reasoning or choice. This is the content i have to work with, this is the movie in my head.

I love this section of “Persephone’s Husband Is Not Important and He Says”  

when the man took her

(the witnesses said chased, dragged)

trapped her under the earth 

then she did what she did. It’s strange

when you think about it 

that fruits are seeds and we 

eat them. Sugar harps the glistening 

tongue. It bothers me 

that that is what she took

not the utility of bread but tart

crystalline skin red and transparent inside its covering

of outer rougher skin, And now

she isn’t mine. i was never yours. It is isn’t 

ownership she says. 

To me this section is speaking of a horror – an abduction after a chase. An entrapment. And then the language takes me to sensual beauty. Sure there is pain and distortion, but the sensual delight of having a tongue and a body that can read poetry takes over for me.

Thanks for pulling on this excerpt. i have an idea of who a poem is „about“ but of course, like in dreams, you’re always really talking to yourself, parts of yourself. What is happening here, i’m very ambivalent about putting in plain language, even though i believe it— that surviving certain kinds of violence can give you supernatural qualities. And that it shapes your erotics in ways that, hey, I’m not going to sit here and cry about it. Liking what i like gives me access to intensity and ways of thinking i wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Even if it does also make me scary, or obstruct connection in some other ways. i am also very drawn to other people who are like me in this respect, which is a high-risk high-reward proposition, to use the language of the market. i do love us, so that’s one of the ways that the beauty keeps crawling back in.

You are in Leipzig. What is inspiring you there? 

Well i should say first that Germany, like the US, is really committed to showing it’s whole hideous ass, as far as the genocide of Palestinians. It is surreal. More generally, i worked really hard to get myself to Europe, and of course it’s different, heavier, than how one imagines it– there are things about it i appreciate– people are super into art, lol, it is crazy. 

It’s hard to pinpoint, but the way that the US has it’s poorly sublimated relationship with slavery, that is all so recent and so obvious, relative to the power formations and colonial consciousness that is in the landscape here. So i’m inspired by being disoriented, because those hauntings, while they’re in relationship, are different. Leipzig is also amazing because it’s former East Germany, the former GDR. So, even though that is an ambivalent history, it’s a place where they tried something other than capitalism, and a place that had a major upheaval in its political form in the early 90s, on a level the US has never had. So there is still, i think, a feeling that is less fatalistic, less resigned to a received form, more interested in solidarity. And that knowledge really doesn’t exist, even in western germany, people are like “Ew, the East, it’s underdeveloped,” and that’s where it ends. But it’s really very special, how many events find a way to have free food or childcare, or have volunteer whisper translation into other languages, if the programming is in German. i remember, at the BLM protests in 2020, the people running around with hand sanitizer, that WHO PROTECTS US / WE PROTECT US feeling. It’s like that, but related to rhythms of daily life, rather than a crisis. Probably my sense of it is problematically romantic, i know, but i am getting a lot out of it, at the moment. And there is this disgusting political position, but there is also protest all the time.


Rosemary Carroll runs The Beach art space and residency in Santa Fe, performs on horseback with Vaulters Del Sol, and has writing published with the Poetry Project, Ignota Books, Tilted House, Contact Quarterly, Ugly Duckling Presse, and Hexentexte.

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