Janaka Stucky‘s haunting, intense readings are some of the most gripping examples of the form you’re likely to witness. His latest book, Ascend Ascend, is a powerful meditation on death, decay, and rebirth — the result of a composition process that involved trance states. In advance of his New York event with Atlas Obscura on May 11, we chatted with him about the new collection, the ritualistic elements of poetry, and his unique approach to readings.
What was the process by which you prepared yourself to write what became Ascend Ascend?
I started writing this book while at an artist residency in a 19th century church up in New Hampshire, geared specifically for artists who have esoteric or occult influences on their creative process. At first I didn’t know what I was writing … My notebook containing material for the book I had originally intended to write, an epic love poem to Jean Genet, was lost right before the residency began—so I was facing a couple of weeks to work with a completely blank slate. As the scaffolding for Ascend Ascend began to take shape, I started building both daily ritual practices for approaching the work as well as more specialized approaches for certain sections. The literary tradition of Jewish mystic literature that I consider it a part of traditionally involves very complex, proscribed series of preparations for ascension. I am by no means an expert kabbalist, but I’m no stranger to meditation, trance, psychedelic journeys, and other altered states of consciousness through which to draw out numinous experiences. I ended up with a daily routine that involved rising at dawn, then climbing a few flights of spiral stairs and a ladder through a trapdoor into a tiny room at the top of the church tower—maybe seven feet by seven feet. I would spend my entire day there, reading and meditating and fasting, then come down in the evening to transcribe what that day’s visions had produced onto a huge roll of paper … a kind of scroll. By the end of the residency that scroll was about 150-200 yards long, which is the text that became the book.
The opening pages of Ascend Ascend abound with images of death, decay, and rebirth. Were those themes there from the outset, or did they come from your subconscious?
I think a little bit of both. I spent seven years working as an undertaker so those themes are probably always lurking somewhere beneath! But also, I was writing to the moment—our historical moment. I had originally intended to write a kind of queer coming-out book, so the undercurrents of shame and freedom, and the violence the world enacts upon us as we seek to become free—not just in our sexuality but in so many aspects of our lives both social and political—was definitely in my conscious mind. That struggle manifested through images in very corporeal ways.
How did you end up working with Atlas Obscura on these events?
The foreword for my book was written by Pam Grossman, host of The Witch Wave podcast and author of the new book,Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power. I met Pam back in 2016 when I performed at the 2016 Occult Humanities Conference at NYU. Pam had written one of the smartest reviews of my last book, and so I asked her to write a foreword for this one. Pam knew some folks at Atlas Obscura and though my immersive, ritualized performances would be up their alley so she made an introduction.
Where did the musical element for them come into play?
While I’m a performative reader—entering into a kind of trance state when I read as well as when I write—I think there’s a limit to how long audiences want to sit for a reading. As I thought about how to present the work in its entirety, it felt like an organic extension to bring music into the performance as a way to create a more satisfying aesthetic experience. I’ve collaborated with musicians in the past, from the British guitar virtuoso Duke Garwood to the band SQURL, so I was comfortable with adding this element. Shin Yu Pai and Megan Roberts at Atlas Obscura, who are amazing people who deeply care about creating great events, ran with this idea and found some incredible musicians to add to the bill. Here in New York I’ll be performing with the incredible film composer Mark Korven, known especially for his score of THE VVITCH, playing an instrument of his own creation—the Apprehension Engine. In Seattle I’ll get to perform with cellist Lori Goldston, who is probably known to most people as having played with Nirvana and the drone metal band, Earth.
Was there one specific point where you can recall becoming aware of the ritualistic potential of poetry?
Yes, back in 2009 I set out to write 30 poems in 30 days for National Poetry Month. I am not a prolific writer, so the prospect of writing so many poems in a short time felt very daunting. I asked a novelist friend of mine how he was able to churn out so many words in a day, and he told me that I should create a ritual for myself. Now, in hindsight he clearly just meant a routine—rise, make coffee, write, eat, write, go for a walk … rinse and repeat. But because I had a very esoteric and spiritual upbringing, I took him literally. I started incorporating meditating practices into my preparations and then writing from the subsequent trance states. The result was a poetry drastically different from the more narrative, confessional work I had been writing before—and I’ve now been writing with variations on this technique ever since. When it came time to start performing this work, after it was published in my 2015 book, I had to find a way to read the work that felt true to its genesis and so I began experimenting with breath and silence and meditation and trance in my performances as well. I want each reading to be initiatory.
What’s the experience like for you of reading in a church, as opposed to other sorts of spaces where you’ve read in the past?
Well, better acoustics for one! It’s a little funny because I’m not Christian. The traditions I was predominantly raised with are Hinduism and Judaism. But because Christian religions have dominated the American landscape for centuries they have built some of the most beautiful spaces to perform in this country. So I treat the opportunity as an abstractly spiritual one rather than in a lineage with Christ. We are all here at Art Church, experiencing something ineffable, and poetry as a kind of speech that is able to convey something without actually being able to say it.
You cited, among others, Wayne Koestenbaum in your recent essay for Literary Hub, and both of you have written work via trance states. What about such a headspace lends itself to writing poetry?
Wayne has this great line about that in an interview where he says, “I’m letting the universe top me.” The difference for me is that writing from this kind of liminal consciousness helps me move toward a more natural, spontaneous, agenda-less kind of art. Rather than the poem acting as a kind of propaganda piece or toward sticking a some sort of narrative landing, the point of the poem is each moment of its unfolding.
Throughout Ascend Ascend, sigils punctuate the various segments of the book. What was the process of creating these like?
I started using sigils several years ago as points of focus. I was drawing sigils in my notebook using the ash from incense I burned while writing this work so I wanted to find a way to incorporate them into the book. So as I was in the editorial phase with Third Man Books I asked one of my fellow artists at the residency, the brilliant painter and tattoo artist K Lenore Siner, if she would create seven sigils of the archangels to use as printer’s marks for the seven sections of the book. K has also created seven stunning illustrations for the book that will appear as a limited, signed & numbered edition of 175 copies in the UK—published by Fulgur Press in June. When I give these Atlas Obscura performances I’ll be doing so from the center of a tarp I’ve created that incorporated those seven sigils, along with my own sigil and some sacred geometry. The tarp will then be decorated with fresh flowers, handmade ceremonial beeswax candles gifted to me by Ben at Mithras Candle, and various ritual objects that will be used throughout the performance. I don’t think sigils have inherent magical qualities, but they are useful objects for us to martial our will or state intention—and there is definitely power in that. They help build an environment wherein we feel the possibility for something strange and miraculous to happen, something transformative. If I could give my audiences one thing at each show, it would be that sense of possibility in the unutterable immediate now.