‘Those Cloudy Infinite Iterations of Self’: An Interview with Olivia Muenz – Michigan Quarterly Review
A photo of Olivia Muenz set against a gradient background (black to blue).

‘Those Cloudy Infinite Iterations of Self’: An Interview with Olivia Muenz

In an interview with disabled writer Olivia Muenz, whose debut collection I Feel Fine (Switchback Books, March 2023) was selected as winner of the 2022 Gatewood Prize by judge Julie Carr, poet Danika Stegeman (Pilot Spork Press, 2020; Ablation 11:11 Press, November 2023) asks questions that highlight Olivia’s unique voice while placing her work within the context of women who have enriched the writing community with their ingenuity. I Feel Fine is a series of refrains on loss, gendered disability, community, alienation, productivity, value, and performativity. Written at the end of the author’s months-long period of being bedridden, I Feel Fine replicates her neurodivergence at the sentence-level, operating primarily through fragments and association rather than linear thought. Fundamentally playful, it layers and flattens experiences, calling out to an ever-shifting and multiple you. The interview seeks to honor the depth and playfulness of the book and unfolds as a conversation between two women writers early in their careers.

Olivia Muenz is the author of the poetry collection I Feel Fine (Switchback Books, 2023), which won the 2022 Gatewood Prize, and the chapbook Where Was I Again (Essay Press, 2022). She holds an MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University where she earned the Robert Penn Warren Thesis Award in prose. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, Massachusetts Review, Poetry  Daily, The Missouri Review, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere, including being listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2023. Her writing has been supported by the Tin House Summer Workshop, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and Zoeglossia. She lives in the Hudson Valley.

Danika Stegeman (DS): The first poem in I Feel Fine begins “Here is the world. We are in this together. The body pulls. In /toward itself and toward all of us. That is all we need. Am I /doing this right. Where was I again.” How does the “I” in this book relate to multiple “yous” and to the world at large?

Olivia Muenz (OM): Oh god, I don’t know—How does it ever?! Is there a true singular self, a pure containable I, surrounded and clouded by the many iterations of self? I’m not sure. I think I’m more interested in those cloudy infinite iterations of self. And I guess, here I was forcing the multiplicity of self and other to coexist, and to intimate the lack of boundary between the two. I’m never really sure where the line between my self and the rest of the world lies. When you probe them, those labels and distinctions begin to disintegrate. I guess I wanted to keep poking at it until the whole thing fell apart. And all of this feels like a benign thought exercise, but it has very concrete, real-world implications—what is our responsibility to one another in a so-called community? Is anyone really sharing both the experience and the burden of disability with me or am I completely on my own? For me, the toughest part of being sick isn’t the pain, but feeling like the entire force of the world is against me, and if I don’t have the capacity to pull myself along, no one will do it for me. Over time, that’s too much to bear, so I have to pretend I’m not alone in it, and hope that maybe I’m not really pretending. But doubt still breaks through.

DS: Laura Mullen describes your sentences as “urgently compelling in their staccato rhythm” and while I find that true, I also find them calming and meditative at the same time. The style is completely yours and unique; what you’re doing with periods reminds me of what Chelsey Minnis did with ellipses in Zirconia or what Alice Notley did with quotation marks in The Descent of Alette. It controls the pacing of the readers’ experience of the text in an intentional and delightful way. Could you talk about your use of periods in the book? How do these sentences form the book?

OM: I once described the period here as both a fulcrum and a disruptor, which I think is right. There’s something very fundamental about the period. It would probably be the one punctuation mark you’d bring to a desert island if you could only pack one. Or at least it would be for me. It’s very necessary, clunky, arresting, definitive, declarative. Placing a period in the middle or even beginning of a sentence is like the line is too heavy to carry itself to its end. It needs a quick rest. And that’s exactly how it is having intense cognitive fatigue, which is the context in which I wrote this. I can’t sustain a thought no matter how hard I try. So if a sentence plops itself down in the middle of its journey due to intense fatigue, it might forget which direction it came from or what direction it had been going. And that’s where the period also becomes a fulcrum—it’s decidedly somewhere, but has accidentally pivoted to a new direction, in the same way my brain moves not linearly and coherently but associatively. Having the period be the only punctuation mark, particularly in place of the question mark but also in place of the exclamation point, etc., made the voice feel a lot more even, and with that a lot more declarative, and a lot more affectless while feigning expression. The language can pose itself as a question, but it’s not really asking for permission or even a response. And there’s some definite reclamation in that, but it’s also something that the voice is being subjected to. That kind of blurring of agency and non-agency is inherent to the disabled experience and felt important to replicate.

DS: Would you call these prose poems? I think a lot about what poetic lines can contain/sustain and what prose can contain/sustain. Sometimes I’m still not sure why something ends up in lines or in prose blocks as I’m writing or revising. How did you arrive at prose as the vehicle for the book’s contents?

OM: I don’t know if I’d call these prose poems. Other writers much smarter than me have called them prose poems, and I trust their judgment. But I remember feeling surprised by the label, so I don’t think that’s how I originally thought of them. I may have thought of each “stanza” as a little nugget. They’re definitely not lineated, but they feel more aligned with something caesura-heavy like Dickinson (or your wildly generous comparisons above) than prose poems, which to me feel much longer than most stanzas in I Feel Fine. So I guess I’d call the book a collection of chicken nuggets…I’m not very good with labels. I never really know what anyone’s talking about. I don’t feel particularly knowledgeable. I mainly intuit my way through writing. Ideas for work mostly emerge altogether (form, content, genre, etc.), so I usually don’t have to make an active choice, it just is whatever it is. And that’s what happened here. I wrote the book while bedridden after waiting a long time to be well enough to write. Realizing I was waiting for conditions that may never come, I decided to write with my brain instead of forcing it to write clearly, neurotypically. And this is what it did. Retrospectively making sense of it, there’s likely an ongoingness to the prose poem, especially when sustained through a full book-length, that aligns itself well with this kind of stream of consciousness.

DS: You’re a disabled writer and, in my reading experience, I Feel Fine is a text written both from and about disability. I recently read the article “My Disability Forced Me to Become More Visible in My Work as a Translator” by Amanda Sarasien in Electric Lit. Sarasien says “…I was the only one who spoke the language of my body.” Could you talk about disability in relation to I Feel Fine and how the book speaks the language of your body and mind?

OM: This is something I’ve considered a lot since I wrote I Feel Fine. It’s a major component of my lyric memoir in-progress—how do you translate the body? What is lost in that translation? Which really becomes the same question(s) as the ones I was asking in your response to your first question—can we really share our experiences with one another? The replication of my brain is the center of I Feel Fine, and that language (provided through its form replicating thought patterns that are associative and cyclical) is the closest I can get to sharing the experience of being both neurodivergent and otherwise multiply disabled. If I’m thinking about I Feel Fine in relation to my other work, I think I center my emotional experience of disability here more than anything else. While my nonfiction more directly confronts the systems or institutions that oppress disabled people in a largely intellectual way, I Feel Fine takes that on much more indirectly through tone and emotional response. There’s an intense alienation in being disabled. Being immunocompromised in the pandemic, I learned that after a certain amount of time in isolation, loneliness becomes a physical sensation. It’s not just in the sickbed that we’re lonely. Just moving through the world is emotionally and psychologically lonely. It’s a different state of being, one that only other disabled people can access.  I wrote this book in that state of being, so while I hope everyone can access something in the book, I really wrote this for the disabled gaze.

DS: In addition to everything else we’ve covered, I want to make sure that potential readers understand that your book is also funny. It’s a delight to read and inhabit. In an interview with Mark Wunderlich for Bennington Review, Mary Ruefle said, “My sensibility is very humorous and very melancholy and very deadpan. That’s who I am. Life is long and life is hard. The best way to endure and survive life is to have a terrific sense of humor.” Could you talk a bit about humor and the ways it relates to survival, hardness, life, and maybe even melancholy?

OM: While the impairments of my disability are extremely hard, as is living in an inaccessible society with a for-profit healthcare system, the experience of my disability is also really goofy. I once got a salivary stone (my body is prone to calcification) and had to suck a Warhead all day every day for a week until it came out. The left side of my neck swelled up to the size of a baseball every time I smelled a cookie. That is objectively hilarious. It’s not only physical comedy, but when you experience extremely painful and serious impairments, something relatively less painful and ultimately benign while also obscure and random is hilarious. One kind of comedic form is prolonging something far, far past when it should end (Chris Farley is famous for it, as is Family Guy) to the point of absurdity, rendering something that would be unfunny in a normal dose of funny in its enormity. When I get my third disabling symptom, all separate from one another, in a day, I find it incredibly funny. My dad thinks we come from a long line of unlucky people and he’s taught me to respond to unbearable pile-ups with humor because it’s often the only thing left in the arsenal. And it is a really powerful tool. It’s a form of reclamation of control when you’ve lost it. And it’s also just a lot more fun. Being unbearably sad is just a bummer. Playfulness is a really important part of my life and I’ve made it an important part of my writing. In this project in particular, I was very interested in the contradiction it offered. The “frailty” of sickness with the power of a cutting voice. The farce of that voice’s aggression when followed by a kind of deference: “I will eat you alive if you let me.”

DS: Page 58 of I Feel Fine says “Let me fill you in on a Little Secret.” So I want to ask you this question from C. D. Wright’s “Questionnaire in January”: Do you want to tell me a secret. (C. D. Wright also asks questions using periods as punctuation.)

OM: Yes.

Danika Stegeman’s second book, Ablation, was released by 11:11 Press November 1st, 2023. Her book Pilot (2020) was published by Spork Press. She’s a 2023 recipient of a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and recently spent a 2-week residency in Marathon, TX outside Big Bend National Park. Her website is www.danikastegeman.com.

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