Garments Against Women
Winner of the 2016 CLMP Firecracker Award
Garments Against Women is a book of mostly lyric prose about the conditions that make literature almost impossible. It holds a life story without a life, a lie spread across low-rent apartment complexes, dreamscapes, and information networks, tangled in chronology, landing in a heap of the future impossible. Available forms—like garments and literature—are made of the materials of history, of the hours of women’s and children’s lives, but they are mostly inadequate to the dimension, motion, and irregularity of what they contain. It’s a book about seeking to find the forms in which to think the thoughts necessary to survival, then about seeking to find the forms necessary to survive survival and survival’s requisite thoughts.
“Here Anne Boyer accounts for a form of life—form of life of a woman in this century living in Kansas City apartment complexes or duplexes with names like The Kingman or Colonial Gardens, form of life of a low-rent, cake-baking intellectual parenting a Socratic daughter, form of life of a person whose body refuses to become information or pornography, which are the same. These are the confessions of Anne Boyer, a political thinker who takes notes and invents movements, social and prosodic. Ta gueule, Rousseau.” —Lisa Robertson
The Virus Reader
I offered his virus to the mechanized virus reader. It had many functions, among these the one that translated “virus” into “sick room architectures.” Thus the design specs for his recovery: a 15 × 15 outdoor room with a perimeter of medium-height pines, inside of these pines a hospital bed and an eight-foot flat-screen T V.
“at first it appeared that she was weeping so that I might change my mind and buy the $44 shoes, but soon she was unable to stop weeping. she refused to try on other shoes in other stores even though the shoes she wore were too small and had recently been in a mud puddle. she could see how even not-the-best-shoes-ever not-the-shoes-that-looked-like-art would be better than dirty ill-fitting shoes, but she could not stop weeping. we walked through stores while she wept. we sat in the middle of the mall while she wept. we went to a discount store, and I told her I would just pick out shoes for her because she wept too much to try on shoes. she wept in the discount store. she wasn’t weeping by design. she couldn’t stop weeping, then she stopped weeping a little and we found some brown sneakers for $44 on clearance. in the car I wanted to weep, too, but she said to me ‘I am still a child and am learning to control my impulses and emotions. you have had many years of dreams and realities to learn from so there is no excuse for you to cry.’ she paused. ‘do you have enough dreams?’ she finally asked.”
Listen to a podcast from The Rusty Toque about Anne Boyer's Garments Against Women.
Read a thoughtful analysis of Garments Against Woman as a challenge to memoir and fiction in The Birmingham Review.
Read a conversation with Amy King and Anne Boyer at The Poetry Foundation. Here's a snippet:
Anne: This is probably totally obvious to anyone who has read the book, but I’ll still say it: by “garments,” I mean “literature.” And literature is against us. And when I say “literature,” I mean something with historical specificity, seen with all of its brutality intact, with our own intact too, not as we might define it from its exceptions, despite how these exceptions are honorable and instructive and how much we might ground our work in them.
And this is going to get kind of long, so I apologize for that, but by “us” I actually mean a lot of people: against all but the wealthiest women and girls, all but the wealthiest queer people, against the poor, against the people who have to sell the hours of their lives to survive, against the ugly or infirm, against the colonized and the enslaved, against mothers and other people who do unpaid reproductive labor, against almost everyone who isn’t white—everyone who has been taken from, everyone who makes and maintains the world that the few then claim it is their right to own. And by “against,” many of us know this “literature” contains violent sentiments toward us, is full of painful exclusions, but that isn’t even the core of its opposition to us. How “literature” is also against us is that it is a magic circle drawn around the language games of a class of people—the rich and powerful and those who serve or have served them. It gives (or appears to give, like any mystification) these words a permission and a weight, dangles the ugliness in our faces and names it beauty, gleefully shows off stupidity and claims it as what is wise.
“Does one have to be a ‘property owner’ to make ‘literature’? Write memoirs? Poetry? These are perverse questions, perhaps, but they are Boyer’s, and should be ours. This is a deeply, quietly, savagely perverse book, ‘perverse’ in the sense of turning away: from the given, the mandated; from ‘things conferring authority,’ the logic of property, capital, productivity, the obligation to be happy, to be ‘working on yourself,’ to want things. A writerly book about refusals and failures, it entertains ‘the refusal of accounting altogether,’ of any making-good-on (promise, investment, children, one’s own talents, opportunities, indeed, life). Accounting ‘gives the wrong forms to desire,’ Boyer suggests. This is a book of poetry (or is it lyric prose? Essay? Must one decide?) that also turns away from poetry: It has no interest in meter or prosody per se — rather, it is interested in the measuring of thought and feeling, in a slow amazing and amazed rendering of the negative space of official life.” —Maureen N. McLane, in The New York Times
Best of 2016: The New Statesman (London), selected by Joanna Walsh: “Bringing up her daughter while working low-paying jobs ‘at the edge of economies,’ the poet Anne Boyer sewed her own clothes and wrote Garments Against Women (Ahsahta Press), a lyrical essay about survival as an artist and mother in modern America.”
“Boyer is deeply interested in what she calls ‘the category of thing, not thing, almost thing, of maybe thing but not quite.’ Like an armchair naturalist, she constantly plays with the trope of ‘there are two kinds of people in this world. . . .’ to map out unknown types and pleasures. She writes of the people ‘for whom the ordinary worldliness is easy,’ and ‘those whom the events and opportunities of the every day world wash over’; of ‘those who want only the best and those who believe only-the-best is immoral’; of ‘those who loathed the world and found themselves trapped in the terribleness of it and those who loathed themselves as foil to the world’; and, later, eerily, of ‘two different Anne Boyers, one like a cop, the other writing her name at a table.’
“Her lists of imaginary books, of real dreams, of embarrassing feelings, of not-writings participate, to borrow language from Sedgewick, in ‘the making and unmaking and remaking and redissolution of hundreds of old and new categorical imaginings concerning all the kinds it may take to make up a world.” —Ava Kofman, at Feministing
“Some of the most wonderful writing I’ve read on happiness occurs in these pages. Boyer becomes sick, a misery remedied by mixing pills and adding Frost & Glow to her hair. She remembers misery and yet isn’t quite miserable anymore, and it’s in this narrow window that she glimpses happiness. ‘I dressed a young man in a leopard fur coat and sent him walking through the neighborhoods like that. There was a rising interest in tango dancing. I allowed myself to eat liberal amounts of fresh fruit.’ This, I think, is where writing can really delight: a portrait of a miserable person in slightly happier times. . . . the book implies waves of lived experience through the continuation of life, yes, but also through the tightness of logic, the sharpness, the stunning stretched coherence of these brief pieces. The book reveals labour, but not necessarily the labour of writing: the labour of not writing, perhaps, of tranches of time spent thinking without a notepad—‘the words of a restive me, sitting motionless for a year.’ You can sense the pauses, the accumulations of ideas. Ideas distill into figurative parts, permutated together in logical relation, and then solidify back into ideas, all in the span of a few airy pages. . . . Here, in condensed figurative form, is Boyer’s project: the impossible possible revolutionary desire of undermining the smug transparent history of literature through a new literature, ‘off the books.’”—William Harris, at 3am
“Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women is a deeply intellectual book with purpose; it widens the boundaries of poetry and memoir as we know them.” —Chris Stroffolino, at The Rumpus
“Drifting through thrift stores and garage sales and shopping malls, Garments Against Women registers the low-level alienation and depression that pervade the contemporary affective landscape. It’s the inconspicuous, the intimate, the quotidian forms of violence this book tracks relentlessly — the kind that demand the reproduction of life while simultaneously rendering life impossible. Shifting how we talk about the most common means of suffering, Garments Against Women reconstitutes individual suffering as social. It’s a perspective that interrupts the numbness generated by a grueling system of exploitation by allowing us to see personal problems as structural. In these small fragments of everyday life we get something between theory and memoir, between poetry and newsfeed.” —Anna Zalokostas, at Fullstop
“Boyer’s is a broad, generous book, for much more than it is against. It is poetry ‘without the frame of poetry,’ without a safety net for the writer or the reader.” —Darcie Dennigan, at The Boston Review
“Boyer’s probing of Western culture is at the forefront of Garments, and her tone devotes itself to the lives that suffer to create a garment. It is a tone that does not to show itself off, it prefers to inform, to create details and categories.” —Isabel Balée, at A Perimeter
“Anne Boyer’s new book of poems, Garments Against Women, is a subtle feat of poetic mise en abyme. She conceptualizes the daily into the philosophical and, thankfully, collapses the philosophical into the quotidian. With her lyric prose, she does not spare words—there is no fear of that sort of economy here; and her language patterning is reflective of the template one might use for sewing: This is two-dimensional so that you may make of it something three-dimensional, something to walk away with, to cover you. These poems collapse her world perfectly onto the page, and in reading them, they become again the uncollapsed world—like a three-dimensional rendering of a mise en abyme painting, each frame falling into the next like an accordion: in and out, in and out (until it slips, beautifully); the music produced may not be perfectly in tune, but it is amazingly attuned. Boyer’s work is a grand taxonomy, exploring not only what is and what is done, but also what is ‘not.’” —Michaela Mullin, at Nomadic Press
“In this textual hybrid of rhythmic lyric prose and essayistic verse, visual artist and poet Boyer (The Romance of Happy Workers) faces the material and philosophical problems of writing—and by extension, living—in the contemporary world. Boyer attempts to abandon literature in the same moments that she forms it, turning to sources as diverse as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the acts of sewing and garment production, and a book on happiness that she finds in a thrift store. Her book, then, becomes filled with other books, imagined and resisted. ‘I am not writing a history of these times or of past times or of any future times and not even the history of these visions which are with me all day and all of the night,’ she declares, and concludes that ‘writing is like literature is like the world of monsters is the production of culture is I hate culture is the world of wealthy women and of men.’ This text is in constant upheaval, driven in equal measure by the poet's insistent questions and by her refusals, as she recalls ‘the days when we believed information.’ Of course, Boyer cannot resolve the problems she faces, but in providing new frameworks to think about them, her writing rewards readers with its challenges.”—Publishers Weekly
I was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1973, grew up in Salina, Kansas, and was educated in the public libraries and universities of Kansas. I now live on the eastern edge of Kansas with my daughter, Hazel. I don’t recall that I’ve ever won a prize, but I have created many works, some of them freely distributed on the Internet. These include Anne Boyer’s Good Apocalypse, Selected Dreams with a note on phrenology, The Romance of Happy Workers, Art is War, My Common Heart, and The 2000s. My writing has also been translated in Turkish, Greek, Dutch, and Icelandic: a chapbook called A Form of Sabotage was published in Turkey in the spring of 2013.
I knew very early that I would be a writer, and I decided to devote myself to careful study so that I could be a good one. I hid Russian novels in my math books so that school did not disrupt my education. Eventually I was reminded that I was a girl, and that literature as I knew it was often antagonistic toward people like me, but I thought if I couldn’t be Kerouac or Mayakofsky I could try to be George Sand. The middle of Kansas is the furthest point from erudition, so I learned to read by keeping lists of every book I found named in whatever book I could find, and chased down these books to read, and then wrote down more books, and chased those books down, and so on: this was sufficient to stay engaged long enough for the Internet to be invented. After that, there were easy-to-find bibliographies and friends with bibliographies and friends who were themselves like ambulatory bibliographies, and then there were sites full of pdfs.
My education has always been formed from a mix of enthusiasm and chance procedure. The first book I ever stole was a letter-pressed edition of Sappho. I was thirteen. I taped a photocopy of Ishmael Reed’s “I am a Cowboy on the Boat of Ra” to the wall next to my bed. When I was sixteen, I rode my three-speed bicycle to the used bookstore on my hometown’s main street and spent the money I’d earned from babysitting the minister’s children on a book called The Making of Americans. Later that summer, a Swiss exchange student read me Rimbaud and Baudelaire in the French. A few years later, I walked into an apartment where a young man in a stocking cap was reading the last chapter of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood aloud. I remember when there was only the Jargon Society version of Mina Loy. I stopped writing between the ages of twenty three and thirty so that I could, in part, concentrate on the works of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Then I started writing again, possibly because I had found the work of Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Madeline Gins, and Hannah Weiner. Later Guillermo Parra translated some of the works of Miguel James and Victor Valera Mora, and I learned to have new desires, like that I could someday read with any confidence Roque Dalton’s untranslated novel, Poor Little Poet That I Was. Finally, Juliana Spahr said to read Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance, and I suspected that I might be able to quit reading, then.
There have been many years of my life in which I have not written, then many years of my life in which I have written a great deal. I have begun to think my work as a poet so far has to been to try to develop forms in which it is possible to think the thoughts necessary to survival, and then to find the forms of thinking which make it possible, also, to survive survival and survival’s requisite thoughts. This means that as a poet I write in many genres, including verse and prose poems, novels, essays, reviews, talks, tweets, Facebook status updates, emails, pdfs, Google docs, diaries, videos, images, to do lists, architectural plans, sound files, text messages, instructions, and Tumblr posts.
Poetry is good at three things: to memorialize the dead, to vanquish one’s enemies, and to woo unlikely lovers. I concede it might have another important use: to counter the endogenously experienced violence often endured by those who live with a disproportionate amount of suffering in the world as it is now. There are poetries that can help us locate the desire to stop destroying ourselves and instead seek together to destroy the conditions that harm us. I hope I might someday write this poetry. I have always wanted, and want now, a radical reordering of the world for the benefit of all who live in it, or as one of my favorite poets, Louise Michel, would say—everything for everyone.
I read a lot, old works and new ones, but there were so many books that I couldn’t find. These were the books that should have contained an answer to the problem—how do we survive our survival? If a work of literature approached an answer, the answer was bent, asemic, obscured, distorted into sentimental accounts, melodrama, or pornography by literary convention established to make knowing what we needed to impossible.
Sometimes the answer was deformed by the failure of survival itself—there were texts severed by their author’s severed lives, by madness, by social isolation, by early death or a long life passed always wanting it. Literature, like garments, had so often been against so many of us, enforcing and sustaining the hostilities of a world with the unequal distribution of resources and the corresponding unequal distribution of suffering.
The libraries I needed were full of works written by ghosts of the dead so common their graves lacked stones, the literature of those humans whose names were never their own, whose names were mostly said aloud so that someone might make a command of them, whose names were never used as the mark of their own property—what was it they had known? How did the great human majority—women and girls, those without property, the poor and the workers and enslaved people—resist? In what forms, what languages, what codes were their poems? What possibilities inhabited their thinking, their philosophies, their politics? What names would they be called if they could choose their own?
During much of the time Garments Against Women was being written, I wanted to stop writing. I wanted to stop wanting and needing to write. This was so that my daughter and I could better survive; this was also because of my disappointment with literature.
But Garments Against Women exists because I failed. I failed to find the literature I needed, so I had to try to write it down. I failed, also, at refusal, failed at failing, failed at self-negating, failed at being ruined despite all that would ruin us, failed at keeping survival bare, failed at obeying history’s prohibitions, failed at being intimidated by the centuries of hostile traditions. What I failed at was not writing despite all the conditions that had been relentlessly calibrated to keep not writing sustained.
Some of us write because there are problems to be solved. My life is different than it was when I wrote Garments Against Women, but there’s still a problem: the world as we know it remains the world.