Metabolic machines and materials

A conversation with Knar Gavin

the operating system
Jun 13 · 13 min read

Poet-theorist Knar Gavin talks about her new chapbook, “Vela.,” forthcoming from The Operating System.

Greetings! Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?

Greetings! I am poet-theorist (or, perhaps, a maker-spectator/spectating-maker). I should admit, though — the writing/theorizing mode often has often felt rather contingent, and few of my processors work properly without mechanical (that, is bicycle) and organic assistance (gardening; nature-touching). I’m not not a cyborg! Beyond these things, I’m currently in pursuit of a doctoral degree in English at the University of Pennsylvania, and I study neocolonial media ecologies in poetry and new media.

Why are you a poet/writer/artist?

To tease that Donna Haraway cyborg thread a bit, I make things and seek to make-with whenever I can. C.S. Giscombe has written about how cooks and poets bear a certain relation, and that has always really resonated with me. Though I’ve found the makings-with of text to be especially enriching, the general tendency to cobble/nurture/enliven pervades my life in general (side-eying my garden/kombucha SCOBY hotel/bad paintings/ bicycle tube art). I want things (words included) to be themselves, yet I know this might mean that they must be(come) other things, too!

This is probably why I’m big on soups and stews — I privilege recovery (whether of vegetables or scraps of text) over discard, the blurring mélange over the clean edging of the parcel. Even within the poem, I often feel as though I’m hurrying to(-)ward something — trying to preserve a thing (or give it other word-comrades) even as it disappears.

When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?

Ha! I rarely know what to call myself and I avoid it where I can. Insofar as the poet’s existence is a peculiarly stunned one (I borrow this from C.D. Wright), I am very much a poet — the world is constant with its surprises, and I try to remain open to that, and to the sense that I might yet be addressed from a perspective I do not know, or cannot anticipate (that point of ‘non-view’ that comes up in “After Matsubayashi’s Horses of Fukushima,” which I pirated from Hélène Cixous).

As a kid (back then I thought, somehow, that I hated poetry!), I genuinely wanted to be a horse — all nostrils, ears, and muscle. Thinking about it now, that desire feels like a precursor of sorts; there’s such reciprocity there, in horse-ness — even in being led the horse pulls off a certain manner of leading, and it’s that active relation/dynamic tether that shores the group up against flight. Poetry does some of this led-leading, too, plus its sensorium is (or ought to be) huge, and horsey.

What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway? What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?

As my rather twining answers to previous questions may’ve revealed, I am into thinking in conversation with others — their ideas, how they sense and articulate the poetics of life — this feels so central to me, and to how I conceive of the maker (whatever the materials of their art or poetic practice might be). Setting aside the more toxic rivulets that all too often extend out from institutionalized forms of art-making, I am convinced creative communities of like maker-minds are often very good at equipping themselves with new means of accessing complex social, human problems (and, increasingly, their environmental correlatives). As a community member, I see my role as an amplificatory one; while I do produce work myself, a core component of my practice involves reading/viewing/sharing in the transmission of the works of others. This is a part of my ongoing effort to responsively (and responsibly!) engage with and really feel/appreciate the sorts of imperatives that those works are trying to advance. This is a reciprocal thing, too — I so appreciate being read, and I hope that some of my works spark contemplation and meaningful conversation about some of the crap that’s going on in the world beyond the spines of our books.

To get at it differently, it feels probable that every poem is a poem that falls in the woods! From there, any poeming achieved has been made possible among and because of the trees and soil and animals, the microbes, air and rot — these condition the possibilities for what the poem might yet make, and become and demand (of the world, I suppose). The poem (or artwork) is as enriched and enriching as its context will allow it to be. This is part of why I so value the Operating System. Across the conglomerate of creators constellated by the press, there is a shared dedication to multi-form creation, critical thinking, and insistent inquiry. It’s just this sort of variegated work that stands to extend beyond its enabling containers (the page/a given sonic environment/the classroom) and really get at the totality of pressures, vibrancies, and threats that imperil our planetary present.

Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?

It really was a matter of instinct plus some trial and terror! When I began work on the chapbook, I drew together my poems that were most concerned with plant and animal life, yet a lot of the work, I realize now, relates also to capital and energy, to production and exhaustion. A bunch of these poems are trying to process where fecundity and appetite fit within our finite, unequally-shared world.

Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?

This body of work moved through a series of titles and poem combinations, beginning with Animal Lives, which then became Live Lives only to morph, finally, into Vela., the title it bears now. Both of my earlier titles contain polysemic doublets. With ‘animal lives,’ I was trying to get at the so-called ‘animal’ in general as well as the chimerical singularity of particular animals, which are never quite or never just animal (the human seems to alternate between crisscrossing through and nesting within this sprawling domain). In each preliminary title, there was an attempt to grapple with material being and its messy constitutive relations. I wanted to capture some of what the poems capture — an understanding of life in and as emergence — as something of an active (living and evolving) series (of singular lives).

What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/ writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?

A lot of my creative practice involves sitting with (or riding my bike in the company of) a single thing and letting that thing become something else; shapes — semiotic ones perhaps especially — tend to shift beneath sustained attention, and I am interested in both instigating and excavating those shifts.

As for environments and writings of influence, I hardly know where to begin. In recent years, I’ve been really impacted by the works of Don Mee Choi, Yedda Morrison, and Allison Cobb; Muriel Rukeyser and Adrienne Rich have been big for me, too, and I don’t know whether I’d even be writing poetry without Giscombe’s Prairie Style, my first book-length poetry love. I am ever grateful to my earliest poetry mentors, Craig Dworkin, Shira Dentz, and Joyelle McSweeney especially, and I often find myself tracking back to insights offered by my colleagues at the Iowa Writers Workshop (2011–2013). Beyond these, I feel truly blessed to live in Philadelphia — it’s such a poetry-wealthy city, and I feel lucky to have found my way into such a vibrant reading/writing community.

Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc.) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.

Ultimately, I abandoned my earlier two-term monikers (Animal Lives succeeded by Live Lives) in favor of that single (and sentenced!) term Vela., in part because of the multiplicity it designated (vela is the plural form of velum, ‘veil’), while also suggesting shifting movements between concealment and revelation (the veil which itself reveals a further veil, a new valance billowing, or whatever). Velum is a botanical and mycological term that refers to a membranous, veil-like structure — refers, then, to the necessity of something remaining always partially obscured.

I wanted to have that sense of layering and layered repetition while also suggesting a differentiating aspect, too, hence the sentencing period (‘.’) after Vela., which suggests a bundled thing, yet distinctly so — not all bundles are alike! I was also fascinated by the aural identity between velum and vellum (calf skin, used as parchment), though I’ll leave that comment to float unelaborated — an invitation to reveal! As for individual poem titles, I tend to keep those simple, if I can (hence titles like “Mouth” and “Cicada”), yet some of them do get away from me, especially when my theory-bent thinking cuts in (“Homo-Cognitariat” and “Art from Without: Closeness as a Nodal Manifestation,” for example).

What does this particular work represent to you …as indicative of your method/creative practice? …as indicative of your history? …as indicative of your mission/intentions/hopes/ plans?

These poems were composed over a five-year period. Though some are quite recent, many of them have existed in one form or another for several years. Some of the oldest ones were written during my time at Iowa. My MFA thesis involved this manuscript of “cycling-generated” poems called Cotor: Excerpts from Variable Roads, but the poems that ended up in Vela. were different. They certainly shared air with the Cotor project, but they were more focused, and, I guess, more obviously poem-like, and perhaps snappier, too (the Cotor work involves a lot of sprawling pieces and more overtly visual elements). Having shifted now into a more academic professional track, I am really surprised by the poems in Vela. as they seem to have anticipated — maybe even produced — my turn toward environmental media and eco-critical research.

What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?

Essaying “In Praise of Profanation,” Agamben offers an interesting account of museumification: “everything today can become a Museum, because this term simply designates the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing.” A book, importantly, is not a museum — at least not in the sense described here. My favorite books defy separability — they root around, and forage; they travel (sometimes just a few shards or memorized fragments at a time) and soil and find. Sometimes, such movements lead or lend toward new hands and new textual lives in/with/for other books. I hope Vela. will do some of these things. I want it to be a useful book, and a pluripotent one too; an instrument of instrumentation (taking no object for itself) rather than instrumentalization. I hope this book will be one which both plays and puts things back in(to) play, and I hope some of its poems invite dwelling and offer refuge (so often, I have myself been supplied these things, in the shape of a poem).

What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?

I think a lot about materials (literary; textual; physical; metaphysical) as media — where does the thing go, and between which things might an object navigate or, more vitally, negotiate? I have agonized a little bit over the household that is this chapbook — how did all of that get in there? A poem about getting sucked under a snag (that is, a big ole dead tree bit!) in one of Seattle’s tributaries shares a spine with several about gender and violence, plus a dead ex haunts the white space of so many of these pages; that much makes sense, maybe — scary, denaturing natures, human-impactful and otherwise. But the book’s full of critters and vegetables, too — the very stuff of subsistence.

This in mind, I imagine this book — as its best self — would proceed as a metabolic entity of sorts: to borrow from William c. Williams, “A poem is a small [or large] machine of words.” Machines are things with metabolic jobs — they (t)ask the materials of their operations to be otherwise, or materialize differently. In the best of outcomes, these poems will be good machines, large or small; as for the small selection of more ecologically-invested and/or culturally critical poems, I hope they provoke useful lines of questioning and reflection.

Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social and political activism, so present in our daily lives as we face the often sobering, sometimes dangerous realities of the Capitalocene. How does your process, practice, or work otherwise interface with these conditions?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about those moments of heightened attention that become possible in aesthetic experiences; what happens after such moments, and how might we — as creators and, let’s acknowledge the complicity, consumers of art and literature — move beyond those kinds of moments and into more active efforts to interface with this hostile, unjust, and increasingly ecologically unstable world?

I haven’t fully metabolized these questions myself and perhaps that ought not be the point. What I can say is, I think we do have an obligation to speak beyond individual experience and to reach outward to the painful realities of the present; sometimes, this might entail amplifying a creative or critical insight we encounter in a work of art or poetry and letting it have a second (or third, or fourth) life in a more expressly activist context. These sorts of interventions can feel all too local, but I think it’s important to remain heartened by the value of cultural production — the insights that come from creative output really are crucial, and open into a host of alternative forms of knowledge production, ones which might more adequately counter some of these capitalist/sexist/racist/xenophobic momentums of erasure.

I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, gender, sexuality (and other identifiers) within the community as well as creating and maintaining safe spaces, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos” and/or disciplinary and/or institutional bounds?

The notion of disciplinary (and/or institutional) “siloing” has become common parlance, yet I’d like to pause with a definitional anecdote. While a silo (from siros, cornpit) may house grain for compressed storage, many such grains are the product of eminently resource-intensive mono- cultural production. Beyond that, the silo may occur as a pit, yet it also may assume tower-form, which suggests a consolidation of power over both our atmospheric commons as well as that which is below (the decreasingly arable commons of the soil). It is from these agricultural applications that we get the idea of ‘siloed’ specialists, yet in the dictionary rankings of the term, between the agricultural and the specialization-linked definitions, we find something at once chilling and somehow also unsurprising: silo, an underground chamber in which a guided missile is kept ready for firing.

I hope the long anecdote is forgivable. I thought I’d follow it through here as a way of underscoring the critical value of traversing disciplinary and institutional divides. For those of us in the academy, little good can come of our institutional siloing, yet we must proceed out from our towers/pits/chambers with humility for non-institutional contexts of activism, knowledge production, and social critique. As a mid-degree PhD student, I feel especially alive to the need for comprehensive efforts to reach across these dividing lines you’ve specified to integrate other voices and the unique imperatives they specify and advance. While this may be easier said than done, the difficulty of both respecting safe spaces and offering avenues and points of entry for alliance and coalition-building is one to which we must respond; providing platforms for a more expansive creating, querying public is both possible and deeply necessary.

Is there anything else we should have asked, or that you want to share?

Intuition and the backward glance: I’m learning to deepen my appreciation for those proverbial wheels that have already been invented (and sometimes forgotten). I recently read Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams, and in that book, she talks about her discovery of the national women’s antinuclear movement that emerged in the early 1960s. Solnit admits her surprise that even amongst pacifists and feminists, radical predecessors are all too swiftly forgotten. I’ve taken to heart this idea of hers: “Those who don’t remember history are doomed to start all over again from scratch.”

Hold closely to life-giving, justice-seeking predecessors, and scrap the rest: intuition is there as a guide. Sure, it may occasionally mislead, yet more often than not, I think intuition tends to flare toward futures that have everything to do with the past. This is important, and enables valuable commemorative work to carry demands for justice and repair into the present.

KNAR GAVIN attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in AGNI, Birdfeast, Poetry, BOAAT, Caketrain, Booth, the Journal, Storm Cellar, Yemassee, Print-Oriented Bastards, Quarterly West, SoftBlow, Glittermob, Heavy Feather Review and elsewhere. She writes the occasional folk song and rides bikes with Team Laser Cats, a Philadelphia women’s cycling squad. Her tumbles can be found at

The Operating System 2019 chapbooks, in both digital and print, feature art from Heidi Reszies. The work is from a series entitled “Collected Objects & the Dead Birds I Did Not Carry Home,” which are mixed media collages with encaustic on 8 x 8 wood panel, made in 2018. Heidi writes: “This series explores objects/fragments of material culture- -how objects occupy space, and my relationship to them or to their absence.”

Heidi Reszies is a poet/transdisciplinary artist living in Richmond, Virginia. Her visual art is included in the National Museum of Women in the Arts CLARA Database of Women Artists. She teaches letterpress printing at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, and is the creator/curator of Artifact Press. Her poetry collection titled Illusory Borders is forthcoming from The Operating System in 2019, and now available for pre-order. Her collection titled Of Water & Other Soft Constructions was selected by Samiya Bashir as the winner of the Anhinga Press 2018 Robert Dana Prize for Poetry (forthcoming in 2019). Find her at

The Operating System

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.

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The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. Join us!

The Operating System

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.