Photo credit: in·ter·sti·tial press / Elefanta Editorial
In March of 2020, with the pandemic devastating New York and Queens being declared the “epicenter of the epicenter” it felt impossible to find words to describe the uncertainty, the losses, the distance. Over the coming months, Alexandra Délano Alonso gathered images and fragmentary language to hold what was (and still is) happening.
The resulting book Brotes (Outbreaks) is co-published by in·ter·sti·tial press –recently founded by New School alum and doctoral candidate Macushla Robinson— and Elefanta Editorial, an independent publisher in Mexico City. In this conversation, Alexandra and Macushla talk about the process of writing, visualizing, thinking, and publishing at the limits of the comprehensible.
Macushla Robinson (MR): In your book there’s a real dissonance between bursting spring of the photographs and the spread of pandemic, and yet they are entwined. You’ve used the Spanish word Brotes as the title because of its double meaning: it was used to describe the transmission of the virus in Mexico, but it could also describe the budding, bursting of flowers that your photos capture. Despite not being chronological, the book has a seasonal quality to it.
But since we’re coming up on the anniversary of the beginning of the writing and of the pandemic, perhaps we should begin at the beginning. How did this project start for you?
Alexandra Délano Alonso (ADA): It began in a way that I didn’t even know it was beginning. It was a way of coping with what was happening as we went into lockdown in New York, trying to process it, trying to understand it. For me, the first manifestation of that was just taking photographs. I had no words to capture those feelings. I realized how much I needed just to find quiet and look outside and breathe and as the days passed I kept taking photos of the trees and the sky. I wasn’t planning on it at all, it was just a place to come to, and gradually I started to see a pattern in what I was doing, the types of images I was focusing on, the changing winter light, the spring beginning to awake. As the days of confinement extended with no end in sight, I approached this more systematically, as a process of documenting and marking the days. At first, I thought it would be a few weeks or a month and then obviously it became much more than that, not just the number of the days, but the cases, the death toll, the devastation. Through it all, I kept this practice of going out every day for a walk in my neighborhood in Sunnyside and Woodside, Queens. It was impossible not to look at the trees, it was an impulse to capture that beauty within this urban setting, that respite against the backdrop of the sirens that was so relentless. Over time, slowly the words started coming in during my walks, and I started jotting them down, disassembled, but gradually becoming a poem together with the images.
MR: You’ve spoken about feeling paralyzed, unable to find words in the face of the pandemic. It is interesting because it feels like you came to words in a different register than the academic. Here the text seems to accompany walking, and of course the images are all looking up at the sky. There are fragments that wound up being part of the text: many threads of conversations with friends, colleagues, and students, unspooled fragmented, and got stitched back together in this book. I had the sense of the fragment as an emotional and psychological metaphor. But it’s also an impulse to assembly. How did you begin gathering and recording these experiences and thoughts?
ADA: First I started first recording the words on audio on my phone. I was walking and I didn’t carry a notebook or a pen so I just recorded my voice with words and fragments of conversations that echoed. And saying those words out loud created this reverberation in my head, similarly to how I repeat the numbers of laps in my head when I’m swimming, like a meditation that helps me focus and find meanings. My kids sometimes came on walks with me and asked me their questions, some about COVID, insisting on knowing every day what the case count was, along with other questions that acquired a deeper significance or had more space to be considered in this context. So I started to listen more carefully and pay more attention to all these voices, numbers, phone conversations, text messages, signs on the street… I wasn’t thinking of an order or a process but gradually a realized there were patterns and repetitions that I kept wanting to go back to. I didn’t know what it was but I found comfort in the process of documenting and collecting these moments and words. The grief I felt was so deep, so ungraspable, and being able to have a space to write down the names of friends and loved ones who were sick, or had died felt like a way to bridge the distance, to care, to mourn, to honor and witness and embrace.
Over time, I’ve reflected more on how this was a process of memorializing and in a way that connects your question about the academic process versus this poetic process because my academic work has also been very much about questions of memory, mourning, of marking and documenting to honor voices and mark processes. Even if this is a very different form of expression and in a very different context, it grows out of questions that I have explored for many years, which also connect deeply to my personal experiences, but here is a piece of writing where that vulnerability, that intimacy is not in the background in the ways that sometimes academia often pushes us to leave aside. For me, even if they may be seen as separate from my everyday work as a scholar, these poems grow out of the same place as my academic books, out of a need to understand, to create space for dialogue, to recognize processes and experiences, to mark them, to create new meaning and possibilities.
MR: I’m drawn to the idea that this writing is not so different from the academic writing that you do, and that there is this space that exists within scholarly practices, because all your writing has this deeply emotional register. And yet, the impulse of academia is often to make sense of things. And so much of grief is about not being able to make sense of something. So, I love how you talk about the meditative––almost like if we get quiet, we might start to hear what else is there.
ADA: Yes, holding grief as just not being able to make sense, and what we do with that impossibility, the rituals that we engage in these moments, or the quiet, the silence that exists in the absence of something. There’s a line in the book about unknown grief, un duelo desconocido, thinking about these individual and collective processes of mourning that are so different from anything we’ve ever experienced, and so much of it is uncertainty. Writing the words helped me, not necessarily make sense of it because I don’t think that’s possible or that that’s the goal, but to mark it in a way that made me feel fully present in it. It became my ritual and my refuge.
MR: Repetition is a meditative process; ritual differs from person to person, but ritual is, for me, necessary to enduring grief. That’s the hardest thing about grief—especially if it’s bereavement— is that you have to get up the next day and continue to exist, no matter how much the world’s been taken apart.
ADA: Yes, even if it was unintended, in the end, the many voices that are expressed here capture what was happening to so many of us during quarantine, this intensified experience of being at home, in my case with my children, and at the same time the devastation that was happening all around us. So there is this conversation here between everyday life that continues –and that kids force you to keep in perspective. Loss | Play, is one of the first lines in the book. And it’s about how it’s all existing in one place, at the same time, and just recognizing that, living within those two opposites, so much joy and laughter and at the same time so much grief and loss and exhaustion. And you are grieving and you have to wake up the next day and do it all over again, and in this case, face new losses, play that game with the kids again.
I felt that in the face of all this I could not put together a sentence. It made no sense to have a sentence with a beginning and an end. There was just no way to capture these unknown feelings with words that were all aligned together and try to capture a full thought. There wasn’t a full plot, there was just this mix, these contradictions. I felt unable and also unwilling to process them in an academic essay or an opinion piece. There was nothing inside of me that wanted to write in that way. Even though all my academic writing is led with the heart, it has a specific form, for a specific audience, and for social sciences where the type of abstraction, sparseness, silence, and experimentation that is at the core of these poems doesn’t fit, even though I strive to infuse all my writing with beauty and emotion. But here in this moment it just made no sense to approach this from an academic perspective. So I just recognized the space and that this was what was coming out and I let it be. I didn’t call it poetry then, I didn’t think it was going to become a poem. Only through the conversations, sharing the photos and the texts helped me see that it could become something, and embrace that possibility. The way you organized it visually when I first shared it with you, with photos alongside notes that we were able to assemble and reassemble, helped me see certain patterns, the numbers, the deaths, the children’s voices, the fragments that slowly developed into a fuller description of the everyday encounters. That created a rhythm and the rhythm helped me find the voice and connect them, and that was such a beautiful revelation. I think if I had planned to make it a poem from the start I probably would not have been able to do this. The fact that it just came out, that it couldn’t be contained, is what makes it vulnerable and honest in the sense that there were no expectations, just a need to mark, to recognize, and to connect.
MR: In some ways, this book emerged out of an earlier publication that I put together with Yonkers International Press, called Decameron. This book was shoot-from-the-hip and provisional. We pulled it together in the first three months of the pandemic. I felt acutely aware, when we approached people, that it was a big ask. There has been this ongoing discussion about the relentless drive to produce. A callout in that moment asked a lot. So it was really lovely receiving your work for it, knowing what it took to begin writing.
It was important to us that Decameron did not foreclose all the different kinds of responses that were possible in that moment. We were sort of seeing the book as opening up a series of rooms where all the different feelings could live.
It strikes me that this could easily have become a very different type of writing. I really liked how, over the time since its first iteration for Decameron, you have taken it to other places, and shared it with colleagues and friends. And at the same time, you have managed to also hold onto the disassembledness of the writing, and to resist the desire to make it all into complete sentences. The sentence is kind of a declaration, even when it’s a question; punctuation forecloses certain things. You’ve been so precise and careful about punctuation throughout. Every full stop has a reason for being there, and every lack of a full stop too. I went through it with an editorial hat on and put in a lot of periods in, and then you diligently went through and took a lot of them out again, because you know what needs to be there and what doesn’t.
ADA: It was interesting to me that the lines were so unformed and so open for moving things around, adding, taking away, and at the same time I was very clear about what I did not want to change. It was a really beautiful part of the editing process to think a bit differently than how you think in academic writing. Here it was just identifying that intuition, not necessarily a rationale, to guide the work, and know that it can’t be fully resolved, and it shouldn’t. Poetry requires a different space and time to come back and forth, knowing that it changes every time you read it, learning how to honor where it originated while allowing it to change and blossom, and letting things go.
I value the role of editors so much, first, from the perspective of generating an idea, like you did with Decameron, coming up with a concept that then can lead people to open up and be creative and see a possibility that maybe they didn’t see for themselves before or see it taken in an unexpected, new direction. I think the process of creation cannot be what it is without these conversations and without an editor that is really fully invested in taking this to a place, with a vision, not necessarily a defined end goal, but a vision that guides those possibilities. In my case, it would not have been possible without you, your invitation, and your openness to call for many types of contributions. That gesture of creating that space and imagining it possible made me recognize that possibility within myself. I know perhaps this builds on a relationship we established in the Transnational Border Lab course where we were shared so many things that weren’t just academic and in fact questioned the academic space. We traveled to the border, we brought many materials to inform our conversations, and we were all very vulnerable in that space. So I can’t separate our collaboration in Brotes from that context or from The New School more generally because there is a space here where many of us engage academia very differently and seek to create these possibilities across disciplines.
Because I was publishing excerpts of this work with you and in other spaces, I often get responses from friends or colleagues who say kindly “oh you’ve been so productive during the pandemic” but this is not at all about productivity. It was a process of healing that didn’t come from an intention of being shared or even less to be published. That became a possibility over time, as a result of many conversations, exchanges, and collaborations. If a purpose or goal ever emerged when I started sharing it with friends and family it was mostly to connect and share and reflect on our personal and collective experience. What came out of that was an opportunity for deepening our conversations, feeling closer despite the distances and a generative space for other projects to come about from sharing this. The short film that we made based on the text and the images, Fragmentos, was the result of a conversation with one of my closest friends, Daniela Alatorre. And from there, one of the musicians, Shahzad Ishmaily, whose music is in the film asked if we could work together to make a piece based on the whole text. Or Marco Saavedra, who made the painting that is part of the cover based on one of the photos, but what really led to that was a correspondence that arose during the pandemic as a result of the photographs I was taking and sharing with close friends and family on Instagram. I also went through a process of editing each poem with my former writing professor, Jorge Luján. And it was so beautiful to reconnect, to immerse ourselves deeply in the patterns and rhythms that were there, and to clear the leaves. So all of these new relationships, new dialogues, new possibilities have come unexpectedly, and with the greatest gift that one would hope for with anything that you create, which is to make space for a connection, conversation and growth. The film has already gone to festivals and had a broader audience so it already opened up an even larger space and suddenly I can see it becoming something larger than me and disconnected from me and the words and images live on their own and generate responses that have been so surprising and so moving. And that can’t be measured.
MR: I love how many connections this has inaugurated. I think that’s part of the power of this particular text; it holds so much space, it’s very open. The refusal to put the full stop in many places, the refusal to resolve it, to foreclose it and complete it––that openness, I think, creates the space between you and these collaborators. The book has traveled through different people’s inboxes.
ADA: I like the PDF format we originally created, but I love how it transformed, and how maybe what you and I initially saw there created a space for Camilo Godoy, our friend in common (and my former student) to suggest a different way of placing the images that finally felt right. Someone once asked me why I was so willing to share something unfinished and so vulnerable and so intimate. But only through sharing it did I come to understand it and to imagine taking it further. I believe so deeply in work always being in conversation. None of this would be possible without that. It is all generated through ideas shared in the classroom, in conferences, in our personal spaces, through reading other people’s work and it’s essential to acknowledge that and value what comes out of those processes of growth through sharing.
MR: I want to circle back to the Transnational Border Lab class because it needs to be said that it made a lot of this possible. Border lab was both beautiful and, I think, confronting. This was because of your willingness, with Anne McNevin, to talk about scholar-activism, and what that can mean. There are lots of different forms of activism, and you identified teaching as a potential form of activism. A lot of the time I think of activism as quite loud, and what Border lab taught me was that activism could also be quiet.
ADA: The willingness of everyone to be so open and vulnerable in that class has stayed with me and I feel so connected to that. Just as Anne and I were willing to make space for it, on the other side there was a willingness to enter it and be fully yourselves in that space and allow whatever came out of it to come out. I’m someone who thrives on these loops of return. I believe in it so fundamentally, it drives everything I do, and I’ve learned that through teaching, precisely because it creates these opportunities where what comes out comes back and then generates something else.
In the class, we talked about the term scholar-activism with or without a dash in between the two words, and how the in-betweenness creates a lot of tensions contradictions, challenges, struggles, it’s really pulling you all the time but at the same time, it’s a space of imagination, the space of possibility, creativity. Many of the projects developed in the class by the students from The New School and Otros Dreams en Acción in Mexico have involved spoken word, poetry, photography, visual art and that has definitely influenced my own process.
These are constant questions for me in the context of the type of scholar activist work that I do, but also being in between academic writing and poetry, and even further for me, finding home in two places at once, navigating through two languages every day. What it means to live with all of that in-between and how exhausting it is but also those moments when you are reminded that it’s generative, that it’s hope, that it’s imagination, that it’s love. As Jill Anderson, our co-teacher in the Transnational Border Lab course, put it: fierce love. It’s vulnerable and committed and powerful.
MR: And of course it was in your class that we read Gloria Anzaldúa, and it reminds me of that when you talk about the in-between, the dash. I’d love you to say more about that, and the twoness that shaped this book. It also draws on your deep knowledge of Mexico-US relations, and the geographical separation of a border as lived experience.
ADA: I have a hard time explaining the in-betweenness because I wasn’t consciously thinking about it; it’s just inside of me and it came out in a surprising way because I normally associate my most personal feelings and my dreams with Spanish. But I realized I was writing most of this in English and a lot of these emotions came out in English, without internal conflict or resistance. I felt very comfortable knowing there were things that I could only say in English and there was no translation possible and there were things that I could only say in Spanish that just didn’t make sense in English, and then to have the possibility of putting them together was so exciting and liberating. Recently a colleague in the Lang theater program, Zishan Ugurlu, invited me to read for a play that she wrote and her main direction was “I want you to say all these lines in Spanish, and add more to it that I won’t even understand, because we need to be comfortable with not understanding certain things in another language”. It gave me a sense of peace to just allow the two languages to be there, just like my two places, my two lives are all happening at the same time, here and there. There’s a line in the book that says “fog (in-betweenness) sometimes lifts” and that’s all of this. And now I’m tearing up as I’m saying the words that I wrote because I often feel this pull of not being here or there, alongside the moments of feeling fully here and there, and you can exist and love in both spaces and places, and it’s often foggy and hard, but then sometimes it lifts and the possibility feels immense.
Again, I love that we’re going back to the Transnational Border Lab because for me it has been a place of understanding, of resolution. Reading Anzaldúa has been a place to breathe and finding words, finding the concept of Nepantla to be able to live in between the pull, in the dash. And maybe even to recognize that that’s where I want to be, that I’ve created this space and the poems allow me to be there fully, in Mexico and in New York, in Spanish and in English, as a mother, as a teacher, as a researcher, and without needing to choose one or the other. I have this handwritten note on my dresser that I took from an essay my friend Ramón Troncoso wrote about the origins of the concept of Nepantla in indigenous communities in Mexico. It says “a path on the top of a steep mountain, with a cliff on both sides, and only in the middle, in Nepantla, is it possible to survive.” I read it every day.
MR: The book is in English and Spanish and the assumption that we all make is that it will be the same text; there’s a lot of bilingual publications that have the text translated, and I think translation is an incredibly rich and interesting topic and the work of translators is amazing but it never occurred to me that this book should have any translation or be separated out at all. I don’t read Spanish. Occasionally, in the editing process, I’ve done a Google translate or two. But the point of the piece is that it refuses to give itself up to complete transparency. I think this text demands that the reader hold the language even if you can’t translate it and just let the rhythm of the two languages be.
ADA: It’s a very unique space to embrace the two languages in one place and not feel limited in any way. Maybe it was a possibility that I hadn’t even imagined in this way and it has been incredibly generative. I publish a lot in Spanish and translate my books and other articles in English into Spanish, and sometimes the works change a lot in translation because there are things I just need to say very differently in Spanish and vice versa. But here it’s a different space when I can put them in conversation, and even further, because it’s not an academic piece with an argument or a conclusion, or a point that I’m trying to get across through argument or evidence. Here there is no point of arrival, there is just this openness and possibility.
MR: I really like that phrase there’s no point of arrival, perhaps that’s also why so many people have entered the work.
ADA: What could be more beautiful than that? Making space and then for people who see and feel something in response to enter that space. It’s one of the most profound things that we have in each other.
MR: I think that the book in its current form is very refined, but I like that it has these multiple iterations. When we put it in Decameron, it took shape quite quickly. In this newer version, it’s got a fine-grained pacing and very careful decisions that make it a book in its own right, as an evolution of that earlier sort of imprint.
ADA: I hope it will have many more iterations. Every time I put it together, like when you and I printed out all the photos and text and laid it out on the floor, it was clear we could assemble it in so many ways. I like the freedom to explore that. And every time I work on a piece of it to publish as an excerpt, it becomes its own new thing. But each iteration captures a moment, a time in which the pieces made sense connected in a particular way, but it might change later. Each piece, each photo, each poem is in conversation and you can create different conversations. This also raises a question about how we will read this over time. When I was writing it, I couldn’t have imagined still being in a state of emergency one year later and it will be interesting to see how the book changes as the context changes, what things will resonate.
MR: This book is the first thing that interstitial press has its imprint on, and the first thing always sets up some core principles. Brotes has been produced in collaboration with another press, which has pushed me to really think about what I want this press to be and how I would define it. I want my press to be an incubator. I always say I’m an intrusive curator and now I’m an intrusive publisher!
ADA: I actually loved when you were talking about how you came up with this idea of the incubator because it seems to me like the emphasis here is about a deeply engaged conversation throughout the whole process, it’s a work that’s developed together. Maybe another word for incubator could be the point of departure.
What I loved about your description of the press is this willingness and excitement about allowing new forms to come out from authors who maybe are already accustomed to existing in one register and exploring that possibility of the things that don’t fit here or there. The in-betweenness, again! This allows for that mobility, for that transgression, that need to create spaces that are not restricted, that don’t have a predetermined direction. And in the end, what is here, in this process, in this book, is a conversation and the possibility for it to continue.
MR: Thank you so much, it’s been wonderful, I’m really excited!
Alexandra Délano Alonso is Associate Professor and Co-Chair of Global Studies and Faculty Director for Gural Scholars Program at The New School.
Macushla Robinson is a writer, curator and PhD candidate based at The New School in New York. She is the founder of in·ter·sti·tial press.