There Is No Neutral: Figuring Out the How and Why of Timeless Infinite Light

In December of 2014, Nikki Wallschlaeger spoke with Emji Spero and Joel Gregory of Timeless Infinite Light about tarot and poetry, community response, and the recent civil rights protests across the United States. This interview originally appeared in the Boog City Reader

NW: I’d like to start with some basic questions. When was Timeless Infinite Light first conceived?  What’s the birth story and who was involved in the initial creation of the press?

TIL: It’s hard to say when we actually began. The idea first appeared in 2010. We were living on opposite sides of the country (Emji in Oakland, Joel in Brooklyn). We were very much in love, so Timeless, Infinite Light became the conceptual vessel to frame around being in love.  We didn’t like the idea of falling into the typical tropes of a long-distance relationship. Moving across the country for love is tacky, but doing it for poetry is a no brainer.

So Emji moved to Brooklyn under the auspices of starting this press. We had meetings, invited our friends, looked for a space to immerse ourselves in. It was harder than we expected. After some weird months living out of a car by the waterfront in Williamsburg, without anything to show except for a name and an intention, we decided to try again on the West coast.

So at the end of that year, we drove across the country. We got a studio in the Haight. We moved a letterpress into our tiny kitchen. We published one book, which has since been redacted from our catalog. We were generally depressed. The poet exodus had already taken place, and we were living in the desolation. We moved over to Oakland, in a warehouse with some friends. That was exciting for a minute. Then we broke up. We moved into different houses with other people or no people.

That slowed things down. Emotions kept getting in the way. We fucked each other on and off in this mutually destructive way for about a year. Somehow we managed to publish As They Fall during that time, and put up a simple website. We probably only stayed friends to keep the press alive, though it was mostly just an idea at that point. There were long stretches of cold silence.

We both semi-independently found our way into East Bay poetics—Emji through Mills, Joel by lurking at readings—and the press began to form, for real, around the culture, the concerns, the forms of this community.

We decided to jump in full-force at the beginning of 2014. We became platonic life partners. We got a tandem bicycle. We both quit our day jobs. There was a trust that partially allowed us to do so. We rented a tiny office, gave up sleep, and somehow put out 5 books this past year.

NW: I love the concept of a book being a source of divination, and poetry as potent source of magic we can tap into for guidance and inspiration in our daily lives. Could you talk a little more about As They Fall? What are some of the experiences you and/or readers have had in communicating with this particular text? It’s not something I’ve seen much in small presses, except for regular Tarot decks with themes, like the Emily Dickinson deck by Factory Hollow Press.

TIL: The idea to release As They Fall as a deck of cards came directly out of Ivy’s process at the time. She was writing individual fragments on hundreds of index cards and using aleatoric procedures to produce poems out of them. For example, when Ivy was living at the warehouse with us, she would scatter the cards across her room and roll around naked in them. Whichever cards stuck to her body she’d use for the poem. We wanted to create a book that mirrored her process, or at least left itself open to possibility.

While we were working on As They Fall, we were thinking of it in more of an Oulipian framework. A poem that could be read in any order, or an open source that is subject to any set of rules. The divination aspect actually came as a surprise. We brought a galley deck to the first East Bay Poetry Summit, and this poet Tony Dohr grabbed it and started offering tarot readings. He was able to pull so much interpretative and narrative accuracy out of these Sappho-esque fragments—it made us look at the deck differently. We didn’t realize As They Fall was a magical object until the point when it left our control.

Since then the divination aspect has taken over how we think of the book. It can operate under the same rules of a Tarot deck without having much in common with one—no visual symbolism, no legacy, no reach for universality. It’s everyday magic, but very potent.

NW: I like that very much! That’s my issue I’ve always had with standard Tarot decks- their claim to universality through the use of European symbolism. Poets can be the potency behind the decks or as a method of divination themselves. I’m reading It’s night in San Francisco but it’s sunny in Oakland and I am really enjoying it so far! It’s such a great collective response of a community in crisis during the height of the Occupy movement. I feel there’s a similarity between how that book is organized and how As They Fall is meant to be experienced, except the emphasis here is on the exploration of possibility of a more communal magic when we unite our individual voices. The cover is exquisite, how you chose to use the handwriting of the poets present in the anthology. I would love to hear about the process of putting this anthology together.

TIL: Our hope with the anthology was to document this moment that felt urgent, if not emergent. We were attempting to take snapshot, rather than creating a highly curated, exhaustive tome. The concerns are different. Our concern was sociality. We crowdsourced the curation. We sat around a kitchen table making a list of East Bay poets that we always see around at readings, at Woolsey Heights, Manifest, Hearts’ Desire, Buuck’s living room, and The Other Fabulous Reading Series. Thinking about who contributes to the culture of these readings, who we see over and over again, not so much the poets who are standing at the mic, though there is a lot of overlap. We included a few poets who live in San Francisco—the ones who end up crashing on our couches after readings because BART has stopped running. We sent this list to those curators and asked them who was missing. Some of them responded. We revised the list.

Our main guideline for the content was that the work be current—written within the last year or two. We urged poets not to create new work for the anthology because we wanted to tap into what they were already thinking through. There’s such a wide gradient of forms and concerns, but the spectre of Occupy definitely seems to loom from cover to cover, though whether or not it’s addressed directly varies from poem to poem. Even when a poet isn’t writing about the movement, they are writing in the context of it.

The framework for the anthology is simply an interrogation of this moment, and our relationality within it. And the question of what emerges in that proximity. I think that's where the sense of "communal magic" comes in. This isn't an anthology on a particular subject or poetics. In a way, ...It’s sunny in Oakland mirrors the experience of being at an East Bay poetry reading. Not the reading itself, but the conversations that happens in the moment just before or after the dance party.

NW: How have poets from the Bay Area communities been reacting to the decision not to indict Michael Brown’s murderer? Also as I am writing this, I am reeling from what happened in New York City today with Eric Garner. I’ve been keeping an eye on the protests developing across the nation today, and I am seeing a lot of my poet friends responding with outrage. I am also seeing some of my poet friends not having the words anymore to express the depths of these brutalities sanctioned by white supremacist state violence. Do you see Timeless Infinite Light involved in any community response projects specifically involved with what’s going on right now?

TIL: There have been marches in the East Bay almost every night over last two weeks, since the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. We have been out in the streets. We have seen many other poets marching in the streets as well. When we are not there because of work or exhaustion, we are watching the marches via livestream.  

The other day a friend said to me, “my facebook feed has become an endless stream of news articles about dead black men.” To have not had to look directly at this before is a privilege. We are in sorrow. We are outraged. Our attention as a community, and as a nation is turned toward this right now. In the United States, violence against people of color, and against black people in particular, is systemic, sanctioned, and has been happening for a very long time. Only the forms have changed.

Slavery has been replaced with the mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. Lynchings have been replaced with state-sanctioned police murder. All of this is made possible and sustained through the strong arm of the law, with Stand Your Ground and Stop-and-frisk, gang injuctions, and felon disenfranchisement laws.

The veil of post-Civil Rights Movement color blindness has been lifted. The racialized forms of oppression have been rendered visible. Even white people can see it now.

The poetry community in which Timeless, Infinite Light participates is for the most part very white. Racism within this community manifests primarily through exclusion, tokenism, and through micro aggressions, which can be hard to point to directly and are therefore more difficult to organize around.

I’m not sure if other poets have been writing in response to this or not. While immersed in action, we haven’t been talking much about what we’ve been writing. It takes time for writing to emerge and to be published—a lot of Occupy poetry books are only just now coming out, three years later.

I feel like the role of publishing in the context of these ongoing crises is to act as the second responder. The first response of course is to take action, in the form of demos, riots, blockades, and other yet-to-be-imagined tactics. Writing and reflection begin to emerge from those actions, and publishing has the ability to keep that conversation going. Bodies get exhausted, books don’t.

At the demos one of the really frustrating things is the white cis male activist who continually commandeers the megaphone. This is a synechdoche of the problem more generally, that the conversation is being dominated by white voices, by male voices. In a way, as a publisher, we are both the megaphone and the person handing over the megaphone. As individuals, we show up at the marches, we engage in difficult conversations, we are working on our shit. As a press, we have the power to amplify certain voices at the exclusion of others. We are aware of this. Curatorial decisions are always political. There is no neutral. The current crises around sexual, gendered, and racial violence in our community have forced us interrogate our role as megaphone. We are still trying to figure out our how.

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