Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou

Stitches, Stems and Pockets in the Sublime Work of Danielle Dutton

Prairie, Dresses, Art Other,
Danielle Dutton, (Prototype, 2024), 172 pages, £12

For Danielle Dutton a dress is not just an item of clothing but a literary happening, a poetry of experience, a mood, a moment, a motion in time. In her latest collection of prose (fiction, essays and a play), these happenings occur in abundance and create an opportunity for readers to touch the superb seams, grasp the intertextual threads and inhabit the marvellous folds of Dutton’s words. Polyvocal, layered and richly imaginative like her earlier works – Margaret the First, SPRAWL and Attempts at a LifePrairie, Dresses, Art, Other revels in the aural and material possibilities of language as much as what it connotes.

Moving through four individual yet intersecting sections, the collection spins inner landscapes out of literal ones, a whole catalogue of literary outfits from a single descriptive scrap or fragment, and diverse temporalities from an isolated instant. Moving through the black holes of the universe to the imaginative galaxies of her characters’ roving minds, the vivid filaments of prairie plants as well as their botanical etymons, Dutton’s work allows us to dwell in the wonder of the world as well as the written word. Making a persuasive statement about communion with and through art, between readers and writers, authors and artists, Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other is as much a manifesto about artmaking and community-building, as it is a conserver and explorer of real and imagined environments, actual and fictive figures.

Across Zoom and in type, I talked to Danielle Dutton about her prairie-inspired fictions, language as object, what inspired her exhilarating experimental prose piece, ‘Dresses’, and the desire to collect through her own art of writing.

I wanted to discuss the idea of passing through or traversing a space in regard to your gorgeous prairie fictions. Many of the female personas in your stories physically move through diverse landscapes – some are quite apocalyptic as in ‘Nocturne’; others are hypnotically immersive and magically diverting as experienced in ‘Installation’. All your protagonists occupy literal landscapes but equally all enter into and pass through those of the mind, often through the fictional or reported landscapes created or recollected by other people (and wondrously recollected by you).

We, the reader, therefore, end up occupying and passing through multiple vistas with your characters too. Before we really dwell on all the prairie is and offers in your work, I wanted to consider this idea of “passing/ through”, which is key to your work. It is not just a passing of various imaginary spaces and literary temporalities – though it is that; neither is it just a mode of appearing one way when something else is occurring beneath the surface (though I feel some of your women are experts at passing for one thing when their minds are very much elsewhere). Rather, passing through also appears to be a transformative mode. We pass through this scene, this room, this pocket or hole of time, this treeless plane, but we are not the same after doing so. Would you agree that to pass through your prairie fictions – or indeed any fiction – is to be transformed, even if that change is ever so slight?

Hannah, thank you, this is a beautiful question. A question like this helps me see in a different light what I’ve been up to in my writing, which is so instinctive for me – the writing – that I can have a hard time articulating it or talking about it in the smart way you’ve just done. Anyway, this question reminds me that a few years ago, after he read one of the prairie stories, my husband said these stories seemed particularly phenomenological to him . . . despite the fact that they’re constantly referencing things in the world they seemed to him radically present within moment to moment experience, passing through experience after experience in something of the way you’re talking about.

This is all so interesting to me because this is the first book I’ve written since turning toward Buddhism and daily meditation about eight years ago, trying to learn to be present with what’s happening whether it’s watching my thoughts and being aware of them or of my body or attending to the place I’m in, etc. But in trying to learn to attend to what is happening and stop mindlessly “multitasking” all the time, I’ve actually become aware of how difficult it is to exist in one point in time and space. I might be teaching – lecturing on Herman Melville, moderating a workshop discussion – and managing my anxiety at the same time. Or I’m walking through the woods and talking to my child about a video game and also somehow worrying about my parents. Trying to slow down my thoughts hasn’t necessarily slowed them down as much as it’s made me aware of the layers of experience that are operating within and without me, simultaneously, all the time, how I’m passing through each experience like a landscape or a room or the weather while also passing through actual rooms or landscapes or weather.

I wanted to go back to the inner landscapes and prairies. It sometimes feels as if you’re taking a scalpel to the surface of your work to reveal another layer, a second interior; then, within that, another body, a new space entire (those black holes and ancient lake-locked forests in ‘Nocturne’, the humming canopies in ‘Installation’, the Loy-inspired ghost haunting the narrator, then the spaces she occupies in ‘Lost Lunar Apogee’). I love this secret capaciousness built into your stories, an opening up and out, like a prairie, as well as an endless stream of quietly deposited discoveries too for us to marvel at, enjoy, and hold, should we choose. Could you talk more about inner prairies and the bodies that come up with them? Do you come upon them in the course of your writing or do they come upon and rise up within you as you write?

One way I know it’s time to start writing a story is when I have several of these layers or bodies or ideas vibrating together in my head. I need to have a collection of them, only very loosely assembled, like barely holding together, before I can begin. I would never start writing with only one of these in hand. So I might start with one news item that’s been troubling me plus one wild thing my kid said plus an incredibly beautiful line I’ve read somewhere plus the peculiar way someone treated me on the street, and then those “items” start vibrating together, and I have to write to figure out why that is, how they fit, what it is they’re trying to do together. All of which is to say that I start with a certain number of these “inner prairies” already humming together . . . and then as I work other prairies or bodies or images wander in to join them.

Sound features a lot in ‘Installation’ – indeed, this is one of the most excitingly installation-like forms of writing I’ve encountered in a while. There are the sounds of the words that the narrator savours (‘zebra swallowtail’, ‘chalcedony’, ‘dog-day cicadas’), and then the audible rhythms of the surrounding river and far-off man-made movements (a tractor, cars). To me you’re building a visual score as well as an aural one – the story is beautifully textured and immersive – and it’s almost as if the words themselves rather than the material things they point to have more palpability and power. This had me thinking about speech acts and sounds in your earlier fictions – Attempts at a Life and SPRAWL – and how you are building worlds through utterances, the cadences of language and the “thingness” of words as much as the spaces they contain or allude to. Talk to me about this aural-visual landscape in your works and whether the dimensions and qualities of words matter more than what they’re supposed to signify.

‘Installation’ actually started as a field recording of a particular spot on a beautiful but contaminated river in a state park in Missouri. I don’t mean I made an audio recording, but I remember sitting there in that spot and wondering how a story might work if it were a field recording, especially of a disappearing and disturbed habitat. I took a lot of notes.

There’s this bioacoustician named Bernie Krause who takes field recordings of animals and places from all around the world and then creates what he calls performances out of these recordings. A visitor to one of these performances would move through different habitats of sound. He says that each habitat has its own story to tell, and I think I was wondering about the inverse, like could a story have its own habitat to tell.

But to answer your question: yes, I’m interested in language as material. I love words, the names we’ve come up with for plants and animals especially. I mean, the names of prairie plants are like poems all by themselves: blazing star, blue false indigo, whorled milkweed. The names of the rocks are so good. My son was a rock hound from about age five to ten, so our house back then was filled with rocks and the language of rocks.

Also, Gertrude Stein was a big influence on my early writing, and I was reading mostly poetry when I started, and I started at an art school, where I was instructed on materiality in specific and non-literary ways. For years, if I had to pick between sound and meaning in my prose, I would very likely choose sound. But I trusted that there was a delightful if wonky kind of meaning making that would naturally arise out of that play with language. That was a kind of meaning that interested me very much. My prose has shifted over the past twenty or so years. My relationship to meaning in language or narrative feels more focused now. I’m more concerned with what words signify, as you put it. But I do still think that words are slippery. I am still interested in sound.

The last question is also about intertextuality and language as object, which Dresses captures sumptuously. I read this part of the book quickly, but it occurred to me that perhaps I should have savoured these individual set pieces (or suit pieces?) slowly, like the figure in ‘Installations’ who really dwells in that hypnotic river-rhythm state. Here we are really, literally, getting into the fabric of language, how it pulls, how it snags, on our imaginations, how a thing in words somehow arrests me more than seeing an actual dress. How the clothing of a body – even an imaginary/ paper one – is a performance and a statement, a happening and micro-fiction in and of itself. I loved this. Could you expand more on your love of things and dresses, and also the ‘phantom thread’ that is other authors’ writings haunting yours, other fictions threaded through, patterned into the material of your own?

Right, yes, material again. I absolutely see other works as material for making new work of my own. This is just how art operates. It’s a conversation through time, across forms. Since I was recently attacked (or dismissed, or condescended to, not sure) in the paper of record over here for this aspect of my work, I’ll just say that I find it frustrating – silly, in fact – that someone would argue here in 2024 that anyone’s work is lesser because of its referentiality. I’m not saying everyone needs to make evident, to the extent that I do, the ways in which their thinking and writing is in conversation with other work in the world. But as Cristina Rivera Garza says, “We always write with materials that are not our own.” I’m simply honest about what excites me, what inspires me – what haunts me, as you put it – when I write, which includes other books and works of visual art, yes, but also landscapes, animals, my child, my friends, the news, my mental health, etc. My work is as referential to the world as it is to other works of art, which are, of course, part of the world. When I write about writing, I am writing about the world. When I write about art, I am writing about the world.

In terms of the dresses piece, I do think of it as something weirdly sculptural. Though a poet friend told me she talked about it in a class as a kind of renga, which, as I understand it, is a Japanese form of collective or collaborative poetry. I liked that. I see the piece as collaborative, and I’d love if it sent a reader out of my book to some poem or play or novel that they hadn’t read before.

As to dresses, specifically, I became interested in literary fashions when I was writing my last book, Margaret the First. Margaret Cavendish was famous for how she dressed, and as I was writing that novel I enjoyed inventing dresses for her. I’m not sure if that’s what triggered the idea for the dresses piece or not, but the activity of thinking so much about writing dresses did absolutely make me notice them differently when I was reading.

Dresses doesn’t only create a wardrobe of desire or an armoire of fantasy and possibility, but a kind of catwalk, because these are ‘dresses’ – moments – that perform and we can touch and view them from multiple angles and see how they fit on the body, or watch as they move through our imaginations. Is there an impulse to create a kind of animated archive or collection behind your work? And more importantly would you say the erotic underpins many of the vignettes – or vignette making – in Dresses?

I love your reading of the piece, thank you. It’s funny, I was a collector as a kid, just like my own kid went through that long period of collecting rocks. As I child I collected boxes and dead butterflies. It was really like dead butterflies found me. They were everywhere. Probably there were so many more butterflies around when I was a child than there are now, to die. I sometimes put the dead butterflies in the boxes, but often I left the boxes empty, and that pleased me too. Thinking back on this, it’s so funny that I collected boxes, little objects of containment. I really liked knowing that those boxes had nothing in them. Maybe they were as close as I could get to collecting holes, which I’m obsessed with now, as an adult, holes I mean, but I don’t collect them anywhere other than in my writing – this book is full of holes. All of which is to say, yes, maybe I do have a bit of a collector’s impulse as a writer, though I don’t actively think about it that way.

And in terms of the erotic . . . there is something erotic about collecting, being attracted to something, wanting it, wanting more of it. Could there be an eros of arrangement? That was the real delight for me in “writing” the dresses piece, the arranging, the re-arranging.

One aspect of Dresses reminds me of an eighteenth-century notion of clothing and words and subjectivity. In Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa, the titular heroine writes to her friend Anna Howe something along the lines that ‘Words are but the body and dress of thought’. This metaphor of clothing and thinking, intention and self-fashioning, but also attempting to objectify our thoughts, have them embodied by language, all the while knowing the “dress” of words could obfuscate character also, struck me as very you too. Are you revelling in the masquerade of words as much as their revelation?

This reminds me again of Margaret Cavendish, who once wrote: ‘Dressing is the poetry of women.’ Is this even related to what you’re asking? I don’t know, but that’s where my mind went. And do I revel in a masquerade? Yes, I do.

‘A Picture Held Us Captive’ is such a generous and eloquent way of giving us an insight into your writing, the decisions and desires behind it, and the passions governing and steering it. Two points felt very important to me: 1) the sense of community-building through a kind of intertextual, ekphrastic, communicative mode of writing, which I wholly love and agree with. And 2) the quiet rebellion against pitting one art form against another (which I think gets caught in the ekphrastic debate too), but understanding that in their differences, mutualities and connections can be found.

I’m glad you think so! I see that essay, that whole section, as the book’s engine. That’s not to say it’s the most important part of the book, but it’s the part that allows all the other parts to clearly speak to one another.

I’m very interested in how forms and works converse, one to the other, and ‘A Picture Held Us Captive’ seems to be invested in this process too. To be in conversation with one another suggests reciprocity again, a giving and taking away, but it also implies movement to a new shared destination or horizon, mutual respect, a breaking of bread. Literature gains a lot from being in conversation with visual art – it’s so much richer for it – but I feel like we’re still waiting for art to acknowledge the gains from being in conversation with literature, with words (I perhaps write this as a frustrated art writer!). Do you ever feel the love you have for art and the conversation you’re developing with other works might not be appreciated or reciprocated in the same way? Or does it not matter, as the conversation can be picked up by the reader or another writer/artist?

I guess it doesn’t matter to me? I understand that I can’t wait for other people (I mean people I don’t know) to appreciate me or what I’m doing or to care about what I care about. It’s such an incredible gift when it happens, but I know you can’t expect it or ask

Certainly I’ve been lucky, as a writer who is so interested in visual art, to have had collaborative relationships with visual artists. First with Laura Letinsky, whom I became friends with after using her work in the writing of my first novel SPRAWL, and who has since asked me to write something for one of her shows, and then, too, with Richard Kraft, who invited me to write pieces for his book Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera—as of this week, in fact, Richard and I have started talking about doing a new project together.

You talk about ownership in this relationship with the “other” art/work. I love this. I think, on the one hand, it’s about loving something so much/it speaking to you so much, you want to make it your own. I wondered if in another sense it’s about possession: not about you possessing the work, but it possessing you, it working through you again. Would you say this is so?

I write in the essay that I’m interested in works of ekphrasis where the work of visual art seems to be speaking through a writer’s prose, warping that prose, as if the visual art is somehow making itself present in the language, not being described in it but having its own peculiar energy manifest inside the prose somehow. I guess that’s like this second kind of possession you’re talking about – not only wanting to possess or claim the work of art but being worked through by it. I do want that, absolutely.

The order of the collection is brilliant and (I think) illustrates my first point about transformation and passing through. You return us to the beginning of the play, but we’re not who we are or where we were then; a change has occurred in the cycle and course of the book. I know the order of a work is an editorial decision as much as a writerly one, but did you want to leave us with this urgency for what is lost as much as a tacit acknowledgement that here, on the page, on a screen, we gather and commune to collect and commemorate it? Were you re-enacting this meeting in the play and order of the work?

That’s such a nice way to think about the cumulative effect of moving through the various parts (landscapes? holes? boxes?) of this book. Shockingly, the play that comes last was not even included in the iteration of this book that my agent and I went out with. Shocking because I don’t think the book works without it. It’s another important engine in the book, something like the essay on fiction and art. But it’s a strange book, formally, and it took me a while to get it right, to be able to see the machine of it, all its necessary parts. When I did finally see it, when I put the play into the collection, and specifically in that final position, it was so clear, suddenly, that it had been key all along. But that’s often how art works. It’s intuitive. It’s murky. You’re creeping along in the dark until you’re not.

Danielle Dutton is the author of the novels Margaret the First and SPRAWL, the prose collection Attempts at a Life, the illustrated nonfiction chapbook A Picture Held Us Captive, and she wrote the text interpolations for Richard Kraft’s Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera. Her fiction has appeared in magazines and journals including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The White Review, Harper’s, BOMB, and NOON. Dutton teaches at Washington University in St. Louis and is cofounder and editor of the award-winning feminist press Dorothy, a publishing project. Born and raised in California, she has lived on the (former) prairie now for roughly twenty years.

Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou is a writer, the founding editor-in-chief and general arts editor of Lucy Writers, and has just completed her PhD in English Literature at UCL. She holds a BA in English Literature from Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, an MA in Eighteenth Century Studies from King’s College London and a Diploma in Fine Art from Camberwell College of Arts. She regularly writes on visual art, dance and literature for magazines such as The London Magazine, The White Review, Elephant, Art Monthly, The Arts Desk, Burlington Contemporary, Worms Magazine and many others. From 2022-2023, Hannah managed an Arts Council England-funded project for emerging women and non-binary writers from migrant backgrounds, titled What the Water Gave Us, in collaboration with The Ruppin Agency and Writers’ Studio, which resulted in an anthology of the same name. She is also working on a hybrid work of creative non-fiction about women artists and drawing, an extract from which is published in Prototype’s 2023 anthology, Prototype 5.

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