The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

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APRIL 2020 Issue

Entering the Glitch: EMMALEA RUSSO with Sarah Hicks

Emmalea Russo’s Wave Archive (Book*Hug) is a book about a quest for healing, security, and peace. Russo creates an artistic representation of epileptic seizures and draws upon a lifelong pursuit for self-knowledge. Russo shares her own experience with, what Owsei Temkin’s terms, “the falling sickness” in this autobiographical work. Throughout she uses a combination of poetry, essays, and artwork to illustrate an altered mental state. The writing takes on various shapes while exploring differing modes of consciousness. She considers the idea of the brain as an archive and what happens when that archive is taken from you like a wave on the ocean. Writing a deeply intimate account, she shows the vulnerability that comes when you live with a chronic illness. Russo illustrates not only the terror, but the freedom she encounters in these dream-like states. The relationship between the mind and the body is a fragile thing. Disruption of this connection jars a person's sense of security and self-possession. And we, as humans, have an innate desire to understand that connection. Russo takes the reader on her journey of understanding by looking at history, the ocean, and the stars. She guides the reader along through the process of releasing preconceived notions of narrative in order to experience the creation of something unknown. All the while searching for comfort from the tumultuous waves of her own brain.

Sarah Hicks (Rail): The writing in Wave Archive is a departure from a rigid structure of narrative often foregoing punctuation, capitalization, or even sentence breaks. The effect you’re able to create in this prose poetry is a fluid movement of words that ebb and flow reminiscent of waves on the ocean, which is a theme you weave in throughout the book. You also compare the waves of the ocean to brain waves. What was your process in forming the structure of this book to create that effect?

Emmalea Russo: Epilepsy was the main teacher for this text. I sort of moved between two modes of writing. In the first, I set out to write from the headspace of the event – from what feels to me like a glitch. A glitch is an opening, in some ways. In the second, I allowed myself to be more descriptive – to describe the space of a seizure. Like so many who experience illness, I always want to record, to archive, these trippy and often terrifying experiences. I structured the text to evoke the movement into and out of these spaces and to invite the reader into the glitch. I carry with me the effluviums of these other worlds. I wanted Wave Archive to be in many worlds.

Hicks: I think it’s interesting how you said you didn’t want to describe for the reader, but just write from your own internal experience. How did you attempt to do that without fearing that you’re leaving your reader in the dark.

Russo: The syntax is not always sensical. I had to trust that it would be okay – in part, because much of the book is about surrender, I think. I trusted that the reader would find footing amongst the inventories, essayistic moments, and poems.

Hicks: That’s interesting.

Russo: There were moments in the editorial process where I thought, okay how do I not leave the reader in the dark. I had to trust that I could be as wild and weird as the text needed me to be.

Hicks: You incorporate your art and photography in the book as well. Can you talk about the choices you made artistically regarding the symbolism and reasoning behind the photographs and diagrams you included?

Russo: Making physical things is one way to feel of the earth and bear witness to the self out in the world. I was doing sculpture in art school while I wrote Wave Archive. I saw the photographs as ways to illustrate a deep need to be in the world – to be embodied. Evidence of embodiment. The book builds and destroys itself many times. I like to do that in my writing. It’s fun. I wanted to show the process, to reveal the mess behind the catalog – behind the appearance of cohesion.

Hicks: You are also a practicing astrologer. And you talk in Wave Archive about the Akashic Records as a type of archive. How has your practice as an astrologer and your research of spirituality informed your art and writing?

Russo: They are definitely, completely intertwined. When I first began experiencing seizures, I was pretty young and I had to – I saw no other way – explore “the universe” and spirituality and something other than the material world because those seizure states felt and feel like another material altogether. My brain got very tired post-seizure. It was digesting information quite differently than taking a class or reading a book. I naturally turned to astrology, partly because I felt allergic to words like god or religion or even spirituality. The stars offered something that vast and coherent in a more secular way. I turned to astrology therapeutically. Looking at an astrological chart or witnessing how an event on earth is reflected in the cosmos is a different kind of reading.

Hicks: I appreciate how vulnerable you are in Wave Archive about being someone with epilepsy. And you do a good job of trying to create an artistic representation of your experiences when you have seizures and the symptoms of the illness. What compelled you to incorporate that experience into your writing?

Russo: My first book (G) touched on my experience, but it skirted around my diagnosis. I wanted to say it plainly: epilepsy. And I also wanted to show the how a diagnosis can’t capture the nuances of an illness. It’s the trippy filter through which I see the world.

Hicks: You’ve included quite a lot of research on the history and medical practices for people with epilepsy throughout the book. And you draw inspiration from Owsei Temkin’s history of epilepsy The Falling Sickness written in 1945. What were the main points of focus for your research?

Russo: Susan Sontag talks in her writings about the dangers of mystifying illness, which is really interesting. I don’t know if she would be thrilled with what I’ve done. I found it medicinal to study the lineage of epilepsy and how it’s had been regarded throughout history – which is with a lot of fear, awe, and mysticism, even satanism. I was dissatisfied with how my neurologists explained it to me. I was bored. The idea of “getting something out” of an epileptic – through trephination or exorcism or bloodletting – is present throughout historical texts. Bloodletting involves physically cutting parts of the skin so that the blood can release spirits. Drilling a hole in the top of the head so spirits can escape. Wow. Part of my experience of “epilepsy” or whatever you want to call it, involves feeling like I need to get something out. What it is, I don’t know. Energy, words, weird books, whatever. In Wave Archive, I wanted to show that extra – to lift the veil and be in conversation with my own sensations and history. I don’t know if I had a goal.

Hicks: What drew you to that book specifically? Had you read it previously?

Russo: I had read it before. I wish I knew, but I have no idea. I’ve had the book forever. I liked that it used the term The Falling Sickness, it’s an interesting phrase because falling is part of the illness, for some people. For me. It helped me enchant it a little so that I could write about this galactic and mysterious thing in a way that felt true. It’s important to say that while some people do remember their seizures, I do not. So, this book is filled with eerie blanks – a supercharged emptiness. Also, astrology is kind of just a way of life for me. I’m always engaging with ancient spiritual and cosmological texts. Connecting to that text, just like connecting with the stars or any poem, is a way to feel less like a person floating alone with a problem.

Hicks: The intent of archiving is summed up well in this quote:

often when one uses archive as a verb futures and pasts are implicit as there is a moment of capture where one chooses which parts of the past to carry into a precarious future.

Thinking of the word archive, you use it to refer to multiple things in the book. You talk about a body of work as an archive as well as the brain. And you look at the different factors that impact that archive whether it’s seizures or trauma. Can you speak more on this?

Russo: One of the things that is most deracinating about having epilepsy--and this is similar to other experiences – even doing drugs – is not having access to information that I had always been able to very easily access. When I emerge from a seizure, I don’t know my name. I don’t know birthday. I don’t understand the environment around me. Base level things. Things that form a structure of reality fall away and that’s very frightening. The archive gets fucked up. It’s horrifying and enticing, something Bataillan about it. Self-annihilation, where certain spiritual practices can take you.

It’s a different mechanism than say, meditation and sometimes it involves injury, which is unfortunate. I wrote from the lushness of that fear. Also, the discrepancy between an archive that is just there all the time for you to dip into and one that can go invisible. With regards to the word “archive” – my experience of epilepsy is interwoven with being in a female body. I remember having a conversation with someone I was dating many years ago about my “emotions” and how I…um…have a lot of them…like most of us do, and that I express them “intensely.” He was like “you don’t have to take all of your emotions so seriously. You can just archive some of them.” I was like “fuck you dude.” But then I thought, what would an emotional archive look like? What would an invisible archive look like? I wrote the “edge document” section after that conversation. That concept was with me the whole time. The invisible archive, the emotional archive.

I guess I was moving, in the book, between the solar and the lunar. The Sun, which illumines the whole sky and provides a lot of noetic information and the Moon, which is more choosy in what it highlights. I was moving between both of those as archival footages.

Hicks: At the end of the book you talk about the brain being trainable. In the very last line of the book you prompt yourself and the reader to make a list of things that are trainable. What are you hoping your readers take away and reflect on in this exercise?

Russo: I don’t know man. That’s such a hard question. I don’t know if it’s any of my business. I was thinking about malleability and cycles and autonomy. There’s a certain amount of autonomy we have over our bodies and a certain amount that we do not. And that’s something I’ve had to reckon with rather violently via seizures. The brain is trainable, it’s so plastic. I’ve done experiments with myself. One of my doctors once said “seizures beget seizures.” Really, we can say that about anything because the brain latches onto patterns.

I’ve gone through cycles of having seizures once every two months like clockwork. I found that I had to do something totally unexpected to change the pattern – something to sort of shock my system (different food, “cleanses”, practices…)– not at the behest of my doctor, but just because I’m sort of the mad scientist of my life. We get used to things and create grooves around them – even dangerous things. So, figuring out and playing that game – those glitches and grooves – is one of my lifelong projects. I wanted to leave the reader with that. I don’t know. A gift?


Emmalea Russo

Emmalea Russo’s books of poetry are G, Wave Archive, and Confetti.

Sarah Frances Hicks

Sarah Frances Hicks graduates from Stetson University in May with a MFA of the Americas in Prose.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2020

All Issues