10 Questions for Olivia Muenz
- By Edward Clifford
cum on in / to my big show / dnt b shy / but dnt look down / wut do you make / of my image
—from "diagnosing," Volume 63, Issue 4 (Winter 2022)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
In second grade, I pasted pictures of flowers I cut out of a magazine into my notebook and wrote a poem for each one. I guess I’ve always been drawn to making series and projects rather than individual pieces and have always liked to engage with other media when writing.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I think what we’re exposed to, what blows us up, at a relatively young age often impresses us the most because we’ve never encountered anything like it before. When I consider this question, I often think of those (often canonical) writers first—Gertrude Stein changed everything for me. E. E. Cummings. Frank O’Hara. Sylvia Plath. John Koethe. Vasko Popa. John Yau. Erasures of any kind. Who we study with when we’re young can also radically shape who we become as writers, and though I appreciated them at the time, I don’t think I fully understood how lucky I was to work with the people I did in college. Eileen Myles taught me how to be a poet, not just a person who writes poems. All my teachers in undergrad were hugely influential: Matt Rohrer, Jeannie Vanasco, Rob Fetterman, Catherine Barnett.
As you become older, those big influences become more and more rare, so when you’re blown open you really lose it. Some of those people for me are Chelsey Minnis. Amy Hempel. Clarice Lispector. Lydia Davis. Sarah Manguso. Douglas Kearney. Joe Wenderoth. The Dadaists. Anne Boyer. T Fleishmann. Laura Mullen got my poetry to what it is now in my MFA program, as did Josh Wheeler for prose. I also learn a lot from my friends.
I’m equally influenced by artists outside of lit—Agnès Varda, Béla Tarr, Jacques Demy, Yorgos Lanthimos, Toshio Matsumoto, Werner Herzog, Laurie Anderson, Leonard Cohen, William Kentridge, Do Ho Suh, Alberto Giacometti, Pina Bausch, Sondheim.
What other professions have you worked in?
Outside of food service and academia, I’ve only worked in the arts. Right now, I’m working for a sculpture artist. Before my MFA, I was the US Tour Publicist for musicians like Paul McCartney, U2, and Radiohead, and worked for a few arts nonprofits in NY. Technically I guess I modeled a bit in my early twenties, a fever dream I’ve mostly repressed. My (undiagnosed at the time) disability gives me ankle instability, so I looked like Gumby in heels.
What did you want to be when you were young?
Both of my parents were on Broadway and that was the world I grew up in, so I wanted to be on Broadway too. By the time I was a teenager, I shifted from wanting to be on Broadway (“corny”) to wanting to be a musician (“much cooler”). Halfway through my music program in college, I decided to transfer programs to study writing more. Music was such a huge identifier for me that it was—and sometimes still is—hard for me to reorient my identity around other things. Though I didn’t notice it at first, theater and music are major components of my writing. I think I hear language more than anything. The way a line sounds will take precedence over everything else, even meaning, though I never realize I’m doing that. Performativity is also central to my writing. It’s an overt consideration in terms of my relationship to medicine, having to perform wellness or perform disability while having an “invisible” illness or perform in a very specific and often gendered way with doctors. But it’s also the way I approach writing. I’m always performing as a particular version of myself, augmenting certain parts, quieting down others. And part of that too is leaning into spectacle, loving camp. Just putting on a good show. Trying to get a laugh.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I’m working on a lyric memoir about my ten year search for a diagnosis for an unknown complex illness. I begin by recreating my process of collecting my medical records, making an archive of myself, and engaging with those records, translating them. So it was in the process of writing that book, and going through my records again that I encountered my medical imaging and decided to make a poem out of one of the scans. Partly, the book considers the distance of my embodied self (of my own narrative) versus the self chopped into parts, into data (in the narrative of medicine). And so I applied that idea here too. I was taking a course on the archive with Laura Mullen at the time and thinking about theories of the archive and how we can engage with the archive in poetry was critical in making this.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Born and raised in New York, I didn’t realize how much of a New Yorker I am until I moved to Louisiana. New York is an extreme place. It’s many things but never dull. It feels maximalistic. It’s cynical and depressing and performative and authentic and freeing and exhausting and relevant and isolating and a pain in the ass and deeply communal and accepting and impatient and my home. It’s self-important and too much and deservedly so. And so I guess I’m all of those things too in and out of my writing. I’m a very interdisciplinary person and hybrid writer and I’m sure that’s partly because of how many things I’ve had access to in New York and how those things situate themselves alongside one another. Everything kind of blends together and makes a billion different iterations of itself.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
My tradition is a functioning brain, which is a rarity with my disability. I have to strategically carve out a full day and work up to that day, do my best to make myself well enough through a series of strategies over the course of the week leading up to my writing day, take my meds and hope for the best. I can only write at home at my desk or on my couch. To edit, I print a lot. I need to see all the parts to move them around. But that’s for prose. For poetry, I poot something out in a few minutes on my notes app whenever it spontaneously happens. Thank god for poems.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I want to make movies very badly. Lacking technical ability, I’m working on screenplays. Music remains an ever-lingering threat. I’d also like to make art installations, convert some of my visual poems to full installations or make something new. I may also secretly want to write a musical.
What are you working on currently?
I'm trying to finish my lyric memoir about my decade long pursuit of diagnosis that weaves together personal narrative, the histories of gendered disability and medical sexism in America, and theories of translation, language, aestheticism, communicability, and the archive.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve been reading a lot of fiction lately, which is new for me. One of my recent favorites was Patrick Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. But today I’m reading poetry, Maged Zaher’s Thank You for the Window Office, which I’m loving.
OLIVIA MUENZ is a disabled writer from New York. Her debut poetry collection, forthcoming March 2023, won the 2022 Gatewood Prize from Switchback Books. She is the author of the chapbook Where Was I Again (Essay Press) and holds an MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University, where she received the Robert Penn Warren Thesis Award in prose and served as an editor for New Delta Review. A ’22 Tin House Summer Workshop participant, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, Pleaides, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. Find her online at oliviamuenz.com.