Instructions of the Impossible: A Conversation with Gabriel Ojeda-Sague
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague is a Miami -> Philly, Latino, gay Leo. His first collection, Oil and Candle (March 2016, Timeless, Infinite Light), is a set of writings on Santería, war, and the precarity of Latino-American lives. He is also the author of 4 chapbooks, most recently Where Everything is in Halves (Be About It, 2015), poems against death through The Legend of Zelda, and ‘Yo’ Quiere Decir Sunburn (2016), poems of anxious bilingualism. His second full-length book Jazzercise is a Language is forthcoming from The Operating System in 2018. His work can be found at ojedasague.com.
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague’s poem, “Dream #6: Isaac,” appeared in our Solstice Temple Issue. Below, he talks with editor Phil Spotswood about grief, decontextualizing, violence, and more.
PS: In a review of Where Everything is in Halves (Be About It, 2015), a chapbook in which you explore The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker as a mapping of grief (among other themes), Jai Arun Ravine mentions they heard you at a reading talking about “game play as a way to work through grief”; is there something inherent in video games that allows the player to explore the potential of reworking a map, a code, a space?
GOS: My understanding of a connection between games and grief actually comes unluckily through a bad experience with the two. After my father died in 2005, I got badly addicted to the game World of Warcraft. It’s a sort of joke people say, WoW addictions, but they are real and actually really interesting when you think about the way they are formed. Anyways, I was basically playing hours on end everyday in the time after my dad died. And so, most of my mental space was occupied inside of a virtual space. It’s a disturbing experience, actually, when done incorrectly. In 2015, when I started writing Where Everything is in Halves, I thought I should put myself in that mindset again, but this time be conscious of it, prod it, investigate it, put it under pressure, think critically about the game itself. Wind Waker wasn’t a conscious choice at first, but I realized quickly how much the game is about isolation, misunderstanding, devastation, all felt in the space of grief. And with Zelda specifically I was curious about playing as a vulnerable child, one with the burden of saving the whole world on his shoulders. So there it was like, play as if you were in 6th grade again (when my dad passed) in such an unhealthy behavior, but put interpretive pressure on the game and on your grief so you can get something out of it. And that’s what the poems are doing. Games, I think, have an innate usefulness for such a project because they are invented spaces that you help form, deform, and generally interact with. Even those churned-out free app games have a malleability of form because we recognize the form is invented and is there for us to work with or against. So taking the form of Wind Waker, the conceit of which is small islands separated by massive stretches of sea, and then calling the sea that which is unknown and calling the islands that which is intimate, you’ve put pressure on the form that was invented for you to put pressure on. It’s just a work of interpretation.
PS: I remember playing Wind Waker and setting out for the first time on sea, being sort of overwhelmed by the seemingly open world and being really excited about it at first, no Zelda game had given that scope before; and then, the more I played, the more lonely it felt, like you mentioned. There are moments of stillness, bobbing on the water, that are deafening in their silence.
I love what you mention about the “malleability of form” of video games; I think that’s so accurate. There is a certain agency that entering into a game allows the player that they can’t necessarily experience outside of the virtual world, a space to interrogate their inner world through the conceit of the game. Near the end of your Zelda chapbook, there is a poem “The Sea (Triforce)”; I think it’s a moment in the game where Link has to collect the triforce shards before confronting Ganondorf, and you’re sailing around looking for these tiny pieces. In searching for one particular piece, the speaker in the poem says: “I am touching the iron bars and look just past to see a horrible virus inside. I have to get in and feel that virus. I didn’t know seagulls ate pears, but they do. 7 points in the 7000 x 7000. I am not the child-hero. The child-hero, I mean, takes the seagulls to 7 points to make them glow and when they do the bars open and I, the child-hero, I mean, goes in to feel the virus.” The speaker enacts a sort of ritual to get past/break down these iron bars, to get at the virus. Across the Zelda chapbook and your poem inspired by The Binding of Isaac, there seems to be an insistence on ritual, and I’m wondering about the intersections between video game and ritual, what is at that intersection and how you prepare yourself to enter into that space.
GOS: Let me say one thing towards your first point and then I’ll answer your question. Loneliness is definitely one of the primary aesthetics/moods of Wind Waker. There must be a shared moment for all players of the game where they are sailing and they just stop. And they look around and notice not a single island is near them. Nothing. Maybe a storm somewhere over there, but other than that nothing. Ganondorf at the end of the game actually outright addresses this. He says “They are vast seas…None can swim across them…They yield no fish to catch…So many pathetic creatures, scattered across a handful of islands….Your gods destroyed you.” It’s his grand final speech. There’s a moment there where the game is explicitly saying that this huge ocean is useless or nonproductive, that it serves only to separate. This is people’s main frustration with Wind Waker, but it’s really what is most interesting about the game. I feel similarly now playing Final Fantasy XV, which I have similar moments where I just stop the car, look at the landscape, and think “What the hell am I doing? Where is anything?” This mood is most prominent in “The Sea (Triforce)” because this is the part of the game that EVERYBODY hates. You have to find 8 maps on 8 different islands, take them to Tingle and pay him to translate them, then use those maps to find 8 triforce shards. It’s a total run around.
Anyways, the lines you quote have a real in-game referent. One of the triforce shards is on an island in a chest behind a set of iron bars. To open the bars, you feed a seagull a pear, which lets you control it (lol, I know), and you have to hit 7 crystals with the seagull to light them up. When they are lit, the bars open, the map is yours. A lot of the chapbook and my Binding of Isaac poem in Cartridge take real in-game referents and just make them strange. Usually by decontextualizing them. So that’s what I’ve done here. The short answer on why ritual and games are related is: they both come with instructions. A lot of my poems, generally, are interested in ritual and instructions, specifically on instructions of the impossible, hopeless instructions, achievable instructions (much of this comes from my love for Grapefruit by Yoko Ono). In this section you are quoting, I’m deforming the instructions of the game (move the seagull, open the chest) to make some sort of statement on sickness/illness, which is one of the major aspects of the chapbook.
PS: As you were explaining the mechanics of the triforce map and the seagull, I was vividly remembering that bit about the game, how frustrating and difficult it was to control the bird (and how strange!) It’s a moment that you wonderfully decontextualize, and the player’s control of the character sort of mimics the control of the bird, which, decontextualized, speaks to the potential for the player to navigate their inner sense of self.
Binding of Isaac is an indie game that riffs off of the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, the sacrificial son. In the Biblical story, much like in the game, Isaac’s parent (in-game, the mother) is ordered by (supposedly god) to kill her son, for he has become tainted with sin. I’ve been thinking about sacrifice and ritual, and sacrifice as a kind of ritual (in that, like you say, they both come with instructions.) Your poem in Cartridge Lit, “Dream #6: Isaac” opens with the future continuous verb “I’ll be” which immediately seems to set up a performative space. Before diving further into the poem, I’m wondering if you’d want to speak on this enactment of performance (in Binding, in poetry).
GOS: Sure! “I’ll be” and “you be” are roleplaying terms, most often said by kids. Like, you can imagine a kid saying “I’ll be the princess and you be the wolf.” . In this case, it also has to do with character creation, “I’ll be Isaac,” “I’ll be Cain,” etc. And as well it’s what the game is asking you to accept as a premise. You (the player) control (let’s just assume you are playing Isaac) a boy who has escaped into his basement because his mom wants to kill him, and in there are a bunch of monsters. “I’ll be the joke in the basement” is the explicit mention of the roleplaying the game is making me do. Of clear interest to anyone who writes about or through games is the fact that no matter what we control as the player, we always call that thing “me.” Listen as people explain a game: “Okay, so you’re that giant ogre and you need to crush the villagers,” “you’re the big tower and you need to defend the tower with little towers,” etc. The player becoming someone so entrenched in shame, fear, grief, anxiety, and danger as Isaac is what gets me to write that poem.
PS: I was playing through Binding of Isaac this week, and thinking about how the game thrusts you into the internal space of this character by morphing his basement into this abject pit you have to go deeper and deeper into. I’m really excited that you bring up the verb “become,” because in this poem, I feel like there is this motion of the “I” internalizing their interactions with the “You” and that relationship being projected outwards—this seems to me a motion of becoming—of entering a relationship or emotionally-linked space with another/other. I’m thinking specifically about the second stanza, “Miss me: the face is split into three, / but unionizing, page four. / You are full of yolk, family secrets, / dirty shit, cheap shoes. I let it out / in ropes, bad ideas. I don’t shoot / like a laser, it just kinda flows down.” Decontextualizing the mechanics of the game, here, I think speaks to this internalizing of space and the subsequent outward projection. Is this another kind of experience video games allow the player to enact?
GOS: Before I get into my answer, I just want to shout-out Jace Brittain’s 3-part article on Binding of Isaac that was published on Entropy. It’s so good and even though I read it after I had finished this poem, that article heavily affects my thinking on the game and its thoughts might even slip in here.
If we are to talk about internalizing the exterior, Isaac is the best game for that. In so many ways, all the monsters you fight are Isaac himself. The design of them makes this very explicit (most enemies just look exactly like Isaac). There’s an implication that the basement is Isaac’s emotions, mind, and interiority, throughout the game. Especially, when you start beating the game and get cutscenes like where Isaac finds a noose inside of the boss chest and hangs himself. I came to write “Dream #6” with the frame of mind that the basement was Isaac’s interiority, especially his shame. So as my subject matter I took wet dreams. I’m not very explicit about that in the poem, but basically towards the end of the second stanza and especially the third stanza it is hinted to again and again. The room I was looking at while writing the poem was the following: 6 coins in the middle, blasted out wall (because it was a secret room), 2 fires, and in the middle a shiny, white, hanging body that looks exactly like Isaac. The rooms in Isaac often have these little altars that depict sad and tragic scenes like this with a body that seems to be Isaac’s. So I wanted to take the emotion of a room like this and apply it to a different scenario. This is, I think, what you mean when you are talking about internalizing the exterior and projecting it outward. It’s also how my tool of decontextualizing works. To do so, I just describe plainly what is seen in the room, but remove some information (“something white shining / in the middle, something hanging / and shining white”). This is basically done just by skewing perception of the exterior to create a different emotional response. The resplendent and unknown nature of what I describe is very different from the disturbing and macabre nature of the hanging body in Isaac, but they are both the same body.
Video games are able to do this on the most basic level because they are about interaction. Whereas literature is definitely indebted to simulation in the same degree, there are few chances for literature to have an advanced interactive simulation as a video game would. This is both the grace and famous problem of video games. Think of the cliche argument against violent gaming, that it would cause violence in real life. That argument can only be made if you believe that the interactive simulation is a direct translation of real life action (and vice versa). This same argument was/is still made for books (it’s the great joke of Don Quixote after all.) But the point at which you realize that the simulation and the interaction are completely skewed from societal action, is when you can exploit those gaps for important interpretive work.
PS: The decontextualizing work that you do while anchoring the poem in the specifics of the game seems to be what enables that opening of valences for the gamer, similar to what happens (what can happen) in poetry—where a moment is ripped out of time while being grounded in that specific moment, and warped to allow multiple modes of access. I’m wondering if there is a violence inherent in this motion, and specifically in the work of this poem. In the lines: “Give me / the gift of gutting, or being in the gut, / I want to see the kids you keep in your / gut,” violence seems figured as a sort of gift, both used to act upon and embody (as if taking the position of both subject and object); what is the end result of such violence?
GOS: There can be a violence to that kind of decontextualizing, but I think it’s more complete to call it “critical.” And by that, I mean that the gesture I’m doing in these poems is at risk of the same faults as criticism (taking mastery of a work, taking interpretation out of the author’s hands, minimizing of individual readerly experience). Those things could be described as violent. But you are right in saying there is a latent violence that comes through in all my work on games. Returning for a second to “The Sea (Triforce),” I think that poem is the cruelest to Link of all the poems in that chapbook. It allows and focuses the dangers of the videogame world onto him in a totally sadistic way. This was something I was conflicted about while writing it, but that I ultimately decided was productive. Because in both Isaac and Zelda the violence of the surrounding world is the premise of the game. Everything wants to kill you. And everything will, if given the chance. The way in which the bodies of these characters are challenged and endangered in my poems is a product of my own technique but it is not alien at all to the game’s nature. The image of the gut, for example, comes from both an image of the basement as a stomach (the kids being me and the enemies), and an enemy who explodes and lets out flies (the kids being the flies). There is a visceral nature to everything in Isaac, and so much of the expression of shame in that game come from the disturbed bodies of the characters therein. I should mention that the enemy who explodes and lets out flies, when it first sees you, runs in the opposite direction towards a wall and cries until it bursts.
In both poems, violence and sexuality go hand in hand. Asking why would take me a long time to answer and the answer wouldn’t be complete, but it’s just how I wrote them. At the end of Where Everything is in Halves, Ganandorf dies by a sword in his kidney, which a reviewer of the chapbook Ted Rees mentioned as a moment charged by sexuality. It’s not explicitly sexual in that moment, but the whole chapbook has connected acts of violence to sexuality in a way that forces the reader to read that last gesture of killing Ganandorf as one. Here in “Dream #6: Isaac,” we get the hanged body equated to the wet dream with the last line “Sometimes / when kids are sleeping they get whiter.” Though this doesn’t directly relate to your question, I thought it should be mentioned because it gives one sense for the way we might think of violence in these poems and the way you mention it being figured as a gift.
PS: No, I think that connects really well—that enemy in Isaac you mention is one of the most disrupting characters for me—it emits this garbled cry like you mention, and the sheer force of shame (as it relates to your poem) enacts this violence on it that implodes it. And I think the violence turned critical is absolutely necessary in order to subvert a violence that culture (here, a Western, conservative culture) imposes on vulnerable persons; but you’re right, this question and exploration could go on much longer.
I do want to turn attention to your new book, Jazzercise is a Language (The Operating System 2018) and the subversion of violence in it. In the catalogue description of the book, it’s stated: “‘Jazzercise is a Language’ is a long poem that wants to be a smiling, skinny white woman. Here are the leg warmers, head bands, sweats, chants, and two-steps of the 1980’s dance aerobics craze, but decked with the baggage of race, pixelation, rituals, violence, and body horror.” Could you talk a bit about this new project and how it relates to violence across your body of work?
GOS: For sure! So the new book is an exploration of the 80’s dance aerobics craze Jazzercise. My interest there is the way Jazzercise was/is an exercise done by mostly white women to the soundtrack of Black and Latino music. So you have these groups of white women on VHS tapes who are saying “you can have the body you want!” “work for it!” and talking about making the waist smaller, tightening the body, defining it, all to the soundtrack of incorrectly framed Black and Latino music. My interests are also in the VHS, the pixelations, the way the bodies don’t look right because of the primitive graphics, etc. And, I love camp, so much of my work has to do with camp, so I was all there for Jazzercise.
If there is any defining theme to my work it’s that I work on what I call critically-maligned media. Media that is deemed unproductive or not worth interpreting. The way Jazzercise gets to violence is through exercise, which is an inherently violent thing. You are basically testing and damaging the body so that it can get stronger and more resistant to future damage. And we have to remember that often exercise can lead to horrible injuries (how many football players do you know of who get concussions, torn ACLs, etc.). So the body which is being controlled, perfected, feminized, is also being beaten up, torn, mangled, and so on. I wanted to make the bodies in Jazzercise seem both amazing and disturbing so I turned to violence and to camp. As I said with the Zelda and Isaac stuff, this is all there in the original text already, it’s just a question of what you can do with it and how you can transform it.