Surgeon General's Warning

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Surgeon General’s Warning

Elijah Peterson

Be advised: after this the normal ways of remembering will seem inadequate.

One’s memories come up in chunks of pith and peel. Icebergs off a fragmented glacier, silently perched Elsewhere

Try not to be jealous of the lunch-table savant who peels the orange in a perfect spiral, the first man to pick his way along

an unbroken ice cap

The words are inside you already; they are in your mouth.

“I personally find the work of remembering things in my past, and preserving things that are happening in the moment to be remembered later, to be very frustrating.”

Interview by L. Valena

Can you describe what you responded to?

I received a photograph of a woman sitting at a kitchen counter with a bunch of citrus fruits in front of her. There looked to be a piece of another photo of the same woman, looking back at her. And at the center of the photograph there were a pair of hands that were holding an orange- it looked like they were peeling it.

What was your first reaction to this?

My first thought was, "What's going on here?" I wasn't sure how I was supposed to feel. I spent a long time looking at it, and thinking “what am I doing? I don't know- I have to look at it some more! What's jumping out at me?” And then eventually I started pulling out threads. I thought I could play with the idea of being watched by your old self. For some reason, the thing that really stuck with me was the orange. They physical act of peeling an orange can be so frustrating- I don't know if you've ever been able to peel one. I feel like every time I peel one I get little chunks- little tiny fingernail-sized chunks, every time. It's just not worth the effort.

Fingernail-sized chunks? That sounds maddening!

Yeah. I'm terrible at peeling oranges.

Can you tell me about the title of this piece?

The title is 'Surgeon General's Warning'. I am awful with titles of anything, so after I finished the piece I set it aside for a couple of days and put some thought to it. It sort of reminded me of warning labels on things. If you're pregnant, you shouldn't use this medication. Or use this product at your own risk. These very official sounding warnings get affixed to products.

I was in Texas for the first time recently, and in the ladies rooms at all the bars there were these notices warning against drinking while pregnant. It made me so angry! I asked my male colleagues to go and check to see if there was a similar warning in the men's room about the risks of making someone else pregnant while drinking.

I'm willing to bet there wasn't.

No, no- of course not!

You've talked about peeling oranges as being a frustrating experience, and also about looking back at your previous self. Can you say more about that?

I think what I really wanted to bring out is this: I personally find the work of remembering things in my past, and preserving things that are happening in the moment to be remembered later, to be very frustrating. I find it to be almost always incomplete, and I find myself wanting to be able to really capture the nuances and textures of a moment. Knowing that I'm going to come up short makes me very frustrated. Especially because a lot of my work ends up being about memory and about feelings in the moment. I think one of my biggest challenges as a writer has been trying to let go of the ideal. The perfect, crystallized-in-amber snapshot that you have of something that you can suddenly remember, put on a page, and people will respond to it. I think I am my own worst critic, and I find it very frustrating when I can't do that kind of perfect recall and translation. I've always found the writing process to be inadequate to the imagination for me.

Do you have other modes of self expression?

Yeah. I dabble in a lot of things, but I've dabbled in writing for the longest. I'm also interested in exploring analogue photography. I did some when I was young- I was a kid of the 90's, I had a film camera for as long as I can remember. My interest has been sparked in analogue photography once again. I remember the feeling of waiting for pictures to be developed. It's just very different from digital. I'm interested in dipping my toe back in.

How does this piece relate to the rest of your work?

I think the process of basing a piece of work on something made by another artist created and I have no context for, was really unfamiliar. That was a fun challenge. But a lot of my other work does pivot on the experience of trying to crystallize moments.

How much time did you spend looking at the prompt?

A good bit. Particularly in the beginning. It was so different from my usual sources to create work from. I honestly spent the full first week just revisiting the picture again and again. Every time I opened my computer, I just had it up in the background. So I would open my computer and be doing things, then go back to it and see what I'd feel. So I just did that for a couple days, and waited for something to keep presenting itself.

Anything else you want to say about this piece?

I think I was surprised by how short it ended up being. I usually write stuff that's just a little bit longer. But I feel like I arrived at a reasonable ending, and went to write more, and realized that it wasn't really necessary. I just wanted one droplet. I've always been interested in the very short form- just making things as chrystalline and essential as possible. You can take three lines, and get people to a place where it inspires a feeling. I've see a lot of people making very short work like this lately. A lot of the writing one sees on Instagram or Twitter is about this length.

I wonder what that means for our generation, that so many people are experimenting so much with short form.

I've been reading a lot recently about attention, and the mass adaptation of the internet and other networks have changed how humans are able to deploy the resource of attention. I think that the short form is really good for people who are looking for feelings, inspiration to feel something deep about the world, but they may not want to read Anna Karenina to get it. And whether that's good or bad is very much up for debate. But I think the more people feel empowered to write things and end up getting some medicine out of other people's writing, the better. Expressive modes like that should be open to everyone- we'd never want people to say 'oh, I'm not a poet, so I can't write these things.'

I agree- there is totally space in the world for all of it. I personally love Anna Karenina, but I know not everyone wants to spend an entire winter reading through it.

One of the things that happened while I was writing this poem, is I had just wrapped up reading In Search of Lost Time. It was my first time reading it, and for a couple days after I finished the final volume, I was just walking around and thinking about it. It just changed so much about my reading process, and I think I had that in the back of my head as I was thinking about the imperfection of remembering things. After reading that, of course one feels that one is an imperfect rememberer.

That's so interesting that you say that- I was actually going to ask you if you were into Proust when you said that at the beginning of this interview. What a wild brain, and a wild way of processing his past.

It feels like such a cliche, so say that I was reading Proust, and I wrote this poem.

No way- it's amazing. Do you have any advice for someone else who is going to do this?

Don't feel pressured to make something on the first day. If it happens, it happens and that's awesome. But I think I really benefited from having a good chunk of time to mull things over and chew on it a little bit. Having a deadline is always good, though, to put a limit to the amount of rumination time. Otherwise I just would have stared at this photo for a month. I think taking the time to really sit with it. Don't try to divine what the artist wanted you to think. I was running into that earlier- I was looking at it and wondering what I was supposed to feel. And eventually I realized it didn't matter what I was supposed to be feeling. What matters is what is coming up.


Call Number: C11VA | C15PP.peSu


Elijah lives in Providence, RI, works in Boston, and writes from somewhere in between. Most of his literary efforts explore the layers of memory, experience, and performance that are inherent in living as a trans person and a religious convert. He is a proud amateur.