In 1976, DeJong performed selections of Modern Love at The Kitchen’s first-ever literary event (a bill shared with Kathy Acker). Two years later, shortly after the book's publication by Standard Editions, she produced a complete performance of the novel at The Kitchen, accompanied by prerecorded voices (including a cameo by David Warrilow of Mabou Mines) and music by Philip Glass.
CDJ To have multiple presences: for writing, for literature, for language-based forms. That sounds very grand, but as a woman one experiences the oppression of paradigms from multiple arenas and sources. One that mattered to me—that still matters to me—is the oppressive paradigm of women in literature, which fueled some of the thematics of Modern Love. We were relegated to Chick Lit, romance novels, our subjects were love and motherhood and other sexually-defined things. Modern Love mocks that, to some degree. It pushes back.
JK Were you talking about this with other women, other writers?
CDJ The one person with whom I talked a lot was Kathy [Acker]. Kathy was urgent like I was urgent about this thing called "writing," this thing called "literature," and its many tangents, including sexual politics and shop talk, the things you don't talk to everyone about. We used to, you know, make coffee dates and talk about verb tenses.
JK I wanted to ask you about character and voice, and how you see those elements reflecting and refracting one another. In Modern Love, the "I" of the narrator is such a slippery thing—or rather, it's seamlessly woven through many characters and voices: Charlotte, Fifi, Roderigo, the unnamed female narrator. You've put them all in a graceful dance together.
CDJ Oh, thank you for noticing. I've always been really aware that the first person singular is a construction; it's a character. That dance is a sleight of hand, which I learned early on and still use. Language is fluid, and right now I'm doing sleights of hand with verb tense in a way I've never done before, so that past present and possibly future can stand in a single sentence—so you move through tense, through time, quite fluidly. It sounds very nerdy. (laughter)
JK Writing is a very nerdy matter. (laughter)
CDJ I want every word to matter. I don't want words that don't matter. I don't want space and air around things. I want narrative to be able to be in its totality, to be heterogeneous, to have a heterogeneity. To put its arms around disparate locations, people, subjects, in terms of the world of ideas—and I want that to succeed as narrative. Narrative is sequential, you can't escape it. If you want to escape it then you work in a form different than a book. It's words, sentences, paragraphs, pages. I'm fanatical about sequence, and how sense and meaning can be made from a system of order that isn't recognizable as alphabetical, chronological—one that has a different mechanism to the structure. That has always been fuel for my writing, and it has never gone away.
Constance DeJong: I've always been strongly engaged with language as a time-based medium. In the writing, that meant an attention to velocity, rhythm, pacing, conspicuous composition and structuring—and eventually, sonority. I was preparing for my first reading—what I ended up calling a performance—and while I was rehearsing in my kitchen, I discovered that I wasn't looking at the pages any longer, that I could speak the text. That was a kind of epiphany because of my interest in time—in real time. I didn't want the page to be the past, and the viewer to be the present. I was interested in this area in which language could be embodied and seem to construct itself in real time. So your experience of the text—you being the audience—is in real time. It's becoming, unfurling, unfolding, which makes it not a reading, but a performance. And from then on, I thought differently about what performance is.
Words disappear and reappear in the world all the time, and if one is a writer, one exists in part believing books have a cosmic timing all their own. Writer and artist Constance DeJong initially published her first major work, the novel Modern Love, in 1975–76. Serialized as five chapbooks, she designed, printed, and distributed it herself, then released a "proper book" through her own imprint, Standard Editions, the following year. She also performed the book—not as a reading or play, but as a kind of mark of narrative in time. Later, her texts spun into sound installations, audio objects, talking photographs, and other books. While DeJong continued to carve her very own space in literature and art, Modern Love fell out of print.
Constance DeJong’s long-neglected 1977 novel, Modern Love, is one thing made up of many: It is science fiction. It is a detective story. It is a historical episode in the time of the Armada and the dislocation of Sephardic Jews from Spain to an eventual location in New York’s Lower East Side. It is a first-person narrator’s story; Charlotte’s story; and Roderigo’s; and Fifi Corday’s. It is a 150-year-old story about Oregon and the story of a house in Oregon. Modern Love’s continuity is made of flow and motion; like an experience, it accumulates as you read, at that moment, through successive moments, right to the end.
An important figure of downtown New York’s performance art and burgeoning media art scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, DeJong designed Modern Love herself and published it with help from Dorothea Tanning on the short-lived Standard Editions imprint.