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Porträtt av poeten Elis Monteverde Burrau. Fotografi: Erica Lindberg, Bon Magazine.

Elis Monteverde Burrau: “You have to write a book with your mouth”

Isolation, digital intimacy and JOMO. Poet Elis Monteverde Burrau reads from his new book “De äter ur din hand, baby” (“They’re eating out of your hand, baby”), reminding us that the mouth is a hole in the middle of the face.

Words: Justina Hüll


You can hear the first episode of Plug-in Poetry, read by Elis Monteverde Burrau in Swedish, here.

The stones are gravel white. Narrow streets, filled with people and hustle and bustle. These are streets that Elis Monteverde Burrau avoids. The world outside Elis’s window is chaotic and Athens is noisy. He closes out the street life, shutting himself away from the rest of the world in silence. Not intentionally, though; it’s just that he is sharing a house with a journalist during his writing residency, and Elis is a socially reserved person in general. He doesn’t mean to avoid her, but it’s natural for him to isolate himself in a room to concentrate on his writing. The book flows out of him in only two weeks.

A book about hikikimori, a Japanese phenomenon that describes adolescents and young adults who isolate themselves in their parental homes, or about memento mori, an artistic genre that seeks to remind people of their own mortality. It is here, somewhere on the borderline between isolation, psychosis and death that Elis’s new book De äter ur din hand, baby takes shape. A feverish dream about a woman who becomes obsessed with stealing the identity of photographer Cindy Sherman. The protagonist isolates herself and ceases to communicate with the outside world, except through digital channels. She searches for intimacy and tenderness in a harsh and complex online world.

A few months after Elis returns home, the world suddenly finds itself in a paralysing quarantine. On April 3rd, 2020, the book is released by Albert Bonniers förlag and I wonder if it is ethically justifiable that we conduct this interview ‘IRL’?

You just recorded an excerpt from your new book “De äter ur din hand baby” in an ASMR format. How did it feel?

It was interesting, it was almost like self-therapy. I’ve listened to ASMR before, but I didn’t think it was possible to create sensations in oneself. It felt both a bit unsettling and exciting at the same time. I think that feeling arose because I stood and whispered for half an hour. It’s very unusual to experience words that way it felt like a mixture of a workout and a ritual.

Did you experience your work differently by reading it as a work of ASMR?

I think it gave me more sympathy for my work, perhaps. I recently participated in a marathon reading for Sveriges Radio (Sweden’s publicly funded radio service) and did a more traditional reading of the work. There I read with a more “normal” speaking voice for two and a half hours and, after that, I really started to hate the book especially the protagonist. This experience just now was more forgiving because it felt so fragile, as if I whispered her thoughts.

Your work has many synergies to the phenomenon of ASMR. I’m thinking, for example, of how your protagonist seeks contact and intimacy with the outside world through digital media and through her relationship with her digital wife.

It’s an interesting coincidence, but that also says something about the time we’re living in. When I wrote the book, I was very interested in what happens with a person who chooses to isolate themselves from the rest of the world and who only communicates through their computer. My character doesn’t record her own ASMR, but she sends her own text out in the world and is rather hateful and militant – even crazy. But I think if she had found ASMR as a tool, she may have been more harmonious.

How do you feel about releasing a book that explores isolation in a time in which the majority of the world is in quarantine?

I think that the book is going to feel less strange and flipped out, less like science fiction, than I had imagined. It wasn’t that strange for me to write about this, because I’ve been so inspired by the modern hermit. It’s been interesting lately to see how many people complain after three days of isolation, while for others it’s totally natural. It’s also been exciting to see how crazy people become from being closed in and forced to change their routines for a week. Then one can really be impressed by the people who have been isolated for 25 years.

During the 1990s, a hidden generation of adults in Japan were discovered to be living isolated in their childhood homes as a result of mental illness, or an experience of not being able to meet the world’s expectations of them. The term adopted for them was hikikomori, a term that Elis returns to many times in his book. In Sweden, we have hemmasittare (“stay-at-homes”) – young people who refuse to go to school. Elis describes feeling an initial sympathy for the term and the people described by it. A feeling of compassion that quickly turned into questions about what kind of privilege a position like that requires. Mainly because one must be surrounded by a functioning infrastructure that can sustain your life in order to be able to isolate yourself in the first place. It demands access to food and water, at the very least. Perhaps also access to the internet for communication with the outside world.

Both Sweden and Japan are interesting in this context, because they’re two countries that share a low cultural tolerance for people who don’t have a useful role or contribution to make in society. Do you think it’s harder for us to accept art forms like ASMR, even poetry, because we don’t understand its ‘function’?

It’s okay by me if people don’t understand or respect poetry. Sometimes I hate poetry, too. But I think that there have been poems that have been important and helped people to feel better. ASMR, on the other hand, has clearer proof that it actually can work purely physically, which is why I have a harder time understanding the objections to ASMR as a form. I think it mainly has to do with the fact that ASMR is still a subculture and attracts younger people. That’s why I find this project so interesting – if one can see what happens when poetry is connected with ASMR. It can be something people really dislike, or the worst of two worlds. Or it can be even more interesting, because it can titillate both the body and mind at the same time.

Your sentence, “something I understood in my voluntary isolation is that I really love everyone who poses,” makes me think of the shift that has happened in society, from having suffered from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) to now hailing the beauty of JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out). What do you think is the reason for that?

It’s interesting. It feels like a new type of narcissism has escalated in the past few years, in which one edits oneself for others. I think it would be interesting, now when we’re alone, to show off ourselves instead. I think my earlier book, Karismasamhället (“Charisma Society”) was very much about FOMO it was about myself and my art friends who were doing things all the time, even if it wasn’t absolutely clear for the rest of the world what the meaning of all that “doing” actually was. In this book, I want the protagonist to instead create a sense of solidarity with people who have tried to keep out the rest of the world.

Poetry and ASMR are very similar in the sense that they both don’t need to be understood literally but rather, they’re something we experience. Do you see a connection between those experiences?

These types of art forms are always interesting because they open up for freer interpretations, which might make them easier to dismiss but also easier to fanatically fall in love with. I imagine, however, that people have a higher purpose when they create ASMR. Poetry today has become something of a diluted cliché. Someone may make ASMR content because they want people to feel good or be able to fall asleep, for example. I, as a poet, have no higher purpose. I don’t want people to feel good if they read my book, it would be horrible if they did. I’m not interested in being constructive. But there exist a “punkier” ASMR out there that doesn’t want to be that either. Although, then we might be dealing with noise.

All literature, but perhaps poetry most of all, comes from a strong storytelling tradition that fits in well with the ASMR movement precisely because it’s meant to be heard, or spoken. What influence do you think that that tradition has on ASMR?

I’m thinking of this poem my protagonist writes: “you have to write a book with your mouth.” It’s actually so strange that the mouth is a hole in the face, through which we both take in food, but also vomit from. It’s totally baroque if one looks at it objectively. But it’s also through that hole that language is emitted and, in some religions, the mouth also has a direct relationship to God. For example, by speaking in tongues, God hops over the brain and enters directly into the mouth, at which point people become nothing more than a vessel. When you think of the physical body as a tool, it’s almost like imagining space as infinite.

You often return to your character’s disappointment with “empty rhetoric”, and how language in some way lets us down and isn’t adequate to describe the time in which we live in. What does that mean to you?

I think it partly has to do with loneliness and the fact that even in isolation, one still has a body and language. If I was completely isolated without access to the internet, I would still have my own language. It’s painful to acknowledge that there’s a boundary between what language and bodies can express. One can always try to push that boundary, train one’s body to antique perfection, one can try to develop one’s language and corrupt it. But the boundary exists nevertheless, and that is both painful and beautiful.

About the project

Participant: Elis Monteverde Burrau
Co-Curators: Erica Lindberg (Associate Editor, Bon Magazine), James Taylor-Foster (Curator of Contemporary Architecture and Design, ArkDes), Justina Hüll (Digital Communications Manager, ArkDes)
Sound Production and Music: Joakim Hultqvist
Voice Artist: Esther Kirabo

Plug-in Poetry is a collaboration between ArkDes and Bon Magazine in connection to the exhibition WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD, an exhibition about ASMR.