Porous Selves: A Provisional Index


—To write about something or someone can insinuate a certain kind of authority or authoritativeness. It implies mastery. It proffers hierarchies. To write, instead, around, alongside, or as. Write from or to. To write through and with. 


—That from which we tether ourselves. The point from which we may drift. 


—To calibrate our instruments, if language is an instrument of thought. If story is an instrument that can be played by a self. Tapping into different frequencies, strumming many rhythms. To dial up, tone down, fine tune. 


—Writing as a channel or a passageway. Writing as a conduit through which ideas, language, stories, subjects, and selves can make their way. A thinking of that which is transmitted. To think of and as transmission, where writing can be a means of channelling to get through and to get through to. 


—To contain need not mean to constrain, even if working within the parameters of constraints. Even if working within the sharply defined borders we delineate for ourselves or those that have been delineated for us. The different means of containment, of holding and being held in language and its myriad forms. The containers we construct for ourselves. 


—A term that has the potential to breed discontent in the dead ends and dissatisfactions that can result from being overly or too overtly preoccupied with what one’s work is actually about.  

—In a conversation with David Naimon, the poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop speaks about a time when she felt the need to ‘get out of herself and her obsessions.’ She ‘decided to make objective poems’ using text collaged from other sources, only to find all the poems were still about her mother. She realised two things: 

—‘…your obsessions get into your work no matter what you do, so you don’t have to worry about content and can concentrate on form.’ 

—‘The other was that form is totally generative… the form generates the context.’ It can create the content for you. 


—Quinn Latimer offers this: ‘With its vicissitudes and vagaries, it can be temporal or geographical or emotional, instructive or paradoxical—even dialectical. It can be a physical fact and an intellectual misnomer. What does it name anyway? Distance.’i 

—One might thus ask, is it merely, or is it all, a matter of scale? 


—To spend time with oneself, with ones writing. To find the place you want to sit, your nook, your burrow. To forge many modes of dwelling, as ways to reside or to inhabit, to occupy and to house: words, lives, selves. 


—That which calls back when you call out. That which happens when things get repeated. A means to discern the size and the boundaries of one’s enclosure, one’s surrounds, which may guide the reach and extent of one’s disclosure. 

Recall how this—and so much else—is rooted in myth.  


—A term that connotes—that sounds out—something soft and supple. It is to do with shape—the shapes of the containers or the categories, the boxes or the genres that we choose to work within, without or outwith. It is pliable. It offers ways to form, deform and perform, to re-form and reform the lives and languages with which it comes into contact. 

—Bring this word close to another and swap the ‘r’ for an ‘a’, reformed to foam, which, when solid constitutes a quintessentially porous substance, is another substrate for thinking through. Of the kind of foam that laps a shore, Eileen Myles says 

—‘Writing (it is my belief) is a sort of performance and text and ideas and bubbles are always frothing & coming right until the last minute. Foam is a kind of radio show.’ii 


—That which is held in the text and that which we hold on to.  

—That which is kept on hold—that waits, in suspension, that lingers in abeyance. 

—That which is kept in the hold—secrets, stowaways, the fugitive and our fugitivity. 


—The matter at hand, our lingual pool. 

—The material we treat and tend to as we tend towards staking positions of our own. 

—The lexicons we prod and produce. 


—The devices we use to look through, to zoom in or out, enlarge and bring close. A means to focus and refocus, through which the material of a life or one’s language can be refracted. 


—The object of focus, in sight, at hand. Both the mould and that which gets moulded in turn. Malleable and tender, it may be tended by both corresponding and discordant subjects, tethered by, or cut loose from its promise of concreteness.  

—Resist the slide into objectification. Be both wary and aware of the detachments and distances furrowed through objectivity. 

—Tilt the syllabic emphasis of object, as Jeanette Winterson does, to think through what we are told we ought to be and how we ought to write, so that we may object to that which is taken as given or is too readily given to, that is imposed upon, us.  


—To be poised and ready.  

—The balance we find in the positions we lean into, the composure of ourselves in and as our compositions. 

—The postures we perform and appropriate and thus risk losing ourselves within, described by Clara on day one. 


—To harbour other voices, to speak in ways that might not yet be understood. 

—To think other than a proprietary notion of the self—other than a self that must contain itself, comport itself, that exercises the exclusivity of ownership, sealed up by impermeable borders of sovereignty despite the permeability of skin.  

—As Bayo Akomolafe says while ruminating on possession, ‘we are composite creatures’ such that, ‘To be a proper self is to be beside oneself.’ 


—The undergarment that smoothes the friction between the body and its outer layers. 

—Slips of the tongue and that which slips or slides on or off the page, in and out of margins, before and after annotations. The slipperiness of language and the slippages between selves. That which slips by and slips out. 


—To trace an outline, by way of contours and edges, as one does with a pencil on paper that is translucent and opaque. The beginnings of forging definition.  

—The residue and the remnants, that which lingers or remains—of the experience, of the object, perhaps a memory, a feeling, a sliver of your self that no longer feels like yourself, which might be a self to write with or from, to or through. 


—A different kind of line. The kind that leads on a map to somewhere, which leaves a trail that can then be followed. 

—To track as a means of pursuing or following, a keeping track of something or someone else, or simply of the litanies produced by the self. 


—Writing as a vessel for our stories and our selves. These vessels, these containers we construct, come in many forms: a box, a bag, a tale, a life… 


—The you to whom we write, even when we write only for ourselves and to our selves.  

—‘You’ as the counterpart to ‘I.’ The ‘you’ that dwells in ‘I’, as another, as the other, and as one of the many facets that constitute the porous selves that we are. Selves that are cobbled together and constructed. Selves that wend their way through the world, sifting through the words at their disposal, gathering the content and discontents of their lives so that they can be shaken, filtered and refined through writing and language, those variable meshes of the self. 

Sara O’Brien is Winner of The Yellow Paper Prize and Recipient of the GSA Foulis Medal for Outstanding Achievement, 2021