An interview with Joanne Arnott
Note: Métis/mixed-blood writer Joanne Arnott’s sixth and latest poetry collection, Halfling Spring: An Internet Romance, is an intriguing weave of writing about love, culture, and relationship mediated through textuality — both on- and offline. The play of environment, distance, geography, community, and indigenous ways of knowing, as well as the relationship with materiality and the tangible (the body and the physical world), are fascinating. I planned to conduct a regular back-and-forth interview with Joanne, but what resulted was some introductory remarks about two particular poems which were especially interesting to me and which I thought were characteristic of the rest of Halfling Spring. In the process, some questions got asked. I sent my comments and questions to Joanne who then knocked it out of the park with an extended essay-like response. — Gary Barwin
Gary Barwin: Joanne, two of the poems that most intrigued me appear beside each other in the book: “textuality” and “climate change.” I’d like to hear your thoughts about these poems and will ask you some straightforward questions, but I’ve written the following commentary on some of what I think is going on in these poems. I will get to the questions, but first let me enthuse. “textuality” is a beguiling little love poem:
i write his name, Alastair
then i put a comma beside his name
i see that the comma beside his name
is like my hand on his shoulder, neck, face
i enjoy this
i write his name
i place my comma
Lovely. The image rhyme between the curved hand and the comma is very charming. The repetitions and gentle rhythms of the poem evoke the tenderness of the moment. But, in the larger context, the poem is informed by the idea of “textuality.” The subtitle of the book Halfling Spring is “an internet romance.” A romance that occurs through text, through the interaction of words, and through such things as the tender placement of a comma. Of course, all of our relations are mediated by language — what we say, how we think of things, what we call things — language is there. And there is the larger language of love and its expression. It’s a complex system of signs that we navigate. This poem, as does your book, explores this rich territory.
The next poem (“climate change”) greatly surprised and intrigued me. It is a poem about global warming and begins with an articulation of the issue and relates it to northern indigenous people:
i understand, this tragedy visited
by the greed of wealthy nations &
careless middle latitudes
upon northern folk who have their own
cherished ways, born upon the ice & snow
that is now disintegrating
who can recognize a land
And this certainly is no climate change denial poem. It states that,
the multiyear ice is in retreat
it is happening at an increasing rate
take a look around you
you know this is happening.
But then you take the poem to a different place, invoking non-Western conceptual systems: “yin & yang,” “the dao of civilizations,” and then wonder, “how to represent polarities / in a process of change, not the stasis / of oppositional natures // but the fluidity of waves.” You address the question: what are we to do faced with this perhaps inexorable global change?
imagine, though, this is what i’m doing
because my nerves are rattled & i
have to do something.
Then you make the very surprising leap from despair, worry, and catastrophe, to wondering
what might be revealed through
this process of change, the human resilience
called up in the face of such massive
and you ask, “is it travesty to gaze at tragedy with clear eyes?”
The clarity that you envision diverges from the standard industrial, scientific view. The earth’s ice fields are seen as “a suit of clothes / the earth has lived in long on long” and the animals, people, and cultures who “know / the ice as solid home” are about to be shirked. The goddess, who is earth, may change her clothes “any time she chooses.” The result of this wardrobe change isn’t disaster, but “may bring gifts of revelation” — for example, a long-buried mammoth. And further,
a southern wind, effect of global warming,
arriving with enough love to blow
the soul back into these animals
The change is so significant that the world may be “tipped on its axis.” Finally, the poem imagines the ancient animals revived to gaze “back at the world / with those miraculous eyes.”
This shocked me — global warming bringing rise to change, to reviving life, even to the resurrection of a more ancient life? We usually think of climate change as being a scourge born of contemporary technocapitalism and not as the source of renewed life or beauty. We don’t usually consider it as part of a large non-binary worldview, of the natural ebb and flow, the natural process of change endemic to nonpathological ecology, spirituality, and philosophy.
The poem ends with that haunting “gaze back at the world / with those miraculous eyes.” The animals are — what? — looking at what we’ve done to the world? (They “look back,” as if with sadness, or at least bittersweetness, as if they were in another place of consciousness.) Are they grateful for their return to life? And we notice those “miraculous eyes.” Have we, too, been awoken from a kind of deep freeze and into a renewed awareness of the miracle of life, to the gaze of these spirit animals whose souls were returned to them by the warm wind-breath of love?
So, finally some questions. I’m really interested in how you consider an alternate approach to considering climate change, how you use it as a kind of teaching story which might perhaps remind us of our relationship and feelings regarding our planet, or perhaps, by deliberately adopting the conceit of taking the opposite approach to open up or revivify our ways of thinking about the issue. And you chose a non-Western framework. How do you think of this poem within the greater conversation about climate change and contemporary culture? And further, about how we attempt to address the issues in our public discourse (essays, poems, speech, etc.)?
My friend John Barlow wrote, “Then suddenly our generation like fish were caught into the internet, and everyone was suddenly everywhere.” “textuality” is one of a stream of poems in the book that engages with that sense of person as text, and expresses my delight in how openly metaphoric we are as human beings. Long before the Internet transformed my world, I was a person who sought to connect with others through the written word — from pen pals like Max (when I was ten), an English boy who visited our neighbors, to my schoolmate Christine, who helped me in my transitions when my family left Vancouver and returned to Manitoba in the autumn of 1972. These were the antiphonal precedents, alongside the encouragements of school, where some teachers could “hear” or “receive” me in a way very different from the bulk of humanity, day to day, once they read who I am (as opposed to talking to me).
My thoughts on “textuality” are — as you’ve so well received — playful and tender. It is the pubescent person doodling, and the first-generation Internet human commenting upon what she is experiencing. There is the wordplay, sexuality/sensuality/textuality, and in the absence of the Beloved, asserting an embodied claim via purely textual means. There is the specificity of the language I am creating text with, how my punctuality (to bend a word) is a part of my intimate worldview. I am very fascinated by the wealth of languages in the world, how these exist in oral and textual presentation, changing over time and cross-fertilizing through translation and other forms of remembering. You are one whose playful engagements with fonts, glyphs, typographies explores a similar terrain in distinct ways.
When people become fond of one another via textual conversation, that is different from having an arranged marriage considered by elders and community, and it is different again from toppling in love with one’s neighbor. It is different from abduction, or other classical and modern means of man-woman bonding. Of all of these, Internet romance (as I experienced it) is most like toppling for a neighbor with none of the surety of any of the more formal processes.
To continue this aside a little further, the collective picture of Canada/Canadians tends to posit arranged marriages, multiple marriages, etc. as “over there,” which obscures the contemporary reality of our true diversity. It creates situations where people have traditional wealth outlawed, and thus hidden, until such time as a new thaw or time of tolerance allows the fuller pictures to emerge.
My friend Giles Slade has written a great deal about the broader impacts of climate change in the North American context, and that sense of population shift — which is worlds away from a cultural or a colonial view of North-South cross-fertilizations — and that perspective was a leaping-off point for the next poem, “climate change.” I was reading and thinking a lot about the interface, legal and otherwise, between Inuit people and the Canadian south, and reading a lot of oral and written testimony of Inuit people in realms of arts and metaphysics cross-fertilizations and in TEK terms (Traditional Ecological Knowledge). These are widely available in books, newspapers, journals: Aalasi Joamie’s Walking with Aalasi: An Introduction to Medicinal and Edible Arctic Plants,4 Rachel Qitsualik’s columns in Nunatsiaq News and Indian Country Today or in Voices from the Bay. Another great source are books available from Inuit organizations, generally free to download, like Unikkaaqatigiit, and films, like Zacharias Kunuk and Ian Mauro’s Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change.
Beyond all of these possible views on the epic scale of change we are living through, it is important to bear in mind that this is a love poem. So, the miraculous eyes may be two middle-aged war horses eyeing one another, wondering if the sensible thing is to go with the flow of love or to do something far more sensible, diverting the energy into real-world pragmatic realms. It may be that the mammoth’s miraculous eyes are those of our descendants, seven generations on, glistening with a newborn lust for life. That is what life is all about, in some sense, the recurrence of vitality and the fresh impulse.
“climate change” is thickly embedded with references; I can share a few examples. The words “long on long” are a reference to a love poem written in Chinese, translated by my first husband, Brian W. Campbell, back in 1992. I haven’t relocated the translation or name of poet, but in English the title and recurring line is “Her Hair is Long on Long.” So, this morphing of a woman love to a mammoth one, an old love to a new one, shares a flexible sense of the Beloved (or the Desired) which is translanguage, rooted in a much longer, deeper sense of time, and is one of the strands.
Likewise, “tipped on its axis” is drawn from Inuit observations on climate change: these are published in several oral histories and interviews with elders, available online. Beyond specific observations in relation to temperature or seasonal shifts, many people have observed a shift in the placement of earth in relation to heavens, and for me this has very exciting implications:
Interestingly, in two Nunavik communities and one community in each of Nunavut and the ISR, residents suggested that the Earth’s position has shifted or tilted on its axis, or that the rotation of the Earth is slowing down. In both Nunavut and Nunavik, Inuit have noticed a slight shift in the location of the sun, stars and moon in the sky. According to some residents of Nunavut communities, the moon is now said to travel higher in the sky, while Inuit in both Nunavik and Nunavut reported that the sun travels higher in the sky and sets in a slightly different location on the horizon than it used to.
When I was young I was an avid student of geology, and I think the grand scale of time involved in geologic observations had a liberating effect on my sense of the now. The moment is infinitesimally small, it is passing and part of a traceable flow, to some extent, so the context of the moment is very broad. I found that many of the geomorphic processes described also held revelation for the human processes around me and within me: for example, “isostatic rebound,” the term for land arising after the release from pressure, after the lifting of a great weight, seemed to hold true for humans too; for myself, moving away from great pressure allows for resurgence. Later I would see how this is also true for communities, the release from oppression allows for resurgence.
My interest led me to read Joseph Needham’s work in the translating and communication of Chinese scientific principles and approaches, technologies, and mindset, and then, other authors. The conception of Chinese (and related) medical systems is one of energies, balances, areas of blockage and stagnation, areas of overheating or overstimulation: the earth, land, water, air all follow similar paths of waves, at different times and pacing, but all are in the flow. For me, there was a strong sense of continuity between Western geological concepts and Chinese, Japanese medical systems, the same insights spelled out in a new set of metaphors. Life is dynamic, fluid and changing, we are living beings, the land and the plants as well have their seasons and fluidity.
When I finally got around to studying with my indigenous teachers and elders, the sense of wholeness and congruence was complete. Basic teachings like “we are all related” coexist very easily with these ways of looking at the world.
More recently, I have been thinking about human migrations, intermarriages, and in particular the sense of certain nonindigenous appetites for indigenous cultural wealth. These can be seen as a kind of vulturism, or vampirism, but that perspective has no respect for the humans involved, any more than the segregation of different kinds of indigenous people in Canada, with different rights and relationships to government under law, reflects respect for the humanities involved. It seemed to me that there was and is a tremendous hunger for spiritual replenishing and reconnecting with Nature, and a more rooted understanding or perhaps a broader, more accurate way of understanding the world. My observation (or speculation) was that this may well be seen as greed, but, it is equally valid to say that this seeking is driven by an absence.
In order to step back from the colonial indigenous-settler polarization, the heaven-hell, good-evil split, I needed a way of seeing that was less alarmist and reactive, more naturally rooted. When we are hungry we seek food, when we are unwell we seek the correct medicines, and these aren’t intellectual processes but animal and human, naturally occurring. If the cultural processes of colonial thought have brought the people to a place of hunger and diminishment, for the sake of our health we must find new ways of seeing and believing.
Whatever our cultural richness, there is a widespread lack, hunger, or absence that is driving the movements of the populations of the world, every bit as much as it is driving the philosophical and the spiritual seekers, for safe lands within which to live, and for good food for the soul. This nonjudgemental or detached way of viewing highly emotive aspects of our shared lives may not be true, but it is what I have come to: the migrations of plants in response to opportunities and changing weather is not unlike the intellectual and spiritual seeking people do.
When I first looked up “Taoism” in a reference book, I read that it was a dead religion. Later, more recent books by Westerners have insisted on a separation between “philosophical Daoism” and religious, community expressions. This separation of what Westerners are comfortable with from what is the whole of Daoism is a sleight of mind. For myself, I learned as much or more about Daoism by volunteering at a temple doing translation projects and learning tai chi, kung fu, qi gong with Chinese elders than from the medical and philosophical and literary texts I pored over. The dimensionality of cultural wealth is always beyond words, and a person seeking understanding can engage through action, through seeing, through listening, through myriad approaches. For me, the street parades of deities and the syncretic approach to religion is absolutely coherent with the ancient poetry, the philosophical concepts, the medical, and the metaphysical.
Anyone who has sat through a tutorial of “little ice age, big ice age, little ice age” will have a sense that climate change is the norm. If that person has participated in ritual, be it a pipe ceremony or a tai chi class, that is rooted deeply in non-Western frivolities and short-sightedness, there will be a strong simultaneous sense that this does not excuse the destruction of the planet, the pillaging of communal wealth and shared life for the profit of a small global clique. It does not mean we can all sit back and say, “Oh well.” Whatever is happening now is part of the oceanic balance of assertion of life, and we do need to continue to assert what is right, to be a power for the good and for all time.
How I think or feel about the poem has changed over time. Frankly, I do not think that the bones of a mammoth are worth the sacrifice of a planet. While the idea of the big hairy elephants of the Americas is one of the lifelong threads of continuity, of that sense of the world’s wholesome, I think that the piece of the elephant (to reference an old story) that the Inuit describe through lifeways and observations of the skies is as important as any other part described by any other people. In terms of Canadian identity, when Inuit or Cree or Metis people reminisce about starvation, resulting from state decision-making, we have to incorporate that into our sense of ourselves as a collective. Likewise, the cross-fertilizations of Asian cultural wealth with North American and Euro-American is a contemporary fact of life, and the cross-fertilizations of First Nations with every locality across the Americas are also a fact of life.
A final reference embedded in the poem is that of the warm wind from the south, a revivifying influence. My sense is that it was a specific Cree hunting story that I had in mind, but by today the details have fallen away, and it remains there, to mean for others whatever it means to each one, depending on everything they have heard or known and bring to the reading of the poem. I remember attending a talk, an indigenous history of Turtle Island, and the speaker, a Dene woman, spoke of olden times, still held within her people’s oral history, of tropical plants and animals. Whether there was a long journey between those hot times and the colder days of today, or the long passage of time which transpired and was remembered within a single region, I don’t know. But the reality of who we are is rich and interconnected, multifaceted, and diverse, and while time stands still for none, the most reductive possible future is not the most likely one.
The beauty of the moment is that very few people indeed can believe in the palimpsest version of Canada that has been promulgated through our schools and history books, that is reflected in our laws and in the ways we do things. Resilience of indigenous people and cultural wealth, the resilient adherence to a sense of history not sanctioned by colonial government, is resurgent, and forcing change on all levels, not least is that fundamental self-assessment: who am I, where am I, what is the significance of this moment. Very few Canadians will agree that some should have no access to potable water, no access to economic participation, no access to self-governance or self-regency within a self-defined “free” country. Working out the details of how we shall live together, that is an ongoing unfurling.
The concatenation of voices, of points of view, of what is beauty in cultural terms and what is true in historical terms, is the challenge set before us, the street parade that we are all collectively mounting.
5. S. Nickels, C. Furgal, M. Buell, and H. Moquin, Unikkaaqatigiit — Putting the Human Face on Climate Change: Perspectives from Inuit in Canada (Ottawa: Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Nasivvik Centre for Inuit Health and Changing Environments at Université Laval and the Ajunnginiq Centre at the National Aboriginal Health Organization, 2005), 62.
Rachel Zolf in conversation with Brian Teare, March 2015
Note: What follows is an edited transcript of PennSound Podcast #48, a March 18, 2015, conversation between Rachel Zolf and Brian Teare. Zolf and Teare discuss Zolf’s most recent book, Janey’s Arcadia, which Teare described in his introduction to Zolf’s reading at Temple University in November 2014 as a work that “situates us in a Canadian national history in which the ideology of nation building prescribes genocide for Indigenous people, and enlists all its settler-subjects in the campaigns of conversion, dislocation, assimilation, and disappearance.” Zolf created a film, a sound performance, and a number of polyvocal actions related to Janey’s Arcadia and has written recently about the “mad affects” generated by the reading/audience event.
Rachel Zolf’s five books of poetry include Janey’s Arcadia (shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award), Neighbour Procedure, and Human Resources. She has taught at the New School and the University of Calgary and is completing a PhD in philosophy at the European Graduate School. Teare, an assistant professor of English at Temple University, is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Companion Grasses, as well as a number of chapbooks. He also makes books by hand in Philadelphia for his micropress, Albion Books. This interview was recorded in the Wexler Studio at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia on March 18, 2015, and was transcribed by Mariah Macias. — Julia Bloch
You can hear the audio of this conversation here.
Brian Teare: So one of the things that I was really moved by in thinking through your work is your kind of nostalgia for Audre Lorde and “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” and for a kind of second-wave feminist thinking that has also been very foundational for me. In many ways your most recent work is predicated on a little bit of a critique or a rejection of identity as formulated by earlier politics. I wonder if you could speak a little bit to how you’re thinking about ethics in relationship to identity, particularly in Janey’s Arcadia but maybe also in Neighbour Procedure.
Rachel Zolf: Hmm, that’s interesting. I mean, in Human Resources I have a poem that alludes to how Adrienne Rich — actually, for my first book, Her absence, this wanderer, I wanted to use a line from Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems,” I think it was “half-curled frond / of the fiddlehead fern in forests” or something. And she said no. I had written to Norton, and got this form letter back saying no, and it was so devastating for a young dyke poet who was so influenced by Rich at that time, whenever that was, in the ’90s. That was all that I had been exposed to. I was in the midst of my own identity crisis, coming out in the early ’90s. So, “Uses of the Erotic,” yeah. I recently mentioned it in a piece in relation to Laura Elrick’s Stalk video and performance — around how Lorde describes the act of looking away, and how looking away from someone is like, she said, using a person like Kleenex. Within that notion of looking and looking away, you can translate that into the basis of ethical relation and the “face” and the relation of self with other. So, I still, I mean, I have very contrary and contradictory views on what is ethics and how politics interrupts ethics, but that problem is sort of the base of all of my work.
And so, in fact, this long theoretical essay-cum-dissertation I’m working on right now is about the notion of the “third,” asking how does the ethical two of the self-other relation get interrupted by the three of the political? But these aren’t real figures like daddy, mommy, me, or the third way, or anything like that. It’s an impersonal third — or more. I think of it as multiplicity that interrupts ethics. So how politics interrupts ethics and destabilizes politics and destabilizes ethics. That’s just a basic thing I’ll say about that, because I want to answer your question — your specific question of that relationship of identity. I don’t have a dialectical approach to identity — I’m not anti-identity. If you think of a theorist who is interested in this, someone like José Muñoz, on disidentification — it’s not counter- or anti-. It’s taking what is, what is there, in terms of hegemonic discourse, and torquing it, twisting it, to your own means towards something else, to some other place. This is why I’m interested in the third. When Benveniste theorizes the third person pronoun of the “they” or the “on” in French, it’s a positionality that displaces the specularity of “I-you.” So, with “I-you,” when I’m speaking now, you’re about to speak, you’re going to become the “I.” There’s only “I-you” — we’re totally dependent on each other. Whereas the impersonal, neutered — these are the terms used for the third-person pronoun — is outside of that specularity. And this is something I’ve been thinking about for years that I try to enact in the work.
Teare: I like that your work never really actively disavows a whole lot, other than violence, which it deeply disavows, but also recognizes the way in which often our very notions of subjectivity are complicit with systems that create violence and perpetrate violence against others. One of the things that’s really complicated about your work is that it tries to hold things in “and” relation as opposed to “either-or” relations. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit how in Janey’s Arcadia, often we have this dyadic relationship between reader and author. We imagine reader and author, and reader and text, and that text is a like a transparent gateway to the author’s point of view and their opinions or their interiority or what have you. And there’s a lot in Janey’s Arcadia that we could say allows us access to what you think about settler politics in Canada. But there’s also a lot that deeply disrupts any direct communication of opinion or historical narrative or semantic meaning. I’m wondering if you could talk about how that relates to this project of trying to create a third.
Zolf: Yeah, I’m interested in positionalities beyond the straight-up two of the writer-reader relation creating an epiphanic moment, so that consciousness-raising through poetry — I mean, even though I’m also deeply implicated in and want that to happen anyway — it’s both/and, as you mentioned. So, I guess I’ll slide into one of the reasons why Janey’s Arcadia came up as a project beyond the page. As I started the process of writing, I was transcribing some of these early settler texts as-is. But I knew I would never leave them as-is, because I’m just not interested in purity, like in conceptual purity — I find it has fascist overtones to it, but that could be a whole other conversation. If it seems transparent on the surface, then what is it hiding below the surface? I think I did that more in Human Resources, just leaving text as is, but by that kind of complex layering I did to introduce noise in the text in Janey’s Arcadia, it — actually, as Sarah Dowling mentioned when we spoke in another context — it creates a rebuff to the reader, in that the reader is not drawn into the text in that kind of “lyric mode.” I mean, you know, “lyric” is always misapplied —
Teare: Not to interrupt, but at a Q&A I saw you give at a reading at Temple, you also pointed out that it doesn’t correct the reader’s politics. Like, it’s not immediately apparent what the OCR [Optical Character Recognition] kind of misrecognition within the text is “for.” It doesn’t have a didactic corrective purpose in the way that other kinds of avant-garde moves really try to mobilize the reader and sort of push them in a particular direction. And it’s not like aspects of Janey’s Arcadia don’t do that, but at the same time, a lot of it is noise — it really is noise — that you’re left with. I think one is, the reader is, left to kind of sit with it, either as a rebuff or as an invitation to thinking with the text, but not thinking through, again, in semantic meaning. You have to go beyond.
Zolf: Of course there are many layers of meaning within sound and noise itself, as sound poetry has taught us so well, or visual poetry. When those strings of code show up on the page, it’s up to you, whoever you is, whether you scan over them or whether you actually parse them out. When I read from the book — I didn’t start out this way, but then I later added trying to physically read the errors, like, “semicolon, slash,” and then using hand gestures to try to enact this slowing down of trying to get through that noise, rather than the glossing over that people do. But I have no control over what the reader does when they read it. And I think it was the aleatory way in which this noise cropped up when I was working — it was just a simple thing of, I want to work with the text, I want to recopy it, so I go and I look at the full-text versions of these old books, which had gone through OCR. And that’s where I found the errors. So that’s what I transcribed, that’s what I copied and pasted in this digital way that we do.
But those moments of noise are I think partly what inspired me to go beyond the page to create this sound performance. I’m not a sound poet, I never aspired to be a sound poet. I had this one event where Jaap Blonk was also performing, and I’m like, oh god, here I am with the most world-famous sound poet and I have do my schtick. It felt totally kind of abject putting myself out there. I don’t know why, other than that, to go back around to your question, at base for me this project is about disavowal in the other sense: disavowed knowledges or foreclosed knowledges. At base in my work there’s an exploration of denial and how denial operates within culture and specific cultures. It’s not didactic, even though I have been very influenced by things like Russian formalism and montage and shock effects, that kind of consciousness-raising aspect of that, and, perhaps, maybe second-wave feminism, although I would never have said that! But I like it.
But I’ve shifted away from that in my thinking about it. The sound performance is a collaborative piece with a number of other people, and the point, for me, is trying to mobilize affect in different ways. So, what kind of affects can be mobilized in the private reading act with just you and the book. What kind of affects can be mobilized in the Janey’s Arcadia film I made or the sound performance. These are different translations of the same material that I’m doing. With the film, using stolen archival footage, it’s happening through the eye, and often in a dark cinema with the lights down, and of course we know all those psychoanalytic readings of what happens in the cinema. What happens in that dream state when I put together these very jarring images, what happens for you as a spectator, or what happens for you as a spectator in the sound performance, or what happens for you as a spectator in the polyvocal actions that we did, where as a community project a group of settler and Indigenous folks used poems from this text and some Indigenous poets’ work and did actions in very charged public spaces like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights or Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. So, for me, it’s not a didactic element. But there’s a very strong drive in why I’m doing this work, and in fact it comes out of Neighbour Procedure. I move from “not in my name,” which is Neighbour Procedure's grappling with Israel's actions, to “look into your own backyard” in Janey's Arcadia. It has bothered me the way some people have interpreted Neighbour Procedure as a kind of liberal, two-sides thing, but for me it’s not like that at all. I’m talking about grievable bodies. I’m talking about what Jews everywhere are responsible for.
Teare: In a recent essay, “Recognizing Mad Affects Beyond Page and Screen,” you refer to Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. And one of the things that she does in that book, which I think is relevant to your work, is somewhat of a critique of, let’s say, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, because it so relies on a particular notion of what the “I” is. And that for her it’s not sufficient, actually, it’s part of the problem that the “I” is conceptualized in a particular way in his work, and that she turns towards Levinas and his way of turning toward, which again you reference in this recent essay. I’ve been teaching Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, and one of the things that happens in that book is that Howe kind of recapitulates some narratives of settler colonialism — this is in the United States, and not in Canada. But one of the things that happens in narratives of settler colonialism in the United States is the way the white woman’s body gets so aligned with the land itself that what gets disappeared under the idea of the land is the presence of Indigenous peoples. So there’s this interesting way in which white women, in their kind of subjection to colonial patriarchal culture, get talked about in terms of the land itself and the colonialism of the land, but then that hides the narrative of the disappearance and the genocide of Indigenous peoples. And one of the things that you’re critiquing in Janey’s Arcadia quite vigorously is the relationship between white settler women and Indigenous bodies, and the ways in which white settler women are complicit with the system and that their bodies in a certain way replace, or write over, the bodies of Indigenous peoples. You point this out in so many incredibly powerful ways in the book: by the list of names, by, sort of reproducing but also messing with the figure of Janey Canuck and the way that she relates to Kathy Acker’s Janey — but this also seems to me to expand or critique that “I” that can be so central in sort of erasing over a “thou” or still only creating a dyadic relationship that doesn’t include that third that you’re talking about. Does that make sense as a network of things?
Zolf: Yeah, one example in Neighbour Procedure is that in the “Shoot and Weep” section, I write poems in which the tortured and the torturer are speaking together in the “I,” you don’t know who the “I” is, and they sort of meld together … which I consciously knew was problematic. But I wanted to work with it — not that they are the same, but there isn’t a clear demarcation of identity, of how identity works. And similarly in the listing of names in Neighbour Procedure, I’m conscious of — I mean, this is where we get into (I might be sliding a little bit away from your question) but it’s central to me about what is the point of all this? And what is the risk of all this? And what would be another way of doing it? How do I do this work without upsetting people? Obviously, if you were one of the families of one of the Palestinian people that I named in that list, you might be angry with me for taking, appropriating — so this is like the issues around appropriation that we are seeing blowing up right now, in terms of Kenny Goldsmith’s acts and stuff like that. So, I mean, I think about this, every day, as a kind of ethical — the ethicality around what I do.
Teare: But I think you frame it in Neighbour Procedure pretty clearly around the notion of grievable bodies and then also what would it mean for particularly a Westerner to be able to pronounce those names.
Teare: And that Neighbour Procedure really forces us to go through that list in an attempt to sound out a language we don’t know — or most of us in the West don’t know— and to also be confronted by the bodies behind those names, and what those names hide and don’t hide, what they give away, you know, given how you contextualize them. What I really found fascinating in the somewhat rhyme between these two books, is they both contain these lists of names, but the list of names in Janey’s Arcadia is very different — like, it serves a very different kind of purpose. And to me, this speaks to some of what you’re talking about —
Zolf: What do you think the purpose is that it serves in Janey’s Arcadia?
Teare: Well, there’s a lot more irony for me in those names, and also what they may or may not be hiding.
Zolf: What kind of irony?
Teare: In terms of the political work they seem to be doing. Because I think for me Janey’s Arcadia is a more savagely ironic book than Neighbour Procedure, which for me is a much more tragic, straightforwardly tragic book, in terms of — it’s not as though it doesn’t unsettle the politics and the accustomed discourses we use to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it’s so working from the position of trying to think through an ethics that’s ethical. It’s not that Janey’s Arcadia doesn’t do that, but Janey’s Arcadia seems way more — I think it has more fun, you know, with the text, like bringing in Acker and that kind of punk spirit. That doesn’t seem to me to be as active in Neighbour Procedure, which seems appropriate to me, actually, given the closeness of the material in the various books. And so, the appropriation of the settler narratives and the obvious kind of liberties that you take with them in the way that you tweak them — sometimes they’re funny, you know, and you have a lot of fun. At the same time, you’re clearly reviling, you know, the politics behind a lot of the found text. So I feel like there are almost sometimes satirical moves.
Zolf: Yeah, there’s definitely satire within the sequence of Janey poems. But for me, more important parts of the text include naming the missing and murdered Indigenous women from that specific place that I’m writing about, which is where my family settled. It’s a deliberate, obvious specificity. The names of those women are — they’re a kind of counter to the violence of the text that come before them and after them. I had been considering listing the names along every page of the book, so that you would never forget them, but then there are issues of ethicality about even using those names that I considered greatly and have tried to work through, particularly in the polyvocal performances that we do that are community-based. It’s very difficult to talk about this stuff, because I think of this book as being aimed at an audience of settlers. I’m also not interested in writing a book about, going back to your first question, about my personal guilt and how I feel so responsible for being a settler and the ongoing genocide. It’s not like it just happened back then. It’s ongoing, and I believe that we’re all still responsible for what’s happening now, and we’ll always already be responsible for it. There are very few people in Canada that even think that way at all, and I wanted to write a book that was directed at non-Indigenous people. That such a level of disavowal and denial of responsibility allows the ongoing genocide to continue in horrific ways. The incarceration rates for Indigenous peoples in Canada is comparable to the incarceration rates for African American people here. This same stuff keeps going on and on and on. But no matter what I do as a writer, as an artist, whatever, these are always such complex, charged spaces to go into, but I felt like I could not not name grievable bodies in Neighbour Procedure if what I’m talking about is what constitutes a person. The whole notion of a neighbor is, in Freud’s notion that you could hate your neighbor across the fence, but the only way you can do that is if you see them as a person, not three-fifths of a person, as African Americans were and still are seen in the United States, and Palestinians are seen in Israel. You’re not actually a person, so you can’t be a neighbor. And some people have said that I’m trying to talk about the Christian neighbor — “love your neighbor” — no, that’s not what it is. It’s about the neighbor as a third term, beyond friend and enemy, that dyad, trying to explode these dyads. So, also in Janey’s Arcadia, it’s how to figure out how get at this deep denial. So I do have an agenda. But I realized from the reaction to Neighbour Procedure, that I had to do it differently.
I went to Palestine for first time ever during the war on Gaza in 2009, and it was there that I realized it’s fine and good for me to critique what’s happening “over there” in my name, but what about what’s happening on my “own” soil. From “not in my name to look into your own backyard” is this notion that I’ve got to look at what I’m actually responsible for here. And “here” I would say is across the United States and Canada, in terms of how colonial, genocidal, capitalist notions are at the base, the foreground, of the building of both countries, and the foreground of slavery as well. Often in discussions of race in the United States, the Indigenous genocide is completely covered over. But I believe it needs to be brought back up to the surface as one of the ways to start thinking through what is actually happening here and how we got here.
Teare: Well, one of the ways you do that is returning to these texts, these precedent texts, in which they are technically “witnesses,” which is a word you’re very suspicious of. But they are witnesses to this genocide, but their reading of it is so, you could say, insane, or you could say so self-interested, and so full of a nationalist project, that, as you’ve pointed out elsewhere, it is about a certain kind of racial purity as well, that they can’t tolerate indigeneity, let alone see Indigenous peoples as neighbors or —
Zolf: — people, yeah —
Teare: — people. And so I feel like it’s one of the powerful things that you do with those precedent texts is bring them back and remind us these in some ways are the foundations for this kind of disavowal.
Zolf: Right, “no Indians around here,” like in the Janey’s Arcadia poem, “What Women Say of the Canadian Northwest.”
Teare: And to me that was, actually again, one of those really powerful moments of talking about complicity. Because you’re also — it’s not as though you don’t indict men. Like, there’s the pastor figure that you bring in. You write his narrative and his relationship to Indigenous peoples, and portray him as a figure of molestation and sexual violence — but settler women are particularly implicated in this text and are sort of the focal point, I think, as a feminist project … It’s a very interesting one, because you’re really talking about settler genders. That “settler” actually has a kind of gendered position for you in terms of women; they make particular kind of moves rhetorically and socially, and you’re really interested in showing us what these moves do, and what effects they’ve had on very literal bodies that are the grievable bodies that you list.
Zolf: And also changing these valorized feminist archetypes. The Janey Canuck figure is written by Emily Murphy, who is one of the “Famous Five” first-wave Canadian feminists. They’re responsible for a case in Canada where certain white, middle-class women were actually deemed persons — they hadn’t been called persons before — so it was called the Persons Case, and it led to them getting the vote in 1919 or whenever it was. So, these women that are held up as these feminist icons, but in fact they have strong eugenicist ideals, as well as utterly racist white supremacist ideologies — which some would say are of the time, blah blah blah, that’s always the corrective that people say, but it’s also something that most people don’t know. Regular people like, say, students in school. What is taught in the curriculum? When you are taught about the Famous Five in your grade-school class or high-school class, you are not taught about these attitudes of these women. There’s another figure in the book who is the founder of the left-wing party (so we actually have three parties in Canada, and the third party is seemingly social democratic), and the founders of that party were eugenicists too, and white supremacists. And the point, it’s a very obvious point, is that these attitudes are foundational to our country —
Teare: But also you’re saying “foundational” — I mean, that moment of the Famous Five, it’s foundational to what the definition of what a white woman in Canada is legally.
Zolf: Yeah, definitely.
Teare: And we can know that, you know, theoretically, but also to have that an actual legal, historical narrative moment, you know, in terms of creating women’s rights that are predicated on a eugenicist’s white-supremacist notion on what a person is, especially what a woman as person is. I feel like one of the major arguments behind Janey’s Arcadia is trying to show us that the bodies of white settler women in some ways were — wrote over the narratives of Indigenous women and Indigenous peoples in general.
Zolf: Yeah, and in some ways, quite literally. I sort of allude to this in the book, that there were these captivity narratives, white women being seemingly stolen —
Teare: And the US has the same tradition.
Zolf: Right, and they’re often full of lies about being raped — and this narrativizing of the colonial story. In fact, actually, “What Women say in the Canadian Northwest” almost has that narrativizing function. Like, the question the women are asked is “do you have any dread of the Indian?,” and most of them respond “No, no dread at all,” but there’s something about the fear, this culture of fear. Even the question itself is about the culture of fear.
Something that comes to mind is the stuff that’s circulating the past couple days, I’m thinking, I’m sure somebody’s going to write about Kenny Goldsmith’s act in relation to, say, Rob Halpern’s book that’s coming out, Common Place, where he takes autopsy reports of Guantanamo detainees, or I don’t know if it’s one particular detainee. And there’s all sorts of stuff about “unremarkable genitalia,” and the speaker’s relation, in terms of having sexual relations with this occulted body, which is a continuation from his book Music for Porn, where the speaker fucks the soldier’s amputated wound. For me, when I read this work, I get excited by and interested in it as such profound self-implication into the military-industrial complex. Literalizing it, almost.
Teare: This is a question I think about in terms of your work but also in terms of queer work. One thing that you and Sarah Dowling talk about in your conversation is this notion of not necessarily inhabiting queer subjectivity, but inhabiting a kind of queer rhetorical position, or I think you say queer rhetoricity. And one of the problems for me as a thinker is often how queer rhetoricity in some ways, sometimes, disavows a material body. That’s one of the things that I like about Rob’s work, is that it does not disavow the material presence of a body with queer desires. And I feel like Human Resources also doesn’t do that, you know, and that one of the interesting things about Neighbour Procedure and Janey’s Arcadia is, like, this “speaker” kind of gets relegated to paratext in this sort of longer expository prose towards the end of the book. I don’t think this a problem. But it seems like you’re rethinking the presence of material bodies in your new work, in terms of the presence of what you call the stickiness of affect. And I think it’s an issue, because how do we not take certain kinds of theoretical points of view and certain ideas about ethics that tend to erase or privilege mind over body, and sort of rhetoricity over materiality, even as rhetoricity claims —
Zolf: For me, it’s actually not mind over the material body. It’s rhetoricity over identity. I believe the body is very present in the text, but it might be haunting the text. In fact, one of the key reasons why I used Acker — I mean, I did this associative spill through Janey Canuck to Janey Smith, but there are all sorts of reasons for that. One of the reasons is that these white settler women in these texts never have a body. They never shit or piss or fuck. And I try to re-embody these figures. But, you know, it’s only one part of the text. In fact, the text itself is multiple. And I, in fact, wanted to disengage the process from just being about Janey. I believe that those other figures, the Christian missionaries, for example — they’re coming at the same material from a different stance.
Zolf: It’s all about what you can see and what you can’t see. And that’s why I was even bringing up the Rob and Kenny stuff. I’m trying to answer your question about the document. So, for me, when I take the foundational document of this book, “What Women Say About the Canadian Northwest,” I don’t take it as is. I interrupt it by inserting the names of the missing and murdered Indigenous women from Manitoba, and I make sure I don’t include any of their voices — I don’t want to appropriate Indigenous voices. All the voices I appropriate are settler voices. So I appropriate the police discourse or the news discourse on the women’s disappearance, but then I don’t want to leave that alienating discourse as is, so I torque it. So it’s this document that has been upended, that has been marked, by my deliberate interventions. And I would say this is something that Rob is doing in his new book. And I do find it interesting that Kenny is saying that he actually did change some of the autopsy text, because normally according to conceptual “purity,” you’re not supposed to touch anything, and for me that sense of purity relates to eugenics practices. And these notions of clarity that go back to Human Resources, of what is pure, and how does that relate to certain ideologies that were predominant in modernist, early twentieth-century, blah blah futurism and its relation to fascist ideology. I mean — I’m not saying these guys are all fascists...
Teare: No, but I think your point, for me as a reader, is well taken, and also as a thinker, I definitely identify more with your position and the questions that you ask about what are the sort of political ramifications of the conceptual object, and what does that have to do with race, for instance, and certain kinds of privilege. One of the things that happens for me over these three books, from Human Resources to Janey’s Arcadia, and it sounds like, also, kind of implied beyond into the work you’re doing now, is — Human Resources does hew slightly more close to a speaker. There is the location of an “I” within the text. Again, it’s very dispersed. And the affects that I’m asked to feel in relationship to that text, sort of disgust, there’s a lot of abjection and sort of physical abjection in the book in ways I really enjoy. Because they’re clearly the aftereffects of trying to fit into this capitalist system of marketing and PR and etcetera. Interestingly, I also feel asked to feel quite a lot, in both Neighbour Procedure and Janey’s Arcadia, but as I think I was trying to get to before, maybe with not a lot of clarity because it’s something I’m still thinking about, is these don’t ask me to identify with any one physical body in the way that Human Resources does by locating me a little bit in a particular body — though they do create affect in me, quite a lot of affect, around relationality, around other bodies, grievable bodies. And that seems to be a very deliberate choice on your part, to move from locating it slightly more identified with one body to thinking way more about relationality and ethics in relationship to other bodies. I’m interested in that as a queer project, and the way you’re thinking about it differently over time. Does that make sense?
Zolf: Yeah, in fact, when I went to Pratt a few months ago, I actually walked the students through my process. Because, you forget as you’ve been writing for a while, how it starts. So I have two books before Human Resources, and they are both very much about my identity, and about traumatic experiences in my life, and transhistorical trauma, and I had to write those books. I needed to write those books. And if you read them, you see the precursors to what’s happening here. My second book, Masque, kind of explodes into several voices, but the first book has a very straight-up “I” voice. And, so, I see Human Resources as a kind of hinge text that is still drawing on that stuff I was still working through in terms of my identity, because it’s very much about being a lesbian and what does it mean to be Jewish, and I’m only half-Jewish, so what does it mean to be half-Jewish. And, whatever, the broader stuff you’ve already mentioned. Yeah, it’s almost like what we talked about in the beginning, the shift from the “I”— it’s about relationality, but my ideas about relationality were Levinasian, I’d say, in Human Resources. So, you mentioned Butler, choosing Levinas over Buber, but in fact a lot of my thinking has been about critiquing Levinas, too, particularly given there’s a very famous example of where he’s asked, “is not the Palestinian the consummate ‘other’ to the Israeli,” in terms of his notion of the “other,” this “other” who is the face that I’m hostage to, the call of the face, that I can’t not be responsible for. The whole, the foundation of his ethics. And he said, “No, no, no, that’s not what I meant at all.” And he disavows it in that moment. That moment could have changed not only continental philosophy, but it could have changed experience, because these theorists have impact. Anyway, so that’s been foundational for me. I explore it a bit in Neighbour Procedure. So, relationality is a very charged thing for me that is, yes, definitely in the past three books, has been/is foundational. And it’s the question how to work with this two and this three. I mean, Lacan says, in a different context, “it is only because we can count to three that we can count to two,” which is a kind of logical conundrum that doesn’t make sense, right. But that’s kind of what you have to think; you have to hold the three with the two. I can’t just be talking to you without thinking about them in the recording booth over there. I can’t not be thinking about everyone outside right now, and that’s political. And that’s why I’m even drawing on other writers. It’s just not about me and you. So that’s why the books, they explode that notion, as it moves along, to the point where in Janey’s Arcadia I create a polyvocal — I’m more interested in the event, an event that is about polyvocality, that’s about participation as an audience member. That challenges you to go beyond just identification. I don’t believe in identification being the only way into a text or into a performance. I do believe that affect is a kind of excess, this remainder that, this very slippery thing that can stick to you whether you like it or not, can push you into ecstasy, to be pushed outside yourself — ec-stasy.
Teare: Well, and I think also, to link back to Muñoz, affect, and the stickiness of affect, it can be good, it can invite identification, but you’re asking for all of it. You’re having moments where we are asked to identify with atrocity and with our implication and complicity — implication in and complicity with atrocity, as well as we’re asked to laugh, you know. We’re asked to do all sorts of —
Zolf: But laughter’s an affect, right?
Teare: Yeah, and I think that’s part of it — the text in Janey’s Arcadia in particular is very canny about how it employs a lot of different affects, some of which are very identificatory, making us go toward the text. When we think about the implications, we may recoil. In sort of disgust, I was sort of laughing, but that’s not very funny actually. And others that are just straight-up, I don’t want to be complicit with that, like, I want to reject that, and yet it sticks to us. And I feel like that is all at work, both in your performances of Janey’s Arcadia, which I have seen, but also in reading it.
I wonder, though, if you could talk a little bit about how your interest in the performances in the other directions that the text suggests are not bound by a book, how that’s affecting the work you’re working on now. Like, given that you’re … it sounds like somewhat dissatisfied on some level with text, and what text can do, and you’re wanting to push farther outward toward collaborative performance, toward performance, toward sound, toward image, toward very different experiences in terms of viewer, readership, audience member, etc. What does that do for you as a writer? Does it pose new challenges about how you put together a text or how you’re thinking about this new work?
Zolf: Yeah, I have to say that I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m going next. I did a bunch of readings and performances for Janey’s Arcadia. I haven’t even started on the new work other than thinking about it. Although interestingly enough, last weekend I went back to some of the same material, I went back to one of the Janey Canuck source texts. And I wrote a couple poems that were — I guess I consider them like translations. So, I consider all these other forms as translations of the same text, of trying — like maybe this will generate affects that will move in some way, that will push knowledge in some way, or disavowed knowledge, I mean. But I don’t know if I’m having any effect by making the movie or doing the sound performance. Like I know in the moment people are very affected by the sound performance where it’s like I have no skin. I go into this place — I’m just using sounds and little phrases from the book, and I’m trying to just draw out feeling. This performance was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, I have to say, artistically. And I know that it has a tremendous effect in the room, and I know that when people watch the movie they like it — but I don’t know what it does. I don’t know if it changes anything. And I don’t — actually, I’m not invested in intentionality. I’m fine with letting it be as an event, that you do what you will as an audience member. It’s just hard to just keep going on that. I’ve put so much effort into all these different modalities.
So anyway, last week I went back to the same material, I don’t know why, and I wrote these very minimalist little pieces that end up saying a lot of what I want to say. And the new work is kind of a sequel. So it might just be that. I might not write — not make another movie. I might not do another sound performance. I don’t know. I’ve been tired lately, so I haven’t done anything.
Teare: No, but I also, I mean, I think one of the things I admire about the trajectory of your work is that on the one hand it has a logic to it. You’re a very rigorous thinker; that’s so clear in your work. And I do, actually, I do feel there is quite a lot of intentionality, even if you’re not that interested in it, I still feel it, you know. I feel the thinking you’re doing, and I’m called by your work to think alongside it.
Teare: At the same time, I also really like that there is room for randomness and strangeness and weirdness and affects that seem, in your preferred word, excessive or in excess of intentionality and that kind of thinking. There’s this other work I’m also called to do alongside the more rational, argumentative, kind of rhetorical and political work. Not that affect isn’t also political, but it’s a different side of politics than some of the more rhetorical moves that you make. So I’m in constant admiration of how you push that in each book, and you push it further, and make it so integral to the intentional aspects of the book, and yet also leave a lot of room open for response, and for a variety of responses that are often beyond what I would call, like, sort of, like, mobilization. You know, like, I have feelings I don’t quite know what to do with, and I don’t quite know what work they’re doing in me.
Zolf: It’s unsettling.
Teare: Yeah, and I totally admire that.
Zolf: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting when you say — I love the notion when you’re saying “alongside,” because it is that sense of contiguity. Like lines of flight. That these directions you can go in — I believe that there is so much productive work that can be done through laughter, and I certainly wasn’t the first one to think that. Freud analyzed laughter and the relationship to the unconscious a long time ago. So I would never say I’m an original. But, that’s one example. It’s disarming, it’s unsettling. Like, how to try to always enact experiences, whether you’re reading or whether you’re watching the movie, that surprise you. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m not interested in a kind of complacency.
Teare: I think I also, to maybe take us toward an ending —one of the guiding principles I have as a thinker and a critic and also as a poet is this notion that the queer theorist David Halperin has about how history is not linear, you know, and the idea that there are many historical modalities that exist all sort of folded up in the present. And that we exist in multiple planes of historical thought and historical trajectory all at once, because, for instance, as you’re pointing out, settler colonialism is very active as an ideology both legally and culturally in Canada, right? But it’s not one that seems active on the surface to your everyday person, especially, perhaps, an urban person. And that to bring that to the surface, and to say, “Actually, we still exist in this mentality, in this settler mentality, and by virtue of these settler texts, and these actually are part of our subjecthood in this culture,” is a very powerful thing to do. Because again, one of the things that your book, in Janey’s Arcadia, you’re really arguing, is we also disavow certain historical narratives, like eugenics, for instance. “Oh, we’re totally beyond that, you know, we don’t think that way anymore.” Except you’re saying the very notion of what it means to be a white woman in Canada is actually predicated on eugenics, legally, so how do we think through the present without going back to these historical narratives and historical legal moments that actually have created the culture and the way that the culture thinks about certain subjects, perhaps all of its subjects?
Zolf: I’ve talked about my work in relation to Walter Benjamin’s notion of “now-time,” as these moments of suffering from the past that erupt and flash up in the now, that reorient the present. And it’s not even just that, it’s more like what you’re describing, it’s always already there. It’s how to energize, how to activate this stuff that’s disavowed under the surface, and — particularly in Canada right now, this is a moment where the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women is on the radar. I mean, I wrote the book before it came on the radar, whatever, but this is a moment now where something could happen because those unsettling affects that you feel in relation to these texts or to reading the newspaper article or whatever could perhaps change your relation to how you talk about this stuff or if you talk about this stuff or if you tell your children or if you are a teacher and how you teach a curriculum. I do believe in these kind of small acts as being how change happens. It’s kind of naïve, but there really isn’t an answer that isn’t naïve.
Teare: Yeah, but I think it’s also one of the things that I admire about how you go about your work, is that you’re willing to let the naïve hope live alongside the way more complex and sort of elaborated thinking that you do in the text, and that the people that you quote and are part of the dialogue and part of, not just the dialogue, but of that expanded field of thought that you’re interested in. Like, there’s a lot that’s possible in that space, and you don’t, again, foreclose on desires that might seem much more simple, like the desire not to do violence.
Teare: It’s still there, alongside all the very grand very complicated detail work of the thinking of critics and philosophers like Levinas or Deleuze or Butler or whoever. Which, I feel like — I like that we never have to foreclose on all of these different ranges of experience.
Zolf: And there’s this relationship to what’s to come, to futurity that is complex too. I am influenced by messianic notions, non-religious messianic notions, having to be activated in the now, because you never know what’s going to happen. You never know. It’s not utopian – it’s this idea of always already being activated and being ready, for justice to come, for the community to come, for something other, something different than what we have now.
Teare: That’s a beautiful place to end.
Zolf: Thanks, Brian.
Teare: So thank you, Rachel, for joining me here at the Wexler Studio at the Kelly Writer’s House.
Editorial note: Episodes of Susan Howe’s show aired on WBAI (NY)/Pacifica Radio are available at PennSound as the result of a collaboration with the Archive for New Poetry at the University of California, San Diego. On April 22, 1979, Howe hosted a conversation with Bernadette Mayer for WBAI/Pacifica. They discuss Mayer’s work as editor of 0 to 9, how to lead writing workshops, the tribulations of writing and motherhood, and Mayer’s composition of her long poem Midwinter Day. The recording of the interview can be found here. This conversation was transcribed by Michael Nardone and edited slightly for Jacket2. — Kenna O’Rourke
Susan Howe: I think you mentioned Bill Berkson’s workshop in New York —
Bernadette Mayer: It was my first connection with any other poets, except for the fact that I had known Vito Acconci since I was about fifteen years old, and he was devoted to becoming a writer. That enabled me to really think about that as a possible thing to do. He was more than devoted to it, I suppose. He was obsessed. He was really the first connection to the outside world. Then, in Bill’s workshop I met a lot of the people who are now considered to be the New York School of poets. They were the first poets that I ever talked to. It was a great workshop. Bill would bring in the complete works of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and he would do wonderful things with them like pile them up side by side and say “Look how high Ezra Pound’s pile is and look how short T. S. Eliot’s pile is!” Bill was very eloquent and inspiring. I was in that workshop about a year or two before I started doing 0 to 9.
Howe: Was Vito in that workshop too?
Mayer: No, he was pursuing a …
Howe: A more conceptual —
Mayer: A different track.
Howe: You were working with conceptual art for a while?
Mayer: Well in the early years, Vito was a devoted writer. He didn’t actually think about conceptual art until towards the end of the last issue of 0 to 9, which was full of the works of Robert Smithson and many of the conceptual artists who were not well known at the time, and who had never published in magazines before. We broke the bank publishing that issue because it was full of illustrations. Not only could we no longer afford to publish the magazine as a result, but Vito decided as a result of that issue he wanted to go into that world, and he was very adamant about no longer writing. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. So then when we stopped publishing the magazine I began to think about it and I inadvertently started to write Moving. And after I finished Moving I realized I really still wanted to write, and not try to be an artist.
Howe: I would say that the conceptual artists brought your work a lot of strength, though. I mean, there’s a kind of experimenting going on in it.
Mayer: Well, there was also a rigorous kind of argumentation that was going on all that time that was really forcing everyone to think a little bit too hard. It wasn’t easy to defend writing at that point in time.
Howe: The two writers who, to me, it’s almost as if they were your parents in literature, would be, I assume, Gertrude Stein and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Mayer: What a couple! I suppose I could talk about them at once and in the same way, in the sense that here all these sentences that were endlessly interesting to me, both of those completely, two completely different kinds of sentences, from which I could lay them out side by side and tell you how I learned to write by just observing the sentences of Gertrude Stein next to the sentences of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I feel an affinity to those writers beyond that, almost in a mystical sense — although it’s “not okay” to talk about Gertrude Stein anymore, you know? She’s too famous now. But we can still speak of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Howe: Do they continue to be important to you?
Mayer: I must admit I can still go back to Hawthorne’s works and learn a lot from them. I have ceased to be able to learn anything from Stein’s works, but I think that in the future I probably will be able to again. Partly that’s because my interests now are causing me to read writers like Milton and Chaucer, and all the old English writers whom I never read before. I find them about a hundred times more inspiring in a momentary way than I do Stein’s work. Although, I must say, that Stein’s work, whenever I go back to it, I find something new in there too.
Howe: What particular work of hers, would you say?
Mayer: I guess my favorite work of hers, or the work that never ceases to astonish me, is Stanzas in Meditation. It’s also the only work I’ve never quite finished reading. I always save a few parts of it for later. And of Hawthorne’s works, I guess the work that always had the most effect on me was The American Notebooks, and also The Marble Faun, and also an unpublished novel of his called Septimius Felter.
Howe: You seem more closed talking in an interview than you do in some work you do, in diary work that you’ve done or dream work that you’ve done. Do you find the interview situation unpleasant?
Mayer: [Laughs.] I guess it’s just a self-protective feeling. One doesn’t want to particularly have a personality in an interview. Then again, the other thing that happens is, in writing, where it’s between you and the writing, and you can make great leaps. Those leaps and that ability to take the thing higher, a little bit higher, enables you to approximate the truth better. It relates to critical writing, too, because in discursive writing and in discursive speaking, then one feels that the truth is fleeting much more so. You always feel that you’ve possibly said the wrong thing. [Laughs.] It’s a moral attitude.
Howe: That sounds like a rather puritanical, moral answer! The flesh is weak, and the written word is —
Mayer: Sacred. Yeah, well it sure is easier to write than to speak extemporaneously, somehow.
Howe: But that wasn’t a problem for you when you were running a workshop.
Mayer: Well, that’s different, because you know who you’re talking to. But even then I always felt that one’s chickens come home to roost. A lot of people still to this day will tell me something I said in the workshop that I no longer believe. They’ll say: “How can you write poems that have rhyme and meter in them now, when you said in the workshop, in 1971, was this thing that you said,” and so on. The answer to that is that one changes. I mean, hopefully one is learning something. The whole idea of a poet going through certain kinds of changes is a subject that any poet can talk about in that sense, but nobody really wants to hear about it. Someone said to me after they had read The Golden Book of Words, from which I was reading those poems, “Oh, you’ve finally found a style you can really nestle into!” And I said, oh, that’s the last thing I ever want to do. That’s a horrific idea to any poet.
Howe: What about the difference between The Golden Book of Words and Eruditio ex Memoria?
Mayer: Actually those books were written more or less at the same time.
Howe: And they’re quite different. Can you write poems at the same time you’re working on a prose piece?
Mayer: Sure. I always feel like prose is a great comfort to me. Prose is like mother love. If I sit down to write a piece of prose, I can feel that I can go on forever, and it’s a great pleasure to me. Poetry is in some ways much harder work, because it’s something that I’m learning. I think that all the prose I wrote when I was younger, it was easier for me to write. It seemed much more natural to me, and poetry was something that I had to learn how to write. I never knew how to end a line. It took me many years to know where to break the line. It took me many years to understand that I was allowed to use the kind of feeling I had for rhythm and meter in a poem. A lot of contemporary poets don’t do that. You can even read William Carlos Williams’s indictment of meter, and at the same time you can read Milton’s indictment of rhyme. So, it’s really been going on for a long time! I never knew if I was allowed to do that, and also, in poetry, I suppose poetry has always seemed like, as I grew up with it, a place where one speaks about feelings and emotion, and I never really knew how to do it. I could do it in prose because it could take me a lot longer to do it in prose. Then I could do what one calls experiment with it, and learned about that way, and all that learning ultimately went into learning how to write poetry. Although, I’m not saying I’m not writing prose anymore, but I wrote a book recently which I thought was going to be a long prose book, and that was my intention when I sat down to write it, and it turned into a long poem, so I don’t know.
Howe: You have children, and small children. Do you find that has fragmented your time a lot?
Mayer: Well, fragmented is exactly the word. I’ll tell you the bad parts first: one is always dividing one’s time into these little sections. You can’t ever figure that you’re going to have a good six hours or so to do anything anymore, sometimes even to sleep. At the same time I find that I end up having more time to write since I’ve had children.
Howe: Why would you say that is?
Mayer: Well, in the past, before I ever even dreamed of having children, I was never disciplined about writing at all. I would never think that I would write every day. When I had a project that I was working on or a book or something, then I would sit down and work on it for every second of the day and not do anything else. And if I was writing just occasionally, then I would just write whenever I felt like it. Once I had children, I realized that if I was going to keep writing, I had to structure the day around the children and retain a time every day for myself. And so it’s really the first time for me that I’m writing every day. Ultimately, it provides me with much more time than I ever had before to write just out of that sense of some schedule.
Howe: What about the lack of women who are mothers, role models as poets?
Mayer: Well, first of all, I’d like to say at this point in time, I think I have tremendous admiration for almost any kind of poet who can manage to continue to write poetry and really do it and be a mother too. It seems like an incredibly exhausting and difficult proposition. There’s not really any older poets who’ve done that, you know. Well, who are they? Like the old ones? There are a lot of prose writers like Georges Sand and Harriet Beecher Stowe and people like that who’ve had fascinating lives as mothers and as writers. But among the poets it’s been a little sparse. Alice Notley is a mother who is a poet, and I find a lot of inspiration from her work. I know I find it anyway, but I also find it interesting to compare notes about the proposition of working as a poet as a mother. I wish there were more.
Howe: In the past —
Mayer: In the past there are none, and it’s a little bit alarming because one instantly realized why there aren’t any. It seems insane that we’ve been somehow cheated historically out of this great pleasure of having not only women as writers, but women writers who could be mothers too, conceivably.
Howe: Who are some writers that interest you, apart from Hawthorne and Stein?
Mayer: I could list a few things that I’m reading, but ultimately I think it’s more important to say somehow that I’ve had to, in the last three years — I’ve had to make the choice between reading and writing, and I always seem to opt for writing, because it makes me sane. When it comes time for me to do some work, then what I want to do is write, and not read.
Howe: You read a dream piece at St. Mark’s this last reading of yours. Can you talk about what you do with dreams — you write them down and then transfer them?
Mayer: I’ve tried everything. The piece I read was the first section of a poem that is in six parts, and it’s entirely about one day. The first part begins with me relating the dreams that I had before waking up that day. This particular poem is kind of the flowering of everything that I’ve learned about writing poetry in a very rational way. I’m very interested at the moment in that work, in writing about dreams in as rational [a way] as possible. In the past I’ve written about dreams maybe in some much more primitive or childlike or experimental or whatever you want to call it ways. These dreams, I was interested in relating them and talking about them in almost a Freudian sense, and making a narrative out of that. I wanted to try and make a narration not only [of] that part of the poem which is about the dreams, but of the entire poem.
Howe: What about the difference between the diaries and dreaming? You’ve worked with writing a diary, too. You and Lewis did that together: one would do one day, and one would do the other. Now, when you actually do that, how much rewriting do you do?
Mayer: In the case of that book Lewis and I wrote together, we did a lot of rewriting, but that was really the first time we’d ever done it. We wrote that book, and I used my sections of that book as a way to study how to write coherent, sensible sentences with periods and punctuation, to make it something that would be really accessible to everyone, almost like writing a letter to a stranger. At that point in time, that was very hard work, and I was devoted to taking what I might call the “gibberish” out of that book. Whenever there was a […] space accounted for by just two or three words, the way one does it in poetry, say, I would expand it and explain it like a letter or even like a phone conversation or something. It was very much a one-to-one arrangement.
Howe: You worked with a tape, too.
Mayer: I find that very hard to do. I work with a tape recorder in a lot of different ways. One of the ways is that I would try to talk prose into the tape recorder. That was okay; that was easy. Then I tried to talk sensible prose into the tape recorder. That was a little bit more difficult. Then I tried to talk poetry into the tape recorder. That was impossible. But I do find that the tape recorder is very useful for making notes, you know, certain kind of notes, like in a situation where you’re sitting around in the afternoon with babies who won’t let you write things down, I can keep the recorder in the closet or something and run over and make a few notes if I want to. Now the babies are older and they let me take notes. [Laughs.] But I don’t know what to do with it anymore, actually, because I really hate transcribing it. I find it such a chore. I think maybe if one had somebody else do the transcribing that it would be a more useful method for writing.
Howe: You published 0 to 9, I mean you were editor of that, and you and Lewis are editors now of Angel Hair. What do you feel about publishing your own work?
Mayer: I’m all for it.
Howe: Could you sort of say why?
Mayer: Well, why not? Nobody else is going to publish it! [Laughs.] I think it’s great to publish one’s own work. I never felt any vacillating about that whole thing. The first book of mine that was ever published, which was this book called Story, I published myself. It seems like a way to disseminate writing in a very efficient way. You can get it to all the people who you know are going to read it. There’s no fooling around. You can do it the way you want it done. Nobody ever tells you: change this or that, or I’m going to put this cover on your book. It’s all in your own hands. It’s now even to the extent that Angel Hair has turned into United Artists now, and we handle absolutely every level of the production of the books. We do everything. I prefer it. With all the books of mine that have been published by other people, there have always been these difficult problems, including emotional ones that have to do with friends. I prefer it. I know that none of us as poets are ever going to be published by the so-called publishing companies, because ultimately the government has written us out, haven’t they? It seems that way. It seems John Ashbery and James Schuyler are probably the last great poets to have contracts with real publishing companies.
Howe: You think that’s true?
Mayer: I don’t know. I’ve talked to a lot of people about it and nobody seems to know the answer. Some people have a definitely paranoid feeling that that’s the reason that small presses can get publishing grants now from the government rather easily, I mean, if they’re devoted to it, to some extent it’s because it’s an accommodation to that situation where none of the publishing companies are even acting independently really anymore. So they won’t publish poetry because they’re all owned by the entertainment conglomerates. It does seem like a plot to keep people from reading poetry. And I know that a lot of poetry by me and by Ted Berrigan and by Lewis and by Alice could be read by a much wider audience. That’s how it stands, and it’s so intractable. If we’re going to continue, and to continue to publish at all, then these are the terms we seem to have to do it on. I don’t mind it, except in the sense that I wonder if people are being cheated out of reading more poetry, because certainly whenever a book of poetry does get published, it doesn’t ever get any kind of publicity or advertising or anything like that. Nobody ever reviews it in The New York Times. We publish books now in editions of 1,000 copies. That seems to be about as many as can be distributed, and that’s not too many.
Howe: Do you spend a lot of time on the publishing business now?
Mayer: Yes, we do. It’s very time-consuming. We’re publishing the books and we’re also publishing a magazine, also called United Artists. Between two of those things, between me and Lewis sharing the work, it’s a full-time job. The magazine is mimeographed, which makes it very time-consuming.
Howe: Would you really like to write a novel? You’ve said that. I mean, would you?
Mayer: No. [Laughs.] Well, I wrote this poem a while ago; in the beginning of it I’ve said: “Everybody tells me now to write a novel.” No, I’ll never write one. I think it’s a terrible idea. A lot of people say to me: “You could write the ultimate novel about that Catholic girlhood and that whole thing.” Well, I’ll let somebody else do it. Lots of people do, and actually there are some great ones. It’s just not my talent, I think. No, I can’t do it.
Howe: In a lot of your work I notice the word “nun” occurring. In fact, I was thinking I could just ask you some words, and you could to do a take on them. You do bring in a lot of saints’ names, and Dante is running very strongly a lot.
Mayer: Yeah, he runs with the nuns.
Howe: But what about a girl who receives a Catholic education from nuns?
Mayer: Does it matter anymore? Is anybody ever going to experience that again?
Howe: Maybe it gives you something quite rare or special.
Mayer: Well, I did see them every day from the age of five to twenty, or somewhat less than that, so they’re bound to be in there. They are startling-looking figures, and they always had startling ideas. There’s no way that I’ll ever get them out of there. Although, I think I’ve managed to get rid of them to some extent. I don’t know. I always think that one shouldn’t write about them and certain other things, but that you just can’t help it. I think a lot of the things about the Catholic church, I mean, nuns, think of nuns: what a startling visual image they are. I spent as many hours as I did doing anything else contemplating their habits, and I don’t mean their habits, I mean their black and white costumes and all the starchiness of them, and the idea of what they were supposed to be. It was always a matter of total perfection, and that way of looking. Boy, just having your head encased in white starched material and long veils. The Ursulines that I had in college had these incredibly dramatic capes to wear when it rained. And when they walked across the college, they looked like wraiths. They were always running into the church with giant black umbrellas to kill the bats that were literally hanging in the church belfry. There’s no end to the drama of it. But as for other things about the Catholic Church, even besides all those — and don’t get me started on the priests — would be other amazing visual things. The church that I went to as a child was highly decorated with painted statues, and marble, and a very high ceiling with an imitation of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and stars interspersed with the pictures of God and angels, and everything glittering in gold, and expensive. It was either church or home. That was how it was, and church was sure different than home. The ceiling was so high that it did have a lofty effect on one’s thoughts. Some ideas of meditating as a Catholic have always stuck with me. Levitating. See, I don’t even know how to talk about those things. The vestments …
Howe: They’re magical.
Mayer: The Latin, every trapping of that was totally inspiring. Then again, there are many poets who were brought up as Catholic who really never mention it. I wonder how they can contain themselves.
Editorial note: The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded November 5, 2009, at the Kelly Writers House for PennSound and Art International Radio. Keith Waldrop was born in Kansas and attended a fundamentalist high school in South Carolina. His pre-med studies were interrupted when he was drafted to be an army engineer. He received his PhD in comparative literature from the University of Michigan in 1964. Waldrop and his wife, Rosmarie Waldrop, have coedited Burning Deck Press since 1968. A Windmill Near Calvary, Waldrop’s first published book of poems, was nominated for the National Book Award. He has translated many French poets’ writings, and he has written poetry, fictional memoir, mixed verse, and prose. His poetry collections include Several Gravities (Siglio, 2009), a collection of collages; Transcendental Studies (University of California Press, 2009), a trilogy of collage poems which won the National Book Award for Poetry; and a translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (Wesleyan, 2009). Among many other works, he also wrote the trilogy The Locality Principle (1995); The Silhouette of the Bridge, which won the Americas Award for Poetry (1997); and Semiramis, If I Remember (2001). For his contribution to French literature, he received a medal from the French government with the rank of Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters. He has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Berlin Artists Program of the DAAD. He teaches at Brown University. This interview was transcribed by Kate Herzlin and has been edited for Jacket2. Listen to the audio program here. — Katie Price
Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening, Art International Radio’s program of readings and conversation with poets presented in collaboration with PennSound. My guest today, for the second of two shows, is Keith Waldrop. My name is Charles Bernstein. Keith Waldrop grew up in Kansas and studied at Aix-Marseilles and Michigan Universities, earning a doctorate in comparative literature in 1964. His most recent collection of poetry, among many others, is Transcendental Studies from University of California Press, a trilogy of collage poems. Sun and Moon published a fictional memoir, Light While There Is Light. He has been a prolific translator of French poetry, from Charles Baudelaire to contemporary poets such as Anne-Marie Albiach and Claude Royet-Journoud. He teaches at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Keith, welcome back to Close Listening.
Keith Waldrop: Thank you, thank you.
Bernstein: Keith, can you tell me about your earliest experience or encounter with poetry as a young person living in Kansas? One of the poems you read in the first show, you had a line “at least I will not die in Kansas.” [Waldrop laughs.] Although you really can’t be sure of that.
Waldrop: Nah, I can’t be sure, though I haven’t been there for over fifty years.
Bernstein: Even so!
Waldrop: But it’s true, I could be going through there —
Bernstein: You could be abducted and brought back there. [Laughs.]
Waldrop: Yeah, yes. [Pause.] Well, until I went to high school, I think basically I read almost nothing but comic books and the Bible.
Bernstein: Which comic books did you like?
Waldrop: Oh, I read Superman and Batman, they were all in an early phase at that time, in the ’30s. And then I actually went to high school in South Carolina, to a fundamentalist school in South Carolina. And it was there I started really reading poetry and started trying to write it. I wrote — I remember writing a narrative poem about the universal flood, I hope no trace of it remains. I think it’s gone.
Bernstein: Actually, there are now ways we can retrieve things in the brain, bring them out, and make printouts.
Waldrop: No, not in this brain. [Laughter.] Actually, my first love was really theatre, and I was writing, trying to write plays mainly. And then —
Bernstein: This is high school still you’re talking about?
Waldrop: In high school. And then I started trying to do both poetry and stories. But I had thought I would — I never thought of myself as a writer, but I always thought, I’ll write, whatever else I do. And for some reason I decided I would become a psychiatrist. And so in college I was a pre-med. And went back to Kansas, actually, for college. And then I was drafted, but I lacked two courses of finishing my BA, and by the time I got out of the army — but it had started long before then — I had soured to the idea of being a psychiatrist. I had sort of come to my senses.
Bernstein: Let me back up for a second, because obviously this is something you evoke in Light While There Is Light. I’ll just use the term “artist” — literary artist, playwright, so on. How did that connect up with your surroundings growing up as a Christian, and how does Christianity itself — this is the big question in a way —
Waldrop: Well —
Bernstein: — figure in your work, Mr. Waldrop, throughout time and eternity? But let’s talk about the first moment, in which the way, the art in relationship to the kind of belief systems that you were a part of and the surrounding relationship.
Waldrop: Well, I sort of realized from a fairly early time that my — this is especially in high school, but even slightly before that, but in high school it was definitely there — that I realized my only salvation, salvation, mind you —
Bernstein: I’m hearing that, that jumped right out at me.
Waldrop: — was to know the Bible better than the people who were telling me what to do. [Bernstein laughs.] And so I managed to get a very good knowledge, not [just] of the Bible, because I don’t know any of the languages it was written in, but the King James version, which I have a very good knowledge of. And in fact, I teach a course sometimes at Brown, which is called “The Bible as a Literary Source Book.” And I point out all the things in, or many things in the language that come from the Bible, which doesn’t indicate that the person using them is religious, or thinks of the Bible at that moment or anything. They’re part of the language because it’s a Protestant country in which everybody was reading the Bible. Even if they didn’t read it, they knew it, because they heard it. And that has been extremely important to me in my language. Years ago, I also wrote poems about biblical characters and such, but I haven’t done that for a while. But the biblical language and the, in some ways, something from the tone of biblical language, although I hope my poems don’t sound like the Bible, but —
Bernstein: Well, part of what you’re saying is that the King James Bible is a source for a whole range of metaphors and symbolic language —
Waldrop: That’s right.
Bernstein: Even if you reject it, it still pops up.
Waldrop: And for a kind of sound that is there.
Bernstein: And yet your work seems so relentlessly to avert, in that Emersonian sense —
Waldrop: Yes, yes.
Bernstein: — a biblical sound of authority. That’s something that I never noticed in any of your works.
Waldrop: No, no.
Bernstein: You must be very consciously —
Waldrop: I have very consciously avoided, yes, you’re right, exactly. And it remains a background, nevertheless, one that’s in some ways completely rejected but in other ways I don’t try to avoid any sound at all from it.
Bernstein: Well you know, Claude Lévi-Strauss, who died a couple of days ago, compares the way to deal with the “other” as one system that we have in the United States, that we incarcerate it or attack it, but another system, as in cannibalism, is that you eat it, or you digest it.
Waldrop: Yes, yes.
Bernstein: So perhaps you’re —
Waldrop: Well, I digested it, all right. Yes, yes.
Bernstein: Now, you mention going into the army. And what was that like? What year did you go in?
Waldrop: Well, I was drafted, it wasn’t my idea. And it was an awkward moment, although it turned out to be something rather wonderful, because I went in — actually, at the very end of the Korean conflict, after it was practically over, but it wasn’t quite over, so I got the GI Bill.
Waldrop: Technically, I’m a Korean veteran, though I never went near Korea. Instead, I was made into an army engineer, believe it or not [Bernstein laughs], and sent to the engineer school in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where I became a water purification specialist. And was sent to Germany. And so I was in Germany for some time, which is where I met Rosmarie. And —
Bernstein: — who was also interested in water purification.
Waldrop: Well, the water there was —
Bernstein: [Laughter.] You could hear Rosmarie in the background.
Waldrop: Well, the water there was fine, but actually I became clerk typist once I was there because I was the only person in the company who could type fast.
Bernstein: What is a fictional memoir rather than an actual memoir or fiction?
Waldrop: Well, it’s a, it’s, I use —
Bernstein: The choice seems real.
Waldrop: In a sense, it’s a novel about my family. And some of them are in there by name. But it’s not all true, and I wrote it as a novel — that is, I wrote it using the material of a memoir but writing it as a novel, which meant that it was more important to me how the formal things came out, how the chapters sounded, than to get the facts right. And much of it is fairly what happened.
Bernstein: Right, it evokes so much, from my reading of it, of what must have been your life experience.
Waldrop: Basically it is, but if you went into details, they’re not all right.
Bernstein: Right. So, place names, and characters, things like that.
Waldrop: Yes. I kept the original names of my immediate family, though my siblings all have a different last name, and I never put that name in anywhere.
Bernstien: Do you want to tell us what that is now?
Bernstein: Black? [Waldrop laughs.] You had, I thought, a hysterically funny line, which I remembered from before. That you were “between two generations. [Waldrop laughs] The drunk and the stoned —”
Waldrop: Yes, Yes.
Bernstein: And I’m taking that, like a reference to the King James Bible. That is actually a cultural reference, not just a literary reference, between baby boomers and perhaps what Tom Brokaw calls, “the greatest generation.”
Bernstein: And in a way, confessional poets, and a certain texture, people drinking in the ’50s versus something else. So I’m interested in how you think about that in terms of your own literary affiliations and affinities, which remain very open and ambiguous. I mean, you’re a poet who’s managed to not be looked at always in the context of a number of other poets or within generations, schools, groups [as they] often get configured in the New American Poetry. And this comment was very funny, from that point of view, to me.
Waldrop: Yeah, well I’ve always felt — not belonging to a … there’s a generation older than me and there’s a generation younger than me, and I don’t, I wouldn’t feel comfortable being mainly in one or the other, or either one. I feel sort of in-between.
Bernstein: Yeah, I mean, you’re for me, you and Rosmarie, although you both, you fit slightly outside my exact crazy dates but fit into what I think of as a very important generation of people who are very young during the Second World War. And so therefore, older than the so-called “baby boomers” but also younger than the main New American poets. So Susan Howe, for example. Clark Coolidge, Robert Grenier. All of whom are actually characterized in a way by a deep sense of disaffiliation, as I would call political, but the very fact of disaffiliation would suggest it wouldn’t want to be characterized as political in a way.
Waldrop: Yeah, right, right, exactly. Yeah, you’re quite right.
Bernstein: So what was your sense of the poets who you first sort of connected with, either somewhat older than you or your own contemporaries, that gave you a sense of context for your writing? Not people doing what you were doing, but sort of, you felt, maybe even a camaraderie with.
Waldrop: Well, I read the Lowell/Wilbur generation. And actually, I like their poems — that is, I like Wilbur’s, and I like early Lowell; later’s something else. But then I discovered Creeley, and that group. And they meant a great deal to me. Trying to think of who —
Bernstein: Do you feel that there is a conflict between these two configurations, as has often been figured, especially in terms of the ’50s?
Waldrop: Well, I never felt it as a problem. I know at that time you were getting the war of the anthologies, and you were either called an academic or a beat.
Bernstein: Raw and cooked.
Waldrop: I always thought that was rather silly, so when we started the magazine Burning Deck, I continuously made the point that this was a — it was not an academic or a beat, it was something that was to publish the poets that we liked, whatever side. And we reviewed — I reviewed mainly — people of all sorts.
Bernstein: And yet your own work, would — again, not from your point of view, but from an external point of view — seem to clearly fall into a New American Poetry context and not into the other context, as it has a social and external reality, not talking about the internal dynamic of the work.
Waldrop: Well, that’s partly because my earlier poetry wasn’t mainly published at all, and it would give more of a doubt to that, you know. It would be more balanced between very formalized metrical things and rhyme and such.
Bernstein: And you’re talking about your work before Windmill Near Calvary?
Bernstein: Yeah, ’cause it comes somewhat later in your — I mean, you were young, but not as young. So, well there is an interesting issue too. Goes back to a generation older than you, and what we’re talking about, but the sort of free verse or what I would call nonmetrical, or polymetrical poetry —
Waldrop: Yeah, yeah.
Bernstein: And metrical poetry. Which is something I know you have continuously been interested in and work in. How do you think about that? Now, I’m not asking about what you think about the larger issue, in terms of American poetry, but in terms of your own work. I wouldn’t characterize your work as “free verse”; for one thing, I don’t like that term — it implies a lack of patterning and sound.
Waldrop: Well, I, in looking through my poems to find something to read for this, I was very surprised how many rhymes and how many metrical lines there were in the first book. And before that, I had been writing some completely metrical things, and for a while then I got away from it completely. Now I don’t consciously think, you know, I want this to be something like five feet long or so many syllables, but I don’t think of it as free in the sense that it’s like prose.
Bernstein: Well, it’s like you’re saying with the King James Bible; it’s sort of internalized in your ear so it may come out in a dispersed way.
Waldrop: Yeah, exactly. Yes, yes.
Bernstein: I want to come back to that, the second one when I ask you about collage. But I want to ask you just to talk about one poem that you read, The Locality Principle. Talk a little bit about the sources of that poem, any kind of compositional thoughts or structures you may have had beforehand, or looking at it in retrospect.
Waldrop: Yeah. The Locality Principle is an unusual book for me because it was all written in one year in a particular place; we were living in London. It’s the only one of my books that has a date line at the end telling you when and where it was written, because otherwise I usually have things that I wrote ten years before or just put in or whatever. It’s mainly a book which is prose and proceeds; it’s not a novel, but it has a kind of story in it. Then at the end, it has a group of poems which sort of compress the main elements that were earlier in the prose, so that what I read of “Theme,” for instance, very differently tuned, like violin and piano. There’s a small chapter in the prose talking about the fact that a violin is tuned. If it’s playing with a piano, it tunes to A, but then the other strings are tuned by beats rather than by the piano, and therefore they’re really, they’re tuned differently than the piano. And of course, really when you’re playing a violin it doesn’t make that much difference, because you don’t usually play, you use the open strings anyway, put your fingers somewhere, and you cancel that difference. But it’s two instruments playing with a different tonality and yet they go together, and so the poem in the back sort of brings that into a small statement, and in a way the poem only makes sense if you’ve read the rest of the book, or read the earlier part of the book.
Bernstein: Thinking of polyphony, or chordal overlayering –– I want to ask you about your use of the term “collage,” your interest in collage. But in multiple senses. You have a new book of your visual collages — that is to say things that are made by taking cut-up pieces and pasting together — but there are poems in relationship to that, so it has an ekphrastic aspect, that is to say essentially poems that relate to or interact with the visual work. But you also speak of work in your new book, and otherwise of your own work, as collage.
Bernstein: So, could you talk about those multiple senses of collage and what they have to do with abstraction, representation, organization, polyphony?
Waldrop: Transcendental Studies is probably my only full book that is basically collage poems. I started doing them because I had to become the director of a program, you will appreciate this, maybe. [Laughs.] I found that I was —
Bernstein: At your job at Brown University?
Waldrop: And Brown, yes, in the writing program. I found that –– it wasn’t that the job was difficult –– but it was one of those endless things where you keep thinking, you try to think of anything, you think, tomorrow I must do this or yesterday I should’ve done this, and I found I wasn’t writing any poetry, and so I decided I must. There are various ways of writing poetry. Well, in any way you write poetry, there are certain amounts of drudgery to it, of doing some things that are not part of really, you really don’t have to think about. And for instance, if you’re translating, just to get the meaning of the words, what does this text mean, and then you have to start really translating. So I decided I would do a kind of collage, and simply put some books out and get phrases from them and see what happened. And this was simply my way of finding poems, it wasn’t that I was trying to do a particular kind of collage. I wasn’t trying to prove anything about collage. Once the collage elements managed to make a stanza, let alone a poem, I would change things if I felt — well that word isn’t good, I’d rather have this other word. And someone who is passionate about, you know, this is supposed to be collage, would say, “That’s not fair.” But I didn’t really think anything about collage; I wanted to find poems.
Bernstein: But you were using a range of different sources that were external to your own composition, re-editing or remixing them —
Waldrop: Exactly, yeah.
Bernstein: — mixing them up, and then reediting and remixing them.
Waldrop: Yes.It’s like what Wilbur claims [is] the advantage of writing rhymed poem; that is, you have the necessity of finding a rhyme for this line. Well, that means that the first word may be wrong, you may not find one, you may have to change that. So that makes your imagination work.
Bernstein: So it’s an external constraint, although in this case it’s a soft external constraint rather than an OuLiPo-ian one.
Waldrop: Yeah, exactly, that’s right, that’s what it is.
Bernstein: So what’s the relationship of that to a visual collage? This is not an answerable question, by the way, because it’s very hard to discuss the difference between verbal and visual work, but still, since you’re raising it in such an interesting way in that book, where you have those visual collages and then you have the poems, I’m curious as to how you’re thinking about that now.
Waldrop: Well, I’ve never really done very much where there was visual and verbal collage that went together. In fact, the main poem that’s in there, I must say, doesn’t have that much to do with the collages. Although —
Bernstein: Until it’s in the book.
Waldrop: The editor, it is in the book, yes —
Bernstein: Well, once it’s in the book, it has everything to do with it because there it is, bound together.
Waldrop: Well, I’ve done collages for many years, and often I find myself doing them to get away from words. Because I just don’t want to use them all the time.
Bernstein: You say something very amusing, which I could relate to — you often do in many of your works. But in the introduction, you say, “It’s because I couldn’t draw” that I took to collage. [Laughs.]
Waldrop: Yeah, yeah. And I’ve always intended to do more of interlacing the words and the images, but in a way that goes against what I’m getting out of it, and that is that when I get tired of images I use words, and when I get tired of words I use images. And it’s, I don’t know … I’ve never felt that they quite go together, the verbal collages that I do and the visual collages. But I enjoy doing both of them, so I do them.
Bernstein: With the visual collages you don’t have the symbolic associations, for example, with the Bible and so on. You don’t have those kinds of resonances.
Waldrop: Right, right.
Bernstein: Or metrical or sonic references, so to some degree it frees you up from that. But do you feel there are ways in which working on that reflects on your poetic work, or inspires a different sort of way that you were working with the words? I’m now talking about the California book of collages. Is that influenced by your visual collages? That would be another way to ask you that question.
Waldrop: I wouldn’t say that it is, actually. Though I mean, it probably is in ways that I don’t understand. [Laughs.] But when I start doing a verbal collage, I don’t think, oh, this is like bringing in a picture from here, tearing a piece of that off.
Bernstein: That’s why I said in the beginning it was an impossible question to answer, The fact that you don’t make that analogy and that you don’t understand it are one of the things that contribute to making the work so interesting.
Waldrop: Yeah, yeah.
Bernstein: That there’s an activity which you can’t rationally connect up, but you’re using the same word for it, so that it really raises this issue of the visual and the verbal.
Waldrop: Yeah, yeah. Well, it does come from tearing something up and making something else out of it.
Bernstein: You’ve done a lot of translation, and I want to end with that, and for a wide range of poetry, nineteenth and twentieth century. How do you feel that translation as a practice affects your poetic work? I could ask you more specifically with a specific translation, but I’ll just leave it that way.
Waldrop: Well, translation, I’ve always translated. I’ve picked for a particular translation works that are not like what I would ordinarily do, so that in a way for instance if I translate Anne-Marie Albiach, I could never write anything like that. But it gives me a possible range that I wouldn’t have otherwise, that I can write it because I’m writing her, her work. And I don’t think anybody looking at my work after that would really find anything but, maybe I’m wrong, I can’t imagine they’d read my work and say, “oh, this must be a person who’s translated Anne-Marie Albiach.” I don’t see that there’s much connection. And I’ve translated very different people. Paol Keineg is very different. And I’ve translated a number of very young French poets. And it — I always, I’ve always had this sort of suspicion that something creeps over into my work from what I translate, but I can’t see it, I don’t know what it would be. I don’t think of it as changing my work at all, outside of looking for more things to translate.
Bernstein: Except perhaps you are a Baudelairian poet. [Waldrop laughs.] You’ve been listening to Keith Waldrop on Close Listening. This program was recorded on November 5, 2009, at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. James LaMarre is our engineer. Close Listening is a production of PennSound, in collaboration with Art International Radio. For more information on this show, visit writing.upenn.edu/pennsound. I am your humble servant, Ch. Bernstein, on assignment in … Close Listening.
Editorial note: The following has been adapted from a Close Listening conversation recorded as part of “The Motion of Light: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany,” a program hosted at the Kelly Writers House in April 2014. The conversation was transcribed by Tracie Morris. Listen to the audio program here. — Julia Bloch
Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening’s Clocktower Radio’s program of readings and conversations with writers presented in collaboration with PennSound. Today’s show comes to you live from the Kelly Writers House of the University of Pennsylvania as part of “The Motion of Light: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany” to honor Delany’s contribution to Temple-Penn Poetics. And as such is being taped before, what has every appearance of being, a live audience … though, I’m not one-hundred percent sure. [Audience laughs.]
My guest is Chip Delany. Delany is a towering figure in contemporary science fiction, fantasy, fiction, memoir, social commentary, and literary theory and criticism. He has been teaching at Temple University’s creative writing program since 2001, coming to Temple after a short stint in the Buffalo Poetics program. My name is Charles Bernstein. Chip, welcome to Close Listening.
Samuel R. Delany: Hi there, Charles.
Bernstein: As poets we’re celebrating you here today and as was just mentioned in the toasts, you don’t write poetry — but I wonder if you could talk about the relation of genre to your work. It’s one of the most basic questions but you work, probably, in more different genres than any writer I can think about [Delany laughs] and have a deep commitment to their specificity. In The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, of course, you talk in the most illuminating way about understanding science fiction, or speculative fiction, as a genre that circulates in a way that I found comparable to the way I think poetry circulates. But what is your commitment to the specific genres? Both the differences and the possibilities of each and the relationship of the ensemble in what you’re written?
Delany: Well one thing I’ve thought about genres for a long time is that we probably put too much faith in their ability to solve various problems for us. Probably one of the questions I’m asked most frequently about genres, and I’m glad to say that you did not ask the most frequently asked question, you get points for that, Charles —
Bernstein: Oh. I’m disappointed. [Delany laughs.]
Delany: — is “Do you feel that as a person who works in a marginal genre, and who is a marginal person, because you’re Black” —
Bernstein: The reason I didn’t ask that question is that that’s news to me. [Audience laughs.]
Delany: Ah ha. “You know, you’re Black and you’re gay, do you think that working in a marginal genre makes it easier to write about those people?” To which the answer is, absolutely not. Genres don’t do the work for you. As Raymond Chandler says in one of his most popular essays in “The Simple Art of Murder,” at the beginning of his collection of the same name, “there are no vital art forms.” That is to say, there are no significant genres. There are different genres, yes. But they are not significant because they exist. He says there are no significant art forms, there’s only art, and precious little of that. And I think he was right. Which is to say, you get a good writer, or a writer who’s interested in dealing with marginal peoples and marginal situations working in whatever genre that he chooses, be it poetry, drama, science fiction, comic books — it doesn’t really matter — if they are decent workers, and they also are committed, and they have a vision that they want to put forward, then you will get good art about these things. And if they don’t have this, it doesn’t matter what the genre is, you’re going to come up with very ordinary stuff. And that’s the way I think it works.
Earlier, Tracie was talking about various and sundry people who were not here this afternoon. How many of you recognize the name K. Leslie Steiner? Is there anybody who does?
Bernstein: Three people in the audience raise their hand.
Delany: So we have four, a few people who recognize K. Leslie Steiner’s name. K. Leslie Steiner is a critic, and she was also invited this evening, and she couldn’t make it. So she sent a bunch of questions to me that she thought she was going to ask herself. Charles is doing a very good job of replacing K. Leslie Steiner on the program here. However —
Bernstein: I am K. Leslie Steiner. [Delany laughs.] Surprise!
Delany: Yes. I believe that. At any rate, one of things she mentioned, which is kind of interesting in terms of one of the things that was said earlier, she said: “At one point in the WisCon journals, which was a little book that was published from the feminist science fiction convention, WisCon, [in issue] number three, they asked you to write an essay on power. And at the very beginning of that essay, you started off by saying you believed that the most important political problem in the world today is the treatment of women. You know, you said that, and why did you say that? It seems like an odd thing for a gay, Black, science-fiction writer to say.” And the answer is — you can find it in the main paragraph of the essay — is simply that the oppression of women is the model for all other oppressions in the world. It is the model for the oppression of Black people, it is the model for the oppression of children, it is the model for the oppression of workers by their bosses, whenever there is a power differential, people learn how to do that because of the way women are oppressed in this society. I believe that down to the bottom of my heart. There was another thing … Ms. Steiner’s second question, which she sent me and that was, and again, it relates to something that we were talking about earlier, “In an essay that you wrote back in 1974, back when you were a single gay parent living in London, taking care of your daughter at one, you wrote about this. It’s included in the revised edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, it was published in Khatru’s “Symposium on Women and Science Fiction” in 1976, you wrote that one day you went into a commune in the north of England and there on the back wall was a banner and it said, ‘Mother Is a Job’ and you seemed to find that kind of life-changing.” Well it did. It did. It was one of the things … that was for me, the moment where maternity and paternity were both degenderized. And, you know, I had this baby strapped to my belly and, you know “Mother Is a Job.” And I thought, “Okay. That’s one of the jobs I have to do.” And you know, you just went on living that way. It was a very very fortunate thing. So that was one of the ways that I dealt with one of the questions that Fred Moten, was talking about a little earlier. Both of those are very important.
Now, how do these relate to being a queer, Black science fiction writer? Well, one of the things is simply that in the same way that the model for all oppressions is the way women are marginalized, underpaid, you name it, this is the way homophobia is structured. It’s the same kind of thing. And I will be talking about that a little later when I do introduce my reading. Very, very quickly and I hope with a light touch because I think these things are better laughed at than taken too seriously.
Bernstein: So genre is famously related to race and to —
Delany: Right! It’s related to every category that is exploited and that is stuck in a power structure where you are not happy with how the power structure works. And every time the power structure changes something is gonna make somebody unhappy. So, what do you do? You think a lot. That’s how you start. And then you start to do something to change it in a way you want to do it, you want to change, and also a way that changes other parts of the power structure because if you don’t it’s going to turn around and bite you in the ass. And this kind of thinking is something that I think really needs to be encouraged, and it’s something that … I think there’s precious little art, there’s also precious little of this kind of, dare I call it, global or holistic or ecological thinking that goes on in the world. So one of the reasons, again, to just quickly — ha ha — one of the, to get around to answering my own question, because what does this have to do with being a gay, Black science-fiction writer is simply that I know a great deal — not a great deal — because nobody knows a great deal in the world we live in now, about anything. Let’s put it this way, I know more than I know about anything else, about being a gay man. I happen to know something about being a gay man with a child. I happen to know something about being a gay man who has been living fairly happily for the last twenty-five years with my partner. How did I learn these things? From living the last twenty-five years with my partner. These are how things work, the experiences that go into your life and these are what I try to mine, all the time, in my fiction. Somebody mentioned that Babel-17 is some sort of mining of the experience. Yeah! I was married to a poet. I was married to a poet, who, for a while, was an editor at a science-fiction publishing company where she got really tired of the treatment of the women characters. And who would she come home and complain about to? Me. [Audience and Bernstein laugh.]
And so I had to write something for her. The first few books that I wrote, the first six really, were basically … she was the audience, for those books and I wanted something that she could enjoy. And each one I didn’t, did not succeed perfectly from the very beginning. Each one was a learning experience and I had to do something more. And that’s — I’m very glad that I did, “the more” and finally at one point I decided oh, I’ll go do something else. And I did something else and I’ve been back and forth to it ever since.
And I haven’t changed — just because you go and do something for which you happen to have immediate data, doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten the main things you think are important. I still think the same things that Ms. Steiner asked me about in those first two questions. And I don’t feel that I’ve abandoned any of those ideas by writing about the situation of gay men, for instance. And I don’t feel that I’ve abandoned writing about the oppression of gay men by trying to write about gay men who are not oppressed. I hope that makes some kind of sense.
I don’t think, I don’t think the way to do everything is to talk about, you know, the very real ways in which we are victims. We don’t have to talk about only that. We can talk about ways we’re not as well. Because that highlights problems of making people victims so there’s, it’s a very complicated thing. I try to do it with a sense of how these things relate to the other things, this ecological thinking, this global … I try, and I fail all the time. Again, that failure is built into that. One of my definitions of success, which I’m very very fond of, I got it from the actress Ruth McClanahan who mentioned it on a television show, and she, she said, stole it from Winston Churchill. “Success is going from failure to failure with enthusiasm.” [Laughter.] And that is what success is for me: going from failure to failure — with enthusiasm. And so everything is going to be a failure to some way, but I do the best I can. And I try to do it enthusiastically.
Bernstein: And you see that would be a great appeal to the young poet, whose life necessarily must be going from failure to failure with enthusiasm. [Delany laughs.] And this is something you address in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw very specifically that relates again to the question of genre where you say that writers who try to work in unmarked forms, that are appealing to everyone … fail in a different kind of way than what you’re talking about —
Bernstein: — fail conceptually. In that sense you restore the sense that poetry is a subgenre in the way that it’s not a major form, but it’s redeemed by being a form that’s more like science fiction. So skirting around the issue, which you’ve addressed here, that genre fiction is thought to be less significant than —
Bernstein: — fiction that doesn’t mark itself as genre. What do you think about the nature of Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and fantasy? Because imagination could be understood as being that greater thing and so what I’d say one of the things that I find very powerful about your work is that it resists the idea that poetry would be better off aligning itself with imagination and recognizes that what’s significant about the kind of poetry I want is its connection to fantasy.
Delany: Hmm. Okay. Do you remember how exactly he said, he actually said it, ’cause I assume it’s something from Biographical Literaria …
Bernstein: It is —
Delany: … but I don’t remember the actual …
Bernstein: For Coleridge, imagination is the higher form that goes beyond. Fantasy is feminized, seen [as “passive and mechanical,” as in] fairies or demonic dreams. … [It can’t be] totalizing and sublime.
Delany: I see. I think there’s room for … both. [Chuckles.] Again I don’t, I, I don’t usually think either of prose narrative or poetry in terms of fantasy versus imagination, the imaginative.
Bernstein: You could also just speak of it in terms of what your commitment is to fantasy. Not as a genre but as what it can potentiate, both for readers and for yourself as a writer.
Delany: My incursions into fantasy are restricted to one fairy tale that I’m very fond of, written very early in my career, called “Prismatica,” that I just got out in an anthology. That tale was anthologized by Neil Gaiman, who was mentioned a little earlier. And I reread about a third of it and thought, “Hey, not bad.” Which is nice, nice to have that response to something, and then the Nevèrÿon books have been mentioned by a number of people from this very area of the room, where we are. I would say, they are more fully imagined, certainly than, say, Prismatica. I don’t know.
Bernstein: Well, that’s hardly a “just” that series of books. It’s an immense body of work …
Delany: It’s pretty ah, four volumes, four volumes and a million pages [chuckles], no. Four volumes and a lot of pages. Again, could you give me a text that I might have read that you can then talk about —
Bernstein: Well you can talk about it in terms of sexual fantasy or other that may contribute to your work but that purportedly screen some readers out … if one wanted to have a general reach that would appeal to all humanity with a universal address —
Bernstein: — one of the things I’m asking about genre also came up today, especially in Terry Rowden’s talk: each of the kinds of work you do, might potentially appeal to different aspects either of ourselves or of even different bodies of readers. It doesn’t assume one elevated reader who appreciates the greatness of your imagination, but rather calls upon different aspects of ourselves, or indeed different communities, to respond to different things.
Delany: Well, one of the things, when you say “fantasy” that intrigues me, that affects, the first thing that I think of is a fairly seemingly non-problematic word masturbation fantasies, which I have been writing my own down, year after year after year after year. Poor Ken [Kenneth James] has had to put up with them, in the last half of all those hundreds and hundreds of notebooks. And as several of the critics of my most recent novel have said, reading someone else’s masturbation fantasies is hell. [Audience laughs.] And it is! [Laughs.] You know I think I said that in an essay a long time ago. I’m not surprised when one of the critics basically [is] quoting me back to myself and I kind of agree with them. There is however something that happens when — this is the way I would relate it to imagination: I think you can turn by subjecting the fantasy to a certain order of observation, of mentation, of imagination, where you have to bring in the term imagination, and to write it down, and to make it more realistic. And when that happens, um, you do something to it. Certainly it’s something I’ve written down, about, my essays. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that a fantasy that you do write down, before you write it down, it retains its sexual charge. And you can revisit the fantasy again and again over a couple of weeks, couple of months, even. And as soon as you write it down and you really try to realize it, you know, what they are actually wearing, what did this guy’s shoulder look like, then the next time you jerk off, the uh, the sexual charge is much greater. And then it’s over. Goes away entirely and you think of it again, and it doesn’t have any, for me. Rarely does it have any leftover sexual charge. For me this is interesting and I think this would interest Freud. It’s very similar to the completion of dreams, in the way that he talks about back in the Interpretation, you know back from 1900.
I think it has something to do with, dare I say it, realistic fiction. I think there’s something in the sketchiness in what we might call a fantasy, that you submitted to this kind of discipline, and it’s a discipline, that allows it to be … called up more. Scott McCloud, in a book called Understanding Comics, and I hope a bunch of you are familiar with that because much of it is a brilliant book and I think some of it is … crazy. But the part that is brilliant is really brilliant, and the part that is brilliant is whenever he talks about lines and when he talks about other things, he kind of goes off into cloud cuckoo land, but that’s my humble opinion.
At any rate, one of the things that he says is that a picture of a recognizable person, if you draw a picture where there’s a real likeness of a person, and there’s shading and what have you, we look at that and we see that as a picture of an “other.” When we look at a cartoon, you know just a circle of an eye and a nose, a little thing for the mouth, when we look at that, what we’re looking at is the inside of the mask of our own faces. So that when we look at the cartoon we see ourselves, when we look at the realistic picture we see the other. That all drawings, as long as they represent another face, we can — and you know he points out that we see faces everywhere. You open a beer can and you look at the top and there are two drops of beer on the side and it’s got that hole there and it’s a face. You know, you look at a socket with two prongs and the third prong, and it’s a face. We’re programmed to see faces all over the place. And some of them are schematic and some of them are more realistic. You look at the line that has collected on the shower curtain because you haven’t washed it in three months, and you’re sitting there and you see a very realistic face, complete with lots of little things, so you know, that’s an other. But then you look at the iconic one and that’s a fantasy face. And in the fantasy stuff, you see yourself. And I think that’s what’s going on in general between what I think of when I think of fantasy as opposed to something that is disciplined by an imaginative realization of it. So I think both of them have their places and both of them, you can do stuff with. You can do things with them and when you do things with them, they’re very interesting. I would not want to exclude either one from the republic [chuckles].
Bernstein: We’re listening to Chip Delany on PennSound’s Close Listening, ArtOnTheAir.org. You spoke earlier about how your own work is rooted in your own particular experiences. And yet, there’s another aspect of your work which would suggest something else. And so let me ask you in this way: What about the imagination of lives and practices that can’t be imagined, or at least first might not be seemed to be able to be imagined?
Delany: Well, you try and you decide, can they or can’t they. And if you can, then we’re back at Wittgenstein’s proposition seven … [Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.] —
Bernstein: But you have certainly, in your work overall, pushed the borders of what one might imagine, one could imagine, by imagining it and letting other people including themselves, experience it. And much of it isn’t related, at least ostensibly, to your immediate experience because part of the project, the process that you’re involved in consists of pushing beyond that so that the readers anyway can experience things that are other than what they might have.
Delany: Yeah, but I think every fiction writer worth his or her salt, does that. I don’t think that’s — again I don’t think that it’s a function of a given genre. I mean Melville does it. I’m just reading —
Bernstein: I’m not asking you in terms of genre in this case but rather the desire to include things which are outside even your own ability to accept them, because they engage situations or possibilities that many of us, certainly me, I can’t speak for you … many things in your works force me to think about things that normally I wouldn’t be able to acknowledge or recognize. I constantly come upon the very narrow limits of what’s either in my fantasy or my imagination.
Delany: I say the same things about your poems, Charles. Right back at ya. [Bernstein chuckles.] There are lots and lots of things in your poetry … “Ooh, I’ve got to kind of move my head over here.” I think any writer who is at all interesting, and I include you in that group! [Chuckles.] I certainly do, I think makes that happen. I think that’s because we all —
Bernstein: In that sense we all, we share that. But I think a lot of writers don’t do that.
Delany: That is true and those are the writers I’m not terribly interested in. I think there are a lot of writers who do that for some people but don’t do it for others. You want to get the work to the people who will get something out of it. That’s a whole … that’s another curricular question or a heuristic problem that you’ve got to grapple with rather than a general abstract …
Bernstein: Lots of writers, including myself, suffer from various kinds of disabilities with respect to writing such as dyslexia.
Delany: — so do I. I’m, you know, hopelessly dyslexic.
Bernstein: And I’m interested in you talking about that both as an experience — because one aspect of it is just to imagine the amount of material that you’ve produced, that you were talking about earlier. Just stuff, textual stuff. Thousands of pages. And the difference between your doing that, someone who has disfluency, as we say it versus fluency. At least in that area. And also how dyslexia relates to issues that you write about and think about.
Delany: Well, again, there were lots of writers who are dyslexic.
Bernstein: Many, many that I know.
Delany: And historically there were. Flaubert was one of the most famous dyslexic writers. His family used to — his nickname in the family was the “idiot de la famille,” the idiot. Sartre, borrowed for the title of his great three-volume biography.
One of the things that dyslexic writers learn to do very quickly is to rewrite, because they have to. Because if they don’t rewrite, nobody can understand what it was they put down on the paper. And that was my problem all throughout — and before people even knew what dyslexia was, here I was a very bright Black kid from Harlem, who if you gave him a non-reading test, his IQ, my IQ, was off the fucking charts [Bernstein chuckles], if I may speak bluntly, was over 160, you know, but I couldn’t spell the word “paper” three times correctly in a row. Not only that, I would do it right once then do it two times wrong and the two times wrong would be entirely different from each other. And, you know, two pages apart.
And people would say, “What’s going on?” And they assumed it was some kind of horrible carelessness. This was very cruel. I would occasionally write … sometimes I would start on the left side of the page and sometimes it would start on the right, and it would come out like Leonardo Da Vinci’s mirror writing. And I had no control over it, up until the time I was like in my second year in high school. One of the most painful things I can remember was Mrs. Levy in my sophomore year at high school, you know —
Bernstein: This would’ve been in the Bronx High School of Science.
Delany: Uh huh —
Bernstein: — where we both went to high school.
Delany: — Bronx High School of Science! And standing at the head of the class and her saying, Mrs. Levy, “Mr. Delany. Is this some kind of joke?” [Bernstein chuckles] — and I was mortified. And she handed me back the paper and just rolling her eyes to heaven. I ran into the bathroom and I stuffed it down in the thing. I didn’t cry, but I stood there breathing incredibly heavy, I was just mortified. I didn’t know what the fuck to do — excuse me. And you know, this is the way, you know — and one of the reasons I was so broken up by it is because I had already been sent to psychiatrists to find out what was the reason for his attention-getting behavior. I wasn’t trying to get anybody’s attention, you know, the wiring is all screwed up. There was nothing I could do about it. It was not until I was about twenty or twenty-one, and I had published a couple of novels, that I finally, that again, Marilyn, my wife at the time, found an article on dyslexia. It was the first time either one of us had heard the word. It was not something, knowledge, that was rampant in the ’50s. And it described this condition. It was me. And we both said, “Oh!” And she said, “Chip. That’s you! That’s just what you do.” And it’s interesting that my daughter, who is now a doctor, has inherited it. And when I watched her grow up, she had the same, identical symptoms of it. It manifests itself the same ways, and I thought, you know, “Yeah, there it is.” And it was like watching me grow up again, and in one way it was good ’cause I could tell her “Hey, don’t worry, relax. You’ll find ways to get around it. One of the best ways to get around it, is to become very good friends with someone who doesn’t have it. [Bernstein and Delany laugh] — who is willing to look at what you write and say: “From here to here is totally incomprehensible, try writing it again so I know what you’re saying.” And slowly but surely you do get musical habits.” If you hear — I can’t remember anything I think, but I can remember what I say. So you know when I put the coffee in, in the morning, I take the coffee out and I count out loud: one … two … three. If I don’t count, I have no idea how many scoops I put in. You know, and that’s how you do it.
Yeats did not know how to read until he was sixteen. His father used to read to him, constantly. Another dyslexic writer. I mean it’s a real problem and you figure out what to do. When Yeats says something like, “The problem of what’s difficult has made me an old man,” that’s what he was talking about. He was talking about, just the ordinary act of putting it down on paper, difficult. One of the things it does, as I said, it encourages you to rewrite and you get into the habit of rewriting because you can’t do anything else, and it also means, believe it or … People like to say, of all genre writers, that because they’re genre writers they’re very prolific. I am not a prolific writer. I’m just not. If you actually — it’s very funny: I’ve just been made “a grandmaster of science fiction.” Whee. [Some audience members clap.]
Delany: — but one of the things. Now everybody’s saying, for a grandmaster he sure hasn’t written very much. He’s written like fourteen novels. You know Philip [K. Dick], you know Arthur C. Clarke, has written about sixty-five. And it’s true but you know I don’t write a lot. And I certainly don’t write a lot for a genre writer, I never have. And I doubt very much that I ever will. And especially now, on my side of seventy-two. So you know, that’s the way that really works.
Bernstein: [whispering] It’s almost time.
Delany: And you know when people say you’re so prolific, I smile and I nod and I think, well obviously they haven’t looked at my bibliography or at least they haven’t compared it to anybody else’s in the field. And I’ve been doing this for fifty years. Up until the first thirty-seven, I was doing it eight hours a day, every day. And that’s … it still averages out, especially if you take … okay the first five were written in two years. And I did nothing else except write and screw. That’s all I did. Hour after hour, day after day after day, and I had a nervous breakdown. That was overwork. [Laughs. Bernstein laughs. Audience also laughs]. That was overwork and it really was. Anyway, so there you go. I mean that’s …
Bernstein: You’ve been listening to Samuel R. Delany on Close Listening. The program was recorded on April 11, 2014 at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. Close Listening is a production of PennSound in collaboration with Clocktower Radio. For more information on this show visit our website: writing.upenn.edu/pennsound. This is your earth-bound host, Charles Bernstein, ushering you beyond the babel and into the cosmos of Close — close — close — close Listening — listening — listening — listening.
Delany: Thank you Charles. Thank you, Charles. Thank you Charles. [Audience claps.]