An interview with Linh Dinh
Note: This interview was first published in Arabic on March 15, 2015 in Al Arab and Al Jadeed, both of London. Among American poets, Linh Dinh is unique in that he writes regularly for several political webzines and also appeared regularly, for a few years, on Iran’s Press TV as well as Russia Today. His primary audience, then, is a non-poetry one, and he reaches them through an active blog that features photos, essays, and poems. — Tahseen al-Khateeb
Tahseen al-Khateeb: Though you were born in Saigon, you spent most of your life in the US. Do you consider yourself as an American poet?
Linh Dinh: Yes, very much so. A writer is defined by his language, above all, so anyone writing in English already belongs to that tradition of Skelton, Clare, and Stevens. Although also important, subject matters come second. Though many of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories take place in America, for example, he wrote exclusively in Yiddish, so he’s seen as a Yiddish author. Yiddish was his mental universe. Having said all that, I can also claim to be a Vietnamese writer, since I also write poems, stories, and essays in Vietnamese, and I speak Vietnamese daily. I’m two writers sharing one brain, which is probably a very dubious, if not catastrophic, proposition, but I would like to think it has actually helped me. Not entirely at home in any language, I can see how tenuous my claims to writing, thinking, and even life are. I’m a very desperate person, frankly, but who isn’t? Already an American poet by virtue of my shaky, shaking, and shook-up English, I’m also very much a part of this appalling socialscape because of what I write about. I’ve learnt how to become more of a hands-on, down-in-the-slush kind of writer. I get out there to see everything firsthand and to hear people speak. I eavesdrop or strike up conversations — and sometimes barge into them — all in order to hear everyone’s farcical, heartbreaking or blood-chilling anecdotes. I’m also out there to soak up their language — that is, their English — because this besieged, yet cocky English is most fascinating. Also, for the last several years, I’ve become much more invested in writing that addresses issues that affect everyone and that anyone can read, and since I live here in the United States, this reorientation has made me even more of an American writer.
al-Khateeb: How is it possible for you to freely separate between those “two writers sharing one brain”? How (and when) do you decide to write “this” in Vietnamese and “that” in English? The “brain” decides, or the poem itself chooses its tongue, cadence, and transformations?
Dinh: I became reacquainted with the Vietnamese language by reading its literature and translating it. While living in the US, I translated and published Vietnamese folk poetry and a book of new Vietnamese fiction. In 1999, I returned to live in Vietnam for two years and a half, and so I became very comfortable with Vietnamese, and yet, even then, I continued to write in English. It was during my time in Vietnam that I felt challenged to write in Vietnamese, but this did not happen until I left. In fact, I wrote and published my first Vietnamese poems while living in Italy, where I stayed for two years. As you well know, each language has its unique shades, hues, quirks, wickedness, and sense of humor, and so a man who switches from one language to another becomes, essentially, a different actor. The Vietnamese language accentuates some of my emotional tendencies, but so does English. One language may be snarkier, starker, drier, more morose or abrupt than another, and syntaxes vary considerably, so a man who’s familiar with at least two languages will inflect or contaminate each with the other. Since my Vietnamese writing shows American influences, both emotionally and linguistically, the reverse must be true also. Before I could write directly in Vietnamese, I merely translated my English language poems into Vietnamese. Later, though, some of my Vietnamese writing was so immersed in the language, it couldn’t even be translated into English. The subject matters of some of these poems or essays would not be of much interest to an American audience anyway. For the last six years, however, I’ve been so preoccupied with my Postcards from the End of America project that I’ve written nothing in Vietnamese except for a poem and, for the occasion of the Vietnamese new year, three disquieting essays for a high-circulation Vietnamese-American journal.
al-Khateeb: You talked about your “reacquaintance” with the Vietnamese language by reading and translating its literature. And also about the “return” or “the coming back” to live again in Vietnam, when you “felt” yourself challenged to write in your own mother tongue, but you couldn’t write any, until you left, and were living in Italy. Does that mean that you could find your own “Vietnamese literary voice” — if I may say — only in exile? Especially when we read that your first book, Fake House (2000) was confiscated at Saigon’s post office when you went to pick up an author’s copy! Was that “switching” point between the two languages you talked about — between their unique shades — needed for you to be far away from the land where you were born, the land that “confiscated your first book,” to achieve that “point of departure” from one tongue to another?
Dinh: My graduation into writing in Vietnamese was a gradual, natural process, and not subjected to any design. I returned to Vietnam to get away from the United States, then came back to the US to get away from Vietnam, only to end up in Italy, thanks to the intercession of my New York publisher. I do want to say something about writing from the outside. As an immigrant, I had to learn English from scratch, and to this day, I’m liable to make a basic mistake at any moment, but this precariousness is actually good, since it forces me to watch my step at each moment. As I’ve said to novelist Matthew Sharpe in an interview, “I’m a hyperconscious writer.” That said, all writers are already hyperconscious, or at least much more paranoid about language than your average person. If you tussle with language at all, you know how tough, slippery, and devious it is, and can make you look ridiculous at any moment. Further, any writer knows that language is an extremely malleable conceit, and its naturalness is merely a goofy illusion. Each word is bizarre, much less a bunch of them strung together, and it is often the native speaker who butchers his language worst of all, yet is quite gleeful and insolent about it. Commenting about one of my postcards, a reader suggested that I should “ingrate” myself into more communities. Of course, he meant “ingratiate,” but even that is wrong, for I’m just observing and talking to people, and not trying to kiss their asses for ulterior gains. Thinking of the wrong word, he confused it with another that’s even more inappropriate. Of course, everyone makes linguistic mistakes nearly constantly, but since a writer is always dealing with language, he has many more chances to mess up.
With so many mind-scrambling gadgets, comprehension is more elusive than ever, but this doesn’t prevent the sloppy reader and thinker from having vehement opinions on just about everything, and he’s not shy about spewing his malaprop, off-the-cuff gibberish. If this was relatively rare, it could be laughingly dismissed, but one sees it everywhere now, so it has become a societal handicap, no less, and one that greatly assists the criminal elites in their husbandry of the bleating flock.
Getting back to the theme of writing from the outside, I published this in the American Poetry Review in 2004: “I’ve come to realize that I much prefer to live on the periphery of the English language, so that I can steer clear of the tyranny of its suffocating center. In this sense, I am a quintessential American. A Unapoet, I like to homestead just beyond the long reach of Washington […] Hearing the rapid syllables of a foreign language, a bigot is infuriated because he’s reduced to the status of an infant. Poets, on the other hand, should welcome all opportunities to become disoriented. To not know what’s happening forces one to become more attentive and to fill in the blanks. Hence, poetry.”
al-Khateeb: Please explain what you mean by Unapoet?
Dinh: Though highly educated, the Unabomber lived in a primitive shack in Montana, away from mainstream society, so by calling myself a Unapoet, I was pointing out my existence away from mainstream America, which in that sentence is depicted as “the long reach of Washington.” There is an American phrase, “the long arm of the law,” meaning law enforcement can get you anywhere, and Washington, as “the world’s police,” can harass or even kill people worldwide. American culture also distorts one’s perception, so by living outside of it (at the time), and away from its media and language, I could see the world (and America itself) more clearly. Though I’m back in the US now, I exist on the fringe and am connected to no institution. Like the Unabomber, I try to maintain my mental independence.
Though I don’t send bombs to people, like the Unabomber, I understand his frustration with mainstream society.
al-Khateeb: Are you familiar with Arabic poetry and literature?
Dinh: I must admit to knowing next to nothing about Arabic literature. Nevertheless, I’ll attempt a few observations about Mahmoud Darwish, since all writers can learn much from his life and work. First off, it is instructive and inspiring to see a poet who was deeply engaged politically, his entire life, without compromising his creative development. In fact, it was precisely his courageous willingness to grapple with the gravest crises affecting his community that gives his work such gravity. Though he tapped into timeless themes such as loss and homelessness, he never lapsed into a philosophical resignation, but struggled for justice, meaning, and his people until the very end. He believed that words, and thus poetry, must matter. Though he didn’t always write for the masses, he could reach them at will, and this achievement has become so rare that I can’t think of a contemporary example. Although Darwish wrote many private poems that drew strictly from his personal life, he never forgot that poetry’s most challenging and noble task was to give voice to an entire people. “A nation is as great as its ode,” Darwish claimed most interestingly, because the implication is that a people’s greatest canto, song, or poem is its highest achievement, and not its pyramids, cathedrals, skyscrapers, or aircraft carriers. Now, of course a poet will say that, you snicker, since it inflates his own status, but since words can survive even when bricks and stones have been pulverized, or when the country itself has been disfigured or dismantled, Darwish’s assertion rings truer than ever.
In the early twentieth century, when the French had already colonized Vietnam for sixty-odd years, a Vietnamese intellectual, Pham Quynh, pronounced that as long as the nation’s epic poem Truyen Kieu survives, the language and nation survive. This statement echoes, somewhat, Darwish’s claim, but a people can’t merely settle for a linguistic home. It can’t feed and clothe its children or have a proper, dignified place in the world with just a song, no matter how great, so it’s essential that the Palestinians, like the Vietnamese, regain their territory. Although there are ambiguities in Darwish’s work, its overriding statement is abundantly clear, and that’s that Palestine has been stolen from the Palestinians by the Jews, to which he famously addressed:
From you the sword — from us the blood
From you steel and fire — from us our flesh
From you yet another tank — from us stones
From you tear gas — from us rain
It is time for you to be gone
Live wherever you like, but do not live among us
It is time for you to be gone
Die wherever you like, but do not die among us
For we have work to do in our land
In this entire poem, there is no bloodthirsty vengefulness, but merely a logical and quite restrained request for the invaders to get out!
al-Khateeb: As you have been lately involved in politics, how do look at the horrors done by the American administration(s) to other nations: the invasion of Iraq and of Afghanistan, for instance? And what about their endless support for the Israelis despite their shameless war crimes against the Palestinians, whether in Gaza, or elsewhere?
Dinh: Oil and Israel are the two reasons for American criminality against the Muslim world. Without these factors, Muslims would not be so demonized and attacked by Americans, and this pattern will continue as long as Israel and oil remain. Israel is an unprecedented historical mistake, for it makes no sense to claim a right of return for Jews after 2,000 years, but deny the same to Palestinians after six decades, though many have lost their homes much more recently, for this landgrab is an ongoing process that won’t end until all Palestinians disappear from “the Jewish homeland.” It’s tragic and farcical that a Chinese Jew can move to Jerusalem tomorrow, but not an exiled Palestinian who still has the key to his ancestral home. Israel is a violent concept that is executed and maintained with terror, and by this I mean American-sponsored Jewish terror, though these world-class terrorists are so relentless with their propaganda, they have made “terrorist” nearly synonymous with their enemy, the Muslim. There is hope for Palestinians, however, for as the USA implodes, Israel will also go up in smoke. Working in tandem, the US and Israel have collapsed several Muslim governments and generated millions of refugees. The same fate awaits Israel, though its dissolution should be permanent, for only then will peace come.
Those living outside the US can’t fathom the American media’s extreme bias towards Israel. During the 2014 attack on Gaza, for example, American television viewers were only shown images of Palestinian buildings being blown up from afar, as if there were no people working or living in them. No corpses were seen being pulled from rubbles. While Palestinian victims stayed invisible, a single missing Israeli soldier had stories about him, with his portrait featured to emphasize his humanity. Unlike Palestinians, this Jew had a face. Female Israeli soldiers were shown sobbing over their fallen (male) comrades. When the massacre of Palestinians was finally over, there were articles about how quickly Gaza had gotten back to normal, so it was no big deal, you see, this butchering of 2,192 people (as compared to seventy-seven deaths on the Israeli side). As if to prove this point, photos were shown of bustling Gaza streets, with kids happily playing.
On American television, there’s a peculiar show called “Inside Israeli Basketball.” Since the level of hoops in Israel is not particularly high, and its b-ballers are entirely unknown to an American audience, there is no sporting reason for this program, except that basketball is only a pretext to display Israel in a banal, and hence benign, light. Game footage and practice scenes make up only a small part of this show, for the camera often follows the players or coaches of Maccabi Haifa, the featured team, all over Israel. (Everywhere, of course, except Gaza and other troubled spots.) In one scene, one might visit a lovely beach, while in another, enter a Palestinian restaurant. Here, two teammates, an Israeli and a black American, enjoy camel rides, and one can see that they’re very chummy with each other. The American, Ike Ofoegbu, gushes, “Here in Israel, the guys are very nice. They speak English, first of all, so they can interact with you. They’re really friendly […] To finally be here in Israel is very exciting. I’m just blessed to be here.” Highly unusual for a reality show, there is no rancor or argument in “Inside Israeli Basketball,” and no trashy behavior at all. Here, you won’t find any screaming, backstabbing, jealousy, or drunkenness, though these are the staples of just about every other reality show on American television. Always depicting Israel in an idyllic and harmonious light, this show is no more than propaganda, then, a carefully crafted mask to hide the endless violence needed to maintain this sham nation.
al-Khateeb: Though your poems were anthologized in the Best American Poetry series 2000, 2004, and 2007, and two of your prose poems were included in David Lehman’s groundbreaking book Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present (2003), and though Village Voice selected your short story collection Blood and Soap as one of the best books of 2004, I sense, in one way or another, that your are still “away” of the mainstream literary scene. Is it so?
Dinh: Yes, I’m only a tiny blip on the American literary scene, a barely noticed writer. My ten books of all types have gotten only a handful of reviews. A writer’s only task, though, is to become a better writer, and since this is a lifelong, all-encompassing quest, it should leave him no time to worry about his career. Instead of schmoozing and networking with other writers, I’ve been getting drunk with plumbers, roofers, cashiers, jailbirds, and cops, etc. If given a choice to spend an afternoon with a National Book Award winner or a manicurist, I’d choose the latter. Once a year, professional American poets attend a convention where they can suck up and screw down. Craig Santos Perez sums it up, “you get to travel to a fun city, you get to hear / meet many poets, editors, and publishers, you get to learn many things at panels, you get discount books, you get to eat at new restaurants, you get to dance, you get drunk, you get laid — what’s not to like?” While that may sound terribly exciting to many poets, I’m not at all interested. Moreover, my politics, dozens of appearances on Iran’s Press TV, and opinions about Israel don’t make me any more popular among my American peers, but, again, a writer should just concern himself with thinking, seeing, and listening a whole lot better, and not fret about his professional standing. Instead of ingratiating, he should just hone his chops. I do care very much about making sense to everyone who’s not a writer, however, and in this regard, I’ve made progress, for many ordinary people have sent money to support my Postcards from the End of America project. As a reader, I have to go way outside the mainstream to nourish my mind and spirit, so I don’t mind being on the periphery as a writer.
al-Khateeb: Publisher’s Weekly — in their review of your poetry collection, American Tatts (2005) — described you as “the rising star of the small-press world,” and talked about your “acrid ironies, [and] unmitigated disgust,” saying that “exploring disgust while toying with frames and assumptions, [you] become in one sense a real heir to Charles Bukowski.” To what extent do you think that those “acrid ironies” and that “unmitigated disgust” make you a “real heir to Bukowski”?
Dinh: I haven’t read a whole lot of Bukowski and, frankly, don’t see him as an inspiration. I do admire very much, though, his working-class existence, and his deep sympathy for bottom dwellers of all kinds. He was comfortable around struggling people or outright losers, but along this line, American literature also has Jack London and William T. Vollmann, and Mark Twain also knew how to get down and dirty. The notion that literature wells up from the bottom I also got from reading Vietnamese folk poems. Along with what’s beautiful or transcendent, there’s plenty that’s foul, alarming, or disgusting, so one must examine the whole gamut to have a balanced view of humanity and life. Cesar Vallejo urged, “doubt your feces for a moment,” but the implication here is that shit often weighs on our minds. As a young man, I was also exposed to that crazy lineage of French writers which sprung from Rabelais and peaked with Artaud. From Louis-Ferdinand Celine, I learnt that a writer should never flinch.
al-Khateeb: You translated Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into the Vietnamese, and the same work was also translated by the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh. Why Eliot? And why “The Waste Land”?
Dinh: When I was in Saigon in 2000, poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh asked me to look over his translation of “The Waste Land,” and I made so many corrections, I figured I should do my own version. I didn’t want to steal from Chanh, however, so I said that no line of mine would match his, and this is no easy task, considering there are 433 lines in that poem. Chanh ended up publishing his version in Vietnam, and mine appeared a little later in Vietnamese American venues. Chanh is Vietnam’s foremost contemporary poet, by the way, and he’s the star of The Deluge, my anthology of new Vietnamese poetry. In any case, the decision to translate “The Waste Land” was made by Chanh because this major modernist landmark wasn’t available in Vietnamese. Readers are entirely indifferent to our two versions, however, and I can’t say this surprises me. All the exotic cultural references make no sense to them, and I’m sure many are also annoyed by “The Waste Land”’s meandering and its footnotes. I’ve introduced a few American poets to the Vietnamese audience, but always only through a handful of representative poems. The first to translate Wallace Stevens, a personal favorite, I transposed “13 Ways of Looking at Blackbird” and a few others. Sometimes I translate a poem from an English translation, as in Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living.” I did Pablo Neruda’s “Walking Around” while looking at both the original and different English translations. As you well know, the best poems are not always translated, and often it’s simply because they’re too challenging for a translator. A while back, I was asked about my opinions on translation, and below are some of my observations:
The best way to criticize an imperfect translator is to do a better translation.
Doing this, you’ll make the imperfect, offensive translation, which you’ve sucked on and tweaked only slightly, disappear forever from the face of this earth.
The many resistances in the source poem force the translator to compensate and invent, enriching the language he is translating into.
In both cases, you have one culture or language trying to accommodate another. This meeting point, this border, this collision of avant-gardes, is where the new, improvised and unexpected can happen.
I’m not a translator so much as a tightrope walker between two unreliable dictionaries.
The worst translators are parasites and conmen, the best ones are parasites and pimps. I tend to think of myself as an honest and totally selfless charity worker.
al-Khateeb: Some of your short stories were published in anthologies and magazines as prose poems? First of all, do you believe in a “borderline” between prose and poetry? Then, is there any difference between prose poems and short stories? And, finally, what makes a “piece of writing” a good prose poem?
Dinh: There is definitely a border between prose and poetry, but the two forms do blend into each another. Most people think of a poem as having line breaks, and these dictate how a poem is read, but when there are no line breaks, can it still be a poem? Of course. Take Rimbaud’s “Phrases,” for example. Its absence of a narrative, ecstatic cadence and abrupt shifts within a sentence, and between sentences and paragraphs, all mark it as a poem. In fact, this is poetry at its purest:
“Should I have realized all your memories,— should I be the one who can bind you hand and foot, — I shall strangle you.”
It takes a poet to come up with “realized all your memories,” and to make the leap from “bind you,” in a love poem, mind you, to “strangle you.”
A similar passage might appear in the middle of a novel, and if it does, that’s also poetry.
Conversely, many poems may have line breaks and rhymes, but contain only a minimal amount of poetry, if at all.
Though written in prose, Kafka’s beautifully compact “The Wish to be a Red Indian” is also poetry. Since there’s no story there, it can’t be a short story.
Generally speaking, poetry is more tightly wound than prose, so you should get more protein with each bite. If this doesn’t happen, you must promptly spit it out, demand a full refund (even if you didn’t pay anything) and curse the fake poet, if not beat him up!
al-Khateeb: In your poems, you depict the “borderless body,” not only as a naked existence where the “soul blossomed” — an existence that is open wide, “cleaned from all obsolete and labored presumptions”; the body “blends into all humans, animals and things” and “naked, walks through the street as the very first human,” but also as an “erotic” existence that tends to free the body from its own “chamber music,” from its own “language and meat,” from its “obsolete maps”: to overflow and seep into a “defiant puddle.” Do you think that one can never be a true poet without celebrating the “body electric”?
Dinh: This borderless body suggests the immigrant, a child in the womb, rapists, spouses, sitting in a bar, and empathy. Human bodies are really one continuum that has been tragically yet mercifully broken up. If you’re cut, I should feel pain, and vice versa, and when we’re at our best, that’s exactly what happens. Too often, though, people derive an orgasmic pleasure from watching another body being violated by a drone missile or a bomb. Excited, they cheer. Elias Canetti talks about how instinctively humans laugh at seeing somebody falling, and he traces this to our days as flesh hunters. Since a fallen body represents meat, we laugh out of joy. Beside this atavistic impulse, however, we also rush to help the fallen because we recognize the body in distress as our own. The American entertainment industry, though, is relentless in pushing the fantasy of the super predator, somebody who’s capable of destroying countless bodies “of the bad guys.” With its mesmerizing war and “action” films, Hollywood has amplified, to an insane degree, all of our worst sadistic tendencies. Sex, too, has become a matter of body count, but this is perfectly in line with the American obsession with numbers. As for your question about being a “true poet,” there are so many types of poets out there, but I’d say the majority of them are not about grappling with the body’s hidden logics, but smothering these with verbiage, for language, after all, is most often used to dissimulate and disguise everything, and not just the body. Having said that, neurotic poetry has its place, so a poet who always sidesteps the many bodies lying all around him, some smiling, some freshly killed, also has his place. Just days ago, a Vietnamese poet asked me to translate something, and so I did, “I’m aroused. I’m horny. I’m a whore. I’m an aroused whore. I’m an extremely horny whore.” I’m not sure if she needed that for her Facebook page, or if she was communicating directly to me, but it was clearly her body starting to speak. Not one to be rude, my body spoke back to her, but alas, only by email. Such is our postmodern world.
al-Khateeb: You spent the last seven years photographing the homeless, the angry, the “rebels” of America — or what I might call “the borderless bodies,” borrowing the title of one of your books. Can you elaborate more on this “journey of the soul,” if I may say? What things, in the first place, moved you to do such a thing: to document the other/the real/the outrageous face of America? And to where, through those photos, do you want us to go?
Dinh: Actually, it has only been six years. I started this photography project in 2009, when I got my first professional camera. At the time, I was making these art videos that incorporated poetry and still photography, but with my new camera, I started to roam the streets. Years before, I had been a housepainter, so had known my city fairly well, but by 2009, I had become too alienated from it. I was staying home too much and sitting in front of the computer. It’s telling that the last two major movements in American poetry, Flarf and Conceptual Poetry, are both media-based and inspired. Like everybody else, many poets are enthralled by the Internet. What you have, then, is language feeding on itself. Gleefully recycling its own waste, it stares at its flabby folds in the mirror.
Any important shift in society will show up in art, so if you have a blossoming bourgeoise, you’ll see more middle-class images, and the advent of the newspaper, with its odd juxtapositions of serious news with ads, will usher in the collage. By the early twentieth century, the newspaper had become a part of daily life in modern societies, so people were conditioned to seeing, say, a story about a murder or a rape next to an advertisement for shoes or candies. On a single page, you will see tragedies mingling with the ridiculous or trivia. These common yet jarring juxtapositions in low culture triggered similar strategies found in collage artists, surrealists, Dadaists — then, later, pop artists, etc. What’s often lauded as radical art, then, is no more than an echo of a larger societal change, so it’s really conformist in the extreme, and not radical at all. In a hypermediated culture, the most radical act is to say no to all buffers and regain, touch by touch and one face-to-face conversation at a time, a more tactile reality, for it is, after all, your naked birthright.
Here, I’m talking about a resistance to media, not just its contents but its forms, and to clarify, I’ll give you an example from my own life. In my late twenties, I decided to stop listening to recorded music. First off, it’s highly unnatural and, I contend, even a sign of madness to subject oneself to endless noises that interfere with one’s thinking and perception of the world. Music should be occasional, and by this I mean triggered by a very specific occasion, and not something kept on constantly to make its listeners deranged. Remove this buffer of recorded music and everything in the room becomes instantly more intense. Having said all this, I’d occasionally check out a song on, say, YouTube, just so I’d know what’s happening in the culture. After reading about Miley Cyrus’ supposed twerking, for example, I watched her performance on YouTube. Also, in my daily life, I can’t help but hear recorded music, but when I’m at home, I function completely in silence.
With this conviction, I’ve walked out my door much more often, and just about everything I’ve seen contradicts what’s broadcast relentlessly through the mainstream media, for daily, we’re being told that the economic recovery is on course and unemployment is down, all positive news, but these are all lies, for if you’d walk down American streets and talk to ordinary Americans, you’d know how bad the situation is. Also, the parts of America that are most often seen by visitors are also extremely misleading, for Manhattan, Northwest Washington, DC, or Miami Beach, etc., are but a glossed-up façade to hide the rot that’s spreading across this country.
For a while now, I have been aware of this nation’s downward trajectory. In 2005, I taught a class called “State of the Union.” In it, I asked students to pay attention to their country’s political, economic, and social unraveling, and I challenged them to write politically relevant poetry. Though I’ve taught this writing workshop at various universities, I’ve pretty much stopped getting invitations to teach or even to read, and part of this is because of the deteriorating economy, but the bigger reason, I suspect, is because of my politics. You can’t expect the academy to embrace you when you keep calling it a Ponzi scheme!
Gouging students, American universities send young people to banks for loans that many can never repay, and it is the professors’ job to hypnotize them into thinking they have a bright future. Saddled with terrible, sometimes suicidal debts, many will be stuck with low paying jobs that don’t even require a college education, and even those with “practical” degrees will tumble into this abyss, for a collapsing American economy can’t absorb its many college graduates. As if this isn’t bad enough, foreign professional workers, as in engineers, doctors, and nurses, etc., are also being imported to knock wages down. Though this is done deliberately to benefit employers, it’s cloaked as a benevolent immigration policy so that anyone who questions it is accused of being a racist.
A huge pool of desperate graduates will also keep professors’ wages down and render them dispensable, so what you have are all these docile and conformist intellectuals who are terrified of losing their jobs. The academy, then, is not a hotbed of debates but a padded playpen that delimits the terms of the discussion. There, only the more superficial or privately indulgent kinds of radicalism will be tolerated, for these don’t upset the status quo or alarm the moneyed interests that are wrecking not just this country, but the entire world.
In sum, my project is a diary of America’s ongoing collapse, and I’ve learnt much from roaming around. Before I started, I had never been to a tent city, for example, nor had I seen Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Although Camden is only across the river from where I live, I didn’t know it because, like most people, I had no reason to go there. With its absurdly high crime rates, it’s also considered off-limits. Now, I have a much better understanding of Camden, as well as dozens of other cities I would not have visited. I’ve talked to hundreds of people I would not have approached.
It is ironic, though, that the Internet provides me with a platform to report what I’m seeing and hearing. A rationale for this project is a rejection of media, of living life through a screen, but I’m only reaching you via a screen. For those living in the States, though, my images and words can only confirm what many are already experiencing, and if not, my project is an invitation to go out and see for yourself what’s happening. For those outside the US, my project can be a window into an alternative America, one that’s almost never seen. Mentally trapped in a virtual reality dished up daily by the mainstream media, even many Americans are not aware of how destitute or squalid huge swaths of their country have become. American poverty, though, is not the same as, say, the Vietnamese kind, and having lived in four different countries as an adult, and traveled to a few more, I do have some perspective on this.
America’s relative affluence, though, is a direct result of her status as a super power. Running up the largest trade deficit ever, she is worse than broke, but merchandises continue to flow in thanks to the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency, but this arrangement is unsustainable. Soon enough, Americans will wake up to their true poverty, but in the meantime, the image that’s still projected to the rest of the world is a USA that’s obscenely rich, confident, fun, and free of worries. As Harold Pinter said, “As a salesman [America] is out on its own and its most saleable commodity is self love. It’s a winner,” so there’s a widening gap between the virtual America and the real one. When I posted a couple images of my own kitchen recently, a reader responded:
This might sound weird, but the photos of your kitchen are sort of reassuring. I live in the UK, and my kitchen is pretty much like yours, maybe a bit bigger but everything is from the 1970s and just staggering along. No dishwasher, etc. My US friends look aghast at me — “no dishwasher? how do you survive?” And I think, “What planet are you visiting from?” The advertising pics of America show huge kitchens, even the sitcoms of supposedly “poor” people show incredible kitchens, and meanwhile there’s a hugely populated layer of people in the US (and the UK) that live on microwave meals or fast food because there’s no place for them to cook anything. And then they get fat (and malnourished) from eating crap, and rich folks like my hedge-fund brother say “look at that fat bastard, I’m not paying my taxes to support that.”
The aim of my project, then, is to document the more hidden aspects of this country and also, through my political writing, to attempt to explain why it has become this way. Personally, this has resulted in my becoming more in touch with my city, country, and time. I was tired of being in the poetry ghetto.
Endi Bogue Hartigan on fields and crowds and more
Note: It was a brisk spring night when I went to hear Endi Bogue Hartigan read as part of the Loggernaut Reading Series in Portland. What struck me about her person was a quiet intensity; her work, with its eerie incantatory power, unsettled me. I admired this, found it refreshing in a time when a lot of poetry readings have a light or casual tone — with poets starting out with jokes or stories, or if they are from out of town, something they like about Portland. While I enjoy those readings, too, I was drawn to her work partly because the way she read aligned brilliantly with the collection's strong aesthetics of muscular repetition and urgent complexity. I decided to approach her about an interview because I wanted to know more about how this collection came into being. What follows is an interview conducted over email, stringing out over several months as we slowly found an afternoon here, an evening there, to keep the conversation going. — Eliza Rotterman
Eliza Rotterman: In forming questions about Pool [5 choruses], I turned to your previous collection One Sun Storm and looked for inlets. The following two lines from “Tiger Entries” struck me as significant to my experience reading: “I have wanted all my life to create a field. / If anything my life is to be a field in which a person may speak.” Did you think of Pool [5 choruses] as a realization of this line, and if so, how is a field like or unlike a chorus?
Endi Bogue Hartigan: I do love fields, how you can’t help but see far beyond you, and also the weeds at your feet. There is a walk I take pretty often out at Sauvie Island by some agricultural fields, and sometimes discover tiny things, like little bits of quartz in the gravel. I often turn around at a particular piece of litter, a deflated foil balloon, and, standing there, I sometimes let my eyes follow the swells and expanse of the field. I like that range of scale. I was in a short workshop recently with Eleni Sikelianos and after looking at some recent poems she commented on an attention to scale in my work, which I hadn’t exactly seen before but it felt so obvious once she said it. In One Sun Storm, I was interested in a kind of burning point of perception, how any personal singularity inevitably becomes expanded, multiplied, prismatic — the orientation or disorientation of a voice moving in this context was, is, infinitely interesting to me as an exploration of being. I was seeing language as a touch-point, speaking as a touch-point, so how do we touch within this immeasurable expanse, or beside a yellow foil balloon?
In Pool, the encounter — or the field — was much more public. I started writing this book when we were first getting into the Iraq war and what felt like a pressurized time in terms of public voice, which sometimes became a kind of din to me. I wrestled with what it is to contribute language or voice within that, and the chorus became an avenue both to explore the complex relationship of individual and multiple/public voice and multiplicity on numerous levels. I would not exactly say writing here was like speaking in a field — I mean, it felt more like writing from a piece of gravel along the field edge, or writing in a field that grows loudspeakers, or writing among other pieces of gravel, or writing as the grey of the gravel blurred, or writing as the small amount of air still inside that foil balloon. To enter these poems took sometimes a kind of sideways ingress, or a questioning of entry (i.e., where does your voice begin and end?). But the chorus and the field have similarities in that they are a different scale — wider — buzzing with more insect wings, more tilled, or more weeded than the person who stands within them even when it is the person who speaks/sings. I think the quote you pulled out speaks to a similar hope in both books; it is not the same hope exactly, but a similar hope to create a world through poetry that makes experiential a sense of field, that any traversing of subjects or of scales of touch-points also moves within such expanse, or maybe makes it more possible.
Rotterman: You mention above that you began this book when the US invaded Iraq in 2003. I’d like to hear more about how this moment spurred a shift in your approach to writing and your interest in the scale of public voice. Do you feel an imperative to create a language that comments, and what writers or artists have influenced this choice?
Hartigan: I was troubled by our entering the war, and once we were in it what was troubling to me felt even more complicated. I was reading a lot of daily news at the time partly through my work, and in addition to feeling exposed emotionally to the graphic stories, reports, atrocities — I remember a continual questioning and filtering and reckoning (how do I read this report? what am I part of, and what am I not?), and a certain sense of people blurred together by this reckoning. Meanwhile, there are other kinds of “reports,” reports of perception, the intricate touch-points of seeing starlings and raising kids and trying to figure out how to exist, period. At the very beginning, I wanted to write within what I sensed as a pressurized noise — the public rhetoric of the news, elections, etc. — without merely contributing to noise. In retrospect, I see that initial prompt as an impossibility, for any number of reasons, including that the lament and shock from that war was a vivid, unquiet thing. The pressure this public environment put on language made me realize almost immediately that I needed to branch out from an individual lyric to more multiplicity, and the possibilities of the chorus entered the work here.
I don’t exactly feel an imperative to comment since I don’t intend to answer through poetry, but one of my hopes is that it can show us possible ways to move. In a culture so pervasive with the language of report, opening up the liminal intricacy of interstices, connections, and breakages among individual and multiple voices felt important to me. In terms of influences, there are so many … I think of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s work for its ability to move deftly to help us see into cognitive emotional gaps and shadows. Of course there are those famous hopeful lines about the news of poetry that W. C. Williams expressed in “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower” — and Williams’s poems can make the world feel like the world.
Rotterman: After viewing Field of Poppies by Charles-François Daubigny, I reread your poem “Slippage and the Red Poppies,” and noticed more keenly a compulsive gesture to define.
A crowd today is what can happen in a crowd
Alertness had grown into fear, already.
It is a depiction of the field.
It is a 19th century pre-Impressionist depiction of their red-blotted
the swelling of the field, to which she steps closer for closer resolution.
I’m fascinated by your definition of a crowd, and it strikes me that the increasing frequency of violence in crowds — school shootings, car bombs, drone strikes — and the location — groceries, movies, schools — has made our daily routines suddenly capable of containing the most devastating of tragedies. Is this how you began to see Daubigny’s pastoral painting as charged with violence, or is there a historical significance to this painting and the theme of crowds, fear, and violence?
Hartigan: I am so glad you saw into that — and yes, I was thinking about that common experience within any type of thick crowd with the post-9/11 heightened security measures, negotiating a way to exist with this possibility of unspeakable violence in our world, the skin-thin reality of having to find a way to be within that awareness and without it too, and to exist with wonder at the same time.
The Daubigny painting does not in itself feel charged with violence exactly, but I think this and a number of poems in this book layer disparate kinds of perceptions that touch edges or seep into each other. I had returned to this painting many times (it is at the Portland Art Museum in their permanent collection), and I honestly don’t remember which subject came first in the writing of this poem, the notion of crowd presence or the painting, but they quickly became a common exploration and movement — the voice kind of arced through them. The painting was enchanting to me for a certain loudness inside its quietude: it is a pastoral view, but the depiction of poppies is partially differentiated in some places and blurring together in others, and the movement of the figure on the horse have a certain urgency that I can see as emerging or receding, or both. If there were a manner to explore a new way of being, I thought singing through that painting might provide as much a clue as any.
Rotterman: I’m curious about your use of poppies, lilies, and kelp to portray crowds, voices, and perhaps, more obliquely, restlessness and unrest, confusion, and injury. Can you talk a little about how you began to see natural landscapes in this way?
Hartigan: If you’ve been to the Oregon coast — or really almost any coastline — you’ve probably seen tangled heaps of kelp, those drying, gelatinous, fly-ridden, stinky, wonderful heaps. I often end up reading “kelp chorus” when I give readings from this book, partly because of the sound, and sometimes I ask people to imagine these kelp mountains as an embodiment of voice, but multitudinous voices, tangled. I am pretty sure when I wrote this poem that the kelp and the chorus were a clustered entity from the start, so it is hard to see one as reflection of the other, exactly. I always liked how the chorus in classical literature could exist both inside and outside the narrative of the theater at the same time, so in the context of this poem, I imagined this kelp mixture at the shore edge in that similarly paradoxical space, where voices may or may not touch, and there is sting in both distance from and closeness to this tangle.
The entry point is different with each poem that touches on natural forms of course, whether they are lilies, or other forms, but I’m definitely drawn to poetry that has physicality to it — whether through music, thought, or imagery. I’ve been fortunate to live in pretty amazing places (I have spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii), so it’s easy to use language drawn from this environment as a kind of material paint. But it is more than just paint; it is not secondary but intrinsic. The kelps and lilies and shorelines of the natural world are a nuanced place to explore complex, public subjects like crowds and violence. It is also a way to say that “confusion and injury” inevitably occur in the context of this lushness, that they are simultaneously the material.
Rotterman: In an interview with Rusty Morrison, you discuss repetition:
I don’t actually think of repetition as a thing in itself in the course of the poems. It’s like one organ among all the other interconnected organs of sounds and sense — which move together as one animal, as if it is living. I like how repetition can move me through a series of orientations; it can calibrate and recalibrate a meaning or phrase subtly in different contexts. If it’s a human animal, maybe repetition is its gait.
I’m interested in your use of repetition. It seems to provide you movement through and access to the voice of media culture, which can be characterized by repetition as well. Can you say more about this?
Hartigan: One of the reasons I am drawn to repetition is that it is a great way of simply letting things in. It signals time and its permeability since each repetition brings with it a new vantage point; also, it can imply that this particular item repeated is not fully realized in its first instance (it needs to be turned over in a new space), so repetition invites more and more into the dynamic of the poem and expands it. When I think of references to media culture in this book, I think of the language of reportage or advertisement or sociological numbers — common forms of language that aim to reflect or convince us of real things, actual touchable things — but how this language can also minimalize its subject and fail to touch us. The poems in Pool include — or at times, comment on — the slippage points or limits for this type of language. I say slippage because in some ways I wasn’t differentiating mass culture perception as distinct from other perceptions as we move through them. Perception of things we call mass culture — say, something taken in from a TV ad — can bleed edges with the specificity of our lives, i.e. a speckled starling, and this bleeding was interesting to me.
Like I said in that interview with Rusty, repetition is very much interconnected with other elements of each poem, but I am definitely drawn to it, partly for its iterative and incantatory effect which propels forward. It can also be very sense-rich, and a way of moving forward tangibly (through sense) through new arcs and exploratory “fields.”
Rotterman: I love to read “Ocean Interstice” aloud, and I think this is because the poem so perfectly creates the experience of encountering an “interstice” in cognition (likely accomplished by the formal choice to begin each line with a prepositional phrase), while at the same time a swift, compounding current (restless, somber, plaintive) is fast around my knees. It’s really a beautiful moment, reading this poem aloud, and it reminds me that poetry is a living art and a single voice has retained its ability, at once primitive and nuanced, to create vulnerability and connection. I’m curious about your process in composing this poem, as well as an elaboration of your ideas on the ability of sound to evoke experience — specifically in contrast to noise, which is defined in the book’s epigraph by the Worth Health Organization as “unwanted sound.”
Hartigan: Thank you so much for your kind words and for describing your very rich reading of this poem. This was written as a love poem for my husband, Patrick. I’m glad you point this out, since not all the poems in this book are oriented toward that more public political din of a chorus — multiplicities are interior also, and love is here too in the poems — its intricacies. Patrick and I have now been married seventeen years, and I wrote this at our ten-year anniversary. Being together for this long means being together on so many different layers of experience, and writing from the breadth of these layers of time together was part of the challenge that created this poem. I felt that a more positioned voice in time as a love lyric could easily be too singular, somehow not sufficient, and I realized that this sense of difficulty at the breadth was important to me to keep and express. I decided to experiment with shifting the position of the voice with each line with the incantatory “to the left of, to the right of …” to get at this expanse in some way. Once I was writing, unexpected movements of sound occurred and the turning of images — delphinium, choruses, sand, so there is a kind of tumbling forward momentum which I listen for, and follow. I hope this poem enacts how sound can carry us the way people carry us, inexplicably forward, which is how love carries, in my experience.
Sound is not always this, of course — it is sometimes cacophonous material we do not wish to be carried in — but yes, poems are read with our living bodies, and I am so happy to hear your connections. In terms of the World Health Organization quote in the epigraph of this book, how we orient ourselves toward sound (and noise) seems to matter in some way — even noise can be seen merely as “unwanted sound.” How we orient ourselves and move within it, how softly we listen, and what we make of this seems to be a place of opening and possibility.
Rotterman: While you work very intensely with sound — and to tremendous effect — I wonder how often you think about silence(s) in your poetry. Is this something you have explored in the past or see yourself exploring in the future?
Hartigan: Your question made me think today about watching old Western movies — the way they can feature those haunting frontier “silences” inserted into the drama — but if you think about something like a still prairie scene, it is actually a little more silent if you hear a rustling through the grass and then nothing. Silence is always to a degree, of course, and in a context, like sound. The space in which there is not language can be experienced as a true break or as an emotionally charged tightrope (or anything in between) — so silence can be so many things in context, is malleable, and yes, I hope to keep exploring and experimenting with this. I think about the white space of the page and the impact of it on the language. In terms of process, I tend to consider and play with this quite a bit before finalizing a poem, and while sometimes the spatial relationship is clear to me from the start, often reading the poem to myself over and over helps me to feel out cadence and then to consider where in that cadence I experience gaps, or want to leave spatial openings for the reader. I would like to keep thinking of it as an active space, but what that activity is can change from poem to poem.
In terms of future work, lately I have been writing a series around clocks and time, the interstices and swirls and gaps of measured and in some ways unmeasurable days. It’s too early to say how silences will play into it, but your good questions have given me much to keep thinking about, Eliza … these are the best kind.
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.