Transfer and estrangement
Gail Scott in conversation with Jane Malcolm
Note: The following conversation unfolded over a couple of warm, sunny months in Montreal. I was inspired to interview Gail on the occasion of her recent retirement from the Université de Montréal, where she taught creative writing for fourteen years and was a cherished colleague and mentor to me and many others. One night, over a lovely dinner, Gail and I began talking about her dual role as Montreal writer and experimental novelist and about the many life experiences that accompanied her engagements with Quebec feminism, New Narrative, and Language poetry. These musings continued through a series of written exchanges that eventually became this interview.
Gail Scott is a formidable figure in the history of feminist theory and within the communities of New Narrative and Language writers whose experiments with narrative and subjectivity challenge the limits of linguistic possibility, destabilize self-expression, and articulate queer and indigenous identities. Gail’s influence in my own intellectual formation cannot be underestimated — her work has been essential to my feminist politics, for the ways in which her commitment to collective intellectual labor, transgressive politics, language hybridity, general rule breaking, and a gleeful eroticism have made a feminist intellectual utopia and intersectional thinking both something to strive for unapologetically. We likewise share the rare experience of living and writing as Anglophones between French and English in the postcolonial province of Quebec, where a polyphony of cultures, indigenous and immigrant, influences all aspects of social, civic, and artistic life. I see this interview as a way to pay homage to the vast feminist genealogy that Gail’s work has made possible, as well as her major contributions to contemporary experimental writing in North America and beyond. — Jane Malcolm
Jane Malcolm: Because we’re having this conversation in Montreal, maybe we could start by talking about writing in/from a very specific cityscape. Montreal figures so prominently in much of your work, and I wanted to ask you about being received, viewed, or understood as a Montreal writer. I find that your experimental novels are quite geographically inscribed — that is, very intimately bound with a palpable, specific, even idiosyncratic urban landscape (often Montreal) that is quite familiar to those of us who live here, but that also acquires a sense of estrangement in the telling. Do you embrace this identity? Does it seem important to be a writer from a particular place, or are you a writer in a particular place? I ask this because your relationships with other contemporary writers, the links and tendons between your work and the work of, say, the experimental poetry scene in New York or the New Narrative writers in San Francisco, are also very significant. In fact, before we were colleagues at the Université de Montréal, as an American, I knew your work much more in the context of Language poetry, and it was only once I got to know Montreal that I really internalized how important the city is to your writing, but also how important national (or in this case, Québécois) identity is to readers and writers within Canada more generally (I’m revealing some of my American naïveté). As much as you are associated with Montreal, you actually came here from elsewhere, n’est-ce pas? Can you tell me a bit about that journey? If we look to The Obituary, for example, other places and identities play equally important roles in Rosine’s unfolding, as it were. I also thought to mention the complex politics of Anglophone writing in Quebec (a very specific genre that non-Canadian readers are not necessarily aware of), and I wonder if this sense of writing in/from a place transfers to language, to writing in/from English, as well, since, in many ways, I understand your work as occupying the space between languages, or playing with the space of hybridity between English and French.
Gail Scott: I love that you start with the question of estrangement. To make strange is to mettre en relief. Montréal’s swerve from the continental “normal” — via its interminable Francophone struggle to defend ways of living and cogitating other than those of the English-speaking provinces — still offers an alternate syntax. But the city’s digressive curve has to a degree “normalized” since I arrived [from about ninety miles away] to a [’70s/’80s] moment of anger and rebellion. For a young writer, the city’s deployment of pleasure, naughtiness, and various resistances, as a salve to semicolonial oppression, offered a heady anything-goes intensity to all kinds of experiment. I did not know then of Viktor Shklovsky’s saying that in war [revolt, rebellion], life becomes strange, and in becoming strange, becomes artful. In some ways, things have come round again. In preparing my novel of that era, Heroine, for a new edition, I was struck by the parallels with the present moment: the resurgence of the left, of feminism, of exploration of alternate ways of loving and living, and an enhanced concern for the general moral and physical health of our planet. Of course the terms are different. Artists who are of the age I was then are not only offering ways to revisit issues from the late twentieth, but also to shine light where we seriously failed. We are fortunate to experience, contemporaneously, a great age for emerging artists — notably black and Indigenous artists, and younger LBGQT artists.
I should add that to embrace “making strange” also requires continual rupture with one’s own trajectory. Early on, I determined to start afresh with each new project, making it “strange,” with respect to what I had already done, by resisting deploying the same old devices to express the space where interior and ever morphing exterior meet. For example, my increasing consciousness re: Indigenous presences in my ancestry and family — spurred on [because consciousness is always also collective] by the belated impact of Indigenous matters on Canadian whiteness — led me in The Obituary to seek out repressed traces of what I could project of a family that was burying part of its past. The tale pointed to the living presence of another cadence in the shadow of the sign of the cross on the mountain in our so-called [post?] colonial city. Learning to listen to French and to import what had I learned on that cusp into my writing has made my texts, I hope, porous to other cadences.
I did not want to only listen: years of engaging with Francophone writing, while not deeply read by my community — for reasons either of principle, or of limited English fluency — became hard. I was thrilled, after a conference in Vancouver where experimental feminist writers found themselves pitted against Language writers, to get a typed letter from Carla Harryman, both feminist and a Language writer, on a piece of torn paper, describing the mess of her kitchen, before getting onto more serious topics. And I knew I had found in English an interlocutor similar to the terrific experimental women writers of my Francophone milieu. I immediately fell in love with Carla, her work, her person, her conversation. In the early ’90s her husband Barrett invited me to read in San Francisco, where I met Dodie Bellamy, Bob Glück, Kevin Killian, Camille Roy, the queer New Narrative writers. The conjuncture of queer, left, and formally experimental prose in English made me simply euphoric. There followed our anthology Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative. Still, I was aware that my writing came from the North, had a different relation to US culture, especially to popular culture. By 2008, I was visiting New York where there was a thriving poetics milieu also built on the bedrock of the relationship between politics and formal interrogation in writing. New York also reverberated with the kind of multicultural and socially aware ambience I love.
Malcolm: I am quite enamored with Shklovsky’s notion of the artful as the consequence of the strange, the violent, the unsettling. In a way, I wonder whether your most political writing is, in a sense, to be found in some of the most playful (with language), abstract moments? If, in fact, the most political writing is the most distantly familiar — as in Stein’s notion of “exactly as resemblance” — how can we write about our contemporary political moment, for example, without ironic distance or at least cynicism, or without acknowledging the infinite gap between language and that which it strives to capture? It seems very exactly true, in that Steinian sense, that we are experiencing an exciting resurgence of political art and artful transgression in a (quite fatiguing) moment of global crisis. For my part, I’m very aware of the resurgence of feminism as a legitimate critical stance, maybe no longer the “ism that dare not speak its name,” as Mira Schor once called it. But it’s also a very misunderstood category, in the space of the mainstream. You mention some early tensions among the Language poets, a standoff of sorts between pure language experimentation and feminism, which at the time really fell mostly along gendered lines, I imagine. And Carla’s work bridges that gap in a very important way. Something I’ve always held onto from my first reading of Theory, A Sunday is the way your essay opens critical space for the “subject-in-the-feminine,” a much-needed space at that time (and now, still). Unlike in the ’70s and ’80s, we are fortunate that all kinds of (once) othered, variously queer subjectivities are finding their way to the page, but I know a few writers who really continue to object to what they see as the division between the death of subjectivity (uncreative writing, the conceptual, etc.) and the lyric-that-dare-not-speak-its-name. As in, there are still a lot of individual subjects who need to speak before we erase the “I” altogether in the name of (anti-)artfulness. I guess I’m wondering: how do you feel about feminism now? And do you see the reissue of Heroine commenting in any way on the afterlives of these “subjects-in-the-feminine”?
Scott: If I want to think about art as permanent revolution, it can’t be single-issue anything. Heroine features a feminist in a context where gender, class, and language oppression intersect in a pressure-cooker context that made everything seem possible. The paradox, as you mention: art is less effectively political … if directly political. Yet, it is hard to find good art that does not start from some deep sense of urgency. I’m not sure one can be engaged at an ironic distance. If the line simply continues without being crossbred with the non-esthetic fact, nothing is created [Shklovsky again]. To create is to be in excess of received notions of the esthetic and the social. This is where distancing [estrangement] becomes a question of form. Heroine’s love-besotted feminist is trying to remake herself into what she thinks of as an all-round revolutionary. And she and her feminist friends — whose French mother tongue is being suppressed — certainly get that language is political as regards the suppressed feminine as well. The novel complicates among other things the idealist militant girls-don’t-cry-over-love of the era. The speaking subject spins in a vortex of contradictions re: how to escape our own soap opera, often so embedded we can’t see it. The current edition of feminism is mercifully more intersectional in its struggle to assume this “I” while more than ever acknowledging that we are women who are gobbling up the planet, using resources not equitably shared, including those whose land and citizen rights we continue to exploit. Thus, assuming the “I” also means breaking it. In our ’80s Sunday Theory group, our investigation of l’écriture au féminin took from critical theory, and the explosive political context, the better to write “she” autrement. The term écriture au féminin gets confused with Hélène Cixous’s écriture féminine, which some read as implying that female subjectivity exists as an already predetermined thing. … As you say, Stein’s notion of “exactly as resemblance” suggests that a subject(ivity) cannot be pinned down. I love how she zanily underscores this in, say, Four Saints in Three Acts, which is pure camp. In the radical formal experiments of queer New Narrative writing, and also of the best feminist writing, subjectivity is basically conceived as being aléatoire, i.e. performance. So yes, the more camp, the more playful, the more out there the work, the more, I believe, it is politically effective. I’m thinking of Eileen Myles in Chelsea Girls. Of Renee Gladman, a black writer whose novels do not often talk directly of blackness, but whose work shimmers with resistance — and with a presence, a sound, not common to mainstream novel whiteness. Or the work of the three remarkable young Indigenous poets, Liz Howard, Jordan Abel, and Billy-Ray Belcourt, all winners of the prestigious Griffin, whose writing explores layers of identitary issues by foregrounding First Nations knowledge in both confrontation of, and in conjunction with, science, computer technology, and philosophy.
Malcolm: I love the idea of writing “she” autrement, especially because it’s a conceptual problem, a problem of language and self-expression, that is ongoing. What I have always taken from Cixous is, as you note, a fundamental, cultural sense of woman-as-other, l’écriture féminine as an essential differentiation. But what a difference your simple preposition makes in this gender equation — écriture au féminin marks or allows for the performance of gender in the writing, allows for a writing/speaking subject that is distant, estranged from the self, almost in a Rimbauldian “Je est un autre” mode, that takes on femininity as drag and plays with this category, that allows the subject to play with camp or even to transition. It reminds me of what I call the Mina Loy gambit, from her 1913 “Feminist Manifesto,” in which she suggests that women of the early twentieth century face a choice between “Parasitism, Prostitution, or Negation.” Of course, Loy’s ambivalent feminism is very much of its time and, in a certain sense, diluted by her engagement with eugenicist rhetoric. But I have always understood this trifecta as a kind of feminist brainteaser, in the sense that it appears to be a lose-lose-lose set of choices — marriage, taboo expression of female sexuality, or nothingness. But the space of Negation, like the distance between self and language, is also the space of possibility (yet another instance of occupying that space between), a trap door out of the gambit … and thus always the right move. What do you think about the performance of femininity, both in your own writing and more broadly?
And though I wouldn’t want to draw an uncomplicated line from Loy’s manifesto to Renee Gladman’s genre/gender experimentation and engagements with race (or at least I would want to acknowledge the discordant politics of certain of our feminist forebearers with those of our contemporaries), I’m so glad you mentioned her novels. Gladman’s ambivalent narrator is always estranged from her environment, like a floating signifier in Ravicka, and the dystopian feel of the Ravickian trilogy strikes me as somewhat campy, really, in the most political way. And camp, like feminism, also seems to be having its moment in the mainstream, also perhaps without the heft or nuance that those truly implicated in the discourse might hope for. So, how can we relate resistance to performance (of race, gender, etc.)?
Scott: The late great Louky Bersianik coined the term l’écriture au féminin, pointing out that le féminin is a masculine noun (thus, resisting the language essentialism implied by écriture féminine): One reconnoiters, via scraping off that which erases, among other things, the feminine as autre, opening not only that box, but (I would add), a plurality of possibilities. Writing as a continuous dance of desire and resistance has on occasion fostered a kind of excess au féminin such as I first read in certain twentieth-century innovative or experimental prose works (Jane Bowles, Clarice Lispector, Kathy Acker); works akin in their methodology with contemporaneous voicing from, say, LGBTQS+ communities. In the magnificent work of Eileen Myles, for instance, the body, early in struggle against tenets of female socialization, emerging as a brilliant gay “they,” or as Eileen puts it: I’m the gender of Eileen. Making art can begin as a bowing this way or that in response to surrounding discourses and postures before it gets refined into the gestures that feel most apt for the particular moment and artist. There is a performance of femininity in Heroine and in Main Brides, but the trajectory right away starts digressing into lesbian desire, and the word “feminine” gets complicated as it absorbs additional political and personal emergencies into art experiment. The critic Dianne Chisholm called Main Brides femme activism. By My Paris, the flaneuring figure is reduced to the smallest Chaplinesque “I” possible, in the interest of maximum porosity. [But ends with a very hot girl/girl coda.] The Obituary fractals the speaking subject. She on the novel bed is [part of] a woman [with a boyish fly animus, and a lesbian superego]. I tend to see negativity as resistance. Maybe that explains a certain attachment to Mina Loy’s manifesto, her whole “gambit” [as you nicely put it] bridling with its excesses: … No scratching on the surface … will bring about REFORM. The only method is ABSOLUTE DEMOLITION. I’m afraid you are right about the diluting of feminism, camp, as they get absorbed by the [neoliberal?] vortex. I suddenly have a mad desire to post passages from that manifesto everywhere.
Malcom: Wouldn’t that be glorious? I have also always assumed that Loy was overtly performing gender, and in a double sense — as an ironic Futurist (féministe=passéiste) railing in multiple font sizes in a parody of Futurist excess that adopts the hypermale manifesto form. But she also embodies a feminist speaking subject, enacting the negation she theorizes, like Eileen Myles’s lovely “I am the gender of Eileen,” which offers a model for us all, in terms of how to understand our idiosyncratic daily performance(s). I love how you describe the slow, sly evaporation of that speaking subject in your work, particularly the “smallest Chaplinesque ‘I’” of My Paris, because there is so much implied humor (drag, again) in the performance and in the decision to disappear or negate. Would it kill the magic to ask you to elaborate on those Chaplinesque qualities a bit? I also wonder, given the steady shift in the amount of space the “I” occupies in your novels [Somehow “novel” never seems like the right word — Prose experiments? Language tapestries? Poetic elaborations? What do you like to call them?], how have you conceived of subjectivity, performance, and resistance in your forthcoming novel? What kind of “I” can we expect to see or not see? How does that dance of desire and resistance take shape?
Scott: My new work, Furniture Music, takes place in Lower Manhattan, 2008–2012, so essentially during the young Obama period. I lived there off and on for four years, in search of writers who shared a similar desire for writing at an intersection between politically and formally radical art. It was pure happiness to attend so many good readings weekly at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, The Bowery Poetry Club, the Segue series, or Dixon Place where Belladonna held forth. My desire was to investigate what poetry could teach me regarding writing “I” as ecologically as possible, while still writing in sentences. Because sentences have the tedious habit of tending toward declarations, of wanting to prove. Writing My Paris — a tale of absorbing the city of light like one might absorb, say, techno music of the era, I had discovered that replacing the verb with the present participle rendered the “I” more fluid. Less assertive, thus more porous. Oddly, years later, when it came to immersing myself in a particular New York topography, I found I was less uncovering new methods for destabilizing the speaking subject, than confronting how inescapable she is if writing in sentences, no matter what one’s estranging intention. If my desire has been and still is to trouble the author/narration relationship in prose — how else can we propose new ways of thinking/perceiving? — I was becoming increasingly aware of that dark web driving any sentencing experiment — a combination of all the baggage we carry around [this baggage is referred to as “psychology” in Furniture Music]. And I wondered why? Was it that in our moment politics had become ultra-identitary? Was it the return of feminism in new manifestations? The impact of complex gender performance? The emergence of black and Indigenous writers as leading lights in contemporary literature? Lately my attempt to both incorporate and transcend this identitary dilemma via a performance of excess in the feminine has led me to old French movies like Agnès Varda’s Bonheur and Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau. Varda’s film deals with class issues as well as relational issues, and my interest in that film may come from a stubborn nostalgia for an era when art and radical politics came together in a flash of discovery that Benjamin called profane illumination. Isn’t it all coming round again?
Malcolm: I’m very interested in the idea of writing in/at the place where poetry meets the sentence, which is, for me, a perfect description of your artfulness and the working experiment/experience we take on as your readers. The dayspring Obama years in Furniture Music really are le moment juste to think about our radical baggage, knowing how desperately we will need to redefine radicality after November 2016, in every facet of everyday life and with respect to every vulnerable subject/identity, as you’ve already mentioned. Your desire to undo narration-as-mastery, or to decouple it from authorship/authority is perhaps the most political thing that writing can do — to freely hand over meaning and interpretation to unknowable readers, in the service of a radiating open text. This seems like a good moment, then, to ask you about pedagogy — which I have wanted to do from the outset, to honor your recent retirement from a distinguished career teaching creative writing at Concordia for ten years and then at the Université de Montréal since 2004. I’m always asking students to pay attention to pronouns, and the troubled “I” you describe above, the one that emerges altered with each successive novel, reminds me of a frequent and necessary classroom conversation about the problem of “I” in/as language. I always think of St. Augustine admitting, “I do not know where I came from,” which I became convinced was a lamentation about the insufficiency of language, about that distant, frustrating pronoun “I,” or of my favorite lines from Laura Riding’s amazing poem “The World and I”: “This is not exactly what I mean / Any more than the sun is the sun.” [what I mean/what I means.] Would you mind talking a little bit about your experience in the classroom as both a writer and a teacher, always, I’m imagining, swerving into the “I” with groups of aspiring writers?
Scott: A mother of a question — with its oxymoron of teacher/creator. I can only say I tried — as have so many in the continental experimental prose writer community, over the years — to develop a pedagogy aimed at dismantling one’s inevitable drift toward conventional thinking. To encourage the students to apply this knowledge to writing practice necessarily involved devices to resist the classic tricks of the commodity novel, which is a fundament of capitalist art and, yes, propaganda. Most importantly, the resistance must take place at the level of the writing subject: it goes beyond recast narrative structure; and beyond the fear of letting go of control, of the comforting tendency to do what came before [only, of course, better]. Can a prose writer let go of the sentence’s drive to pin meaning in order to let language do the thinking? Reading a lot of poetry is fundamental, but so is the relationship to the social, to the street. How does one import poetic language devices, but also [eavesdropped] conversation, and music, and political struggle, etc. etc. into sentencing. And if in writing sentences we manage to fractal the writing [and written] subject into repetitive parts or particles with infinite possibilities — how do we splice or suture such material into a novelesque shape — even if that shape is merely a palimpsest or obviously fake cover-up? For some “working out” is surely required. Otherwise, why write in sentences? Can sentences both think and do wild crazy things, such as discombobulated dance, at the same time? As do Carla Harryman’s, notably in her genial Adorno’s Noise. How can we structure longer work? I am looking forward to Lisa Robertson’s novel Baudelaire Fractal. I am delighted she is taking on the fractal question subsequent to my The Obituary, since I have felt quite alone with my three-sided speaking subject — both persona, and fractaled figure, at least triply in excess of said persona. In this kind of writing, more than seeing the reader as ultimate meaning arbiter, I see us as all involved in this game of language: a conversation of selves, each in their turn composed of other conversations. The inevitable gap you speak of between “I” [if you mean the writing subject] and self is perhaps the space of composition? My favorite thing about New Narrative writers like Robert Glück and Eileen Myles is how they fill that space with aleatory presences that combine the spoken, the written, popular culture and theory in a wonderful alchemy of motion. Both of them are of course also poets. As a teacher, I have struggled with the issue of not imposing the teaching “I” on the writing “I” of the students. I have, however, come to the conclusion that the students who come to me generally know what I am about. So I try to offer the best of that, without shutting their élan with all its as yet unspoken possibilities. Of course, the task is impossible.
Malcolm: And a mother of an answer! May we all refuse to abandon our impossible tasks. I can’t wait to see the reissue of Heroine and to dive into Furniture Music and your newest iterations of that “I.” I’m so grateful to you, Gail, for having this conversation and for doing all of this sentencing with me.