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All sides now: a correspondence with Lisa Robertson
R’s Boat arrived on my desk this week. Once I cracked the cover the book claimed the rest of the morning. It was time allotted for other tasks, but that is what poetry can do. It can arrest. All the other noise of the world shushes, as it should. Poetry cares little for accolades. Good poetry, I was taught, is in conversation. It creates more. On a good day, I believe that is poetry’s ambition. More poetry.
I first heard Robertson read from R’s Boat, or what was then the chapbook, Rousseau’s Boat, at Haverford. Around the time of her visit the Village Voice had referred to her as the “thinking woman’s Anne Carson.” We were reading both Robertson and Carson in both my poetry and fiction workshops. In the “fiction” workshop we were reading the Seven Walks from Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. The morning we were due to discuss her I arrived at my office to find one of my students pacing in the hall. “You have to talk to me about this writing,” he said, “I had no idea writing like this could exist. I have been up all night walking around in it…”
Here is some of my email exchange with Robertson.
SQ: How did R’s Boat come about? I know there was the chapbook with Nomados, and some of the pieces–”Utopia/” for one–were constructed from text you gleaned from your own archive. Is this a process that continued?
LR: All of the poems in the book are built from my archival gleanings. I went over the entire heap of 60-odd notebooks afresh for each poem, each time from a different point of view, or with a different quest in mind, and sometimes with years having passed in the interim. But with each poem I ended up recomposing the gleanings according to very different principles. The first couple were slightly programmatically composed, then less and less so. The poems were written over about 5 or 6 years, so my priorities shifted. But my simple idea was that I wanted to make an autobiographical book that was not self-referential.
SQ: The phrasal gesture, or the signature structure that you have been perfecting over several books now seems to have taken on even greater clarity in this book–if that’s even possible. It’s a way to build a sentence that is propulsive backward and forward, and yet exists utterly independent within a chain of other like-minded phrases. It is densely, intellectually layered and imagistically condensed. And you offer, in pieces such as “A Cuff/,” which begins “It is always the wrong linguistic moment,” and “The Present/” and throughout actually, lines that can be read multiply, but certainly as notes on your process. Did you sense something different click with this text?
LR: I’ve always been completely seduced by sentences, certainly. I think I’m a sentence-lover before I’m a writer. Much of my earlier work has been testing the internal structure of sentences as wildly psycho-sexual-social units. But here I wanted to find a way to include extremely banal, flat, overwrought and bad sentences, by devising a sequencing movement that could include anything. My thought was not to judge, but to float the disparity of the units in a continuum. I think what happens is that the caesura, the space between, becomes extremely active, more active than the sentences themselves are. This has the effect of making any sentence semantically legible in several registers– the meta-textual, as you point out, may be one of them.
SQ: Your texts have been so visually different. Here there is evenness, spaciousness, a quiet command of the page that is heightened by what seems to be a mutual or simultaneous discovery. In “Utopia/” for example, we go from “mercurial botanies” to “muses of women” to:
thI had the body of a woman as far as the hips; below sprang the foreparts of
threthree dogs; my body ended in two curled fish tails.
thI see this from a train.
thI wanted to mould verbs from clanking fragments of justice.
I love how expansive this is, how it is both observer, observed, still and moving, this morphology and jouissance of visual splendour. The cataloging. The image of the boat being, as Zizek notes in Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, an almost necessary mode of being for our fluid, highly changeable times. Is it also a perfect vessel for thought?
LR: Well, I borrowed my boat from Rousseau, who describes, in Reveries of a Solitary Walker, floating aimlessly in a lake observing only the flickering of his consciousness in concert with the various patterns of afternoon–light, water, breeze, foliage. He calls this the pleasurable sensation of existing. There is no longer a foreground and a background, but a cognitive continuum. For me the boat became the figure of this lascivious and boundless perceiving. In terms of composition, this meant an entirely pliable handling of perspective. No subject position, but a distribution of subjectivity as equivalently charged at any point.
SQ: There are wonderful resonances in this text with Lyn Hejinian—particularly Happily—and Juliana Spahr’s work. What do you make of the relationship between the sentence, thinking, and the fact of such an engaged and subversive poetics of the sentence, and of the autobiographical, at this moment in time?
LR: Actually it was Lyn’s My Life that was the starting point for Face/, which next slowly became R’s Boat. Rod Smith is/was editing a special issue of Aerial on Hejinian, and was asking for contributions. Face/ was my response. Then I wanted to keep going. But I’m not so sure about “this moment in time”. For me the polyvalent time of the subversive sentence would “begin” with Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and loop everywhichway to include Djuna Barnes, Ruskin, Nicole Brossard, Libanius, Vanessa Place, Montaigne and Rousseau. The autobiographical is always subversive, because the political subject, bios, is subversive, in suspension, always beginning. In terms of the sentence and thinking, I’m with William James’ proposition that there exists a feeling of “if”, a feeling of “by”, a feeling of “when”.
SQ: People assume that Langpo, a camp you are often associated with, knows or cares nothing for line breaks. Marjorie Perloff has questioned the use of them in contemporary poetry as well. I appreciate calling attention to the convention, particularly where it has seemed to be a fact taken for granted, but I see that nowhere in your poetry. Not even when, as in The Weather, the poems are in a block of justified text. How much attention do you pay to line breaks? Or specifically to the fabulous enjambment that occurs in R’s Boat? For example, from near the beginning of A Cuff/:
One’s own places realism in doubt
But now I want only the discretion of realism
I can’t say it any more clearly than this
I can’t say it any more clearly than this
Philosophers taught me a conversion narrative
LR: Sorry, but I don’t see L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E as a camp. So I can’t be associated with it. Mine is a different nationality, a different generation, a different politics. I feel more conditioned by the FLQ than by the language poets. I read many of their works and sometimes drink with some of them, but for me, as for those poets themselves I think, poetry is not bound by movements, periodicities and canons. Poetry is a continuity fueled by political passion. The Songs of the King James Bible, the songs of Cheika Rimitti, Donne, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Denise Riley, Moure, show us the breach as being the active but submerged tradition of a subversion. The caesura, its turn, as Agamben reminds us, is what distinguishes poetry from prose, not the customs of distribution of words on the page. In the time of the caesura a thinking gathers, dissolves, moves. The immaterial work of the caesura is to subvert the fixing of language by protocols and institutions, to renew a historicity within the subject.
SQ: Do you see a difference between critical writing and poetry? Is this necessarily gendered?
LR: I have often tried to blur the distinction, but maybe I have done this out of an insistence on the primacy of pleasure. Right now there is a particular body of critique that I am working on, a political reading of prosody, in the work of Meschonnic primarily, but also in Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis, and early linguistics, that I simply want to communicate quite clearly, to represent to others hopefully for their excitement. But in the past I have had a certain comfort in approaching critical writing extremely variously. This comfort may come from a lack of stakes in dominant discourse formation, which certainly could be interpreted in terms of gender. It could also come from my long work in Vancouver, where cross-genre and cross-media work has established its own counter-tradition. But I think that none of the possible identity positions in themselves, whether regional, sexual, racial or class based, no matter how non-normative they could seem in terms of centrist positions and their programmatic exclusion from those centres, is any guarantee of a particular subversion of genre. I think that where poetry and criticism may meet is at critique–the active critique of the duality of the sign and its various governances and institutions. Either poetry or criticism may fall short of such a critique.
SQ: What are you reading?
LR: Hannah Arendt, Barbara Duden, Angela Carr, Ivan Illich, Henri Meschonnic, Etel Adnan, Emile Benveniste, Stacy Doris, Goethe.
SQ: What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
SQ: Can we end with a poem from R’s Boat?
Though my object is history, not neutrality
I am prepared to adhere to neither extreme
That which can no longer be assumed in consciousness becomes insolvent
Because it doesn’t finish I can be present
So I decide to speak of myself, having witnessed sound go out
Fear is not harmful, but illuminates the mouth
I am not qualified to comment on the origins of the shapes
The archive pivots on a complicity neither denial nor analysis can efface
It is not true, it shines from your face
Against the hot sun that hits us, nothing’s peace
And pairs that cannot absorb one another in meaning effects
Go backward and forward and there is no place
This is the border—nothing further must happen
The spurious clacking of grass is a dry spell in thought, but not abstract
Just as in dreams there is no limit to further over-determination
I do not wish to enter into that discussion
Memory’s not praise or doubt
It is not a substitution, since there is no prior point
There is no limit to its capacity, nothing that it shall not create
I do not in any way wish to escape.