Lifted: an interview with Lisa Robertson.
Time: 12:32 PM
Site: Tate Modern
Materials: Two paper cups of coffee (one black and one white), two metal chairs, one medium-sized square table, atmospheric noise (din, espresso machine), a range of windows and doors, an exhibition of mixed-media work by Joseph Beuys, some minutes, conversation.
And the quality itself?
It's okay. You get a lot of atmosphere, but when I've done recordings of plain speech they've come out clear. Nothing picks up.
So I had been reading John Clare in a very beginning kind of way, and was starting to become familiar with his work. And when I was interviewed for this Cambridge fellowship I had to describe a project. I said something about John Clare and meter. I actually didn't really know what I was going to do. It's like applying for a grant. You have to be able to describe a project ...
From the very beginning.
As if you know how you're going to do something! So anyways, my only idea--once I actually got the job and arrived there--was that I should do something that pertained to the place where I was. And I had access to the library and the rare book room. It would be stupid, for example, to spend my time reading English translations of post-structuralism. Something I could read anywhere. So I thought I should form a kind of reading-research project that was particular to where I was, that I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do otherwise. I didn't actually know what it was going to be, but I was already interested in the transition from a sort of neo-classical into a romantic cultural paradigm. So I was beginning to read around this cultural nexus, its literary and cultural history. I arrived in Cambridge with a very loose constellation of ideas. I was also very interested in the idea of sincerity as it arose as a romantic paradigm, being so different from neo-classical irony and rhetoric.
It is so different ...
Totally! So I became interested in the idea of sincerity as a problem. And these were the ideas that were circulating, the sorts of--you know--irritants that were circulating. And once I arrived, and was feeling very culturally weird, and very estranged from the situation I was living in--well, you listen very carefully so you can learn how to fit in somewhere, and you try to understand how to conduct yourself. I'm sure you experienced similar things.
And I thought I had to go to fellow's lunch every day and things like this.
When I was in Cambridge I went to one dinner at my college, the first dinner, and I had to borrow a proper gown. Someone told me that the design of the sleeves was meant to indicate your level of study ...
Exactly. I remember at the end of the dinner we had tea and coffee and a man sitting across from me actually reclined in his chair, took a sip of coffee and said poshly, "isn't it lovely to have a civilized meal every once and a while?" I froze, looked at him and thought, "what!?" and pretty much vowed that was it for me.
I felt similarly, but I felt I was required to do it as part of the protocol of my fellowship. And I suppose I could have ignored it all, but like a lot of Canadian girls I was very anxious to be polite. Anyway, I noticed right away that everybody talked about the weather all the time.
I always thought Canadians spoke about the weather more than anyone else in the world.
Well I felt it differently in England. And so I just sort of ... with friends out drinking one night I was generally outlining my feelings of cultural weirdness, and I told them I was going to write a book about the weather. And then that actually became the project, because right away everyone started giving me citations like the BBC ... shipping news.
I listen to the shipping news here late at night--it's very soothing.
Geoff Gilbert told me the shipping news was better than Olson. I just started following up whatever anybody told me. And when I explained what my project was becoming, that led to the rare book room and reading a lot of early meteorological texts. Many of these are in the Cambridge library. Cambridge was really the center of early natural history, so first editions of all those texts are there. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, self-published texts by gentlemen meteorologists. I immersed myself. It wasn't a topic I'd previously enjoyed interest in, and I certainly wouldn't have anticipated becoming interested in meteorological texts ... but they became a kind of nexus for all these ideas around site-specificity and my own cultural estrangement, and the idea of sincerity as it functioned as a cultural trope.
Particularly within Britain?
More within English literature. So I could use the idea of the weather to perturb all these different interests. And I was in a place where meteorology had developed from being a sort of sidecar to literature (I'm referring here to georgic genre) and the history of rhetoric, into being a science. So I tried to exploit the access I had to certain documents and to certain people and their remarkable intellectual generosity.
Was your work also an immediate engagement? I'm thinking of the skies in The Weather, the frequent descriptive patterns and rhythms of that work.
It's all lifted.
It's all lifted?
Yeah, what I did in the rare book room was transcription. You couldn't photocopy the stuff without special permission.
And were you ever reacting to the actual skies in Cambridge?
I looked at them a lot, but I wasn't sitting there describing them. I was approaching the idea of weather via the representation of weather. I was looking a lot at Constable, and reading a lot about Constable, who was involved in early meteorological work. And I was reading Luke Howard, who invented the nomenclature for clouds that we now use. All of these texts and visual and radio representations pertaining to the classification of weather and the representation of weather. None of it was based on my own personal observation of skies. I was researching the shift from neo-classical to romantic culture, and then the shift towards natural history, as we now understand it, as based on the sincerity of objective observation as base practice. But I myself didn't do that.
One of the things that comes to mind when I read The Weather is the landscape painter's practice of touring to collect subject matter, and then returning to amalgamate his observations and sketches into paintings.
Well that's what I did within the library--I toured.
Yes, to me The Weather feels like it emerged out of a similar process.
I didn't write that text in Cambridge. I wrote one part of it there and that's all--"Wednesday." Really, I spent the whole six months researching and transcribing. I took back to Canada notebooks full of everything, and then in Vancouver I figured out ways to take them apart, put them together and splice them.
Did you find this was a necessary difference ... of location?
Yeah, I wouldn't have written that book in Canada. The topic or idea only came as a result of my being in Cambridge.
And in terms of the editing, after?
I suppose. If I had stayed in Cambridge longer I suppose I would have gotten around to writing the book, and maybe it would have turned out differently. It's hard to say. In terms of time, it's good to leave space between a research stage and a composition stage. Let some accidents happen.
So you were working as the Office for Soft Architecture before The Weather?
I was just beginning. What happened is that just before I came to Cambridge ... well, I write gallery catalogue essays. Or I did--I haven't actually written one since I came to France. I used to regularly write them, and because I was hired to write these texts as a poet I could push the form around and curators and artists were quite accepting.
I remember being stunned by your pamphlet Soft Architecture: A Manifesto when I first read it in Buffalo.
That was the first catalogue text I wrote for that project. And I wrote it as an architectural manifesto--sort of invented this architectural movement--but I hadn't yet thought of myself as the Office for Soft Architecture.
I'd like to ask how that shift came about.
When I was at Cambridge I was thinking about the manifesto I'd just written, and I started to think there were a lot of ideas in there that I hadn't finished with. In fact, I'd introduced a group of ideas that I could continue to work with for a long time, probably. I just thought it would be fun to use the fictional component, and for it not to be poetry, and for my name not to be present, and so I continued the false identity that I'd proposed already in the manifesto. When curators commissioned essays from me, I asked to write the essay as the Office. People accepted and supported my game.
I notice you write via "we" a lot.
Yeah, I didn't used to and I think I've been moving away from that for a while. Pronouns are always a problem, and the first person can get pretty toxic. At first "we" seemed funny.
What I like about how you use "we" is that yours is that royal "we," the inclusive "we," but it's not royal at all, but rather it's quite private. I find that peculiar.
Whatever pronoun a work is organized around, you have to trouble it.
So why are you moving away from "we"?
It's just that I've being doing it for a while, and who wants to become a writer who always says "we"? Time to try something else!
Most of your books have been quite different from each other. Does this reflect a conscious effort to change with each book?
My books are not, so far anyway, composed out of bits and pieces; they're composed as books. When I write a book I have a group of problems that I'm working on, typically, and I know what they are--like I just tried to describe the group of problems I was interested in when I started writing The Weather. How I describe those problems to myself, and maybe what they are, changes. Sometimes they develop or turn in direction. They're not unrelated book-to-book, but the problems are different with each project. So I have to invent a way to approach them each time. The old techniques won't work for a new group of problems. It's not just, "O, now I'll try this style." I find it quite hard, the transition between books, because usually I get quite attached to whatever voice and technique I've worked out for a book.
And that's the break period.
Or the unpublishable period! And by the end of it you're finally doing it with some ease, after--you know--several years of struggling along, trying to figure out what you're doing. So it's hard to let go once you've figured it out, but it also seems pointless just to do something because you know how.
What are you working on now?
Nothing--I'm working on a house!
I moved to France a year and a half ago, I got married two years ago.
Sounds like it's been really ...
We bought a house six months ago. We're completely renovating a really old house and barn in a village.
I've been doing little, minor projects. I've been working the way I never used to work--which is writing individual poems--but with the hope that soon I'm going to get to something different. Back to project-based work. I've been doing small translations of Lucretius and Pliny, this and that.
Are you tempted to do anything directly related to being in France?
Something that interests me is the relation of English romanticism to the French Revolution, particularly Mary Wollstonecraft's journalism, and William Wordsworth's relation to the French Revolution. English romantic poets and writers being witnesses, and often accomplices, to the tremendous shift in cultural and political paradigm. In terms of being in France and in Paris, that's a topic that I keep meaning to get to, but my personal life has been very time-consuming, the huge changes I've made, so I haven't settled into a procedure of research.
Do you miss being in Canada?
Yeah ... yeah, not to the point of ...
Wanting to go back?
Not outright homesickness. I know I can always go back, and I do go back, and my closest relationships apart from that I share with Keith, are in Canada. So it's there. I don't feel in a way that I've left it. And my work is increasingly framed within the context of Canadian poetry, so I'm part of that culture. In a way it doesn't even feel necessary to be there at this point.
Does it feel odd to be specifically contextualized as a Canadian poet?
No, it feels good to me.
I was born in Canada, and when I went to university ... but I should ask you the time.
It's 12:48, so you've got about forty minutes.
Will it take me half an hour to get there, do you think?
About that, so we should wrap up then.
When I studied it was at Simon Fraser University, and I didn't start until I was in my mid-twenties, for a number of reasons. And when I studied there the professors I focused on taking courses with were George Bowering and Roy Miki, who brought a number of great, great poets to the class. So I was part of conversations and workshops with bpNichol and Steve McCaffrey ...
Yeah, these were Roy's colleagues and this was the ambience of Canadian poetry. I took a course with Robin Blaser and I started working in special collections as a student researcher.
You're describing a specific branch of Canadian poetry.
Well, yeah, but because I happened to go to SFU, because they were lenient towards mature students, I ended up beginning to formally study poetry within the context of radically experimental ...
avant-garde Canadian poetry. Nicole Brossard, Erin Moure, Gail Scott ... bp, Steve, the Four Horsemen. This was the contemporary context that I later moved into publishing within. And I began to become very familiar with American language poetry through my connection with the Kootenay School of Writing, which was very language poetry centered. So my work in the United States tends to be looked at in that context.
Yes, I've read articles that seem frustrated, try to pin-point you through that school.
But I don't really consider myself a Language poet. Although I would intellectually take that position in many, many, many contexts. In any conservative--you know--anti-intellectual context.
There is something about your work I can't liken to anyone else's. I feel the same way about Erin Moure's work, actually.
She's a huge influence on me, and she's become a close friend.
I notice you thank her in The Weather.
We do help each other, with each other's manuscripts, we're friends. I admire her hugely. She's a model for an experimental feminism. So now I'm involved in various contexts, but for me the strongest one comes from being introduced in my years at SFU to an experimental Canadian avant-garde. And then after I left my studies, and was installed in the city doing cultural work, I became extremely involved with the um ...
Yeah, the art community. Most of my friends ended up being women, conceptually-based artists. So I've been involved in the gallery system in Vancouver for almost twenty years. I would never want to under-represent the importance of these contexts for my work
Well, those contexts are very rich. I find they can be clearly read in your work.
I'm glad that people in other places, who don't know about those contexts, like it ... but I don't feel like I need to be a language poet, or that I need any other affinity. To be a Canadian poet seems pretty ... well, I feel honoured enough.
Date: Wednesday, 27 July 2005-Thursday, 27 October 2005
Site: UK / France
Materials: Two computers, two email accounts, the Web, type.
At the end of our discussion at the Tate Modern you mentioned your relationship to the conceptual art scene in Vancouver, how it provided a context for your work. Could you please expand a bit on your experience of that, in particular about a few of the Vancouver-based artists whose practices you're most interested in, the galleries with which you were regularly connected?
About conceptual art. Of course it's a bit of a problematic term. What I was learning from my artist friends was a kind of stance in regards to the relation between theoretical, formal, and historical researches, and material practices and techniques. Many of those artist friends are included in Soft Arch. In particular, the artist Kathy Slade (she of the vast orange pom pom). We were roommates for a couple of years. My first collaborative work was a text written for a voiceover for a video of Kathy's when we were both students. Now she works with a combination of digitized machine embroidery, video installation, and song--she does "covers" to accompany video works. We plan to write a song together in the fall, for her to record. (Artists in Vancouver are now overlapping a great deal with the independent music scene.) Also the Vancouver painter Erin O'Brien has shared her ideas with me for nearly two decades--she was painting remarkable cloudscapes for years before I began writing The Weather (to see some of her work look on the cover of Steve McCaffery's book Theory of Sediment (Talonbooks, 1991, and also issues of Writing magazine)). I wrote an essay on Kathy's work last year--not included in the Soft Arch book since it was more of a traditional essay than a Soft Arch piece.
The gallery I've been involved with (still an honourary board member) is Artspeak, a part of the Canadian non-profit artist run centre system. Artspeak began as a project of the Kootenay School of Writing and then quickly became an independent organization. Its mandate relates to the intersection between language and visual arts. They've commissioned several catalogue essays from me over the years. Their last director, Lorna Brown, approached catalogue production as collaborative book work, and I worked with her on the "History of Scaffolding" text for the artist Elspeth Pratt, who makes wall mounted relief sculptures using cheap temporary construction materials. Lorna's current curatorial practice continues to seek out artists who extend and reframe bibliographic conventions.
Poets in Vancouver have a long history of collaboration with visual artists, so I'm not unique in this interest--Nancy Shaw has always worked in both disciplines, Peter Culley is a poet who for years has written amazing essays for catalogues by Stan Douglas, Roy Arden and others, and Jeff Derksen is a poet who continues to explore the visual and architectural culture of Vancouver in his critical writings. But my own relationships with artists have mainly been with women--there is a complicated community of artists in Vancouver who have developed strong, funny, rich, critical, and joyous relations to feminism as a series of discourses and a series of public stances and practices. This has inspired me, and still does, this intellectual network, this commitment to take no shit, to work together and help one another, and to challenge one another always. Among a slightly older community of women--Marian Penner Bancroft, Liz Magor, Allyson Clay, Renee Van Halm, the critic Miriam Nichols, the Niedecker scholar Jenny Penberthy, the curator Karen Henry--and younger(ish) people--Kate Rimmer (founder of Artspeak and now a curator at Charles Scott Gallery, who recently included sound recordings of the The Weather in a traveling group show of the same name), Margot Butler, Kelly Wood (who worked on XEclogue with me), Hadley Howes (who works in collaboration with Maxwell Stephens on decorative installations), Robin Mitchell (designer for The Weather and Soft Arch and several catalogues I've worked on), the curator and artist Sydney Hermant (from Or Gallery), Lorna, Kathy, Erin--I could really go on and on. It seems important to name people, particularly now as "The Vancouver School" institutionalizes itself around a coterie of male conceptual artists and their students.
Anyhow--all this contact and conversation with artists made it imperative for me to consider the book itself as a conceptual project with a material presence, rather than as a neutral collection of texts. I've tended to work from circumscribed sites and areas of research, as thoroughly and carefully as resources have permitted, something I've learned from observing the processes of Lorna and Kathy. And I've tried to participate at every level of the design and production process, sometimes to my publisher's dismay. Often my work has had a beginning in a community discussion or a commission rather than in a personal need. This takes the pressure of composition off a little--I feel that I write to these interlocutors, and it's a joy to stimulate and amuse them. Not at all an autonomous activity. Yet after all that I still think of myself very much as a poet, not a text artist. I love syllables first. Then I love sentences. I think this is peculiar to writers. After all the research, I work through the ear.
I'm curious about how you maintain yourself as a poet via a love for syllables and sentences. Does this mainly relate to rhythm?
About syllables--I mean that nubby material edging up of consonants against airy vowelness in a line. How for me a line has to have a presence in this way--this sound structure I go for at first intuitively, then tweak by making small moves and shifts and adjustments so there is no sonic flattening within a line. It has to, for me, have this sort of full knobbly quality, or a torsion or a jaggedness or a swoony kind of movement from syllable to syllable, although now I seem to be exploring flatness as a sound quality. Are there kinds of flatness? You can see my vocabulary for describing it isn't theoretical. It's what gives a line body and movement within itself--the internal sound and alphabetic structure of a line as opposed to an emphasis on line break as the definitive energy of what a line could be. Entirely apart from conceptual presence or retinal image, all that. To think of what poets have taught me to attend to syllabic texture--Olson, for sure, and just as surely Edith Sitwell, especially in her essay on Alexander Pope. And Zukofsky's 80 Flowers and Niedecker. Bernstein. Catriona Strang. Christine Stewart. Also, and this is connected to coming into writing in the 1980s with Catriona (who was translating the Carmina Burana and reading the Zukofskys' Catullus), reading Latin poetry, in Latin, when in fact I "have" no Latin. I sound through it. Most of the Aeneid, when I was writing Debbie, during The Weather the Georgics, and now Lucretius. All these gorgeous syllables, nothing to do but bask in them. Definitely it's connected to rhythm, and most specifically to metre. Counting syllables really trained me to carry my ear down to that micro level of attention. I spend a lot of time counting syllables. For a while I had to stop myself from counting syllables when people spoke. This syllabic attention is what motivated the line unit in Debbie. That and the additional problem of how to construct movement from line to line, how to install a kinetics that begins at the level of the syllable but moves the entire poem.
The prose poem has always seduced me--I find that the grammar of the sentence truly is glamorous to me. With the sentence it's more of a losing myself in the balance of phrasing, in the geometry of making that balance fresh each time. I do find each sentence is exciting, even erotic. I always loved parsing sentences in grade school. I don't do that now--though it would be fun to begin again. I relate to prose thoroughly at the level of the sentence, not at all at the level of narrative. I'm really a gentleman collector of sentences. I display them in cabinets. The work I'm doing now uses quite banal simple sentences--almost as a challenge to myself. Like I need to understand that the sentence doesn't need to be baroque, convoluted, or to display grand neo-classical symmetries. If I compose using dull little unselfconscious sentences, how can I twist their perception in the reading, to make them light each other oddly? It has to do with sequence, obviously, sequence as having an internal structure, which is not necessarily narrative (though it could toy or flirt with narrative)--rather than the sentence itself as an object of obsession. It's almost a curatorial problem! That's the structural problem I'm posing myself now, in the work that's going into the Rousseau's Boat project. It's quite different than the excessive approach to the sentence in the Soft Architecture essays and walks.
Could we finish with a chat about your approach to the challenge of sequence within the Rousseau's Boat project then? Debbie I always return to as an object/entity, entire, Occasional Work is its obvious collection, The Weather--in terms of days of the week and such--moves into a structure more temporal, and now Rousseau's Boat ... that challenge of "twisting perception" you mention and shuttling back and forth (in ebb and flow?) between parts (even "voices," thanks to your use of italics in "Face/"). Was there an object or development that specifically lured you further into this exploration of how to network sentences? Also, if you've time to get into it, I'm curious to hear how you think about sequence interacting with the interplay between "the sensation of existing, without troubling to think," Utopia, and time that comes up in Rousseau's Boat? The phrases that first come to mind from that work are: "This is the beginning of Utopia / Its material is time" and "And if I become unintelligible to myself / Because of having refused a style."
Hmmm. I started gathering the material that became "Face/" in 2002 I guess. It began with the premise of autobiography. I wanted to see if I could construct an autobiographical text that remained impersonal, yet which would hold together as its own object. I started by culling from a huge stack of my old notebooks--I reread maybe 15 years of notebooks and transcribed each first person sentence. This took months, since I could only manage to read the old stuff by small increments. I ended up with a longish list of sentences. First I edited it a bit. I just took out the stuff that seemed too bad to reproduce. Although at the same time I wanted to make a structure that could contain anything--the morbid and self pitying alongside the analytic and the ironic. I suppose I was influenced by Rousseau in this. How amazing that in the Confessions he didn't edit out all his whiney passages! Embarrassment and purpleness and cruelty could remain in the text. So I lived with this list of mine for quite some time, rereading it. Eventually I alphabetized it, the simplest way to organize a list. I had decided I wanted to interrupt this first person recitation with something from outside, some other material--an approach I used throughout The Weather--devising systems of interruption to form patterns. But nothing I tried really worked. Eventually it came to me--I maybe even dreamt it!--to simply interrupt the list with itself! So I spliced two different sequences of the same material--which made the repetition patterns which end up moving or shifting the piece. So the question of sequence in "Face/" was methodological, though the method wasn't predetermined--it was intuited in stages. With "Utopia/" I did a second cull from the same notebooks--I transcribed each sentence that seemed to describe a place or site. I wanted to somehow situate or spatially contextualize the first person of "Face/." I was also by this time realizing that the form I was working with was indexical. That in systematically culling my old notebooks I was building indices. So I started to read a little--mainly in Ivan Illich--on the histories of bibliographic conventions such as the index. I didn't want to simply alphabetize the finished list again. I worked on "Utopia/" over a couple of years trying many things. I can't really remember how I made decisions. It was much less clearly mapped or broken down than in "Face/." Again, I wanted no sense of development in a narrative or psychological sense, and yet I wanted to build connections in a way that the completely paratactic approach of the "new sentence" sequence didn't quite seem to carry. I broke it down into smaller increments, stanzas, and worked on the sequence internal to each stanza, worked by ear mainly. At the very end I added the "time" indicators that each stanza begins with. I copied them from our shelves of novels. Usually the first sentence or two of a novel gives a time frame. These were them. In the end the sort of rhythmic return to the speech of time gives a momentum, but the flat quality I wanted remained. The important thing for me was to construct a sense of continuous surface, then to shift that surface as minimally as possible so that it would become a gestural event. I had been reading the history of minimalist painting, for a catalogue essay I was writing for Kathy Slade. I guess I was affected by that. Yves Klein specifically. And I'd been reading about Eva Hesse's sculptural work. How the sense of edge or limit of the work becomes the territory of exploration. The work happens where you lose the thread, where it repeatedly dangles off into chaos.
One big event for me just before beginning that work was a workshop I took with the composer Pauline Oliveros, in Vancouver. She calls her workshops "Deep Listening." I took to heart her suggestions and techniques--how to meditatively attend to a sound movement in a responsive frame. It helped me trust my ear much more, and feel that there could be techniques of listening, which I could systemically pursue in a composition process. It helped me with notions of simultaneous trajectories of sound--approaching sound as a field of attention, rather than as a melodic development. I suppose I was trying to make a poem that could itself intuit a sonority. I understood Pauline to be telling us that consciousness is compositional. Using my listed materials, I tried to make an event or an open frame for that perception. Again, this had to do with edge. In a deep listening technique, often a decisive compositional moment can be the instant where a line of sound is lost, when you recognize you can't follow it any longer, and need to make a shift attentively to a connecting but other line. Yet with no closure. There is this sensation of being afloat in sound, of being carried, rocked, calmed, and stimulated at the same time.
Your last question was very open! I'm not sure how to approach it. But a word that comes to mind, which is central to any notion of sequence, and for me, central also to my understanding of subjectivity, is rhythm. I had attended to metrical concerns in a very detailed way in Debbie--all the lines are counted. But there are rhythmic events and fields which metre, in its classical sense, cannot quite contain or quantify. I suppose now I want to attend to rhythm as a broader, indeterminate field of potential. (I notice here I've been saying field a lot, not clear what I mean with that metaphor--perhaps a terrain of attention.) We could consider identity as a rhythmic construct. Is it stylistic? Or is it sometimes outside such willed determinations? (And by this outside I mean not only the Marxian sense of socially constituted subjects, but additionally--sonorously, inhumanly constituted material subjects. What of the subject is always inhuman?) The question might become--what is the relation of identity and will and how does materiality intervene? There are dissolutions and returns. Fear and pleasure intertwine here messily. And then the next question interrupts or erupts, and it is from outside. A large part of attention is patience. Rhythm is maybe composed of an open practice of patience, one that makes a space also for fear. Think of Eva Hesse as a lacemaker. That unravelling may be utopian.
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|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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