Friday, October 16, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Norma Cole

[photo credit: Clay Banes] Norma Cole is a poet, painter and translator. Among her books are Collective Memory, Do the Monkey, and Spinoza in Her Youth. Just out are Natural Light from Libellum Press and Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988—2008 from City Lights. Cole’s essays and talks, To Be At Music, will appear in June 2010 from Omnidawn Press. Translation work includes Danielle Collobert’s Journals, Fouad Gabriel Naffah’s The Spirit God and the Properties of Nitrogen and Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France. Cole has been the recipient of a Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation Award, Gertrude Stein Awards, the Fund for Poetry, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. A Canadian from Toronto, Cole migrated via France to San Francisco where she has lived since 1977. She teaches at the University of San Francisco.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Aha! You use Garamond. I just chose it for the body of my forthcoming book of essays, TO BE AT MUSIC (Omnidawn June 2010). Experience, including “first book,” changes one’s life. But every book begins in the nowhere.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

As soon as I could use a pencil, I began drawing & writing, little fragments, descriptions, bits of poems before I knew them as poems. Narrative – I begin, but don’t have the fortitude for that arc. I am very interested in making up the sound of story.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

More slowly than quickly. Note-taking, reading, dreaming…. Listening. Finding a rhythm. The spiral nebula.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Depends. I’ve put books together in many ways. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

The first time I read (in a group reading for Acts, the journal edited by David Levi Strauss in the 1980s) it gave me the “other piece”—that other component I couldn’t, hadn’t known about.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

The poem asks the questions.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think Zukofsky says it well when he says poetry is for the interested.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

The editor inside is the essential one. I’ve not had any difficulties working with an outside editor.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

“Ideology is crap.” Jorge Amado

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?

I think of it all as a poetics: reading, writing, translation.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

When I can get outside of the box of “the day,” writing/reading can begin.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Read, translate. My great friend, the poet Laura Moriarty, says forget inspiration, just write.

13 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

My cane.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

All of the above & philosophy, history, overhearing people talking.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Life and other writers going back 4,000 years. Dante. Caroline Bergvall’s Via. Beckett’s version of Rimbaud’s “Drunken Boat.” Kamau Brathwaite’s History of the Voice.

Robert Smithson. Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness. Keats, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva. Franck André Jamme’s Tantra. Paul Celan, who said “Poets are pirates.” Barbara Guest, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer. Poets writing right now.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

The writing that I don’t know, haven’t seen yet.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I was a teacher before I published any poetry, and still teach.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Writing is something I always was doing anyway. In spite of, or at the same time, or in between doing something else.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Poetry, Raùl Zurita, INRI. Novel, Peter Weiss, The Aesthetics of Resistance.
 Non-fiction, Homage to Barcelona, Colm Tóibín. Film, The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck. And I’m a sucker for all of Godard, film-as-essay-as-film.

20 - What are you currently working on?

More facts. I have a chapbook coming out soon called 14,000 Facts. But I found that I hadn’t finished with these facts. I am still writing tiny poems that read as single poems but then also they are kind of hinged and fractured but, hmm, possibly a kind of narrativity runs through them.

Also, translations from contemporary French poetry: Marie-louise Chapelle, mettre. and Catherine Weinzaepflen, Berlin 2007.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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