Gaze (Black Radish Books) and Tender Box, A Wunderkammer with drawings by Rikki Ducornet (Lavender Ink), as well as three chapbooks, post*cards: Lafayette a Lafayette (with j/j hastain), (em)bodied bliss and zaum alliterations, all as part of the Dusie Kollektiv Series. Her poetry has appeared in New American Writing, Golden Handcuffs Review, New Orleans Review, HOW2, MiPoesias, Big Bridge, Moria, Fairy Tale Review, Exquisite Corpse, and Eoagh, among others. Her manuscript, an earth of sweetness dances in the vein, was a finalist in Ahsahta Press’ 2006 Sawtooth Poetry Contest. She has guest edited an issue of Ekleksographia and served as assistant editor for Dusie Kollektiv; she teaches in the English Department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she serves as the Director of Creative Writing. Further information about her work can be found at her homepage http://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~mxr5675/ She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The first book came after returning to the States after seven years in Western Australia and nine years of a life largely devoted to two young boys. tenderbox, a wunderkammer was a huge pleasure and relief, a sense that I could indeed reclaim a writing life that has a share in a wider community beyond my own praxis. Working with Bill Lavender was a treat, as well. He is generous editor/collaborator and a tremendously talented book designer. I was fortunate, also, to have become friends with Rikki Ducornet at that time, who gave me six drawings to illustrate the collection. All in all, it was a richly gratifying experience.
The second book, like the first, grew into itself as a collection. That is, an impulse toward a small series grew into a longer one, in this case, a more various one. Gaze engages with Bush II’s war in Iraq as well as with the swirling milieu of the times: the construction of gender both in the West and in the Middle East and the associated notions of covering or uncovering women’s bodies, haute couture’s engagements with militarism, torture, and war in 2005-06 (some pretty crazy medieval armor along with parachute suits, body bags, piercings, binding, etc), and contemporary Islamic visual artists’ own engagements with Islam, the war, and/or culture. So Gaze feels different in terms of the wider range of attentions I brought to the writing. Gaze’s publication came out of a further immersion in collaboration that was initiated through Susana Gardner’s Dusie Kollektiv. From it, one member, the amazing Nicole Mauro, gathered a group of Dusies and others together to form a new book publishing collective, Black Radish Books. The sense of community that these two collectives have given me is astonishing and wonderful, placing me in the midst of a shared passion for writing and making, introducing me to some fabulous other writers. Among those is j/j hastain with whom I made my third Dusie chap and am currently collaborating on a new manuscript. She also encouraged me to take up a further extension of making, that is the collages that are central to our collaboration, one of which will be used for the cover of her new book from Furniture Press. The big difference, then, between the publication of tenderbox and Gaze is that immersion and participation in a community of writers – wonderful! So huzzah Susana and Nicole!
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
As a very young woman, 13 or 14(?), still a girl I suppose, I started writing poetry, no doubt inspired by my mother’s own passion for poetry. I grew up in a household where my mother went about the day’s duties, reciting, for herself and us, Wordsworth, Keats, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Frost, a habit picked up at university where she and her roommate would keep each other awake ‘til late at night reciting poetry. –Though I learned her passion for poetry, I never developed her facility with memory.
In college I loved my play-writing workshop with Rochelle Owens, creating a playscript calling for a huge screen and projections in lieu of other kinds of staging, this is in the early ‘80’s. This was also when I was taking verbal performance with Jerome Rothenberg and constructing text performances, one using slides and two voices, another taking a kind of Bread and Puppet Theatre approach with outdoor performance and multiple performers. And, in a box somewhere from those days, there is a fantasy novella, my only real venture into fiction. I have written the occasional nonfiction piece, though very rarely.
Poetry has always been my first interest: its compression, its language play, the heightening potencies of imagery and sound – these were/are a kind of magic. Reading the Language poets with Ron Silliman while an undergrad, burrowed up in the Archive for New Poetry reading and taking notes, and then working on Gertrude Stein’s work with Michael Davidson cemented both a deep connection to poetic language and a widening sense of its possibilities. Performance, though, stayed in the mix and still interests me. My creative thesis with Keith Waldrop was a text for performance, inspired by Rothenberg’s Ethnopoetics and studying non-western theatre at Brown. My readings from Gaze are sometimes done in association with a slideshow of images, many of which are directly associated with the poems’ composition.
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?
It really depends on the project. Those that require research come out of notebooks and note-taking. Often there is a long reading and collecting period, assembling a body of notes and understanding that will generate the writing. Individual poems have their own natures. Some seem to leap out onto the page, though I suspect that appearance is misleading, that these “easy” ones come after long periods of reading and processing. Sometimes I think I am more attached to the idea of something than to the actual writing; I am presently ignoring a project that I have picked up and put down several times. I reckon I am not ready to take it up and may never be. I do edit a lot, usually away or out. I try to give myself permission to write and keep writing, leaving room for elision and disruption, for compression as I return to the piece. Though this is less true for constraint-driven work, where constraint makes many, though not all, of the decisions for me.
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?
Again, this depends on the project. Some projects grow, sometimes into one another, while others begin as a concept around which I am working. Gaze certainly was a defined project, but other interests and pieces early began to feed into making it a kind of hybrid animal in its interests and attentions. The manuscript I have out in submission right now, as well as the one which I am currently working on, has its origins in a book concept. Nights Reading is a series of engagements with The Thousand and One Nights, female narrator/narration, the deployment of gender, and Sir Richard Burton, as well as other writers’ takes on the story-cycle: writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, John Ashbery, Fatima Mernissi, Italo Calvino. It is a marriage of many impulses, coalescing on the nature of narrative and Scheherazade as narrator, though from the beginning rooted in my own reading of The Thousand and One Nights.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love reading and performing my work, though much better in the dark! Somehow standing in the glare of lights with eyes and faces pointed at me is less potent that speaking into the barely illumined dark. That darkened space is a kind of invitation to performance, to adopting a persona, rather than simply reading my work aloud. Which is not to say I get more theatrical, but that my own immersion in the experience is deeper. Reading the work aloud is central to the writing. Not to the initial composition but in the editing and revision process, absolutely – the way the thing sounds is intimately related to my sense of its shape. The rhythms and pacings become manifest in the reading, and the soundings clearer.
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?
Theoretical concerns. The nature of language, so reading Wittgenstein, indeed often playing with his own language, but also the nature of perception and so reading Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia. Feminism, the construction of gender, the relative treatment, roles, burdens of women globally. In that context, what does it mean to say, to know? How is being a woman implicated in each and every one of my actions, of any woman’s actions? How can language, poetry, be a means to articulate those experiences, those understandings? Kristeva, Irigaray, and Cixous, here are useful to me. Politics more generally come into the work, most recently war and torture, the Bush Administration’s wars of adventure and plunder and the consequences to lives, cultures, human rights. How does one write in the midst of horror, articulate one’s inherent complicity? I live here, this is/was my government. It is not clear to me that poetry is any effective means of grappling with these issues, but in writing I seek a means of both engaging with and articulating that vexed territory. Landscape and the environment, a sense of place, are also at the heart of my thinking and work. I have moved around so much, I think I have no longer any place which is my own. A common condition, no doubt. One of the consequences, going hand-in-hand with global industrialisation and unrestrained capitalism, is the degradation and loss of places, both in terms of environmental integrity and the inherent character of a place. I live in Lafayette, Louisiana, the heart of Acadian culture in the United States, and though much about that culture thrives here, it is in a compressed form: the music, the food, and, to a lesser extent because of the systematic efforts to extinguish it in the first half of the last century, the language. The landscape, however, is increasingly decimated by oil and natural gas exploration, the chemical industry, suburban sprawl, and coastal erosion which is itself linked to the oil industry, as well as to the carving of shipping channels through the wetlands and the restraint of the Mississippi River to a course which forces its load of sediment out past the edge of the coastal shelf. So living here, where I thought to find my neighbours speaking Acadian French, there are almost none who do. Where the coast is but a short drive away, it is littered with industry and vanishing at an astonishing rate. Where the bottomland forests and swamps give rise to an extraordinary landscape of land that grows ever more wet as it approaches the coast, becoming at last the prairie tremblant, I live in the midst of Popeye’s Chicken, Chili’s, Domino’s Pizza, Target, and Walmart where sidewalks are almost non-existent, automobiles king, and the only ‘wild’ land within reach is a scant 10 acre park at the edge of town, also serving as a trailer park. Reading on place: Bachelard, J.E. Malpas, Edward Casey, Yi Fu Tuan.
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 writing is inherently political, whether writers choose to explicitly engage with political issues or not. To not engage, not look, not say, is equally political. Being part of a larger culture means everything we do has wider consequences than our own immediate impulse or desire. Driving to the shops instead of walking is a political choice, so is eating industrially produced and disseminated food versus locally grown, organic food. So is thinking and teaching and everything else I do. How can writing not be implicated and engaged? It can’t. What’s the writer’s role? I think we all have the same obligation, whether writers or artists or any otherwise: to make our choices conscious and explicit, informed and compassionate. To see our actions as part of a web of associated choices and actions. Think globally, act locally, hold the policy-makers’ feet to the fire.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Invigorating, actually, as the editor challenges me to see the work from outside myself and my own intentions toward it. To read as a reader. I think that is essential, whether it comes from an editor or not.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In response to my inevitable and incorrigible backlog of reading – I just finished a writing review of a book sent to me 3 months ago—Skip Fox told me to read 10 pages of everything (though not necessarily the first 10): if it grabs you, keep reading, otherwise, move on to the next. Just keep reading.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I teach and direct the Creative Writing Program at UL Lafayette, so during the academic year, I squeeze writing in wherever and whenever I can. During the summer, grant-writing aside, I write almost every day, usually in the morning. Afternoons are okay, but I am liveliest, freshest in the morning. By evening, all I can do is read, so that is when I try to catch up on that enormous collection of unread books. A typical day begins with a cup of rose-scented tea and breakfast – right now, peaches and blackberries with yogurt because that is what is in season here. (I love picking fruit in summer! At least, early enough in the morning that the heat doesn’t do me in.) Followed by answering email. Then I gather my books, my notes, my self, re-read what I have been working on to plunge myself back into that language, and start writing.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading, always reading. Laura Mullen’s hybrid book Murmur was great for that when I was working on both (em)bodied bliss and Gaze. I think this is a matter of needing to open out of myself, back into a wider world of voices and language, to hear again as a reader. Going out and away makes coming back possible. That reading is not necessarily poetry, but usually. Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop are inspiring in that way, as well, especially Rosmarie’s work for me. Or Nicole Brossard’s Notebook of Roses and Civilization.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Here and now, old fashioned roses, freshly baked bread, rose-scented tea. Of my childhood home, almonds and dust and the sun-warmed coats of horses. I grew up on a small almond orchard in central California. When I wasn’t raking in the harvest (hot, bloody-minded work), I was riding bareback through the trees with my sisters.
13 - 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?
Visual art, the natural world, science and the language of math, all of these have and do influence my writing. I am interested in the correspondences between these, the way, for example, Fibonacci sequences are mathematical equations, a description of the growth of sunflowers and pinecones, and a method for tuning an instrument, while also possessing a fabulous name: the golden spiral. Science and math offer vocabularies that push me out of my usual range, that reformulate the way I am thinking about language. A fair number of the poems in Gaze are ekphrastic, responses to the work of artists in MOMA’s Without Boundary, artists Shirin Neshat, Ghada Amer, Mona Hatoum, Shazia Sikander, Jananne-Al-Ani, and Raqib Shah, who are themselves responding to the artistic and religo-cultural legacies of Islam.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Jerome Rothenberg, always: his ethnopoetic work, his extensions of it into his own work, his contemporary work. H.D., particularly her engagements with Sappho and other ancient Greek poets and Trilogy. Mina Loy’s gorgeous Lunar Baedekker. Gertrude Stein. Rosmarie Waldrop. Mei-mei Berssenburgge. Lyn Hejinian. Wittengenstein’s Remarks on Colour. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Botany of Desire. Borges’ Labyrinths. And most recently, the work of Dawn Lundy Martin.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Surf! I watched my partner, Mike, learn to surf when we lived in San Diego, and though I have lived close to the coast most of my adult life and love to body surf, I have never learned to surf. Some part of me pines for that. A sense of a missed moment and experience. Being in the ocean is extraordinary. Delicious. And pretty terrifying at times. Not much fun to be pinned down by a wave or caught in a rip. Still, I loved body-surfing when I was pregnant, letting go into the water, becoming weightless and graceful, immersed in something entirely other, that was a great pleasure.
More writerly? Learn French well enough to converse easily. Better? Fluently enough to translate contemporary poetry written in French.
16 - 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?
Anything: competition-level 3-day event rider. Alternately, I think I would likely have done something rather related: science writing, perhaps. Editing. Teaching, which I spend a lot of time doing, in fact.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
There were other impulses: astrophysics, musical composition. Though I was strongly engaged by these, I am better at writing. In fact, I think I was not all that great at those others. Whereas writing immediately creates in me that feeling psychologists term “flow” – like body surfing the perfect wave, everything in sync.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Poetry: Conditions of Light by Emmanuel Hocquard (translated by Jean-Jacques Poucel). Fiction: Rikki Ducornet’s Phosphor in Dreamland and Robert Coover’s Briar Rose. I was really taken by Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, as well. (I just finished teaching a course on contemporary fiction.) Anthology: Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 1 – yes, I finally settled down to read it – by teaching it! Films: Julie Taymor’s Frida and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. I liked Plunkett and MacLane directed by Jake Scott, too. Film comes to me almost exclusively through Netflix, so I am well behind everyone else who catches film in the theatre.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I am in the happy condition of have a whole series of projects cooking. Up front is a piece based in a cut-up: scissoring into/through Swann’s Way. Though I imagine this as a full-length manuscript, the first section of 20 pages or so is also part of a collaboration with a theatre group (my colleague Keith Dorwick’s Plastic Theater), an animation/video artist (Yeon Choi), and a musician (Joshua Carro). The piece will be presented via a 3-D digital “cave” here in Lafayette in March 2012. Very cool. Working with the other artists is hugely exciting, flexing the intellectual space in which I work. Next up, I am collaborating once again with j/j hastain on a series of verbo-visual texts addressing body and embodiment, using as point of departure Forrest Gander’s "The body has been my sole means for finding a world" from Eye Against Eye. Nicole Brossard’s assertion that “the motive is roots, flesh and skin….a first and ultimate memory” resonates in my part of this, too. j/j and I exchange image-texts – her “cells” and my collages – then exchange responses to one another’s work, creating a kind of rhythmic pattern, two such exchanges per month. Ultimately we imagine it published on the web, imagining the color images would make a print version pretty dear. I am also collaborating with my husband, Mike Kalish, who makes art jewelry and small sculptures, in this case, his “boxes” and my texts. This collaboration challenges me as I have to severely limit the amount of text for any piece. These are small boxes, made of copper or brass and enamel, usually no more than three or four inches in diameter. I keep going back and looking at Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work, as a way of seeing how such limited language works. I first came across his work at UC San Diego: his UNDA is part of the Stuart Collection there, overlooking the coast. Amazing piece. Finally, I have a place-centered collection I am just beginning to gather the threads of, work responding to the landscapes of Louisiana – the whole range from prairie tremblant, bottomland forest, the BP oil spill, coastal erosion to the fact of living in a hurricane zone – juxtaposed against the history and politics which shape/have shaped Louisiana’s landscapes. A first step: reading Radical Vernacular: Lorine Neidecker and the Poetics of Place and Oliver Houck’s Down on the Batture. –Plenty to be going on with!
12 or 20 (second series) questions;