Tuesday, May 01, 2012

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Lisa Samuels

Lisa Samuels's recent books are Mama Mortality Corridos (Holloway 2010) and Gender City (Shearsman 2011); Anti M (Chax) and Press the image (Shearsman) are due out this year. She recently finished a CD version (reading + soundscapes) of Tomorrowland, her 2009 book from Shearsman, and an experimental novel called Tender Girl. Since 2006, she has lived in New Zealand, teaching at The University of Auckland; in 2012 she will be based temporarily in Spain.

Auckland, New Zealand, April 2012

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
O Books published The Seven Voices in 1998, and Leslie Scalapino’s wanting to bring out my poetry was extraordinary to me. I had a chapbook with Meow Press in 1996, and I liked that too, an offertory that rapidly etherized, but The Seven Voices was more of a book-making experience. Assembling poetic orders, choosing cover images, those sorts of paratexts became part of my poetry making for the first time. Also I finished my PhD in 1997 and was in the second of two one-year Visiting Assistant Professorships when The Seven Voices came out. Its existence made me a more serious applicant as a poet-critic, and in that sense The Seven Voices helped me get jobs. I never planned to be an academic creative writer – modernism and poetics and literary theory are what I trained in – but the poet-critic jobs I got began re-wiring my working identity.

In terms of comparing my recent and previous writing, it depends on where you pick up the edges. I edited two critical volumes in 1997 and 2001, and in that same period I was publishing essays about poetry and critical practice. Then Pavement Saw published my post 9/11 book, War Holdings (2003), whose poems are explicitly focused on war and governmental body traumas. That thematic focus differs from the mixed poems of The Seven Voices. When I say “focus” I mean I have books that explicitly hang together and books whose pieces jut out in different directions. My 2005 and 2008 Shearsman books, Paradise for Everyone and The Invention of Culture, and my forthcoming Press the image (Shearsman 2012), are admixtures of poems – they jut out toward violence, cultural identities, love, sensory perceptions, genre blasts, law and other imperatives, limits and breakages of English language and poetic form, animality, event apprehension, context shift, discursive power – and so they resemble my first book in that way.

Intervening books, however, differ markedly: Mama Mortality Corridos (Holloway 2010) is death-focused and hinged with Spanish and concept drawings, and Tomorrowland and Gender City (Shearsman 2009 and 2011) are booklength poems that investigate transmigration, cross-temporal and cross-cultural event structures, and urban identity phantasmagoria. My 2009 pamphlet Throe (Oystercatcher Press) turns on coloniality and movements of bodies and beliefs – I think it both hangs together in its throes and juts apart in its pieces. My creative non-fiction book Anti M, due out with Chax Press, is an “omitted prose” work produced over a long period of time, and my new CDs of Tomorrowland (Deep Surface 2012) feature soundscapes I did with instruments and voice. That work is quite distinct from the textual and page play of The Seven Voices.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Fictive utterances principally engage language to assist in building micro-worlds. Non-fiction tends to rely on language to verify some strings that hold us in the world and the world in us. Poetry trends to linguistic density and attention, to how language makes us know how we know in and out of language, and to imagining what we don’t know. Because I am most transacted by the latter equations, I write poetry. Even there, however, even with those gestural definitions: I don’t believe in them so much as see them operate in western genre distinctions.

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?
Naturally any answer depends on the project. Anti M started many years ago in very different form from the Chax Press version. I turned it from a raw manuscript called Numbers into a fictive version called Adorno’s Purple Bus and then into a stripped-out “omitted prose” version. By contrast, Tomorrowland happened unplanned and rapidly when I had a semester of leave in 2008: thanks to Forrest Gander, I was at Brown as a visiting researcher, but with no real institutional commitments. I was able to write every day – at least when I was not working on a commissioned Leslie Scalapino essay or taking care of my then three year old son. The material that became Gender City happened in the same period, when I felt I could continue writing at epic length about the things I was thinking about – but because I had to go back to work in New Zealand I was not able to continue that writing nor to shape the second book right away. I had to sit down at various times over the next couple of years to compile the material that became Gender City

4 - Where does poetry 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?
I can certainly be transacted by an unscheduled poem, as with, say, “The rack of consent” or “Mouth.” Other times I compile from a focused event, as with “Increment, a family romance,” or I self-pastiche from fragments, and so on. Those kinds of writings get gathered into books rather than being planned as books. Other times I write toward books, which is how Tomorrowland and Gender City and Anti M happened, and how I am now writing Life Sentence.

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

In the late 1990s I could not understand poetry readings in relation to the textualisms of my writing. In trying to adapt to what seemed to be the necessity of giving readings, then, I turned to poems whose followability suited what poetry readings seemed to call for.

Increasingly, I have come to appreciate poetry performance, and in the last few years I’ve started to relish it. I like making voice and unleashing some of the dramatic polylogisms in my writing. I’m also starting to use musical instruments: for recent readings at Illinois State and Louisiana State, I performed a long-ish poem, “Sub rosa,” that I had scored with parts to be spoken or sung into the f-hole of my viola. Thanks to Duriel Harris and Laura Mullen, who were my hosts, I was able to borrow violins at both places for that part of my performances (with thanks also to Susan and Afton: the violin owners!). 

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?
I hope my theoretical concerns are not behind my writing, unless the paper is really thin so you can see through it! I hope my writing constantly enacts my theoretical obsessions. A broad brush characterization of those obsessions is semiotics, materialism, and phenomenology. Another answer is ethics, gender, identity, cultural construction. Another answer is the invention of the nation state and the gathering of persons according to rhetorics, regions, topography, and habit. Another answer is how language enacts what world(s). Another answer is the relation of skin to paper to physical word to body fluids to sound to binding and versioning and performance. Politics + flesh + relation prompt my thinking about “membranism.”  Another answer is my grief that people want to stabilize culture and identity to live in a dream of naturalized givens.

The digitas is a buoyant inhabitation that re-frames these questions and mirrors back out. I think the Occupy movement is directly related to western expectations that museums, for one example, should now give visitors response and co-making options, as digital realms do. How to bridge co-making and response structures to tap into the civitas part of the digitas re-frame – in other words how to be truly active voices in current civil government decisions – is a fence that the Occupy movement was and is still pushing against. Imagine houses of government as beta freeware being co-made by civic users who understand themselves as co-makers.

Well, would we have time for anything else, you might ask? That is a fair question in the context of a world whose seven billion inhabitants mostly cannot ask that question. The destructively vanishing horizon of the possibility of civic life for most people on the planet is another theoretical concern – that ties in with eco-poetics in evading despair by paying attention and by making.

I think my concerns are zeitgeist concerns, and in that sense they are all germane to “the current 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?
The question poses a singular version of “the writer” – I mean that is the term you use. I cannot observe “the writer” in “larger culture”; I see multiple writers doing multiple things in multiple cultural contexts. Some writers mean to entertain, some to inform, some to provoke, assure, witness, explain, control, observe, tally, recreate, change, challenge, and on the list can go. I can only think multiplicities as responses to this question. See for example my 2009 essay-under-pressure “333 types of poetic mimesis in 999 words” (in Murray Edmond’s literary journal Ka Mate Ka Ora) for one vertical core sample of one aspect of one genre.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have more often been the editorial reader, suggesting how to organize language material for optimal versions of desired creative or critical effects. I have not had much detailed editorial response for anything I’ve written, so I can only reckon it is essential to work with editors when one can or must. I did work with Leslie Scalapino on an essay I wrote about her writing, and with the Laura (Riding) Jackson Board of Literary Management when I edited Anarchism Is Not Enough; but those are special cases, people invested in the critical framing of work rather than editors.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Live, live all you can; it’s a great mistake not to.” (Henry James in The Ambassadors)

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
The appeal is that each one is REM sleep for the other. The appeal is that critical prose is straitjacketed quicksilver and poetry is maximally constellated theory. The appeal is that code switching opportunities be multiplied. The appeal is that I want critical prose to be permitted to be written in any fashion that delineates an area of attention and poetry to be permitted to be written in any fashion that delineates affective cognition around and in relation to areas of attention.  

The ease is another question. I am happy to move between those two supposed genres, but it can be hard for my poetry to serve as the theory I transact it (feel it, think it, want it) to be and hard for my critical prose to be accepted as the embodied and situated conversation I transact it to be. However, I have been overall fortunate in finding jobs and publishers that permit me to keep trying, so I am grateful for that.

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?
A typical day begins with my 7 year old son Rowan waking me up and wanting to talk and play. My partner and I get Rowan ready for school; I go to my academic job at The University of Auckland.

I have learned to write whenever I can. I write in notebooks and on computer. I write when I am listening to lectures – writing as listening is a good kinetic for me when the context calls for the decorum of passivity – and when I have that rare event of an hour to think in a morning. 

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It took me a while to turn into this version of myself, but as I am now I do not have the experience of my writing getting stalled. The only thing that prevents me near my writing is time to get projects done. Certainly I enjoy it when I am reading something and it makes me want to put it down and write – I think of that kind of writing as “writing back”.

13 - What was your last Hallowe'en costume?
I don’t remember. My last costume was for a child’s pirate birthday party on a beach in Auckland. I wore various garb from various distant cultures to make up a pirate effect.

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?

I made one or two hundred drawings over the southern summer when I was putting together Mama Mortality Corridos. The drawings were difficult for me to make because I was contemplating specific deaths, because I drew to a very restricted frame, and because I “cannot draw”: Mama Mortality is obsessed with death, which we cannot “do” (we can “commit” suicide, but we can’t “do” death). I found the intensity of drawing to be in completely unregulated relation with the resulting drawn thing, not unlike composition slipping in relation with the composed. 

One thing I like to do is tinker with the piano – also sometimes with viola, ukulele, guitar, harmonica, and thumb piano, all of which we have at home. The piano, though, comes easiest to me as a compositional device. I cannot play it properly: I make sounds, chords, extensions, patterns. When I do this intensely it feels akin to the transaction of writing and can propel me into writing.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Kathy Acker, Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, William Blake, Kamau Brathwaite, Alan Brunton, Michel de Certeau, Jacques Derrida, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Bill Griffiths, Carla Harryman, Marjorie Kempe, Myung Mi Kim, Henri Lefebvre, Mina Loy, Nathaniel Mackey, George Meredith, Adelaide Morris, Geraldine Monk, Harryette Mullen, bp Nichol, Friedrich Nietzsche, Julian of Norwich, Maggie O’Sullivan, Charles Sanders Peirce, Georges Perec, Tom Phillips, Laura Riding, Lisa Robertson, Leslie Scalapino, Carolee Schneemann, Wallace Stevens, William Vollmann, Anne Waldman, Slavoj Zizek. There are others.  

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
The question implies the resolute possibility of actually doing that thing I would like to do that I have not yet. So my realist answer is that I would like to push forward on projects that are in my mind and computer. I have two digital projects that I have not fit into a presented world of work; my desires for those are larger than my time for them. I have given talks not turned into available print. I have digital footage for film-poems I haven’t yet made. That sort of thing.

I suppose a fictive-world answer would be that I would like to spend some years in a cohort of intense people working on creative and critical projects in relation to multiple media. It is greedy of me to want to work in a think-tank co-operative conversing makingcosm like that, but it’s a creative greed so it might be forgiven.

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?
A realist answer is that I would be interested in being part of a traveling research team investigating how cultural ethics (educational opportunities, gender laws, support for non-monetary cultural activities) are managed in relation to regional organizations of people. Perhaps that describes an NGO job.

A fictive-world answer is that I would like to have been a physicist working in relation to dynamics of matter. Or a foley artist.

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

An urge to engage with meaning-making material. Language is our most crucial tool for being in relation to knowing and not-knowing. I like being involved with its possibilities.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I am allergic to the monumentalizing of the word “great.” One favorite book of recent years has been Alan Halsey’s The Text of Shelley’s Death. A splendid example of a creative enactment of the impossibility of “certain” “history.”

Since becoming a mother I see very few cinema films; those I see that I like register as intelligent entertainment rather than as work that moves my thinking to a different set. When I have time to think films I look at ubuweb, which your question has just prompted me to do: I watched the 1983 Peter Greenaway film on John Cage, wonderful in sound, over-voice, footage, determination, and story – “My problems have become social rather than musical.” And funnily enough Cage tells the story of being in sixth grade and overhearing his father tell his mother to get ready to go to New Zealand on Saturday. The sixth-grader Cage gets ready to go, Saturday comes – and the project is never mentioned again. The whole film gets funnier and funnier. Maybe because I came to New Zealand in much the same way, except we actually went! 

20 - What are you currently working on?
I recently finished an experimental novel, Tender Girl, whose starting premise comes from an episode in Lautréamont’s 1868 book Les Chants de Maldoror in which the human hero copulates with a female shark in the stormy seas of a shipwreck where sailors are dying around them. Tender Girl invents a daughter as their offspring, and the book is a modular picaresque in which Girl emerges from the sea to travel across land for its experiences. I am also working to put together an edited volume titled A TransPacific Poetics: Sawako Nakayasu came out to Auckland last year and we put out a call for work and are pushing for new pieces to add in. I’m also working gradually on Modernism Is Not Enough, a collection of my essays on critical practice and poetries, and gradually on Life Sentence, an increasingly lengthy work. I will be based in Spain for the second half of 2012, for research leave, and I reckon an unexpected project will join those others – that’s what happened during my last leave, and we’ll be next to Ávila so I’m hoping I can go see those Interior Castles.    

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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