Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers by Janice Williamson

Lately, thanks to a loaner copy from Janice Williamson, I’ve been reading the book of interviews she did some years back, the collection Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers (Toronto ON: University of Toronto Press, 1993). A comprehensive series of interviews, her list of interviews include conversations with Jeannette Armstrong, Di Brandt, Nicole Brossard, Elly Danica, Kristjana Gunnars, Claire Harris, Smaro Kamboureli (which reminds me of Kamboureli’s creative work, and makes me wonder if she’s worked anything since her first collection in the second person?) and Lola Lemire Tostevin, Joy Kogawa, Lee Maracle, Daphne Marlatt, Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland, Erin Mouré, M. Nourbese Philip, Gail Scott, Lola Lemire Tostevin, Bronwen Wallace, Betsy Warland and Phyllis Webb. As Williamson writes in her introduction:
While training in English studies encourages us to reread, analyse, and evaluate, the homely craft of the interview is often reduced to a secondary and debased pseudo-journalistic genre. However, in a textual universe where critical work on a limited group of writers can proliferate while others starve for public attention, the interview can make space for the writer’s revenge. Just as the fluid boundaries of women’s conversational gossip can disrupt more authorized forms of knowledge production, the excesses, repetitions, and circuitous routes of these interviews at times explode critical propriety. When I began this interview project, these was little critical work on many of the writers in this book; these interviews were intended to flesh out their textual concerns and provoke positive interference in canonical habits by considering the politics of contemporary Canadian women writing.

The title of these interviews draws together a cluster of meanings around the words sound and resound: ‘to sound,’ according to the OED, can mean to measure a depth or fathom a sea; ‘to resound’ indicates voices which echo and reverberate, or turn celebratory, to ‘extol loudly or wildly.’ The notion of ‘sounding differences’ suggests a process-oriented exploration which unsettles the critic from any mastering seat of authority. To sound ideas and questions with seventeen different women writers whose experiences differ through age, class, ethnicity, race, region, and sexual preference is to hear a welcome noise; silence marks the beginnings of other conversations.
So far, the interview with Erin Mouré has easily been my favourite, saying things in there that I’ve been trying to shape as disperate thoughts for years, and all said so well moons before I even knew where to begin; what I am still trying to learn. Why hasn’t a book of Mouré’s essays (which I know she’s been working on for a few years) come out yet? Why hasn’t there been a Guernica Editions book on her works? Listen to this fragment of an interview, conducted as Mouré served Williamson pancakes:
ERIN: Poetry exists within the same discourse as newspeak, alas. There’s a lot of things written that I don’t even bother to call poetry; it’s just what I call ‘the ego masquerading as the soul.’ Real poetry makes you develop a kind of self-critical relationship with language. You can’t jus use words without thinking of all the cultural and lass forces that are in a language. And even the structure of the language divides objects and processes, makes distinctions in thought possible that aren’t there, really. You end up objectifying things like space and time. I mean time is a noun. Objectified! Phase is a name. But is it an object? Touch is a name. But touch is an action, I mean, it exists in time then stops existing. Naming all these ‘durations’ or ‘movements’ that aren’t objects at all brings thought to a point where it’s co-opted by the public order again. Using language unthinkingly, then, maintains its hierarchial power. Its power to lose off an isolate relationships as things. Separate. Individual, again! [Dishes clattering.] Language organizes things and, like a camera, leaves out so much. As soon as you speak a sentence, you’ve left out every other possible sentence. The organization of structures, whether it’s a social structure, a political structure, or whatever, should evolve according to need, which is why friendship is so interesting because the structure evolves simply according to need. There’s never more structure than is needed. Two people don’t meet and say well who’s gonna be president of the board of directors. That’s jumping from one end of the spectrum to the other, but that’s what you end up with when you create these social and political organizations because language simplifies too much. But we’re afraid. We don’t wanna exist on the edge of confusion where our boundaries might not be distinguishable from the boundaries of this table…

JANICE: Well how do you…

ERIN: They’re only distinguishable because we objectify space and time. Otherwise you could interview this table. It would be fun. You would like it! You could interview this pancake.

JANICE: A morbid prospect.

ERIN: In my job I tell people over and over you have to exist on the edge of confusion, in order to find what we need, instead of deciding what we need in advance and then trying to fit in all our expectations. [Banging.]

JANICE: How do you feel about –

ERIN: Embarrassed. [pp 208-9]
Another highlight (so far, that is, as I’m still going through the collection) is the interview with Phyllis Webb, talking about a number of things including her considerations of form, the poetics of failure and the ghazal; Webb, said to have (since) put writing poetry long behind her for the sake of painting.
JANICE: Your own interest in form has led you to break down a number of different poetic forms. Your ‘Imperfect Sestina’ develops a poetics of failure or transgression, where the poem insists on breaking with convention. Your ghazals and anti-ghazals repeat this process.

PHYLLIS: I’m always rather uneasy working with inherited forms, given forms, closed forms, and yet I seem to be tempted and challenged by them. Once I start on the form, there does seem to be this anarchic part of me that wants to disrupt the form and give it a new life or a new focus or shift it in some day so expectations are disrupted and not satisfied, so it’s a challenge to the reader. John Hulcoop has been writing about this disruptive aspect of my personality, that I do not want to conform and am caught between a very conforming personality in some days and an almost childish need to be a revolutionary of some kind, and to disrupt what is given. It is my way into new territory using the old form, which just happens along; it’s handy and I use it. It’s too easy to copy and not very hard to write a sestina. The interesting thing is how to write a sestina and not write a sestina, how to write a ghazal and not write a ghazal. Again, it’s elusive and you invoke all kinds of associations from the past about other poems and how that form has been used; you develop a kind of literary historical shorthand. A sestina in our culture is better known than the ghazal, where I import new subject matter just by importing that form. Middle Eastern politics was on my mind at the time, and a whole new series of images was brought in. With the ghazal, there is a convention of using conventional imagery, but it won’t have the same meaning for us that it has for an Arabic or Urdu writer. It’s simply another rich textual source or cultural inheritance that I use while doing something new with it. It’s not terribly profound, but it is a way of not repeating exactly but repeating with changes. [pp 336-7]
Really good, in-depth books of interviews with Canadian authors always seem few and far between, but there have been some over the years that have been quite impressive, including Beverley Daurio’s Dream Elevators (Mercury Press, 2000; interviews with Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Lorna Crozier, Claire Harris, Michael Harris, Roy Kiyooka, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouré , P.K. Page, Libby Scheier, Anne Szumigalski, Fred Wah and Phyllis Webb), R.E.N. Allen and Angela Carr’s The Matrix Interviews: Moosehead Anthology #8 (DC Books, 2001; interviews with Robert Allen, Martin Amis, Nick Bantock, Neil Bissoondath, Marie-Claire Blais, Stephanie Bolster, Anne Carson, Michael Crummey, David Fennario, Amitav Ghosh, Michael Harris, D.G. Jones, Irving Layton, Robert Majzels, Erin Mouré and Gail Scott), Michelle Berry and Natalee Caple’s the notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writers (2002, Anchor Canada; interviews with Catherine Bush, Eliza Clark, Lynn Coady, Lynn Crosbie, Steven Heighton, Yann Martel, Derek McCormack, Hal Niedzviecki, Andrew Pyper, Michael Redhill, Eden Robinson, Russell Smith, Esta Spalding, Michael Turner, R.M. Vaughan, Michael Winter and Marnie Woodrow) and the more recent Poets Talk: conversations Robert Kroetsch, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouré, Dionne Brand, Marie Annharte Baker, Jeff Derksen, and Fred Wah by Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2005) [see my review of such here], among others. I applaud very much her efforts, and wonder why there aren’t more efforts being currently made? Where are all the interviews with the next generation of Canadian writers? I would love to read lengthy in-depth interviews with, for example, Ken Babstock, Marilyn Dumont, a rawlings, Nicole Markotic, Anne Stone, Sylvia Legris, Rachel Zolf and how many others who haven’t properly been dealt with yet (there have been interviews I’ve already seen here and there with Christian Bök, Sina Queyras and Lisa Robertson that have been quite magnificent; but what can be called enough?).

I could easily say the same thing of Janice Williamson herself (one of my goals while in Edmonton is to see she has another book out…), author of various essays as well as the trade books Tell Tale Signs: fictions (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1991), cry baby ! (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1998), chapbooks by disOrientation and arsonist auntie press, and editor (with Deborah Gorham) of Up and Doing: Canadian Women and Peace (Toronto ON: The Women’s Press, 1989), but I will leave that for a future entry…

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