Throughout its long history, the Lit has contacted many of its favorite artists and writers. Only some respond, and even fewer remember doing so. “By the way, I have no recollection of that interview of 1995,” Mark Strand told one of our literary editors recently. We didn’t either. So for this issue, as a fun corrective to our institutional amnesia, we caught up with 15 of the writers that have been interviewed in the magazine. These four responses came to us sporadically. It felt good to be back in touch.
Q: In your 1995 interview you said, concerning prose poems, that “The one thing that makes these bits of prose poetic is the specific gravity of each individual word […] language adheres.” But in your new book, “Almost Invisible,” it seems to me like the opposite is the case – one of the miracles of the book is its lightness; it’s like “a journey leaving behind no trace of itself”. How has your conception of prose poetry changed? Does language adhere or erase itself?
A: In 1995 I had different ideas about poetry. Well, somewhat different. These days, I think the cumulative effect of a tight narrative can be just as suggestive as a poem and it needn’t depend on the specific gravity of each individual word. I am thinking especially of short, page-length narratives and ones that are even shorter, especially of Kafka’s parables and paradoxes, the rereading of which was what got me started writing “Almost Invisible.” I was under the illusion that I was writing prose and not poetry and I enjoyed myself, that is, I stopped second-guessing, engaging in endless rewriting, and driving myself crazy. I felt liberated from all that. I allowed myself to be humorous in ways that my vision of poetry had not permitted me. I wrote satire, quasi jokes as well as more somber meditations. I was simply interested in what would happen if I let myself go. In most extended prose language erases itself; it has to in order to get out of the way of the plot or argument. In “Almost Invisible” language may or may not erase itself. I don’t know. I’d probably be the last to know. I have come think now that that book is poetry, but I had to believe it was prose to get it written.
Q: Throughout the interview you expressed admiration for painting and the desire to be a painter rather than a poet. I’m curious about how your views on the subject have evolved: have you been painting recently?
A: I make collages, but I make the paper from which the collages are made. I am not in the tradition, which has now become a cliche, of Ernst, Hoch, Hausmann, et al. My collages are without meaning or message. I hope to go back to painting one of these days. In the meantime, my collages strive to become as much like painting as possible.
Q: In your 2010 interview you cite psychoanalysis, fiction, poetry, and social theory as influences on your writing. You also mention that you’re “not a translator”. How do you communicate your work – much of which interrogates moments of cultural misinterpretation, the significance of ruptured representation – across disciplines? Does an understanding of “The Humanities” as a unified academic body potentiate or aggravate re-articulation?
When I said that I “was not a translator,” I spoke too hastily and indistinctly. I meant to say that I have never been a disciplinary disciple whose ambition is to follow the work of a maître penseur (or a master-text), establishing a legitimate descent of ideas or a lineage of concepts. I think I meant “translator” in the banal sense of one who transmits a tradition of thought, holding fast to its letter and its law, in order to transmit its discursive authority to another time and place. This is the kind of translation I have tried to avoid. You are quite right, however, to point out that my interests in cross-disciplinary or transdisciplinary work requires a methodological and conceptual practice of translation. I have found Walter Benjamin’s work on translation most helpful in this regard. Translation for Benjamin is as much about the agency of language as it is a trope for thinking of how “newness enters the world” (to steal a phrase from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses).
In Benjamin’s view translation is the process by which languages, meanings, cultural objects or practices touch each other at a tangent, making a connection through the re-negotiation of differences or the re-presentation of semblances at one point. This connection, or articulation, can be interstitial, iterative, and imminent; it is an attempt to understand the persistence of a certain kind of signifying intention across temporal disjunction and spatial disjunction. This is why Benjamin sees translation as a coming to terms with the the alterity of language, meaning and history—what he calls the “foreignness” of language or discourse.
The limitations of space don’t allow me to explore the nuances of Benjamin’s argument here, but even my brief version has important implications for the humanities. The university fosters a set of disciplines which form the kernel of the humanities as academic knowledge; but humanistic thought, and the values it embodies, goes far beyond the academy and extends to law, medicine, architecture, business, aesthetics.The humanities are part of the very texture of civil society. The humanities play this key role because “interpretation”—the process by which information turns into knowledge—provides the guiding light of the humanities; and interpretation as an art of understanding and transmitting meaning and value comes very close to the practice of translation as I have described it. Moreover, the importance of humanistic interpretation lies in its ability to build communities of cultural exchange l and political dialogue, rather than quantitative “models” of unbridled progress.
Q: In your interview you also mention your “secret garden in London”. Can you tell us more about that?
It is a typically English garden with a dense web of plants of different scales and shapes. At one end of it, there is an octagonal glass house—a little garden pavilion—that allows for slow reading, careful writing…or undisturbed, loud snoring. Laid out like a Persian carpet before you is the crazy beauty of mixed plants and wild flowers. Only the birds disturb you; only the bees threaten you. And suddenly it’s time for a quiet cup of tea, or a bottle of wine with friends, whose loud voices chase away the bees and the birds. Drop in, sometime…but you must keep the secret.
Q: In your 1993 interview, you mention the problematics of “basic verb forms that ensnare gender and sexuality” – the tendency of I am and I have statements to depoliticize and ameliorate otherwise fraught associations. That these verb forms “ensnare” is provocative; you seem to argue the opposite, that there’s a reaching continuity in the copula, an attempt to assert the centrality or stability of some threatened “I”. But I think this contradiction – that some conception of “being” can both falsely impose seamlessness and simultaneously enmesh or tangle – is brilliant. This seems to be where some of the most exciting work in feminist and queer theory is located – in exacerbating contradiction, mobilizing paradox to produce subjectivities that occupy a curious space of being and becoming. In your interview you also mention the potentiality of narrative and anti-narrative strategies for articulating the complexities of gender and sexuality. With narration, though, and perhaps with anti-narration, the end seems always in sight. I’m wondering: to what extent is failure written into this anxious movement within and about the boundaries of gender and sexuality? Does the impossibility of perfect redescription indicate emergency, the anticipation of an end?
A: It has been some time since I made such statements, so your question not only asks me to think about verb-forms such as “I am” and “I have” but “I thought” or “I claimed.” You ask me to traverse a certain passage of time as if I am still the author who wrote those words, as if I were continuous. It may be difficult for readers to grasp sometimes that in the course of 23 years a person rethinks and begins again several times. Perhaps the idea is that one might feel ashamed at no longer thinking the same thing, or that an author has a stake in showing that all claims uttered over the course of more than two decades are consistent with one another, as if writing over time is just the building of a system, rather than the reworking of a set of grounds. So though I do not clearly remember that interview, I accept that it is new for you, and perhaps for some others, as if the words were written just now. So you ask me to enter into a temporality that is strange to me, and that is surely the polite thing to do. If had to reconstruct what I could have meant, I suppose that it would have to do with the over-inclusive character of certain verb-forms. If I “am” a particular sexual orientation, then we have to ask whether that is all that I am, and if it is not all that I am, in what sense am I that? Am I that only under certain conditions, or continuously? And do I make matters too firm when I say that is what I “am”. Sometimes in response to someone’s wrong assumption about what your sexual inclinations or practices may be, you do have to say, “but I am x” – in that case, the “am” is phatic, if not emphatic. It is intended rhetorically as a firm rejoinder. But if I am wondering to myself or laying out a complex sequence, then probably I would not rush headlong into ontology. Rather, I would try to characterize various directions that my desire goes, and the language I use might be more descriptive, if not fully narrative. In a way, the ontological move stops a story that might be more complicated to tell. After all, one really does not know very much about a person when the person says “I am gay” – it is almost a way of saying that “I do not want to tell you very much about myself – this is all you need to know.” The stories we do tell tend to interrupt themselves, get renewed, and are sometimes disposed with altogether when they no longer seem plausible. With any given story, I can be trying to convince myself, build a case, or I may be trying to approximate something with language. But if we accept that sexuality always failed to adapt fully to language, then a certain amount of stuttering underlies our most coherent presentations of who we are. There – I inserted the copula again, suggesting that I do still need the various inflections of being. Perhaps we need to say “I am this or that” in accord with identitarian logics because we require abbreviated ways of presenting ourselves. It would be interesting to know whether something is really conveyed, or whether the statement begins or ends a conversation. Perhaps both “being” something and “having” something are ways of interrupting or beginning or renewing a form of conversations, depending on how they are used, and with what effect. If so, then all these verb forms would have to be recast within a scene of address.