Interview: Lisa Robertson

‘Reading is Like Dreaming’: An Interview with Lisa Robertson

When Australia’s Centre for Deep Reading gathered for its first meeting in the Hunter Valley, the organisers circulated a document. It contained two essays by the inimitable Lisa Robertson, taken from her prose collection Nilling (2012). I can imagine no better starting place for an organisation dedicated to the ‘practice of reading’ than Robertson’s work. ‘Time in the Codex’ describes the ‘promiscuous feeling of being alive’ in the vellum or papyrus folds of a codex, an early form of the book, while ‘Lastingness’ theorises the normative position of a reader torn between identification and resistance to a text. Like no other, Robertson captures the thrilling and intimate impersonality of reading.

I was first introduced to Robertson’s work by the poet and literary critic Imogen Cassels. Cassels lent me her personal copies, a bundle that contained almost all of Robertson’s books. If she felt there was something significant, she had, in a lavish equivalent to dog-earing, folded over an entire page to mark the spot. It meant that reading Robertson’s books I had to unfold each page as I went.

Born in Toronto in 1961, Robertson began publishing in Vancouver in the early 1990s. She is today the author of nine books of poetry, two collections of essays, and one novel. Recent works include 3 Summers (2016), poems exploring a phenomenology of corporal temporality, and The Baudelaire Fractal (2020), a bildungsroman on girlhood and the politics of culture in nineteenth-century and 1980s Paris. Her current project, wide rime, considers the eleventh- to thirteenth-century troubadour poetic experiment of the region, and is directed by the birds present in both poems and landscape. Like much of her work, it is site-specific, closely tied to her eighteen-year residence in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region of France, just as her 2003 book Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture traced the relationship of contemporary art practice to an urban history of Vancouver, where she had then lived and walked for twenty-three years. Her most recent books are Anemones: A Simone Weil Project, an annotated translation of a Weil essay on medieval troubadour culture (published in 2021 by the Amsterdam arts foundation If I Can’t Dance), and Boat (a revised and expanded version of R’s Boat, forthcoming with Coach House Books), a work written over two decades that obliquely indexes her life, reworking material from her notebooks.

This interview is the outcome of more than a year of emails, from the winter of 2021 to the winter of 2022. I would like to thank the artist Liz Magor for generously granting permission to reproduce images of her artwork to accompany this discussion.


A colour photograph of a shed suspended on four posts
Liz Magor, LightShed, 2004. Vancouver. © Liz Magor, image reproduced with the permission of the artist.

Louis Klee: I wondered if we could begin with the shack – that small, temporary, and permeable shelter that appears everywhere in your work, but most recently as what the narrator of The Baudelaire Fractal (2020), in melancholy moments, calls her ‘dandiacal hut’. You once wrote by way of conclusion to an essay: ‘We love shacks because they pose impossible questions’. What are these impossible questions?

Lisa Robertson: Because twenty years have passed since I wrote it, your question took me back to look at that essay – ‘Playing House: A Brief Account of the Idea of The Shack’. The statement about shacks posing impossible questions is actually followed by two questions: ‘How can we change what we need?’ and ‘How can we fearlessly acknowledge weakness as an animate and constructive content of collectivity?’ Probably these questions are not impossible, since after all I was able to formulate them, but I still think that they point to troublesome, unsolved areas within capitalism’s social imagination. The shack is an image of an architectural minimum. Can we become people who need less, consume less, people who reject expansionism? It’s almost too obvious. And yet changing what we need at the psychic level is the long query of psychoanalysis and spiritual self-questioning. There is some sort of retreat involved, cognitive or actual, a retreat involving a softer, non-commanding unit of shelter, where, apart from built form, shelter also means a collective gestural repertoire, which permits both solitude and coming together. I think of Roland Barthes’ anchorites in How to Live Together (his lecture course from 1976-77). This brings me to the idea of weakness, which I’ve continued to circle and revisit in my thinking and writing. There is a gendered aspect to my interest – clearly the social category ‘women’ has been assigned and held to the weak role, historically and politically. Other social categories are constrained to this margin too, whether they are racialised, class-based, or sexually oriented towards a supposed deviance. So what’s the content of this weakness? What are the acts and agencies of weakness? Its history? Rather than fearing weakness, is it possible to choose to deviate, to align with it, tarry there? Then what? What could weak thinking do? What are its techniques and potentials?

So the shack has definitely been a core image in my texts. It’s a way of continuously resituating myself within this weak work. One of the glorious things about a shack, as Thoreau knew, is that it is an image that’s inhabitable. So I can go into the shack and it becomes a viewing device, a camera obscura, a point of vision which originates a thinking, a composing. The Baudelaire Fractal is organized around two spatial poles, the hotel room and the hut. The hotel room is the base framing unit in that book, a kind of shack. It unties gender from space. For the girl Hazel Brown it’s a mythic site, an autonomous satellite. Inside it her thinking can begin, beyond the offensive determinations, the departments of literature. She shuts the door, flops on the lumpy bed, and opens a book. I discovered that I just had to imaginatively re-enter the crappy hotel rooms, with their bad wallpaper, their odours, their scuffed surfaces, and look out from them, and the girl’s voice would emerge. From the room, a text would project itself. At the other pole, the hut is the device of the present time of writing. From within its tentative shelter, it becomes possible to look back.

LK: I want to ask you about that first, ‘too obvious’ distinction between the open shelter’s diminutive dimensions and something expansionistic, maximal, perhaps even monumental. In The Baudelaire Fractal, Hazel quotes from an essay by Michèle Bernstein that also appears (in a slightly longer rendition) as one of the epigraphs for R’s Boat (2010): ‘Whether the values be ideological, artistic, or even financial, the proper thing is to unleash inflation everywhere’. Is there a relation between the shack’s minimalism and this maximalism? Or, to put the question in a slightly different way, is there a sense in which the viewing point of smallness and weakness enables a different expansiveness, a different kind of abundance and excess?

LR: I don’t want to insist on actual spatial scale – I do know certain chateaux over here which have been and are lived in like shacks. Look at the Communarde Louise Michel’s 1886 memoir Red Virgin for example, and the ruined chateau she describes growing up within, in real penury. She called it her ‘nest’. Her family shared their walls quite literally with a domesticated mare named Doe, three dogs named Médor, legions of cats, and during storms, a pack of howling wolves. There are still places like that around where I live, minus the wolves. ‘All these beasts lived on good terms with one another’, she wrote, ‘I never saw a cat bother about a mouse, and mice lived in all the walls, behind the green tapestry […]. The mice behaved perfectly, and never gnawed on paper or books and never placed a tooth on the violins, cellos and guitars that were scattered about’. I am very interested in that livid green tapestry. It’s not physical tininess that makes a shack, but its border position, its minor status, the porosity of its walls to other forms of life. What if we consider the shack as a form of life? It tentatively shelters otherness. It permits the proliferation of unacknowledged experiments in living. Mice and a horse and guitars share a room with books and a girl communarde. For me one of the necessary experiments in writing and in living is to locate meaning or value on the surface, rather than protecting and mythologising it by means of an occulted structure. The surface is what extends, multiplies, inflates, diversifies endlessly. Thus my interest in ornament, textile, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1834), Gilles Deleuze’s The Fold (1988), Gottfried Semper, the neo-Baroque, the often feminised rites and gestures of dailiness, the ones which must repeat themselves infinitely in order to produce life. For a while, my working title for The Baudelaire Fractal was ‘New Resartus’. So, yes – the shack shelters a different, non-monumental play of excess and abundance. This kind of proliferative play would undermine power, sometimes by parodying it, sometimes by over-distributing it. Monumentality depends on power’s scarcity. Against that policed scarcity of the closed geometrical figure, the green folds of tapestry keep moving.

LK: This mode of tentatively sheltering otherness – it makes me think of hospitality as it appears in The Baudelaire Fractal, or the question from your ‘Untitled Essay’ in Nilling: ‘What do poems have to do with an ethics of conviviality?’ It would take us back even more than twenty years, but I’m curious as to how you today see the connections between this kind of dwelling and ‘the necessity of women’s tactical intervention in the official genres’ as you put it in the note at the end XEclogue (1993). The intervention in XEclogue is into the pastoral, which, at one moment, is defined like this: ‘Ontology is the luxury of the landed. Let’s pretend you “had” a land. Then you “lost” it. Now fondly describe it. That’s pastoral’. Is the shack a pastoral figure?

LR: No, I don’t think of the shack as a pastoral figure, although I understand why you might propose that. For me it’s not nostalgic, not a figure of mythologised pastness and origin. The shack exists in the present. It’s an economic figure. It turns the mythic difference between the rural and the urban into a tentative site where we can live otherwise. It says something about survival and how to live. The minor is not a mode of nostalgia or lifestyle. It’s the mode of endurance and survival for most of the world’s people. What’s already happening? What parts of the present exist by not coming into the foreground? What isn’t being seen? The shack is a camera obscura for the unrepresented. It’s also a battery. It stores the defunct materialities to convert them to energy.

LK: I was struck equally with the way the shack appeared in Debbie: An Epic (1997): ‘actively stupid blurred and blurring I am a hut / in a century of heady curiosity / and fugitive sensation’. Like Hazel becoming paintings in The Baudelaire Fractal, like ‘becoming ornament’ in The Weather, there is something like ‘becoming shelter’ happening here. Do you think of the shack as figural in another sense? (I have in mind the description of the figural in ‘Time and the Codex’ as ‘an excess (an excess of potential interpretability inherent to a shapeliness) [that] can be differently inflected through time’).

LR: I’m trying to recall exactly the difference between an image and a figure in literary nomenclature, and I’m failing. I knew once, while reading Auerbach, and I’m sure I’ve even written a paragraph about it somewhere. I want to say that the shack is an image. But really, what I really want to get right now at is more like this – I don’t make such distinctions while writing. Many choices happen at an instinctual level. If the same image returns, if the shack returns, it’s because its work in me is not yet done. I do read widely, if imprecisely, in literary history and theory – I read anything. But I don’t retain it all, and I don’t map a position for my texts within a disciplinary network before or as I write. Much of that kind of overtly critical activity is retrospective. At a basic level, if the shack recurs, it’s because it remains a mystery, there’s more to understand, more to describe about its potent thingness.

I have been systematically rereading old notebooks – something I do every ten years maybe – and the other day I found notes I made on thinking about shacks in Liz Magor’s work. She is a Vancouver sculptor and I first wrote the shack essay, as the ‘Office for Soft Architecture’, for an exhibition catalogue on her work. Then in around 2004 I prepared a lecture on her studio process for a conference in Tübingen. I learned a lot about her mould-making and casting techniques, and tried to use this information as a way into thinking about indexicality in writing. In the casting process, the material transformation is hidden. The indexical contact between mould and cast is invisible. It happens inside the mould, and only becomes visible as a trace after the fact, when the mould is inverted, or broken open. Liz cast an entire shack which she first built from planks, a shack whose scale was a little off – I think it was a 7/8 scale. This was a commissioned public art work installed on the harbour in Vancouver. Thinking about this work never really stops for me. The wrong scale jars the image out of the scale of realism. It’s a shack you can’t enter – it’s on stilts. At night a light flickers out through the gaps in the planks. It has an invisible interiority which will never fully give itself over to interpretation. All the things you can say about shacks – architecturally, economically, politically, mythically – are annulled by the wrong scale and the flickering light. For me, the scale of the shack is always wrong and so I am compelled to return to it. There is a fundamental privacy flickering from this image, and this is the case also when I come across shacks in the landscape, as I do very often, here in this poor rural place where I live. They are snags in the logic of the site. This is the feeling I look for as I write – something having to do with the poverty of privacy.

Liz Magor, Deep Woods, 1999, toned silver prints. © Liz Magor, image reproduced with permission of the artist.
Liz Magor, Cabin the Snow, 1989, installation with fabric and model log. Photograph by Robert Keziere, image reproduced with permission of Liz Magor.

LK: I recall this fundamental privacy being present in your essay ‘Perspectors/Melancholia’ too. There melancholy and resistance are connected in a shack-like interiority: ‘Resistance is the vulnerable utopia of inwardness’.

Perhaps this is the moment to ask about repetition in your work. The Baudelaire Fractal is structured around the ‘impure repetition’ of Baudelaire, who himself – according to Walter Benjamin – ‘seems to have been subject to a very general compulsion to return at least once to each of his motifs’, which he likens to ‘the compulsion that draws a criminal back to the scene of a crime’. Cinema of the Present looms large in my mind here – the way it repeats each line, but only once – while both The Baudelaire Fractal and R’s Boat not only have intricate patterns of repetition but reuse material from diaries and notebooks.

LR: You’re right, repetition structures most of my work, beginning with The Apothecary (1991). Back then I was very influenced by the avant-garde tradition that extends loosely from Gertrude Stein to Lyn Hejinian (specifically here I mean Hejinian’s My Life) and would also include Samuel Beckett and John Cage. I borrowed the compositional trope of repetition from these writers. More recently my study of repetition has moved into the question of the invention of rhyme, among the Occitan troubadour poets in the eleventh- to thirteenth-centuries. Repetition and rhyme carry the attention in a shuttle-like way – we move forwards and backwards almost simultaneously with each iteration. The result is an integrated fabric, where sound and sense complicate one another in a cognitive patterning. There’s a real pleasure in constructing such repeating patterns. I do this in The Baudelaire Fractal too – it’s a novel essentially constructed like a poem, in its use of room or stanza, rhyme and caesura. And doubling anything, like I did with a long sequence in Cinema of the Present, immediately inaugurates a deceptively simple form. One is an object, two is consciousness. I learned that repetition thinks.

There’s another force at work in repetition or rhyme, which is less stylistic or technical, and more cognitive, and has to do with the energetic charge of images, the way they circulate in language and the soul. I’m using the word soul here in a resolutely pagan way, to mean the organ of imagination, which includes the work of memory as well as invention. (I also want to partly undo the above differentiation between style and cognition – because I do think that style performs, or even inaugurates cognitive work). The soul is the place where humours and images and memories repeat, mix, recombine, create. So the image – maybe this is where my earlier confusion or forgetfulness about the word ‘figure’ can re-enter – faces several directions simultaneously. The figure is intricately laced through by multiple temporalities. It’s a mobile complication in time. It doesn’t function like a sign, performing a simple, singular task of designation. The experience of the figure is never finished, and it undoes designation. It has a historical resurgence, in a life, or in a culture, or among cultures and lives, because it is unfinished and multiple, and also chaotic. It includes forgetting as a kind of inner labour. Its meanings can change, even as its mode of appearing repeats. A figure doesn’t always perform the same work of meaning across iterations – it often undoes or transforms its previous meaning. This is why figures can heal, or destroy. (Think of the figure we call ‘The Border’, for example.) Benjamin, in his essay on collecting, talks about the underground existence of conquered forms, the weak force of these forms. They do continue to return, or repeat, but the repetition is a site of a different integration of their force into understanding, into an altered interpretation. They make a space for thinking. Repeating is historical work.

I learned to theorise the repetition of figures through my study of Aby Warburg, and my research in his library, as well as through my readings of Lucretius, Benjamin, and Robert Burton. But the ways I use figures, or they use me, in my writing work, isn’t overtly intentional, but occurs intuitively in the frame of a material making – I’m thinking here of writing as a kind of studio process. I learn technique from my artist friends. They keep everything in their studios, and they use everything. Parts of very old works become the infrastructure for new works. Moulds can become positive forms in themselves, within new assemblages. The various tools of making show themselves in the artwork. Defunct forms resurface after years of latency. New work speaks with old work, as well as with the future. So I try to use everything. (I recall reading this line in an essay by Olson back in the early 80s: ‘use, use everything!’ It was mysterious to me then, since what I had already done at that age wasn’t much, so I wrote it down. The process of ageing has made it tangible, even practical.) This has come to mean reusing old notebooks and journals in specific frames, devising ways of systematically re-purposing the material and transforming it. R’s Boat was composed in this way – each poem is built around a single rereading of a long series of about ten or fifteen years of notebooks. I’m currently composing a new long poem for an expanded reissue of R’s Boat (this time titled Boat, with Coach House Books), so I’m immersed in rereading again, from the twenty years of notebooks which are here at home with me, rather than in my archive back in Vancouver. This process of re-entry, selection, reorganisation of old notebook materials is a very generative task psychologically. The normal estrangements of time and forgetfulness and changed interests put me in new relations with old material. Also I find I am now often interested in material which previously felt worthless, unimportant, so that new work is being made from the negative space of older work. The Baudelaire Fractal too was built around multiple re-readings of three old travel journals from the eighties. I described everything then, and those old descriptions could be drawn forward into a completely altered thinking and composing – a fiction. It is practical, as I said, as a sort of domestic ecology of writing and research, but it is also a way to construct a continuity in my own living. I have, at nearly sixty, moved between continents multiple times for very different reasons. I’ve acquired a second language through these moves, and formed many friendships, and community involvements in different places. I’ve left a lot behind too, and made many mistakes. So this purposeful reintegration of old materials into new work has become, among other things, a way of honouring those old selves, even through parody, bringing them along with me as transformed figures or fictions. The transformational work of writing takes place on the page and in the psyche, and repetition is one of the resources of this double task. One question that faces the long duration of writing – for me it’s spanned forty years now, and I hope to be able to continue – is how to continuously recharge, how to keep becoming the person who can invent. So Olson’s injunction to use everything now means reusing. Rhyme is a lifework, I think. And the iterative craft is also a way to bring old material that isn’t ‘my own’ into line with a refreshed making. So the troubadours can be on a level with my twenty-year-old travelling self, and the sixty-year-old obsessive researcher. I can retroactively become the author of Baudelaire. Citation is also humorous.

LK: These practices of relating to estranged aspects of yourself through your personal archival materials seems to be intimately bound up with the thinking about subjectivity, selfhood, and pronouns across your work. When critics want to give a quick sense of this, they often cite a passage from your essay ‘My Eighteenth Century’, where you describe the self as ‘no unity, no bedrock, but the enacted site of shifting agencies and perceptions and identifications. […] It constellates consciousness’. I found the remark even more interesting in the context that often gets left out: it was offered in part as a rebuke to the charge of narcissism that the poet John Wilkinson made against the poet and philosopher Denise Riley. The way you rethink the relational possibilities, the ethics even, of being a self ties back in with The Baudelaire Fractal. If I read the novel right, then it is the older Hazel who ‘becomes’ Baudelaire, while the younger Hazel relates to Baudelaire only as a latent possibility, in ‘a kind of anachronistic hospitality’. In what ways is this generative artistic practice, this attempt to honour past selves tied to your ideas about subjectivity? Is returning to an old self necessarily linked to becoming someone else? Or are these old selves already other, other even to themselves?

LR: What is most important to me is to write a strong text. My intentions are aesthetic, not therapeutic. The work of research, composition, revision, structuring, is what absorbs me utterly and what brings me repeatedly to the page. The character Hazel doesn’t at any point claim to have become Baudelaire. She discovers within herself the authorship of his work. That’s a core difference. What obsessive reader hasn’t had this experience? Baudelaire himself had it reading Poe. Manet had it looking at Velasquez. It has to do with aesthetic identifications and their transformational possibilities. For me subjectivity is linguistic, therefore stylistic. I agree deeply with Émile Benveniste on this point. I don’t consider writing to be a kind of therapeutic work even though I allow that writing has changed me. Inevitably one writes in some relation to one’s life and its various events, even if the writing is motivated by the refusal of those experiences, or the use of the most disciplined avant-garde experiments with constraint and appropriation. My sense of subjectivity is that it is thoroughly intersubjective, social, and polytemporal. In youth one has many elderly potentials latent, all at once. Any of these subjective potentials is refracted by means of texts, voices, images, ancestors, choices. In aging, there is an increasingly and wildly multiple sense of time – I have the feeling that all the layers of experience and perceptions and studies and relationships over the decades are simultaneous. Reading, and other kinds of cultural participation, stretch that possible simultaneity across transhistorical dimensions. How wildly psychotropic! I used the term honour past selves, but it makes me flinch a little when I hear it back. I don’t feel that one returns to a past self or selves – that would suggest that we are a sort of series of monadic units stretched in a single line, accessible through wilful acts. The total simultaneity is what is interesting to me. It’s more like layers of multidimensional patterns merging and emerging and transforming each other by means of impalpable fluctuations. The use of older notebook material is a technique to synthesise such a pattern effect. I think subjectivity itself is such a temporal pattern effect, whose points of relationship are not constrained to the biography of a single person, nor to a single time. For me writing isn’t about representing fixed points of experience or selves, it has to do with the synthesis of subjectivity effects. That is what The Baudelaire Fractal attempts to do, stylistically and with its structure. In a different way R’s Boat does it, and so does The Weather, the text where I first started working with overlapping pattern as a generator of unplanned linguistic movement.

An accompanying fact is this: since adolescence, my social observations and experiences have caused me to situate myself within a resolutely feminist tradition of critique and praxis. Writing is one way to participate in a changing feminism. Other ways would be through mentoring relationships, political analysis, self and collective education and study, etc. I am consistently shocked, as I age, by how very little has improved for younger women, how constraining and damaging the patriarchal political economy continues to be for so many people. Since I am a writer, one thing I can do is widen and complicate the written narrative of gendered experience. I can add gregariously to the bigger story. I remember telling a student once, who was feeling self-conscious and apologetic about taking up space, about going further in her work – never has a girl written anything long enough. I still think this is so. One goal is to complicate and stretch the narrative of gendered subjectivity, as part of a bigger collective work. I can add some documents to the archive of gender. I read recently that Eileen Myles has embarked on a 1000 page prose text. That feels about right.

LK: I recall you mentioning that you should have called the novel The Baudelaire Gender! That would definitely capture something about how the fractal-like patterning effect plays out in the work, something which is there from the very beginning, in the epigraph (from Baudelaire’s letter to his mother): ‘I have insupportable nervous troubles, exactly like women’. But before the novel, you had already been thinking about Baudelaire and gender in your translation work and The Proverbs of a She-Dandy. Why have figures like Baudelaire and Rousseau been so generative for thinking about gender?

LR: Oh yes, I have been thinking about Baudelaire for many years. There’s even a Baudelairean essay from The Office for Soft Architecture, on thrift shopping and tailoring: ‘The Value Village Lyric’. And my earliest books are Virgilian books, relating to his three genres: pastoral, epic and georgic. I would not have imagined myself heading in this direction really, the long wide road of the masters, since my first loves are women modernists – Djuna Barnes, Stein, Mina Loy, and H.D. But it was through reading their texts that I realized the extreme importance of study of the historical canon, as masculinist as it apparently is. Clearly there are not tidily separate traditions. Reading H. D. leads very organically to reading Freud. Reading Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Frank O’Hara led me to Virgil. Djuna Barnes led to Robert Burton and Thomas Browne and the baroque prose tradition. I suppose a difference in my reading path has been that I began with feminist experimentalism, which led back to these male authors, not the other way around, so that I began to read the masters straight away from the point of view of critical feminism. That has not meant that I have not loved them. Another surprise for me, when I started reading backwards from feminist modernism into the canon, was the discovery that I loved these texts possibly more than I hated them, or even that I could love them a little, at all. My self-education in literary form and its histories happened like this. In terms of thinking about gender, it feels important to repeat the structuralist adage that gender is a differential construct. There is no true position, only shifting power relationships. I can’t learn to rethink gender by cordoning off and avoiding texts written by men. Oddly many of the traits that may now be designated as feminine, or at least feminised, such as sentimentality, confession, ornamentation, descriptive saturation, were first established as identifiable styles in the texts of these men – Rousseau and Baudelaire, or Ruskin, or Sterne. I am very interested in returning to the moments of activation of these generic tropes and cliches to deploy them otherwise. I feel an ease, joy and comfort in appropriating as I wish from these writers, to initiate other lines of flight. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, within the territorial constraints and mandates of normative canonicity and its institutions, there are incipient deterritorialisations. Texts contain complexities that undo authorial intention, destabilise the institutional superstructures that use literature to bolster defunct mythologies, such as nation or race or gender. Each of these writers contains also the snags and faults that when worked at with some deviousness, can pull the edifice down, or at very least indicate inroads for others. Elizabeth Grosz talks about this way of working in her critical readings of Nietzsche, Bergson, and Darwin. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok talk about this method of reading Freud. Kathy Acker of course is a genius in this regard, in her work with Dickens and Rimbaud and others. To take a master text back to a moment of foundational weakness, to let the inner, secret weakness of a text find a line of expression in the present, and then to gregariously inflate this weak expressivity – this is a very pleasurable possibility for feminist writing.

A much simpler way to say this is that I like to participate in the punk tradition of the detourned cover song. Patti Smith singing Gloria would be one of my anthems. Or Syd Vicious singing Sinatra. Or Girlschool doing Fox on the Run. But I am shy and I can’t sing, so I devised this other wordier way to do covers.

LK: Your second answer makes me wonder about the place of music in your work. The ‘Note’ to XEclogue, for instance, lists the music that gave the book a ‘generous diction and compositional rhythm’: the Slits, The Raincoats, Patti Smith, Young Marble Giants, The Au Pairs, Annie Lennox, L7, and PJ Harvey. Writing The Weather, by contrast, it was nineties electronic pop music like Portishead, Moby, and Air, that was playing in the background. Or again, a line from 3 Summers asks: ‘How does it work? / Listening to Tom Jones on vinyl and reading Carlyle?’ Clive Scott once spoke about reading as being like listening to music, claiming that both involve ‘practising a kind of kinaesthetic empathy’. What makes music important for your way of writing? Does it connect to your thoughts on the experience of reading?

LR: Music helps me stop thinking thoughts, which usually get in the way of writing. I want to be in the language, experiencing it pleasurably, and not in my head judging it. Judgement is sometimes useful down the line, while editing, reworking, and also in the preparatory process of researching, but in the time of composing a text, critical judgement is not what helps or motivates me. I do want to feel language bodily. When I was writing XEclogue I liked to dance as I wrote. Same for The Weather. I’d devise standing desks, and turn the music up as loud as I dared to in a thin-walled rental apartment. I’ve gone through long minimalist periods too – Cage, Reich, Arvo Pärt, Gavin Bryars. Alice Coltrane was often playing when I wrote 3 Summers. I listened to a lot of Steve Lacy while writing The Baudelaire Fractal.

I love Clive Scott’s idea of kinaesthetic empathy, and I do think it describes what a good experience of composing in language could be. I also feel that I learn a lot about textual structure from music – how to build up layers, how to make transitions. Listening to music can take the place of more traditionally literary notions of prosody or genre, providing changed perceptions of pace, constraint, closure. I like, too, Clive’s musical analogy for reading, although I haven’t consciously experienced that myself. For me it’s been more about the small pleasure of making pairings: Alice Coltrane and Lucretius are fine collaborators it turns out, or Virgil and Glenn Gould. Mostly now I listen to non-vocal music while I write, and save the vocals for other times – driving, or cooking. But I do feel I absorb a great deal of information about cadence and voice and their potentials when I listen to song. Reading feels to me more like dreaming.

LK: In what way is reading like dreaming?

LR: I feel that for me this question could become a novel, or a theory of living. I haven’t known how to begin to answer, what the most precise point of entry could be. I’ve been thinking about your question in the background of other things for, what – two weeks, three weeks – and I still don’t know.

So I’ll try this. For the past few months, I’ve been working on refining my translation of an essay by Simone Weil. This is her 1941 text ‘What the Occitan Inspiration Consists Of’, published by the Marseilles literary and cultural journal Les Cahiers du Sud in a special issue on Medieval Occitan culture – troubadour poetry, Catharism, influences on these, the 1209 Crusade that was the beginning of the colonisation and annexation of this place by France and the Catholic Church. The essay is not at all long, but its translation has been a stupidly slow task for me to complete. Partly this has to do with my psychological reaction to the situation of Covid and repeated confinements, which seemed to restrict the pace of my work to a nearly imperceptible crawl. But the other part is this. The other morning, I realised that each time I return to the source text, to Weil’s French, it has changed in my absence. During this long translation process, in the countless times I have reopened the book to her essay, never have I returned to the same text. In the night new phrases or sentences seem to have inserted themselves, or the referentiality of a sentence which I believed that I had competently understood has completely altered. One morning a single word, previously almost invisible in its seeming simplicity, suddenly demands a thorough interrogation, which then alters the relative weights of all of the other ideas. A sentence will turn to move in a different direction, with an odd velocity. This curse of the translator, to return infinitely to an altered ground, so to have a task which can never be drawn to a close, is in a certain way the condition of any reader, since in my experience the work of translation is just a particularly intense variation on reading. The returned-to text is never the same for the reader either. The impression of dark letters on light paper does not assure any stability. The text will have its own will, velocity, opacity, or interpretability, its own essential fungibility, which the reader can only submit to, or collaborate with, but never control.

This instability is also that of the dreamer, who wakes in the morning to a quotidian life whose hue has been irrevocably altered by the night’s images, the sleeper who blithely slips into a dreamworld which is completely at odds with her beliefs about her psyche and its stories. Unfathomable desires and abilities erupt through our sleep. Dreamers and readers are not in control of anything. They are altered, against their overt wishes, by a structure whose meanings continue to evade their desire to know something. I still don’t understand what reading is, though I can be variously tempted or irritated by any number of theories, either my own, or others’. We generally learn to read as young children, as a matter of cultural initiation and pedagogical expediency. If the child is an introvert, reading can soon develop against the intention and efficacity of any clear transmission. (The first word I can recall reading, probably around four years old, was ‘stop!’). It will be done secretly, against the current of family and class protocols, often for the sheer pleasure of that secrecy. Reading becomes a resource of inwardness, a resistant immateriality that’s both ludic and transgressive, giving the child a powerful sense of the essential privacy and plasticity of their own inner life. The child becomes several. Dreamlike this reading life intertwines with fantasy, memory, inventiveness, forgetting and oppositionality. It coaxes us to accept difficulty as inevitable and sometimes interesting; it is probably constitutive of what we experience as consciousness. If now at the breakfast table we try to recount to our lover the narrative of either the dream or the book, we will of course mostly fail. Just as we are nearing the end of the account, we will suddenly recall the submerged thread which, if tugged, will next undo most of our understanding. We will begin again. The lover is amused or not.

LK: I want to ask about wide rime,now that my copy of your book Starlings has arrived. (There is a video of Derrida complaining that all his American students simply asked him over and over ‘can you elaborate on x’, and I am realising my questions are all more or less in this form!). Your translation of Weil’s ‘What the Occitan Inspiration Consists Of’ is part of a larger, on-going lyric study of troubadour poetics, wide rime. What sparked this project? And what shape is it taking?

LR: I do have a standardised answer to your question, having to do with nightingale song, and the accident of place. I live in the region in western France where William of Aquitaine wrote the first troubadour poems. I didn’t actually realise that until I became interested in the song of nightingales around my quite secluded house, which led me to open an anthology of troubadour poems that had been on my shelf for years. I’ve narrated that coincidence several times. But like the troubadour song itself, which has multiple and concurrent possible origins – Limousin church chant, Andalusian Arab women’s vernacular songs, the Arab influences brought home from the Crusades, resistance to the authority of the Church – I ‘first’ entered this intricate field repeatedly and by various means.

My old friend and collaborator Stacy Doris (who died in 2011) had a copy of María Rosa Menocal’s book Shards of Love: Exile and the Origins of the Lyric (1994) on her shelf, and I was drawn to it. Undoubtedly, she had it because of her interest in medieval Arab literature and philosophy. She loaned it to me until I got my own. It’s about exile and troubadour poetry and Al-Andalus. I read it in the context of writing a lecture on vernacular literature, Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia, and poetry as a dissolver of the public/private discourse binary. Later I revised that lecture to include in my essay collection Nilling. Menocal’s book was my introduction to the history of a tri-cultural Andalousian cultural blossoming as an initiator of the troubadour tradition. I was living in Berkeley at the time, around 2006 or 7, teaching. It’s a rich place, both culturally and economically. Amazing trash is put out on the curb. One day, while walking my dog, I literally stumbled on a book that was lying in the middle of the sidewalk. It was Meg Bogin’s 1976 The Women Troubadours, her beautifully introduced translation of a selection of trobairitz songs. But actually, it was Erín Moure, the Montréal poet, who opened the door wide for me. Her 2007 book O Cadoiro, is a lyric participation and response to the Portuguese and Gallego troubadour cansos. She had spent time in Lisbon at the National Library studying the songbooks, and composed a remarkable work with that research. A couple years later Jacques Roubaud’s book La Fleur Inverse: L’art des troubadours was introduced to me at a brunch table by some French friends, Abigail Lang and Vincent Broqua. I’m probably forgetting one or two other beginnings. But it’s certain that between 2004, when Erín started to talk to me about her troubadour work, and 2012, I kept beginning.

Given that tangle, it probably won’t be surprising to hear that wide rime has no shape yet. I’m now imaging it as a quite long – maybe ten or fifteen-year – project that can include many forms: translation, essays, and verse sequences. For a while I was imagining that my guides to the research and writing would be birds, since I had perhaps begun with nightingales, and I next wrote a poem sequence called Starlings. Then, although I wanted to continue with blackbirds – the European Turdus merula – that didn’t quite work, and I found myself writing an iris sequence last May, and then translating the William of Aquitaine poem on nothing. I wrote a talk on nightingales and rime to give as the annual Creeley Memorial Lecture at SUNY Buffalo. Now I’m translating or rather augmenting Bernart de Ventadour’s lark poem because Simon Weil cites it in her essay. So maybe I’m back to birds?

I haven’t wanted to impose a predetermined form on all this material, and so I don’t yet think of it as a book, but as a site of return that can co-exist among many other shorter projects. Maybe wide rime will never be a single book but will appear in scattered fragments within other books over many years. I don’t really know yet. What’s interesting to me is the way I keep falling back into it, then setting out again in a new unanticipated direction. Oh, yes, I’m also co-translating (from medieval Occitan to English) the four remaining poems of Na Castelloza, twelfth-century trobairitz, with sabrina soyer, for a book we’ll call I of Song, which Lyn Hejinian will publish with Nion editions. And sabrina and I have begun to sing or chant our translations, in performance. That’s a new direction for me. sabrina’s arriving at my house this week and we’ll translate the fourth song together and begin an introduction. We depend on presence, eating and walking and listening to music and working together at a table, so we had to pause during the long Covid confinement year.

LK: I have something of a tangential question, which was simply that I know you’ve been reading Gerald Murnane’s work. What does his writing mean to you?

LR: I had been reading review essays on his books here and there as I was writing The Baudelaire Fractal, but didn’t start to read him until about two years ago, when my novel was already published, at the recommendation of Kyle Buckley, a poet bookseller in Toronto whose reading advice I always take. I began with Border Districts (2017) and was completely amazed and convinced. Soon after I read The Plains (1982), and since then a couple more. I think he is stylistically and structurally brilliant. At this point I feel that I’ve had about enough of his laddish erotic obsession, but that is fine. The way he uses autobiography as image matter for sustaining fiction-making really does feel to be in conversation with Proust, and in fact led me back into reading Proust during the early months of confinement. His texts present a stylistic surface which is extraordinarily active. I love that really nothing much happens at the same time that the thinking is thrillingly intricate and alive. Images move across consciousness, and rhyme with and transform other images. The text is a sort of annotation of this psychic process, but it is also the laboratory that makes the process possible. It is as if the text itself synthesises images and their relationships, which are transformers of consciousness. So when I read Murnane I am not in a narrative, I am in a structure of consciousness that is inventing its own terms of relation with the world. It’s not a representation of experience, it is experience. I intend to reread in the future. Right now, though, I am researching the geological and literary history of the underground river Bièvre in Paris.

LK: A final thing: I want to ask about a remark from a handwritten note that you posted last year: ‘Why must poetry serve politics? Politics should serve poetry, should do everything possible to the point of impossibility, to ensure the ongoing future of poetry as a form of life’. I often thought of this since reading it; it feels important. I suppose I was curious about the train of thought that this note was part of.

LR: The cryptic note about poetry and politics that you saw on my Instagram isn’t there anymore. I honestly don’t remember posting it, or taking it down. I think it was a snapshot of a notebook page. Rhetorical reversals do stimulate me, as a forms of cognitive proposition. I often want to see what happens if I were to assume that already things are other than as they appear. I like to put the demoted position at the core of my thinking. There is the assumption that poetry is secondary – within linguistics, particularly Jakobson’s structuralism, poetry is subservient to ‘regular language’, as if such a thing existed. Benveniste critiques this assumption in his late work on Baudelaire, which is one more reason to love Benveniste. In North American experimental poetry discourse, very often the poem is meant to critique or supplement or dissolve an existent oppressive political situation. Although I am very sympathetic to the tradition of poetry as a form of dissent, I’m genuinely interested in investigating the possibility that poetry is already at the core of living together. It doesn’t critique the social experiment. It is the site of the generation of sociality itself. But its core position goes unperceived. The activity of poetry expands the core by means of shared, energetic linguistic pattern. As the poet Sean Bonney said, “We can still produce sounds that are beyond our condition.” Or did he say “songs”? Capital would prefer to efface this truth, since poetry can’t be owned or controlled. Song won’t be regulated. We will always sing together, simply from a space of mutual pleasure. Collective value is made and diversified and amplified entirely apart from economic registers and measures. Thus, my lengthening study of troubadour poetics. In his book on troubadour poetry, La Fleur Inverse, Jacques Roubaud insists that the poem and love are co-extensive social values. There is no love without the poem. Love must be sung. All language is irregular. The rest is propaganda and force.

Published March 21, 2022
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Louis Klee

Louis Klee is a writer, essayist, and poet. His poem ‘Sentence to Lilacs’ co-won...

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