Where Language Lives: A Conversation with Erín Moure
Interview by Francesca Bianco
Francesca Bianco: I’ve often noticed that critics write about your preoccupation with language. Is this true, do you always gravitate towards writing about language? Perhaps there is simply a tendency for your audience to presume this impulse. Either way, Language with a capital L: the thing that supposedly makes us feel secure, the institution that makes us believe we are all on the same voyage. Though there are many ships to embark on. What happens when you translate a poem? What is lost or gained? Especially in poetry where every line holds equal freight?
Erín Moure: I write “about” many things! But I am always conscious of language, which is and is not mine, and which bears cultural, social and ideological weights. My awareness of this doesn’t make me feel all that secure! A poem or text cannot, in itself, be translated. I can only translate my reading of a poem at a given moment. The ciphers that are the poem must be translated through my eyes and mind and body. Something powerful can cross over. Since the ideological and social fundaments of the language into which I translate are not the same as those of the language from which I translate, there is a lot that cannot cross over. Only, perhaps, be explained. Though I find explanations usually diminish the situation, so I tend to avoid them. And go for the visceral and intellectual transfer: what languages share, because people share. And discover, or uncover correlates to the words that can transmit the poem into the other language. That’s a process of translation that a machine can’t emulate!
FB: Signification is a fascinating concept, that there is the word and then there is what that word signifies. When trying to go for what languages share, do you ever find yourself grasping for unattainable words or teetering towards incomprehensibility? Do you ever feel like you are performing ‘Adam’ in the act of renaming and redefinition?
EM: You squirm. It is infinitely fascinating. I don’t feel I am playing Adam, I am just chorusing. My voice bounces back off the wall, or is drowned in the sweater of the person beside me.
I feel rather that I teeter toward what is just on the far side of comprehension, to expand our powers to comprehend. And to listen.
FB: Virginia Woolf set out to express “life itself” in her writing. Henry Miller looked for “the vital thing” when thinking about his writing although never quite knowing what this thing was. I wonder if for you there is a vital thing in your writing, something that has to be there for it to work. Tell us what moves you to write.
EM: Movement in language that takes me to a place or space that differs (and defers) from what language has been able to do, an opening to a “something else” that perturbs what I know or think I know.
There’s a vitality in that process that can’t be matched!
It brings me back to thinking about translation again, for in translation that
space can often be reached or touched; that space of unknowing yet of
FB: Yes! You are pointing towards the capacity for language to transform or recreate reality. We just need the tools to unlock the box.
You have also spoken about the importance of “resonance” in writing poetry. Can you elaborate on what “resonance” means to you?
EM: Resonance means to allow language itself the room to project, glow, move, refract without trying to pin down words to one meaning, without trying to shut down meaning (which is always multiple and full, contradictory and incomprehensible) into one narrow track so as to valorize “the author” or “the author’s voice.”
For the writer, it involves listening to the reverberation of sounds and senses in the words they call on and learning from them, and going where they point. And revising, but much later on, once the work has had a chance to grow.
FB: Yes, words yearn for collaboration, we long to close the gap between ourselves and the world. In Gertrude Stein’s words, “I like the feeling of words doing/ as they want to do and as they have to do.” What happens though, when words fail us?
EM: Ah, many things, including more words! Words fail us all the time; it is part of their role, and their beauty. They show us the betweens and the movements instead of closing gaps, really.
FB: Can you speak more about “poetry as material practice”?
EM: Words look beautiful, letters are beautiful. We can move words about on the page and they mean differently, we hear them differently. I mean, I guess, letting language speak and listening to it, while regarding the page or screen as a physical support and its spaces as part of the poem that we are engaged in writing.
It means being able to work with the differing resonances in words that we move or adjust on the page, listening to what happens rather than trying to “express ourselves.” Which is always a diminution of what language is and can do.
It means also thinking of the embodied nature of the voice, and of the instruments of language articulation, of performance (in the sense Judith Butler might give it, and in the most obvious sense).
FB: Along with translation and other concerns, you have also considered the female experience in your writing. I’m thinking here of the particular poem, “The Beauty of Furs” and “The Beauty of Furs: Site Glossary” in WSW (West South West), a distinctly feminist text. In those poems, language became an attempt to construct female identification to the body in a world defined under the precepts of a catholic and therefore patriarchal reality. This reads in the poem not only as what one must put on—physically through the furs, but also what women endure by giving birth. It is an extremely powerful poem. Do you begin writing a poem as a domestic space that must be ruptured or subverted? Or do you simply want to express female experiences for others?
EM: I think these spaces around one (the domestic) are always already under rupture; I try to let those ruptures be visible without sealing them over in a lyric whole (though I do not dismiss lyric, quite the contrary). And I go with Galician poet Chus Pato, to write a poetry that produces and does not simply express. Productive, rather than expressive.
FB: Adding to this, you and Robert Majzels translated some of Nicole Brossard’s poems for Vallum’s last issue. What is the importance of representing or bringing to light another female poet’s work that may not be read if English is the reader’s only familiar language?
EM: Brossard’s vision of world, being, language, female and lesbian sexuality, earthly destruction, the possibilities for movement among the young, the febrility of one person thinking and being in a street beside other persons, is an amazing vision to bring into English. And to bring into a shared English created not just by myself but by “the person” who exists in language thanks to a working relation between Moure and Robert Majzels. And then, of course, Nicole Brossard herself reads those words we wrote aloud, as her words. She has a big audience in the English-speaking world.
In fact, Brossard’s feminist work has long been critical to readers and writers in English Canada and, more recently, in the United States, in Mexico, in Catalunya, in Spain, in France, in Belgium, in Italy, etc. Her early and brave speaking of lesbian desire and the effect/infect/refract of that in culture and language has made the work of the rest of us women of my generation possible.
Translating Brossard into English is a gift. I just do it to share that gift with others who need gifts in our terrible economy of commodities.
FB: Your reflection on Brossard’s work reminds me of Phyllis Webb’s “Naked Poems”. Did Canadian poets such as Webb, P.K. Page, Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwen pave a path for you as a writer? Are there still discrepancies in being recognized as a female writer in a male-dominated field? What else makes your work possible, female or otherwise?
EM: As you yourself say, the field of publishing, and reviewing, is still male-dominated, and I find that situation worse elsewhere than in Canada, though things have also slipped somewhat in Canada. Slip and rise. We need more people, men and women, like recently appointed Globe and Mail books editor Jared Bland, and like Lemon Hound’s Sina Queryas, who are determined to keep an eye on the proportions and make sure women’s work doesn’t fall by the wayside. We also need more writers to ask questions when they are invited to events, and to suggest other writers when the gender balance is too lopsided. Both women and men need to point out when imbalances exist, and not be complicit with them.
That said, reading poetry by P.K. Page and Margaret Atwood, Phyllis Webb, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Miriam Waddington, Elizabeth Brewster, Claire Harris, Anne Marriott, Anne Szumigalski, Daphne Marlatt was very critical to me and to my sense of possibility as a writer. As well, my feminist contemporaries such as Bronwen Wallace, Mary di Michele, Lorna Crozier, and male writers such as Phil Hall, Roy Miki, Fred Wah, Colin Browne were very important to my developing sense of the possible; they too in their writing raised issues about representation, history, mentoring, in the 1980s in different ways.
Really I think of poetry as a conversation, and the work of others in poetry, in editing, in commentary, enables mine. Lisa Robertson, Susan Clark, Norma Cole, Sharon Thesen, Susan Howe, Leslie Scalapino, Chus Pato, Caroline Bergvall, Barbara Guest, Myung Mi Kim, Rozalie Hirs, Laura Mullen: my work wouldn’t be possible without the contemporary work of women writers such as these. And it wouldn’t continue to be possible without the younger generation of women poets now producing amazing work: Oana Avasilichioaei, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Angela Carr, Margaret Christakos, Shannon Maguire, Nicole Markotić, Rachel Zolf, to name but a few.
FB: Where do you feel you get the most support for your writing? Is it from the envisaged vehicles of Canadian culture (The Governor General’s Award, The CBC Lit Awards, etc…) or from your peers? Perhaps it comes from some place else?
EM: My peers here in Canada and abroad, women and men, common beings, as Chus Pato might say, are my greatest support. Between us we share a panoply of concerns and passions in languages and poetries and productions and in visual art, curatorial and critical practice, translation, music, architecture, ecology. And reading excellent books in many languages, for whether the authors are alive or dead, the work remains contemporary. And being aware of the stakes in poetries that are not my own, and are not just located in the “present.” All that, and the sky.
I also feel the strong and cordial support of readers, who are people outside the production of a work in some senses, but in others, they are very much a part of the production of meaning. Their readings, the links they make, what they accept and what they refuse, is all interesting to me, and social media makes our conversations more possible.
FB: Your most recent book of poetry deals with translation as a process, and dying as process. In The Unmemntioable, death transforms the speaker, in the same way that language is transformative. Through reading the poems, we are touched by the ineffable that arises when attempting to articulate death. Is it because we lose language in that final moment of conversion? Does the misspelling or alteration of the title, The Unmemntioable, result from this loss?
EM: It is an irrevocable fact that we cannot report on our own death; facing death is to face a place where language will fail us. The alteration of the word that forms the title of the book indicates physically and materially in the word itself what the word means. For something to be merely “unmentionable” means it can and has already been mentioned. The alteration erases that particular mentionability and allows The Unmemntioable to speak for itself.
FB: We are told to “write what we know.” What is your take on the fairly new form of literature centred on Internet culture called “Alt-Lit”? If all we know comes from reading our Twitter feed for hours, there becomes an insatiable hunger for self-reflective prose. Is this a good thing? Or do we lapse into a kind of narcissism?
EM: There is a risk of narcissism. Or, more accurately, perhaps, a kind of presentism. Todayism. Based on an unthinking belief that time is linear and bears us onward. I argue more for the achronological, the anachronic. We learn more about time from exploring what goes against our own. Yet the internet also makes work accessible from all times in ways it never was before. So there’s no hard and fast proclamation to be gleaned from my words here.
What do I know? Elisa Sampedrín in The Unmemntioable tries to explore experience and define it, and finds she can’t do it on her own, as she lacks “an interior.” We who are not invented do have interiors, un for intérieur. How do we encounter world and worldliness? Partly through words, for words precede us in our experiences.
I don’t think I would tell people to “write what you know.” It sounds like a way of saying “never leave the box where you are comfortable.” Rather, as Lisa Robertson has said, you have to write just beyond what you already know. And you have to listen to language and let it work and reverberate. Then you’ll learn something new, and your readers will, too.
FB: Can we also encounter the world, like Elisa, through our exterior? Merleau-Ponty claimed that the body is the bearer of meaning. The idea of being bodily occurs-pre-linguistically, before language. Are you ever inspired by the experience of bodily sensation first?
EM: The body, though, definitely has an interior. And the division between inside and outside is not as clear as it might seem. Bodily sensations definitely can be a starting point for writing, but without language how would you describe them? You only start to know what a body is when you begin to get language for it; otherwise, it’s not extricable from what is around it. Body is a reified term, in that sense. Merleau-Ponty has written probingly on the body-subject, as have others.
Elisa S’s problem is that she has no interior, partly because she has no parents, she’s a figment. That’s why she tries to investigate “experience.” Because experience, for her, is very difficult, nigh impossible. She has to observe someone else, and chooses E.M. (and in doing, provokes the question of what experience and history are for any of us, for all of us).
FB: Speaking of interiors and exteriors, is nature important to you when getting down to write? Can we separate the urban from the natural world when landscape can be redefined as a synthetic product of human interest? The poem is also artificial, a product with a not-so-invisible hand…
EM: I share your views here. Nature is already unnatural. That said, there are still rabbits running wild on the lawns of Calgary. To an animal, nature is where it lives, it doesn’t separate. And a leaf speaks. As Robert Majzels has said, even bacteria are already writing poems of their own. A lot of talk about nature poetry is a colonization of that nature (the one a rabbit lives in) by humans; its fundamental character is its unnaturality.
FB: What is the importance of doing things with your hands that aren’t writing? Do you practice other art forms?
EM: Hands are pretty vital, more vital than feet and legs, which can be replaced by wheels or prostheses more easily. I cook food, which is another art form. I love to invent combinations with food (right now I am eating little batons of white turnip gently steamed with a few drops of sesame oil and sprinkled with poppy seeds). And I write with pencil in notebooks.
FB: Do you write longhand, then?
EM: I write longhand, and on the computer. I scribble a lot in notebooks… and in other peoples’ books, and on envelopes, bits of saved paper, napkins. I enjoy handwriting even though my script is almost illegible, even to me. It makes me think hard about words, their connections to each other. At the same time, I like to write / compose and see how text looks on the page at the moment of composition, as well, which means using the computer.
FB: Speaking of technology, do you have a stance on the print/online debate? Should we keep the physical book for its fetishized artful qualities or will it become obsolete? There surely seems to be a nostalgic resurgence for all things vintage and tangible as the online world proliferates.
EM: Books will always exist and I love books but I do not always need to have everything in book form. I love the access to reading that the internet allows us. The access to old books and dictionaries from the Bodleian Library via Google Books, for example.
I hope though that the books of the future will be more beautiful and more carefully made. The cheap book is really better read on an iPad or reader, if you ask me. Yet you can leaf through a book in a way that a screen doesn’t let you… you can be achronic in a book… and because hands have many fingers you can hold many places in a book simultaneously in your reading. And you can readily open anywhere and read in the wrong order. A book is a beautiful thing. Its physical design can really help you enter the contents and challenges in the text. I’m reading François Turcot’s Mon Dinosaure right now, and I have to say, La Peuplade makes beautiful books. Mass-produced, but beautiful. Everything about the type and spacing and feel and cover has been attended to.
FB: What are you working on at the moment? Are you at liberty to discuss?
EM: Oh, that’s usually clear from Facebook! I just finished a third draft of the English translation of Chus Pato’s new (just back from the printers) book of poetry, Flesh of Leviathan, though the translation won’t appear till 2016 or so. And I am looking for dramaturgical help with my play Kapusta, which I finished last year and I expect to appear as a book of poems in 2015. Just finished a draft of Insecession, my poetic response to Pato’s Secession. It will appear from BookThug in 2014 in a facing page edition with my translation of Secession, and at the moment is in the editing process as my part of the manuscript requires more work. And I am preparing to find a collaborator who speaks and translates Tsuu’tina or Dane-zaa so that we can translate Brazilian Wilson Bueno’s Paraguayan Sea for English readers… it’s a trilingual border book in Portunhol and Guárani. I’ll be working on that project next winter when I am Writer-in-Residence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and will be also working on a new book of poems, tentatively titled The Elements. As well, I will help launch the French translation (by Daniel Canty, out from Le Noroît) of Little Theatres, Petits théâtres, this fall.
FB: Must one be ruthless when writing a poem? Should we reserve the right to tell lies?
EM: Ha! Perhaps all we can do is ruthlessly tell untruths. Especially when the truth is generally an invention anyhow, in many ways; to arrive at a truth, much must be suppressed. Sometimes this suppression is useful and good, sometimes it is not. I hear the voice of Simone Weil here, who wrote: “The opposite of truth, which is untruth, may not be a lie.”
FB: Michael Ondaatje’s long poem “Tin Roof” asks, “Do you want to be happy and write?” posing it as a kind of impossibility.
EM: I am, plutôt, immersed. Agitated, engaged, driven to the edge and over. Some people might find that a torment, but I rather like it. It makes me happy.
FRANCESCA BIANCO graduated from McGill with a BA in English Literature. She intense to pursue an MFA in poetry or screenwriting when the time is right. One day, with any luck or alchemy, she will turn a poem into a film.
Montrealer ERÍN MOURE is busy working. 2012: The Unmemntioable (Anansi). 2013: translations of White Piano (Coach House) by Nicole Brossard (with Robert Majzels) from French, and Galician Songs (Small Stations) by Rosalía de Castro, from Galician. 2014: Insecession, an autobiopoetics, will face Moure’s translation from Galician of Chus Pato’s autobiopoetics, Secession (Book Thug).
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