Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sandra Alland, a few words and three poems

Sandra Alland, Blissful Times, BookThug, 2007

LH: From one Beckett fan to another, wow and where did you get the nerve to enter into Beckett's text?

SA: Thanks! Though to be honest I never thought of it as brave. I thought of it as engaging with a text and writer I connected with, yet also felt very distant from. Beckett's work has captivated me since high school -- especially his ideas around the impossible (or fleetingly possible) yearning for connection and understanding, and the conflict between hope and despair. Also his brilliant use of language and silence. I feel a deep kinship with Beckett, yet there are huge class, gender, generational, sexual, and myriad other differences between us as humans (and writers). So in a way I saw this book partially as a poetic conversation I could have with Beckett, were he still alive.

But there's no difference for me between entering the text of a "literary giant" like Beckett or one of my lesser-known contemporaries like d'bi.young. Small intertextual plagiarisms are as old as the hills -- and Beckett himself played with them constantly. That's how I believe some of the best art is made -- through artistic conversation. I would be nothing as a writer without others to bounce off of. And I think it's important to bounce in many different directions.

LH: Why Happy Days in particular?

SA: Happy Days is a play I find myself constantly returning to. The imagery is so sharp, funny and painful, the disconnect so enormous. Winnie (the main character, buried progressively in more and more sand as she talks to the barely visible and even less vocal Willie) reminds me of myself in some ways. She reaches out, gets burned or fails to connect, but keeps reaching out anyway. Winnie is like most of us, I suppose. We try. We blether into the void. We fill the space with noise. We hope someone is listening.

I also like the truncated, uneven yet highly musical flow of the language, and Beckett's lack of specificity. The words I chose for Blissful Times could be about almost anyone. I tend to be a very specific, often personal, poet, so it was fun and challenging for me to play with something more universal -- and therefore vague -- in scope. It left me a lot of leeway dealing with a large metaphor for existing on this planet.

But the short answer to this question is that one night I just picked up Happy Days and began. I was compelled. I didn't think about it at all.

LH: Have you seen Patricia Rozema's film version of the play?

SA: No. I really wish I had. I have actually never seen a Beckett play except for Waiting for Godot. I am often afraid the productions will taint my love of the text -- so much theatre is terrible these days. I worked in theatre for 10 years so I've seen a lot of butcherings. Also, I can't stand the way the Beckett Estate insists on not changing the gender of characters etc. It makes the plays feel static to me, stuck in the past, museum pieces. Ruins all the fun. Lucky for me, much of Beckett holds up remarkably well on the page anyway.

But Rozema -- I would have liked to have seen that. I also understand Jenniver Tarver did a fantastic job with Not I at the Theatre Centre.

LH: Why did you "translate" the play 63 times, and when you say translate what do you mean?

SA: In 2003-2004, I was lucky to be part of an exchange with the Banff Centre and FONCA (the Mexican Arts Council). The project was a collaboration between 10 writers and 10 photographers, around the ideas of translation between media and languages. Ironically, the organizers failed to hire a translator. Ha!

So this meant a lot of headaches, especially for the writers, but for me it was eventually an interesting headache. People within the group started to do impromptu translations for each other. I understood all three languages (English, Spanish, French) fairly well, so I noticed quite acutely that the translations were more "interpretations" than literal translations. Oh, the miscommunications. Oh, the inaccuracy. Oh, the pain. And long story short, I started to think about how we are always translating or interpreting, even within a single language or culture. None of us actually speaks the same language, though sometimes we have a word or two in common...

Poet Fred Wah was there, and I was talking to him about some of my ideas when he turned me on to bpNichol's Translating Translating Apollinaire. I read it and felt my brain expanding. How many ways were there of understanding a single text? Especially if that text wasn't "mine." Nichol had believed his project to be unpublishable, so I got to thinking about the whys of that... and decided to see if something publishable could come out of it. Of course none of it happened this coherently, as I said earlier, I just began writing.

But yes -- translation -- the changing of one language into another, was my focus. By translation, I mean communion. Or the ache for communion.

LH: Are there off cuts? Poems piled up on the cutting room floor?

SA: Yup, though not nearly as many as I expected. I only left out those that I found impenetrable or dull. Maybe 10 pieces in all.

LH: Can you tell me about the final image, the graph with you/moon/me?

SA: Not really, but not because I don't want to. It just came to me and felt right. How flaky is that? But I'll give it a shot -- I was thinking a lot about distance and measurement, and Beckett's use of the cliche "asking for the Moon" made me think about which was farther away... the Moon or the understanding we seek from each other. And that our striving for the Moon, both literally in terms of space defense etc. and figuratively through always wanting more than we can ever have, keeps us apart -- distant from one another. On parallel, untouching trajectories. Also, I'm secretly a math geek and I can't stop thinking about the angles and degrees and time between me and certain people I try to love.

LH: Did you read Beckett's poetry? Did that influence you at all in terms of finding a poetic response to the play?

SA: I've read some of Beckett's poetry, but don't feel that it influenced the book, at least consciously. I've always been more drawn to the rhythms, language and imagery of his plays. And his film, Film, also loomed over this book a bit. In terms of poetic influence, I was more aware of real and imaginary dialogues that kept popping up between myself and other artists, most of them contemporaries. I felt the presence of writers like bpNichol, Rachel Zolf, d'bi.young, Nathanael Stephens, Juliana Spahr, Chrystos, bill bissett, Lillian Allen, The Four Horsemen, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Stuart Ross, Larissa Lai, various Oulipians. Many people's words entered into the conversation throughout the book, sometimes stylistically, sometimes politically or philosophically. Because a person's translation of something is always influenced by where specifically that person is standing, in relation to others.

LH: How has the book been received? Are you happy with the response?

SA: When I read from the book, I am always surprised by how much people dig it. There's a tendency to think this kind of work is too difficult, inaccessible (so much so that sometimes I even believe it). But all kinds of folks, from my mother (who's a bookkeeper) to academics to kids to spoken word artists to musicians to (other?) people who "hate poetry" get into it. They laugh a lot, some even cry. And they all "get" it. I really feel them coming along for the ride with me. And that was something I had hoped for in a vague way, but didn't expect. Thought I was asking for the Moon, lol.

Reviews have been few, but positive. Well, rather than qualitative, they've engaged really intensely with the work. Those are my favourite kinds of reviews. Not FOUR STARS BESTSELLER!! or SKIP IT! but a real wrestling with and respect for the work. That makes me pretty blissful, yes.

3 Poems from Blissful Times, BookThug, Toronto 2007


what in his language meant


in hers meant death squad

and when he said

she heard disappeared


Foot in the grave. Good by stealth, a breath of air on the scene.

A fault of good cheer for bread and receiving a stone. L’outrance, strapping wench deal. Indeed a loose end are out of joint (hurts me more than it does you), give the world to seem hardly (all) sympathy.

Tell the truth for bread and receive a stone. Less pith and moment. Queer fish of infinite jest, creature. Whereas actually all is said and done, could have knocked me down with a feather (no small beer of myself), about stands to reason.

Daggers into earliest convenience. In one’s mouth. The finger of God in seamy side of life, things being equal. A wonderful place the world would be if (bears his blushing honours thick upon him) no introduction be on his ashes!

Be or not to be; that is the question, in the same boat with in the lurch, an interesting condition in our time. And there: perhaps deserving poor. Moon? Things to all men. Is a bloody business, and time again for bread. And receiving a stone all I know: great unwashed moon.


A: After all these years I realized it wasn’t enough.

B: My God – is that a boat?

A: You know I don’t see well.

B: It is. A boat. We’re saved. (Pause.) We’re done for.

A: I thought I could make my own peace. But they

get you early. Rip things out you need later.

B: Can you swim?

A: I thought I could float, rise above as they say. But

there is a certain weight. Fingers pulling forever

at one’s ankles.

B: How much ice can there be? How few trees? How

many clouds?

A: I remember this notion of forgiveness, an idea

that I might embrace him again one day. After

things had changed.

B: Things have changed.

A: I have changed.

B: I can feel the earth sighing.

(A sighs.)

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