Thursday, December 09, 2010

A Conversation with Lisa Robertson


Michael Nardone: A lot of your work draws from an immediate environment, both landscape and peers. Thinking about where we are now—Open Space, an artist-run centre—and perhaps trying to locate our conversation in this place, can you speak about your involvement and collaborative work with your immediate community and involvement with artist- and writer-run centres in Vancouver over the years?

Lisa Robertson: I started publishing my work in Vancouver in around 1989-1990. At that time I was running a small bookstore in the downtown Eastside, specializing in contemporary cultural theory and poetry. As a bookseller, my community was the artist-run centres in the same neighbourhood and all of those people would come by their books from me. So, in that way, I met the fabulous curators, artists, and writers, and pretty quickly they invited me and integrated me into their organizations. In that way, I got to know the people who were in the collective of the Kootenay School of Writing. The Kootenay School was run collectively, there were usually six or eight people, and every now and then they'd ask somebody else to join them and that was always interesting and exciting.

So, it was around that time that I met Jeff Derksen, Kevin Davies, Nancy Shaw, and Susan Clark who was running Raddle Moon magazine, and I met the people who were running Artspeak Gallery. At that time it was Kate Rimmer and Keith Higgins, and they are both very active still in Vancouver. Pretty much everything I did was somehow coaxed out of me or invited by this circle of people. The folks at KSW would ask me to give a reading, and I figured I better write something and try to make it good. Or Artspeak Gallery, the first time I wrote a catalogue essay for them, somebody else had to back-out, and there I was sitting in the bookstore with nothing to do, so I ended up writing the first catalogue essay I ever wrote. So, it all happened very much out of conversations that were going on at events and at the bar after events. My whole writing life has continued in that way. Wherever I go, I write something when somebody asks me to. And because of that occasional and situated nature of my work, the social environment conditions what I'm writing. And I try to let what I'm hearing or experiencing and researching in my immediate environment enter my work as fully as possible.

Nardone:
Do you see this style of work as being a kind of correspondence with your community? As a kind of memorial to the place you're in, or the people you are working amongst? It seems to me that the work is very much against a kind of solitary notion of writing, against a kind of Romantic notion of a solitary writer, and is instead, to use Hejinian's term, "rigorously social." Do you see the work that you are doing as trying to create or address or locate a community through the work?

Robertson:
I would say I'm not really trying to create a community-- there are already people there. And everybody is already interesting and articulate and full of ideas and remarkable bodies of work that they are in the midst of producing, and I am visiting studios, in conversations, and I would say my impetus is not to memorialize—I'm not interested in any sort of monument or any sort of master narrative—but just to make a record, to try to make texts that can trace some of that vibrancy and complexity that's around me.

Nardone:
You mentioned the personal archive you used to put together the last poem you read, "Utopia." There's this wonderful quote from the Soft Architecture Manifesto, "The truly utopian act is to manifest current conditions and dialects. Practice description." Is this description part of an archival work you are undertaking?

Robertson:
I think that the impulse to make a descriptive record is at the base of everything that I do. I know that within a lot of modernist and avant-garde theory around poetics and literature, there's been an anti-descriptive bias. Somehow description is thought of as being secondary, complicit, and not vital. But I've never felt that way myself. I've always felt that if I can begin to write texts that can carry across just a small proportion of the variousness and the complexity of what's in the immediate environment, that that would be my goal. To simply record, to describe. A lot of my relationship to art and to literature as a reader and a viewer, has to do with my profound joy in other people's success at having done that for their sites, for their communities, for their places. I feel that it's this way that we get to experience so much thinking even though, finally, our lives are brief and limited.

I've never thought of my ongoing work as being archival in intention. I've never had a grand project set out to accomplish something with my entire life of writing. I work at the micro-level. Though obviously, as the decades go by, certain tendencies become more vigorous or articulated. But I do love archives as sites. I love digging around in the mess. That is a solitary part of the writing work that I adore, the going into an archive and trying to figure out what's in there, and how did it get there, and what can be made out of this.

Nardone:
Imagining you rooting through this archive, I feel that you take up a similar method and bring it into the way you approach a landscape, a city. I'm thinking specifically of the "Seven Walks." Do you see this as being part of your writing practice: treating the contemporary cityscape as a kind of material, a kind of surface through which one navigates and roots through and attempts to piece together various layers of meaning?

Robertson:
For sure. In the archive, what you are approaching are, for the most part, documents with various kinds of status in terms of institutions and origins. The city, also, has that density. It's a mess of documents, really. Any neighbourhood or chunk of architecture or park has so many layers of history and human engagement and argument and suppressed history and colonisations. It's all there if you just start to scratch the surface and mess around and slow down and perceive and ask questions.

Nardone:
You mentioned "immediacy" earlier, another word that comes up more than occasionally is "urgency," of you as writer feeling a kind of urgency to address a certain notion, moment or situation, and this makes me curious about your compositional practices: if it changes from work to work, or how it's changed from XEclogue to The Men to R's Boat?

There's a strong sense of presence in your work, of a direct address that privileges the present moment of engagement between writer and reader, and with that presence there is often times a certain move towards nostalgia, but that sense of the past is often balanced with a movement or carrying through towards the future. Can you talk about your compositional practices, how the manner or methods of the way you compose allow for this immediate and urgent presence?

Robertson:
There's absolutely no recipe. I find it very difficult to write—every time I start something I have to figure out writing all over again. I'm having to learn it again: how do you write? I never really know because each time the problem is different, and so the old technique doesn't necessarily work. And, also, face it, it can get boring doing things the same way over and over. So, I don't know if I can tell you how I write. I do a lot of research, and that can mean all kinds of different things. Sometimes it can mean making sound recordings of conversations and using that as a source. Sometimes it can mean actual research in a city archive. Sometimes it means making notes when I'm talking to friends on the telephone, and folding those into my work. When I am ready to compose something, I bring together everything I've done. It could mean transcriptions of sixteenth-century texts that I found in some old world library. So, all of these things, these notes, these transcriptions: I try to have a lot of stuff around me, in other words. But I'm never quite sure how I'm going to use the stuff, I turn on music and I just start winging it.

Nardone:
I'm trying to picture Lisa Robertson, 19-years-old, arriving on Salt Spring--

Robertson:
In a VW van--

Nardone:
Great. Who are the sources, what are the books, who and what are the influences that are coming into your life at this time? I feel like you have quite a vast canon that you are working out of, that you are in conversation with. Can you talk about some of your early influences?

Robertson:
When I first lived on Salt Spring, I was living in a cabin at Musgrave Landing. It was a cabin that had been built by theosophists in the 1930s, and then inhabited at points by various seekers, I'd have to say, and so it had a library in it that consisted of the theosophists’ stuff, through existential philosophy from the 50s and 60s, Jean Genet, to all these early editions of City Lights books, and Gary Snyder, early Germaine Greer, Doris Lessing, Sontag. I read all of that. And when I was living on Salt Spring I heard about Phyllis Webb and began to read her work. Her book of essays came out in maybe 1981. That book of essays was called Talking, and there was an essay in it called "Waterlily and Multifoliate Rose: Cyclic Notions in Proust." In that essay, she wrote about living in Fulford Harbour and reading Proust. So, I'm thinking she's right across the harbour, so I should read Proust also. I sat in the cabin and read all of Proust when I was 21, and it all just moves outwards from there.

I spent a lot of time reading women modernists from the 20s and 30s. Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, Mary Butts, Gertrude Stein. I was really into Djuna Barnes, and her use of archaic style strongly influenced me and gave me a lot of permission. And I read a lot of structuralist linguistics at the public library, and all of Woolf, and every writer Woolf mentioned.

And my teachers, Roy Miki and George Bowering and Robin Blaser, and the texts that they were giving us in our classes—bp Nichol, Pound, Mallarmé, McCaffery, Beckett, the Objectivists.

Nardone:
Miki, Bowering and Blazer, they would have been in Vancouver?

Robertson:
Yes, I had moved to Vancouver to become a student at Simon Fraser when I was in my mid-twenties. And by that time I started gradually meeting other writers-- that's when I realized there were people my own age who wrote! Then it was my friends' work that was influencing me. Susan Clark, Catriona Strang, Jeff Derksen, Kevin Davies, Dan Farrell, Nancy Shaw, Christine Stewart. It was the folks I was hanging out with who were influencing me.

Nardone:
I know you're in the process of translating some of the work of Michele Bernstein. I'm familiar with her novels and know her as the wife of Debord at one point, and—wait—I'll actually quote her from the epigram to R's Boat before going forward:

"We have now reached a stage of experimentation with new collective constructions and new synthesis, and there is no longer any point in combating the values of the old world by a Neo-Dadaist refusal. Whether the values be ideological, artistic, or even financial, the proper things is to unleash inflation everywhere."

Robertson:
I just love that. I should put that in the front of every book I write.

Nardone:
And I had just listened to a recording of you reading from your translation of Tous les chevaux du roi, and so I'm seeing Bernstein as a writer that you've been in conversation with for some time now, can you talk about this conversation?

Robertson:
It's hard to get your hands on her work. Guy Debord, who was her spouse briefly, has become the central figure of the Situationist movement. But as it came out of the 40s and 50s and 60s, in France and throughout Europe, the Situationist movement was radically collective and decentered. Michele Bernstein helped to fund some of their projects and some of their carryings-on with her work as a professional writer. She wrote book reviews and art reviews for mainstream high-culture publications, like the Times Literary Supplement. At the same time she was doing that, she was writing various manifestoes and tracts that were being published in the Situationist magazine, Potlatch. You can find some of her texts online because none of them were copyrighted.

I think I first found out about Michele Bernstein from the Greil Marcus book, Lipstick Traces. It came out in the late-80s maybe. It's a fabulous book. We all knew about Guy Debord at the time, but then you find out, oh, there were women involved in this, and that becomes very interesting. Who is she, what did she do? I can't say I've read all of Bernstein’s work, but I've had an intense curiosity, a curiosity in her role in Debord's output, her role as a writer.

This book, All the King's Horses, came out in 1961, and it was written to make money. Guy Debord didn't work for money, so somebody had to make the money. So she wrote this novel and it was a very funny, witty narrative about a young couple in the art world who have an open marriage, and invite a naive young girl into their marriage. It was very racy. The late-50s in France was a pretty racy period in pop culture. You have Pauline Reage's Story of O, which wins a major literary award, the Prix des Deux Magots. At 18 Francoise Sagan wrote Bonjour, Tristesse, about a seventeen-year-old girl’s love affair, and Sagan was a major pop star novelist, and all her novels were about slightly risqué little set-ups. And there are the movies coming out like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with Jeanne Moreau, so all of this is really in the air. Michele Bernstein's book was participating in this light pop-porn genre that was going on, while also making fun of the domestic lifestyles of the Situationists. It was really popular, and it sold out, and they didn't reprint it. It was out of print for decades, and came back into print maybe five years ago, when I found it in a bookshop.

Nardone:
And she, too, wrote astrology.

Robertson:
Yes, she wrote horoscopes for race horses. At least, that's what Greil Marcus says. I've never been able to find the race horse horoscopes.

Nardone:
You mentioned earlier the first women of the Modernist generation---Barnes, Loy, Butts, Stein—and then the women of the Situationist generation. I'm curious if working in these influences, do you see any similarities between the place of women writers and poets today to that of the first generation of Modernist or Situationist movements?

Robertson:
I don't think I can speak for women writers. Though I very specifically consider myself to be a feminist. I always have, my entire life since I was a teenager. And I have no problems with that, and neither does my mom. But it doesn't follow for me that I can speak for women in general because I'm feminist.

In terms of the situation now as compared to those previous generations?

Nardone:
Well, I was thinking of Xi Chuan, the Chinese poet who was visiting here last autumn, and he would often talk about women poets in China, and how there is very little historical record of women writing in China, and he would talk about the presence of some great women writers in the contemporary Chinese scene, but still, how there were actually very few. Then he would talk about coming to North America, and reading the work of many exceptional poets—he would mention C.D. Wright and Brenda Hillman, and then he and I would talk about your work and Cole Swenson's and Sina Queyras's and Erin Moure's—and he would speak with a kind of amazement regarding the vitality and the great work done by women writers here.

Robertson:
I see what you're getting at now. All of those people you mention I think are fabulous, and the fact that we are all coexisting definitely indicates a great vitality. But my reading into previous eras, reading into community and situated writing activities in different periods and places, suggests to me that at any place, at any given time.in early 19th century London, for example, there are many fabulous women writers. Do we read them now? No, mostly not. Can we even name them? No, not beyond Wollstonecraft and Shelley. But there have always been women writers. And they have been publishing and active and popular and read, bought, discussed, and have been vital parts of their societies and cultures. The problem, I think, that continues, what has been the problem and is the problem now, is that the institutional formations that are responsible for the continuity of literature as a canon have continued to resist placing writing by women in the macro narrative and economy of literature.

And so, continuously there has been this ongoing process of rediscovery. Like, wow, there was feminism in the 19th century, can you imagine? Every single generation we go through this ridiculous re-discovery. In the 80s we thought we were inventing feminism. In the 70s we thought we were inventing feminism. Every single generation is put in the situation where we feel like we have to invent this thing. Why? Because there is no continuity. No narrative has been formed. But women writers have always been present, brilliant, and even plentiful. Not rare.

And so, in this sense, I think it's the same situation now as it was for, say, this Paris expatriate women's modernist writing community. You could put your finger down in any city and find this vital, articulate, educated exchange of literary activity among women. Then the first thing that happens is that books go out of print. As soon as a book's out of print, it's dead. It can't be taught or exchanged. It can become a sort of absent cult object: did you hear that X did this. I mean, one major difficulty in the reception of the Paris women modernists is that all of those books were out of print for a long time. You couldn't even get your hands on their work. Often, the work does not leave its original micro-context. It becomes a kind of mythology. It has to be belatedly rediscovered. It can’t slowly develop a readership over time. The same could be said of women in Montreal writing from the 70s through til now. If publishers don't take care of the work and keep it in print, and if a seriously sustained discourse and scholarship does not construct itself around it, the very same thing will happen. It will fizzle, and, in a couple of generations, people will say didn't you hear there were once these interesting writers. The fact of this community of work will become a kind of retro culty thing. Whereas, everybody knows that the Montreal women’s writing experiment is the great and strongest thing that's happening now intellectually. The same garbage happens every generation, so far as I can see. The garbage of inattention.

Nardone:
And yet, you are a writer who remains very faithful to working with small presses: New Star, Clear Cut, BookThug, Coach House.

Robertson:
And I can say that one of the reasons that I have a career as a writer is that my publishers keep all of my books in print. I don't have any work that's out of print. I don't know if it has anything to do with the size of the press. It has to do with the vitality and integrity of the publishing culture.


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This conversation is from a public dialogue at Open Space, 27 November 2010.

Lisa Robertson is currently in East Vancouver. Coach House Books is ready to release a new edition of Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture; in fact the OSA has re-opened for the winter.

Michael Nardone is a transcriptionist for Jacket2.
He lives in the Northwest Territories.

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