How to bring decades of embodied, socially embedded performance practice into the poetics and the politics of the printed book? How, then, might this platform of the physical book allow for the most sensitive, most incisive, most acute aesthetics/ethics of representing strangers’ suffering? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Caroline Bergvall. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Bergvall’s Meddle English and Drift. Bergvall is a writer, artist, and vocal performer of French-Norwegian origins, now based in London (and with substantial ties to North American poetry communities). Her projects (including poetic works, audio pieces, drawings, installations, and live performances) push at boundaries of language — prioritizing an ongoing concern with conversations surrounding social displacement, migration, belonging, language histories, and liminal spaces. She has performed and presented her work at institutions such as the Tate Modern (London), the Khoj Centre (New Delhi), the Fondation Vuitton (Paris), the Mamco Museum (Geneva), the MCA Denver, the Samtidsmuseet (Oslo), and New York’s MOMA. Additional books include Fig and the forthcoming Alyson Sings (Nightboat, 2019). Bergvall’s ongoing project Ragadawn (2016-) presents a sunrise performance for spoken voice, soprano, and a chorus of recorded voices in multiple minoritarian languages. This open yet intimate yet political project continues its trajectory across Europe this summer.
ANDY FITCH: It doesn’t feel right to separate your books from your various multimedia engagements. So first, before we get too far into Meddle English and Drift, could we tap one line from the autobiographical-seeming piece “Cropper,” which refers to having “immediately takn to Londons queer sensibilities w its enjoyment of iconoclastic performance trads, trans hosts”? By the next sentence, we do arrive at “strange and claustrophobic poetry rooms,” but for audiences who know you best through book projects, could you offer a more detailed description of that queer-inflected performance scene you found, and how it immediately overlapped with or gradually directed you to more recognizably poetic contexts?
CAROLINE BERGVALL: Well the political and historical dimension of London favored me when I arrived as a young writer and artist. I’d started doing interdisciplinary work in Norway, always with an interest in collaborations and in thinking about poetry as an auditory form. The print aspect always accompanied those ventures. Then when I arrived in London in the mid-90s, I found a very developed, very varied performance scene, where visual artists, musicians, and poets would show work together sometimes in fairly private art events, and sometimes at more formal places, like the ICA. A lot of fascinating performance art took place across art forms at the ICA.
So I arrived in London and found that, through both the idea of clubbing and the queer scene, you had audiences focused on politics of gender through various kinds of time-based arts. This meant that my personal interest in a type of direct, contact-to-contact engagement with audiences, with listeners, with readers could take place. And developing my work within an English-speaking context was the other big draw.
“Claustrophobic poetry rooms” is very much the way I experienced it — not true to the radical nature of what was happening around Bob Cobbing, Lawrence Upton, and the Writers Forum. But the readings would take place on the first floors of pubs and sometimes it really felt like a workshop in the sense that 10, 12 people would attend. There was also a great scarcity of female poets in this atmosphere, and I found that difficult. These readings had their very strict ideologies, were very anti-any sort of identity exploration even through exploratory forms, and could be difficult gender-wise, even more around sexuality. What was great was that one could present any stage of one’s work and give it an airing. Also I met the wonderful poet and artist Aaron Williamson there, who has since become so important for the way he uses his deafness in sound-directed performance.
I then really loved arriving inside a range of writing cultures in North America, where I would find many more female participants. I’m not saying gender disparities had or have been resolved, but there were many more conversations about form and gender and politics and poetry than we were able to have within the experimental scene at that time in Britain. In a more commercial and lyrical scene here in Britain, those conversations were happening (also by way of ethnic diversity), but in formally experimental scenes they were kept at arm’s length and were only really dealt with in the work of female poets such as Geraldine Monk and Maggie O’Sullivan (who were not based in London), or Grace Lake and Denise Riley in Cambridge.
Still in terms of performance and embodied representations of poetic practice, could we also introduce the curatorial dynamics of putting together these print books as layered, mediated, multi-sensorial experiential sites? We could trace your initial conception for each book, and/or your collaboration with Stephen to realize these manuscripts. We could consider notable differences between the two books (Meddle English, for example, feels a bit more like a collection of discrete engagements, and Drift a bit more like a book-length project). We could consider basic design elements, sometimes inverting paratextual norms (with Drift’s prose opening on the front-cover flap, for instance, and its table of contents coming last). We could pause on prose pieces from each project that seem to provide a critical or theoretical or retrospective or conceptual form of address, such as Meddle English’s “Middling English” piece, or the excavatory “Log” near Drift’s end.
You’ve described well this idea of both books being curated spaces. That’s very much the way I think about them. I’ll do performances, collaborations, sound works, and then when I hit the page, it sometimes becomes really important to present a reflective exploration of what this transformation might mean. For that purpose, Nightboat has been amazing. Stephen has always been extremely open to consider that — basically giving me freedom to develop the environments that I had in mind, down to letting me choose the designers and work side by side with them. These aren’t art books, and yet they show an understanding of themselves as a combination of being literary and driven by multiple practices and registers, some of which are close to the art world’s use of books.
Meddle English is a collection of mostly pre-existing texts. “Goan Atom” was first published by Krupskaya Books, who then gave permission to reprint that whole book. I quite liked the idea of the book within the book, especially with “Goan Atom” being such a performative text (based around the photographic work of sculptor Hans Bellmer and other artists). “Goan Atom” provided me with a whole swath of explorations around bodily restructurings, and developed a bilingual syntax as a way to fire this up.
And yes, for the prose pieces, I do think of “Middling English” as a type of manifesto. Then “Cat in the Throat” is another manifesto-type piece, bookending this whole collection with another statement of my poetics. “Middling English” talks about practices put into place in my work, and how one could read those, and how one might want to use them. This piece very much has the sense of making the work available to readers, while also openly referencing many of my own influences. That’s why you have Robert Smithson at the back of Meddle English, but also referenced quite early on. There’s this sense of showing my methodologies, showing my processes — as a way of dynamizing and making explicit my motivations and intentions. Both of these essays are crucial in that sense.
In Drift, the long essay “Log” similarly taps points of research into an ancient language (Anglo-Saxon). It deals with very contemporary concerns regarding how can one use poetics as a process of witnessing catastrophes without becoming voyeuristic, and addresses questions of personal desire and lovepaths, especially of how to use queer sexuality to make sense of the world. This all helps to make Drift, as you said, a continuous project. Through various methods, I try to answer that very complicated question about arts practices’ engagement in the contemporary world.
Yeah I don’t want to differentiate too much between the critical and performative or the mental and bodily operations at play in these texts, or even to differentiate too strongly between the books themselves. In terms of overlaps and continuities, I love, for example, how Meddle English opens on this lovely profusion of lines: “The power lines, wired, and electrical, electromagnetic landscapes, fibrous and spun. There are lines of travel, trade routes, blood routes. Intense seasonal species’ traffic, migratory paths.” Punctuated lines first provide prose traction, leading us into the book, though then lines become more allegorical before the first page closes. I start thinking of literature’s millions of good lines about lines. And then opening Drift I see, with great delight, how line drawings frame it from the start. Again at first these feel non-contextualized. We just begin with the drawings, without the prefatory context Meddle English provides. But soon these ink drawings resound with, say, medieval ruling lines, with government redactions, musical scores, sonograms, fingerprints, barcodes, Cy Twombly, crosshatchings of various stripes — all later finding their way towards lyric articulation through “Log’s” reference to “the cold corridors, the busy silence of book-lined, labyrinthine miles,” again offering too many mythic points of reference for me to open here. Instead, could you yourself describe why it fits both books to open with lines (codes upon codes perhaps), and whether you attach any significance to both books opening this way, threading themselves together?
Right there’s the idea of embodied practice you mentioned earlier, and thinking about gestures of writing. You mentioned the monastic page rulings of medieval times. Both Meddle English and Drift deal with medieval culture one way or another, transported and transformed, trans-historicized. One can also then read the lines, the ink drawings, in many different ways, and you just mentioned a few. I wanted to start Drift like that because I was dealing with different types of disappearance: historical disappearance (of a language), and then political disappearance with the migrants being left to drift across the Mediterranean, which informs the black, funerary pages at the heart of Drift (as well as the mark-making processes, and rough map routes like imaginary scores). A lot of my work is interested in disappearance, ghostings, in making visible traces of evidence of events — also found in languages and in the transformation of writing through different types of technology (like moving from manuscript to print technology). So to start with these mysterious line drawings was one way almost to suspend comprehension, enable imaginary speculative viewing and only after these move into the poetic text “Seafarer.”
For Meddle English, the point was to emphasize interdisciplinary elements of my work. A lot of my work was not available in print or was dispersed online, in spaces I’m now unable to find, or in performances that were not documented. So it was really important to me to open with an essay that was quite polemical about print culture. Of course the line is an important aspect of poetic work. I may not count my lines. I may not count the words or syllables within the lines. But I am aware of that dimension, that measuring tool.
And of course lines can carry other types of intentions. In the essay “Handwriting as a Form of Protest,” which I wrote for Jacket about Fiona Templeton’s Cells of Release, I outline a great number of different ways by which poets have handled the poetic line, and also talk about these drawn writings, or writings drawn — the handwritten aspects that we find in a great range of poetic production, with their meaning somehow bypassing the mechanized print culture that we otherwise face when we publish. I refer to Artaud in there, or Michaux. Michaux talked a lot about writing drawing, and produced a lot of it. But then if you think about M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, you have another way of dealing with the use of the lines on the white page as a brutal burying or whitening out of events. Or Kamau Brathwaite was dropped by more commercial presses when he developed his typeface Sycorax. They couldn’t handle it. Quite late in his writing career Brathwaite has been picked up by much more independent presses, who can and who want to handle the politics in his very visual new graphics.
As you move from medieval rulings to Michaux to Philip and Brathwaite, we’ve started to trace the vast historical scope of your broader project. You’ve also mentioned your interest in younger writers tapping new digital technologies. You’ve discussed elsewhere the desire to find new platforms for poetry. But new platforms for poetry, specifically within the context of Meddle English and Drift, don’t always need to take the form of technological innovation designed by Twitter or Instagram. Developing new platforms for poetry here also means finding dormant, untapped, overlooked potential phenomenologies of the page.
That’s exactly right.
New spatializations or configurations or constellations of mapping, language, cognition, identity arrive throughout both books. The early “Goan Atom” piece, which you mentioned, seems perhaps the most Mallarmé-esque in its conception of the page. And I also think of those “n” and “s” notations on largely blank pages as a precursor to Drift’s “Seafarer” reconfigurations, which trace how maps structure our conceptions of physical space and vice versa, and which seem to spatialize identity (gendered, grammatical, literary identity) as we move from “here” to “hér” to “her.” Or amid the fog in “Hafville 2” both physical and linguistic boundaries blur as words or bits of words bunch together or pull apart, as the crew faces possibilities of shipwreck and loses its reckoning, as letters themselves swirl in the currents, “ossted about at sea.” I’ll want to ask more about the spatialization of text in specific pieces, but do both Meddle English’s and Drift’s invocational lines provide new platforms for poetry in part through their anticipation of some of these subsequent textual phenomena just mentioned?
They definitely do. When I say “new platform for poetry,” that does mean what I can do with a book, and the page, and other types of textual environments which have evolved as part of the visual arts, music, or whatever online culture as well. When I say “platform,” I’m using a contemporary digital term to describe a more general cultural activity, more like an acoustic or aural environment for writing and reading. I certainly think there are different paces and speeds of reading or viewing. When you talk about cognitive perception: especially for Drift, but also in some Meddle English pieces, I was quite interested in trying to change the rhythm of reading, and sometimes to replace it with viewing, with looking. The black pages, the white script, the maps, the constellations all offer abstracted orientations that get elucidated in the logs at the very end. In fact I’m inventing night sky constellations with specific imagery, such as the small Zodiac rubber boat. More generally night skies, or ideas of direction, or of losing direction, guide those passages you just mentioned. These “Hafville” pieces are taken from Icelandic sagas, just at the point where the sagas describe small boats getting lost (using the term “hafville”) at sea. I went to a number of Icelandic sagas, looking for this term. I sensed that the fog of being lost at sea is not being able to see at all, but then there are the noises that get amplified when you get lost in that strange and very scary sea. Then there is the parallel lost at sea of contemporary migrants lost in the dark. Again, these passages have the funerary darkness of night or of the black page. So it’s the narratives that dictate the color of the page and its currents and how I spatialize the text.
That aesthetic freedom comes from the book culture that has developed since the early-20th-century avant-garde — and then further back, from how medieval books will take an image, or how they won’t break the line. That formal interest also for me offers an important way of asking for a consideration of the text as inhabited by the image, such as when you have images side by side, or when you incorporate all the very sophisticated marginalia that those sagas had. So it’s as if, in an abstracted sense, Drift taps the wealth at our disposal coming from a whole range of different periods in literary and print culture. Again I want to question the way we read, by literally inviting you to examine photographs, starting from Drift’s front cover onwards, and then through my collaboration with a photographer examining that dreadful image of the small Zodiac boat crossing the Mediterranean. I’m hoping and imagining that you’re going to be reading at different paces, different times, different speeds. I’m interested in that because it has to do with cognition and communication models. It has to do with types of knowledge that get made available, as well as writerly imagination colored by the visual and performance arts.
When you describe having readers read at different paces, making them attentive to changes in rhythms of reading, with some potential rhythms much more like our typical visual-art perceptions, I also think of one smaller, self-contained transcription project — Meddle English’s “Untitled” piece. Amid your broader reconceptualizations of memory/transcription/inscription processes providing one undervalued (at present) subset of what we call literature, where does this particular enacted engagement with Roberta Flack’s sonic textures fit? Or what most interested you about creating such a dense text out of such a fluid vocal performance on Flack’s part? Or more broadly, amid “Untitled’s” exemplary mimetic practice, I wondered: why transcribe anything? Why describe anything? Why, given language’s imprecise calculus, ever write anything — expect to realize whatever you happen to be pursuing, realizing, taking pleasure in here?
I was quite interested in the impossibility, basically, of trying to transcribe a song, with its simultaneity of instruments and voice. How could I cover, visually or poetically, the whole time-aspect and scored aspect of a song? You have a transcriptive tradition coming from one idea of Fluxus, or from Jackson Mac Low. And here there was also a translation from one medium to another, and trying to just make sense of that on the page. You can see a sort of overlay starting to happen, so you might start to accept that the piano/drum/bass are instructions. Then you have something that could be a voice (coming from a separate, capitalized universe) speaking some very familiar lines. It was complicated to put this together. I really enjoyed doing it. It’s a piece which makes most sense as a score, as a page element transcribed back into a spoken element, so when I literally just speak the “bass drums piano SAIDA LOVETHELIE bass, LIETHELOVE bass,” people suddenly hear this song without being able to hear it as it was. It’s a successful failure. It’s a very energizing piece to read aloud also, due to the emphatic repetitions. It builds on the protest aspect of the song’s lyrics.
I do a lot of transcription pieces. “1DJ2MANY” is a transcription piece of about 69 pop songs around love and lust and seduction. I find that the transcribing process provides me with a whole set of fresh thoughts about writing. On top of that, a process of memory plays out in relation to the fact of transcribing from one element to another. I record and rethink a piece from material culture (from a song, a film, a poem, an epic poem like the Divine Comedy), and then I take a chunk of that and translate it, transform it, into another time, another epoch, through another medium — which is the form transcription has taken in my work. It’s extremely interesting as a way of activating writing composition through lateral ways of thinking about translation.
And just as with translation’s own successes and failures, even virtuoso transcripts point to the impossibilities of transcription. But for a reader who might think of transcribing as a pretty clinical procedure, could you describe how you arrive at such totally non-clinical lines as, from “Fuses”: “Vulva hairy bushy seacunt leaves PINKcock REDstones Blurry BLUEGREENcock right glisteningHandring finger pull cloth mate skinpube bush cunt tree”? What else that we haven’t already discussed can transcription accomplish through such enlivening prose, particularly in relation to a film already transcribing its own embodied, gendered, engendering lived experience?
Well, Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses film juxtaposes images. She also treated the film by throwing it in the oven for a while, so it presents this very overlaid way of handling the idea of film — very material and very overlaid, narratively and visually. It comes out of handmade film traditions. It’s a very beautiful, lyrical, intimate love/sex scene between her and her partner at the time. So I was thinking that there’s no logic in separating the words. Again, as in early manuscript culture, there’s not always the same word or sentence separation that we are used to. Instead I had to find a way of expressing her juxtapositions textually, as a linguistic environment.
I love the process of compounding in language. I haven’t done much of that in Drift, but of course it is very much there when I bring suffixes or prefixes into some of the language in my “Seafarer” piece, as a reminder of Anglo-Saxon’s compound language. The use of casing as a type of rhythm also allows a lot of blocks to happen, echoing the rhythms throughout Schneemann’s film.
Your emphasis on textual composition also reminds me of Meddle English’s reference to certain feminist literary traditions as “chains of learning and interdependence,” and to how these chains have reached you through Schneemann’s film. I appreciate the sense of ambivalence lurking in the “chains” phrase, perhaps with your transcriptive processes both loosening and reinforcing chains of communication, both evading and inventing them at the same time.
Absolutely. The feminist dimension in its widest sense is very important in my work as a way of thinking about the world — and as a reason for why one would want to change the world. This takes on many different forms and modes of action, of course. In a lot of my work it’s less a direct theme than an inherent toolbox for thinking and experiencing language and identity. Along with queer practice, it has been totally instrumental in making me see and work against the archetypal holds of prejudices, be they gender or language dominance, or ethnic histories as activated through most myths and representational narratives. I want to explore this question of roles and of revolt, and pleasure in ways that seek other roads and other myths than the matrix of paternalistic heterosexuality. Basically, so long as there is such a crucial and cruel fixity around representation and ownership (and gender is only one example — ethnicity is of course another), nothing can really change.
In Drift for instance I choose Sara Ahmed as one of my thinking companions. Her takes on the complexity of cultural make-up and travelling identities (her own included) are really illuminating. Writing Meddle English, I spent a lot of time looking at Nancy Spero’s work, notably Codex Artaud. The way Spero ends up understanding Artaud, after a few years of really thinking about his work, looking at his work, looking at his pieces and not knowing French, makes for this fantastic project. Later on, when she does Torture of Women and all that, she very much acknowledges trauma and ignorance as a momentum that could lead you someplace else, and she systematically tries to understand where that might be. I find really interesting this idea of being able to be ignorant in a willful way, in a way that leads to a critical form of knowledge, if you like. That’s also a lot of Drift, of course. I don’t have Anglo-Saxon as one of the languages that I can write and understand. So what logic can I choose to work in that language?
And then pivoting back from ignorance to something like the notational, as well as to reading’s largely overlooked visual aspects, could we return to the “Seafarer” piece, with its half-erased self-transcriptions, its grid-like pages of repeated “t’s,” which I love? I think of Gertrude Stein’s method of counting: “one and one and one.” I picture Mondrian’s plus/minus North Sea paintings, streamlined crosses in a military cemetery, cemeteries in general.
Oh someone did a whole piece about “t’s” and they were all about cemeteries. I can’t remember her name, but it was a beautiful piece.
Definitely the materialities of Futurist manifestos also get echoed. Or even one album cover by the band Faust comes to…
Yes that’s right!
And amid the fruitful mimetic monotony of your own many “t’s,” amid your embodied examinations of the notational, the term “forensic” often comes up. Could you describe the forensic’s place amid your “Seafarer” excursions — themselves doubled and grafted onto autobiographical narrative later, when Drift offers its own “Log”? “Logos,” perhaps a gendered logos, doesn’t seem far from “log” here, particularly within an adventure-writing genre historically dominated by men, with “logs” perhaps the masculine equivalent of women’s domestically coded diaries. And with “Seafarer” and “Log” in mind, perhaps we also can point to how Sara Ahmed’s conception of queer orientation gets situated in Drift.
Queer Phenomenology talks very much about the influence that Edouard Glissant has had on Ahmed’s way of thinking about this. Glissant is an important influence on a lot of my own work. And in Drift I first quote Ahmed saying “being lost is a way of inhabiting space by registering what is not familiar.” Later I quote her statement: “It matters how we arrive at the places we do.” Her sexual orientation idea also brings up questions of directionality — with emotional and sexual orientation not only internalized, but also externalizing themselves through a process of direction, of compass-making in the world, or a very motivated map-making process that also can lead back to one’s mind maps. I thought about all of this in connection to constellations and medieval navigation. In “Log” I talk about navigating by the stars, but also by the currents, by the coastline, by a whole range of various literal and metaphoric directions.
There was again the question of the individual body’s place within queer orientation (which taps a collective understanding of what this body might be, and how it might find its specific manifestations), as well as a connection to ideas of the Zodiac, the Greek constellations organized according to individual figures — this very ancient correlation between astral shapes and the mythic and the individual body or person.
So this idea of getting lost and finding one’s way through new means and materials became important to me through various histories, including forensic elements and tools provided by queer and literary thinkers and polemicists. Working with a documentary photographer added a forensic component as well, slowing down our familiar way of viewing a documentary photo, so that we can think about what we’re actually seeing (even when, eventually, you can’t see anything anymore). That might lead to thinking differently about evidence and data (and about inscriptions of various kinds, since a lot of these situations take place in the Mediterranean). And for this specific Zodiac scene I described, after a few years when this story was hovering, it finally made headline news, perhaps in part because social scientists developed a way of going out looking for evidence, which they called “forensic architecture,” “forensic oceanography.” So sometimes there is evidence that can help for tracking tragic abuses of power. I got interested in that for art-making and poetic processes. I talk about the idea of “recitation.” Should one recite the voices, the stories, of the dead? What does that gesture of assimilation do? What role can there be away from voyeurism of piecing together elements composed through artistic means and poetic knowledge, that have as a final aim or motivation a type of material engagement with real events in the world? That’s where the “forensic” as poetics becomes important to me.
I’ve asked about an aesthetics of representation, and Drift points to visual artists such as Ana Mendieta, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Wolfgang Tillmans. Or Vija Celmins’s unspecified constellations for me get echoed by the grainy textures and crystalline constellations within your own lovely book — a book which simultaneously calls for an anti-detached, anti-aestheticized depiction of human suffering. And here you also have pointed us towards an ethics of representation. Obviously, the term “drift” presents both potentially liberatory and potentially lethal connotations, so that we might see “Report’s” pixelated visual and syntactic idiom in relation to, say, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, or Gerhard Richter’s Baader Meinhoff series. Could you discuss, for instance, how “Report” might undercut any sort of sentimental origin story that invocations of The Seafarer might suggest?
I haven’t finished thinking about this, obviously, because we haven’t finished dealing with what’s going on. There’s a sense of disempowerment regarding any kind of commentary that we could make. That’s precisely where larger political powers want us — totally hesitant, overwhelmed by the massive machine. There are a lot of those concerns in trying to keep on thinking. Drift was one attempt.
For Drift I also had in mind Peter Weiss’s The Investigation, which includes direct reference to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of 1962. Weiss sat in the courtroom and put together his play from the transcripts. I saw this script restaged by a Rwandan group of actors in London in the beginning of 2000. Most of the actors had family members who had died in the terrible genocide. So there you have historical court-case materials, handled by a playwright — then served back 30 years later, by a group of actors recontextualizing the text through an extremely different genocidal situation that they have lived through. That seemed a very powerful way of using something like verbatim theater, verbatim material to double and ghost and actualize these histories of horror.
Similarly, in “Report” I try to grapple with what kinds of language can represent this situation of being at sea — with thinking about the contemporary sea as a type of sea we don’t want to be in, that we desperately hope to land on the other side of. For the report mentioned in my book, the social scientists presented their evidence to show which nations’ surveillance cameras and helicopters and ships could have given (but did not give) assistance to that Zodiac ship with 70 passengers on board. The scientists argued that this has to be seen as failing to offer assistance to persons in danger, and basically comparable to homicidal negligence. So as writer, as a poet, can I use some of this material in such a way that I also can place or create a memory, and potentially create a sense of palpable physical engagement? How can I provide a hardcore language of this murder within this poetics, and also remember it as a language that has been used productively by the courts to condemn what has taken place?
Well in terms of this type of investigation’s ever-unfinished nature, in terms of the transcript, the verbatim, the representational without the voyeuristic, the visual page and the anti-retinal, could we also consider the place of the mouth alongside the eye? “Cropper’s” anaphoric insistence (for example: “some never had a chance to know their body before it was taken away, some never had a chance to feel a body as their own before it was taken away”) got me thinking not just about Stein, but about tactile circulations of a complicitous “we” and/or “some” across your books. Or more concretely in terms of mouths, Meddle English ends with the labial “Cat in the Throat.” Drift closes with its tongue between its teeth (“this ‘theta’ sound finds substitutes such as the short voiceless sibilant /s/ or the voiceless alveolar stop /t/ not only in its language variants but especially among late learners of the language, for whom it remains a vexing and more or less chronic obstruction”). Both concluding passages point me back to Roland Barthes’s emphasis on the mouth, or “muzzle” in English translation (not the contraption put on a dog’s face, but our own embodied bony flesh, and connectively lubricated tissues). How might your own parting pointing towards mouths pick up on various questions of representation that we’ve been exploring?
To start with the theta, I wanted to explore this letter that’s disappeared from the English alphabet, which is the thorn letter for that unvoiced “th” sound — a genuinely difficult sound to produce if you’re not brought up with English. Here I’m thinking more generally about alphabetic sounds that have gotten lost in English printing culture. The mouth is a training site. It will develop a naturalness and fluency to languages, according to where we are in the world when we learn to speak. Later on our flexibility to learning languages and to adapting our jaws or muscularity diminishes. To lose or not lose one’s accent, to become totally fluent, has so much to do with becoming or having to become so-called “native.” I find it really interesting that we keep forgetting that our bodies are totally trained culture machines. The mouth also can point to the potential for thinking about language in its physicality and its meta-reality. And Barthes on the mouth and on close-up writing at the end of The Pleasure of the Text is an amazing final section, in which he fantasizes what writing and reading will be in the future. That “muzzle” description offers a mysterious, renewed animality — certainly a new physical language.
Actually a lot of artists have been dealing with the mouth as a site, like in Adrian Piper’s Catalysis, where she rides New York buses with a handkerchief in her mouth. I’ve always found that piece interesting because there’s a comment, of course, on the ways that she as a black woman in public gets spectacularized, with the whole additional components about speaking or not being able to speak, about being seen or not being seen (or being seen only for problematic reasons), and with complex questions of representation that she taps through the potential madness of putting this white handkerchief in her mouth and just circulating around the city, tracking the realities of racism and the pervasive powerful linking of madness to difference (also in behavior).
As for semiotic and somatic and psychosomatic aspects of the mouth: the erotic aspect of the mouth is a different and deeper notion than the trained aspect. But then the erotic, of course, has its own training. That taps dimensions of animality, of physicality, the pre- or post-verbal edges of languages. Those sounds, and making those sounds, remind us that our bodies have a life beyond linguistics. So culture outside of or beyond language is also possible, and needs to be taken into account. We find it a lot when we deal with suffering, which takes the body beyond language. The mouth, the body, the embodiment of language need to struggle to represent that suffering. So this physicality of the mouth brings up the very ambiguity of thinking about what voice is. What is a voice? Where would you locate the voice in the body? What we call “the voice,” in order to become voice, it needs the lungs. It needs air. It needs stomach. The mouth connects to this whole living organism of structuring sound into language.
Since you’ve returned us to questions both of the future and of the persistent body, perhaps we can close on your ongoing efforts at de-folklorization alongside de-sentimentalization. This comes through clearly with both books’ plunderings from ancient English texts. But the close identification that contemporary Scandinavian audiences can feel as you perform such texts still does point back towards some pre-Babel paradise. You excel at invoking a post-nationalist yet anti-corporate universalist sensibility, through comparisons of English to Latin, to a lingua franca expanding its all-encompassing reach even as it breaks apart amid archipelagic local and digitized communities and platforms and usages. You point to ongoing, irresolvable tensions in your own work between originary unities and everyday fragmentations, between reductive/destructive spreads of English, and then revolutionary/evolutionary seedbeds ever being planted. You’ve spoken before on how contradictory tensions and incompletions within a text can orient us to the future. Could you describe the future or futures toward which these Janus-faced, backwards-bending, Futurist-inflected book projects might point us?
These past few years, the terrible logic of what’s been happening in the United States, in Britain with Brexit, and then also with far-right tendencies across Europe, along with acts of sudden violent extremism — these are such scary and disruptive times. But really they are also about the extremes of mass migration and the realities of climate change that are marking us increasingly and in much deeper longterm ways. Sometimes it feels strange to keep on doing what one does, when the conditions around are becoming so charged, and in a sense need a totally new reading. It’s really humbling. Yet I always want to make a claim for artistic practice as, one way or another, regenerating both our sanity and our belief in possibilities for productive change and ways of being together or ways of setting up connections between people that cut through the status quo.
But how to develop that at a time when we feel, as individuals and also in our collective work practices, overwhelmed by such a persistent and problematic set of histories? How do I create work that can speak to the distress and helplessness that I see and feel around me and within me as well — perhaps by renewing a clear role for imagination, for the imagination within languages and voices? Perhaps by setting out new kinds of dreaming patterns and storylines emerging both from harshness and beauty? For me the future in relation to poetics is very much one that believes (has to believe and does believe, productively) in the beauty and strength of languages, in their flexibility, in the fact that we must always renew and agitate for language’s changeable and unsettled dimensions.
For me this happens in relation to the ways we engineer types of connection to each other, across different lines of motivation and necessity. Arts practice for me is part of that. So I will use literary and poetic culture to engage some way to think about what the collective is, or rather the collectivities that we can and need to imagine for ourselves. Increasingly I’m including dialogue and actual encounters in my performances. I let others speak to me. I’m interested in what is directly around me, locally, and yet also in the knowledge that this is always created by all sorts of more distant, translocal, transnational lines and ancient strands of influence (some of which have been hidden by various historical, and not so historical, xenophobias). This is a part of a long project called Sonic Atlas. One of its first multilingual performances is nearly a ritual, an outdoor sunrise performance called Ragadawn. And I’m also just finishing a book for Nightboat called Alyson Sings, which is my take on Chaucer’s wonderful loud-mouth liferider proto-feminist Wife of Bath.
If I think about the future, it is also what we leave behind, what we leave of us as we go. So how do I make work that tries to push against this terrifying atomization that we are experiencing? How do I do that in a way that could be conducive and productive, that measures the impact of where we are at this point both very closely and in global time? That demands a radicalized way of thinking, and of being. I don’t know. I’ve become both impatient and wide open. I think of García Lorca’s duende, which calls up the connection between blood and soil and song. And I think of what the duende today is. It is closer to Glissant’s “tout-monde.” To be local or rooted today is to be cognizant of uprootedness, rooted through uprootedness. I call it “the duende of mobility,” or of “mobilization.” And this allows me to think about its rituals, its archaic forms, the question of linguistic soils, widening modes of dialogue — while digging out the songs that are always at work in language and poetry.