A sympathetic whirr in the controls of the stove: An Interview with Erin Moure

Poet and translator Erín Moure has, over the last thirty-plus years, tirelessly probed and expanded the borders of poetic possibility through her own work and the translation of writers from the European continent and from Quebec. She is the author of seventeen books of original poetry, including the recent The Unmemntioable (House of Anansi Press), as well as one book of essays, My Beloved Wager (NeWest Press). Moure has translated the works of numerous French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Galician writers, most recently Chus Pato’s Hordes of Writing (Shearsman Books) and Louise Dupré’s Just Like Her (Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd). The following exchange took place over email between November and December 2012.

BRIAN ROTH:
Obsession can be seen as a spectrum dependent on the individual and the interests of the individual. Do you consider yourself and your writing as obsessive?

ERÍN MOURE:

No. That’s the short answer. Obsession to me reads as a persistent idea or thought that is out of proportion, the focus on it is “unreasonable” in that sense, and causes people to trip up in ordinary ways. I consider myself disciplined, widely curious, and persistent. And definitely willing to give up and change my ideas…

When you write, how do you consider a poem in terms of its reception on the page of a book versus its reception in the performative act of reading it aloud?
The book as physical artefact is a beautiful thing. Amazing structure: bound down one side (for the most part), has text that faces text and thus is all visible to the eye, hides text (when you turn a page or shut the book), and whose manipulation is under the control of the reader, not the writer…it can be opened anywhere, read in the wrong order, read partially, and read spatially…and is not in fact a “book” until it is taken up and opened, and someone “reads” or looks. Reception of the page is multiple, moving, and collaborative with the reader… so I do many things with space, continuity, repetition and movement in types of texts, page placement of text, use of textual apparatus that is not text but is in Word such as lines, etc. The reader can spend time with the page and book in so many ways. Plus, paper smells nice, and inks. There’s a presence that my own physical being responds to.

The act of reading work aloud, presenting the texts, and particularly, being the “writer” presenting texts one supposedly “wrote,” provides a world of different opportunities. Texts are written, produced, through physical bodies, and the performance as well is produced through the body. The listener doesn’t have the right to turn back or to hear again, so that aspect of reading is missing. But gesture, voice, timbre, movement, create a textual experience in a reading. The text is also “selected” from the book. So, in fact, the performance of a text is a different artefact. Lots is possible there…

When I write, however, I just work with sounding things out loud and with the relation between the sounds, words, the look of words, the page and my own voice or those of the voices in my head at that moment. I don’t really consider reception except insofar that I too am receiving the work…as I write.

While reading your latest book, The Unmemntioable, I had the experience of rifling through a private travel journal that had somehow found its way into my hands. I think a lot of this experience, beyond the structure of many of the poems as journal entries, can be attributed to the scraps of handwritten text, photographs, and everything else you call the “textual apparatus that is not text.” How do you view the relationship between the visual and textual elements of your poetry?
Mmmmm, it is the journal of more than one person, or constructed as such. I think, in terms of the visual relationship between different parts of the text, or movements, or apparatus, that I conceive these as a whole, keeping in mind the way the eye operates, the way it searches and moves in the visual field, especially if there is something unusual there, unexpected. The eye is drawn then to read out of order—as we read headlines in newspapers without reading articles, necessarily, or skim across magazine articles and catch on photos or ads. How is the eye “caught” by text or spacings? That is a compositional question for me. The dimensionality of a text, and how text is enacted through various dimensions, sonorities, refractions, is always a question for me. The relation of the left side of the page with the right, the fact that some text is “overleaf” and invisible for a moment: all these things are compositional spaces for me. The so-called “communicative function” of language is not transparent at all for me. I’m interested in so many aspects of text, noise, movement in language.

These sonorities, placements, echoes, also open up readings of the work, live.

I noticed you were credited with both the cover and text design for The Unmemntioable, which I believe is a first for you. What did this amount of “control” allow you to do with this book and will this be a model you return to for your future work?
It’s actually not a first for me…I’ve long contributed the cover photograph or image to my book covers and since O Cidadán (2001) have prepared the design…the publisher’s designers (Angel Guerra and Bill Douglas, variously) have just executed my design…until O Resplandor (2010), when the designer preferred not to have his name on a book he didn’t really design. I think on O Resplandor there is no designer listed at all, and on Little Theatres (2005) the designer removed his name from the back cover (but didn’t see it was still on the copyright page)…The Unmemntioable is the first time I’ve been credited with the design, I think.

In my contracts with Anansi, I have long had a major say into the cover, as for me I write my books as artefacts, from the top left of the outside cover right to the bottom right corner of the back cover. I have some training in design from way back in high school when I double-streamed academics with being a “commercial art” student.

I’ve also never had blurbs on my poetry book covers (there are two on my essay book), just excerpts from reviews, on occasion, or, more recently, salient quotes that mimic blurbs just by being placed on the cover.

You’ve called The Unmemntioable an “infected” text; in the book we see the return of Elisa Sampedrín and appearances by Chus Pato, whom you’ve translated many times before. On the cover is a photograph of Vida Simon’s visual art, and she is also someone you’ve worked with previously. What draws you to these real and not-so-real collaborations?
There’s a quick answer to that question: for me, poetry is a conversation. It’s about language and movement in language, openings, crossings, paradoxes, contradictions, sounds, layers and lairs (and liars too), and as such, not about “the author” or “the poet.” It’s about contributing gladness, curiosity, revolt to something that ranges more widely than an individual can. On another level, even “my” poetry doesn’t mean very much unless it is in conversation with the work of others outside “my” books. One poetry means because another poetry is also at work nearby. As I work on the text of a book, my reading affects me, emails Chus Pato sends affect me, my translation affects me. Enters the text, torques or pushes it. The infected text, to me, moves in ways that I can’t direct or could have never expected. I have to grow big ears, and make myself small, and just listen. Maybe that’s what I do obsessively, listen (the sound of the refrigerator behind me, light off the table I receive with my “ears,” how and the way the fridge sets up a sympathetic whirr somewhere in the controls of the stove…).

So, would you say collaboration is a way to introduce chance into your work?
Introduce change, yes (though can chance be avoided?), and add to brain power and surprises. There are many invisible collaborations as well, as in my walks in the neighbourhood with artist Lani Maestro (see the cover image of O Cidadán, and of Pato’s Secession), walks in France with Lisa Robertson, tea in Montreal with Oana Avasilichioaei, translating texts for the Pierre Dorion exhibition for Emeren García, conversation and brunch with Daphne Marlatt passing through town. Just missing Vida Simon (http://www.oboro.net/en/activity/elle-marche-bluemountain). These also alter my writing and thinking at any given moment.

Chance, or at least the idea of probabilities, seems to carry some weight in this work. For instance, the table of contents in The Unmemntioable is arranged by the decreasing odds of something being true and the recurring image of casting dice reminded me of Einstein’s proclamation that: “God does not play dice with the universe.” How do you view the relationship between chance and intention?
Intention, by necessity, because it is a focus and elimination, involves blind spots, I’d say, acknowledged or unacknowledged. And language always acts beyond its user’s intentions. As with reading, both chance and intention (which are not opposites) depend on what you do with them, and how you let them act upon you, upon your own organism. The ball’s always back in our court, and what then? Grab the rope and risk falling, I say. Or, as I recall Simone Weil writing somewhere, “Untruth, which is the opposite of truth, may not be a lie.” Sometimes, as in The Unmemntioable, the harder you try to be true, the more of an inky spill arises!

The crisis of decreasing odds (of certainty, of truth) is perhaps the most perplexing paradox of conducting an investigation (or creating a text that purports to). Truthfulness (the last part of the book, outside the odds, is in the form of a journal…how true is it, though?) does not always increase the chances of poetry not being a lie. It’s all part of the wrestling with subjectivity.

Other than that, the reference to chance and odds in The Unmemntioable is a homage to my mother (who was mathematical, and loved a good gamble and could generally beat the house) and is a tip of the hat to my own essay book, My Beloved Wager, the wager there being to bet my life on poetry. Poetry and reading. The risk of reading something that you do not fully “understand.”

You talked earlier about “keeping in mind the way the eye operates” and in many of your essays and poems you use the ideas and language of science (such as entropy from the second law of thermodynamics and the structure and functioning of cells in an organism). Does this language connect again back to mathematics and your mother or is there a deeper interest in those topics? And why set up some of your arguments using those more scientific terms?

I just like knowing how the organism functions, and knowing some of the mechanics of perception. The scientific explanations of perception and consciousness are also necessarily limited, but they do support the ideas of post-structuralist philosophy, in many ways. Science and philosophy are just different prisms on “reality.” And they interest me as modes of thinking that can be brought to bear on language, on the poem, on attentionality and intentionality. Beingness, in other words. Though my mother was a nurse, and I did grow up with her textbooks and discourse (laughing here: she never asked you if you wanted a drink, she always asked if you wanted some “fluids,” for example).

When I read or hear the word “organism,” my mind travels from cellular to individual to community, with each a constituent part or building block of the next larger unit. In what ways are you thinking of the organism and the functioning of the organism?

I guess my thinking on these matters stems from feminist practice, as well as scientific interest. Stems from my readings early on of people like Donna Haraway and Judith Butler, Michel Foucault and Frantz Fanon too, among others. And more recently, from the critical examinations of identity and culture, temporality and place, of people like Edouard Glissant speaking about spaces like the Caribbean that are not theorizable in standard Western European ways, and of folks like Kirsty Hooper talking about Galician culture (her 2011 book is amazing). Culture is traversed by bodies and the movements of bodies are not fully explainable by one set of categories. Always, bodies are in excess of cultural constructs, something in them always is. This is why I speak of organisms at times. I sense myself as organism, responding because the organic capacities and discapacities of my own embodiment affect my position at any given time (I am not completely defined by “the culture” or “a culture”). My fundamental identity is probably that of an allergic person. My first job everywhere is not to die. And from my own organism, I postulate that others are similar. We are in community, and that is important (for my voice is never really “mine,” it is traversed by echoes and movements from those around me, who can include people I am reading whose realities are physically and temporally far from mine), but we are also groups of cells that behave both in common, and in utterly unique ways.

If displacement is a consequence of a body in excess of cultural constructs, how does this correspond to “displacement as tactic” (from “Poetry, Memory, and the Polis” in My Beloved Wager) in your writing?

By “position” above, I mean a more abstract sense than physical movement away from the familiar territory…“position” being how I am situated and received right where I am, and how my body struggles with or against that to deposition and reposition itself (which can be slight…). We are ALL always subjects and actors of multiple positionings at any given moment: allergic, student, gay or straight, male or female, racialized or not from outside the person, from inside the person, cyclist, 8-year-old kid glad at flowers, etc. Which affects my relation to language too. “Displacement” in your question, and in that essay, refers to pushing a linguistic boundary in and through the working of the poem, to displace something in the actual language or linguistic movement of the poem (and see what happens then!)….In that essay, part of the argument was that displacement-as-tactic needs constant renewal, in order to avoid the fixity of categories that it sought in the first place to break down. Because terms and arguments reify into “polarities” if the terms are not constantly examined and pushed. (I see this situation happening in many instances of the “lyric” and “conceptual” arguments we read around us these days…it’s comical.)

Between The Unmemntioable coming out in 2012 and the two translated works (Chus Pato’s Hordes of Writing and Louise Dupré’s Just Like Her) that came out in 2011, it seems like you engage with more than one project at a time. What’s keeping you busy at the moment? What can we look forward to in the future?

And my translation of Pato’s Secession came out in 2012 as well, in a tiny limited edition for the Rotterdam festival! I always work on more than one project, in more than one city, and I try to save time to help my friends too. I’m working right now on Insecession, an Erín version of Pato’s Secession, which is a literary biography and poetics. I’m translating my English translation of Chus’s Galician into my own life, in English; for each piece of Pato’s in Secession, English version, I shall write an Erín piece of the same length. With luck, they’ll be published together on facing pages in 2014 in Canada. I’ve just finished a long version of a play, Kapusta, which is a kind of sequel to The Unmemntioable, and hope to get into a playwriting workshop or development track with a theatre company in 2013 or 2014, and publish the book version in 2015 (as a book of poetry, of course). I’m also doing groundwork for a big multi-author, polymedia project that probably won’t happen until 2015…oh, and my and Robert Majzels’ translation of Nicole Brossard’s White Piano will appear in February 2013 from Coach House (http://www.chbooks.com/catalogue/white-piano). And doing a zillion small translations of poetry (Philippe Charron and, with Robert Majzels, of Nicole Brossard for Aufgabe section edited by Oana Avasilichioaei; Nicole Brossard for The Capilano Review, etc.). Plus I have to make a living translating commercial texts. And I have a couple of residencies upcoming at universities in Canada. ‘Tis a busy life!

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