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Anne Blonstein Interview

Anne Blonstein lived in Basel, Switzerland, where she worked as a freelance translator, editor and teacher. Her publications were: Sand. Soda. Lime. (Broken Boulder Press, 2002), The Blue Pearl (Salt Publishing, 2003), Worked On Screen (Poetry Salzburg, 2005), From Eternity to Personal Pronoun (Gribble Press, 2005), That Those Lips Had Language (Plan B Press, 2005), Thou Shalt Not Kill (Dusie Wee Chap, 2007), Hairpin Loop: Poems (Bright Hill Press, 2007), Memory's Morning (Shearsman Books, 2008), Correspondence with Nobody (Ellectrique Press, 2008) and The Butterflies and the Burnings (Dusie Press, 2009). She died in 2011 after an illness. This interview was conducted in 2005.

 

Jack Alun was born in Cardiff, and now lives and works in South West France as a writer, translator and photographer. His poems have been published in magazines and anthologies in the U.K. and the U.S. He has written two travel books, with a third on its way. Under the name of John Couth, he regularly writes poetry reviews for Shearsman online magazine.  

 

 


JA:
Anne, I've just finished reading your excellent new collection, worked on screen, during the course of which I found myself surrounded by reference books and reaching for a biography of Paul Klee to reacquaint myself with the development of his painting style. It seems to me that you find it insufficient for a reader to come to your work with a complacent mindset or hermetic intellect, states in which your poems can't function. How far are challenge and intellectual growth central to your idea of poetry? Or is your ideal reader someone with all the pieces fundamentally intact?

AB: It's certainly true that a lot of my writing, and especially the sequences which give me the space to elaborate certain themes and ideas, is infused with my interests. When I begin the larger projects, despite the prior preparation, I don't know how they will evolve, where they will take me, and as the writing emerges it nearly always also sends me away from my writing table again in directions I never envisaged at the start, following up ideas, clues, persons or whatever, be it in libraries, museums or, for example, thinking of a sequence I wrote last year, rose gardens. I love the surprises of this process. I am reluctant, though, to describe expectations I might have of potential readers. In all honesty, none perhaps. Or: I just hope my books reach the hands, eyes and minds of open and curious individuals.

Writing worked on screen I was acutely conscious that bar whatever picture ended up on the cover it would not carry any other art by Klee, although it is certainly not imageless. And so I did, in fact, strive to write poems that work independently of the drawings. These are other than ekphrastic poems. For readers of this interview who don't know the book, what I was directly responding to and interacting with were Klee's titles, Klee's words, and his inscription within the first 40 years of the 20th century. But seeking out the pictures to set alongside the poems (where this is possible, many of the over 100 in the book are rarely reproduced), as you did, must add an extra dimension.

JA: Just to pursue this a little further – there’s an idea in Delaunay’s essay ‘On Light’ (which, incidentally, Klee translated into German) that might be interesting to consider in the relation to what you make available to the reader. The quote goes as follows: ‘As long as art cannot get free from the object, it will continue to be a description, literature—will degrade itself to become a handmaiden of imitation. And this is also true even if it emphasises the light effect of an object or the light effects of several objects without the light rising to become artistically self-sufficient’. A simplistic, mimetic view of literature, but if we pursue his notion of light in relation to your poetry it’s possible to see that on one level your work attains that ‘artistic self-sufficiency’, but on another, because you exhibit the ‘object/s’ from which the ‘light effect’ originate/s, it doesn’t – you proffer the reader an artefact and that from which it originates, be it painting, text or whatever. Wouldn’t you consider for the reader to be free to pursue a purely linguistic, emotional experience, it would be interesting to eliminate your sources entirely, thus making each poem ‘artistically self-sufficient’ and less cerebrally qualified? Or, is this duality of response precisely the way your poems are designed to function?

AB: Yes, although I would prefer to call it mutuality rather than duality. If and when a poem, sequence, collection or whatever makes patent reference to e.g. other texts, artworks, music (and by no means does all my poetry do this), it is a gesture in which it qualifies its autonomy. Doing so the poem acknowledges and establishes relationships, implying the possibilities of dialogue, influence, admiration, debt, argument . . . I find myself thinking of Klee's arrows . . .

I recently finished Hélène Cixous' new book, L'Amour même dans la boîte aux lettres. Her publisher is Galilée. All Galilée books come with a one-page printed insert, ‘Prière d'insérer’ it is entitled, which seems to be the equivalent to the cover and flap blurbs of English books (which French books usually don't have), but is written by the author and often addresses the reader fairly directly. Cixous' short text after a couple of opening sentences goes (my translation): ‘To read this book: re-read Une passion dans le désert (Balzac), ou Demeure, Athènes (Derrida), or indeed re-read Undine (Fouqué), or Sodome et Gomorrhe’.

Suffice it to say I had never read any of these and needless to say I plunged into the book without reading them . . . In it Cixous fans out some of the infinite possibilities and ramifications pregnant within the instant. Perhaps my reading was thinned by my ignorance of her references. I was never aware of this, except maybe with the Derrida, which she mentions quite directly. While reading it, though, I was browsing in a bookshop in Lausanne (in the French-speaking part of Switzerland) and it occurred to me to seek out the Balzac—not entirely straightforward, it is a short story buried in a collection. I bought it, went down to a café by the lake and sat in the autumn sunshine with a Napoleonic French soldier, the desert and a large female cat. There is much this story evokes but does not explicitly name. There is a great deal Cixous' book suggests but does not explicitly identify. I also admired how the Balzac was written—its form, language, texture—and being a total (I admit it) Balzac neophyte it set me thinking, hmm perhaps I should read some more . . . As yet, I haven't.

JA: I agree that in a world awash with intertextuality, no poem can function in a vacuum. What’s interesting is the way you conceive the relationship between a reader and your poetry, and the way you intentionally and directly make use of the poem as a dynamic junction between itself and other texts. To look at another element in your work—a great deal of your creative energy goes into the invention of neologisms and portmanteau words, which play an important part in the way you write. These are to be enjoyed intellectually, emotionally, indeed, almost as flavour. How far is their creation due to the fact you envisage language structure and vocabulary at your disposal tired and devalued by commercial and casual overexposure? And is it your opinion that other modern poets make too little use of these expressive tools in their work?

AB: I'm glad you like the “taste” of my words—the sensual properties of a poem are important to me. I must begin my answer in somewhat negative mode. I don't think I have a checklist for what comprises, for me, an interesting (necessary) contemporary poem. So much can be done in and with language, and each poet or writer draws on a personal nexus of experiences and relationships with language to develop an individual expressive means, that the proof is in the performance not in my preconceptions.

I would also be wary of claiming that neologizing is, per se, liberating. It seems to me that we are bombarded daily with new words from science, politics, the internet . . . We constantly have to process, recognize and learn how to interact with these new terms in order to survive in the modern world. Some of them amuse (honestly, today for example, I encountered for the first time “reggies”, would you believe it— proteins involved in cell signalling), some of them irritate (I think “blog” is particularly ugly), occasionally there is the awareness that language is being misused.

But—there may be a difference between many of these inventions and what happens when poets and writers create them. Most new terms are labels, they denominate something that has been found or put into the material world, be it a gene product seen in a gel, or a function in a computer programme. In poetry, wordbirths often work differently: word and idea, word and sense, word and possibility are co-created.

I live in a German-language environment, five minutes from the border with France. I translate from German (and very occasionally French) into English. I am immersed, continuously, in languages other than the one in which I write. They have different peculiarities, special qualities, the texture of the world changes as I move in them, use them. The boundaries between them are anything but steel-reinforced concrete walls. Code-switching is a daily phenomenon in a city where approximately one-third of the inhabitants (me included) are not Swiss citizens. And so I, inevitably, return to my own language with altered eyes, ears (and other senses).

My background in science (biology/genetics) is probably another language (and concept—albeit here I am very critical) resource. In an increasingly specialized and segmented social reality my poems may act as word membranes in which, for example, the neologisms are embedded like molecules spanning and communicating between different compartments, different systems.

JA: The rich and varied linguistic environment you inhabit and enjoy in Switzerland allows you to share daily in a variety of cultural experiences. Does it not sometimes trouble you that your embedding of, let’s say, German or French as integral semantic components of a poem excludes (albeit notionally) a majority from the social and cultural realities these languages confer? For most, these boundaries will be “steel-reinforced concrete walls”. Putting it another way, would it be fair to say that many of your poems allow more people some linguistic access but fewer total access?

AB: Your question really becomes one about translation and (un)translatability, something requiring at least an essay, if not a book. So I'm going to reply fairly briefly. When I decide not to translate (or provide translations of) foreign-language phrases, citations etc. (and this is by no means always), I want, in part, to preserve internal difference within the poem(s). As a writer in English I am very sensitive to the increasing domination of English globally. This process seems to be almost complete within the scientific arena and is already a prominent feature in international relations at political, economic and cultural levels. While it may ease communication and can perhaps reduce the misunderstandings that arise in cross-language exchanges, it is accompanied by the perilous dangers of linguistic imperialism. When a language dies, a world dies (and tragically, far too many languages are dying out). We know that cultures cannot simply be translated 1:1 into the terms of another, and yet reading translations there is always the risk of forgetting, or ignoring this (unless the translation is heavily annotated by the translator). The presence, sometimes, of untranslated phrases in my poetry might at least serve to keep the problems, and difference, the non-identical, foregrounded.

As I said, I both absorb and analyse the particular qualities of other languages and then draw on this knowledge, partly consciously but I don't doubt partly unconsciously too, to shape my language and my poems, my English. The French and German may appear as irritant foreign bodies to some, but the influences of other languages are far more diffused, ranging I suspect from the quite obvious to the more subtle.

JA: In correspondence with nobody and worked on screen you make use of the ancient Rabbinical device, the notariqon, to add further to the semantic and visual interplay of your poetry, but it appears to go beyond this and introduce a serious spiritual element into your writing which suggests ways in which language can be used to evoke understanding not apparent from surface perusal. In the sequence entitled ‘dangerous skin’, you work with three early translations of the Old Testament in German, comfortably integrating their language and imagery. Is religion/spirituality important to you as a writer, or are you concerned more to explore ideas contained in yet another type of human discourse—of the kind, perhaps, the French poet, Michel Deguy, suggests when he wrote, ‘we have been ventriloquists of that which […] we have spoken in the name of God’?

AB: To the right of my writing desk there is one shelf devoted to books by and about Paul Celan. Above this is a shelf of bibles and related reference works. There are four German translations (from Luther to Buber and Rosenzweig), four English translations (ranging from the King James to the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh), three in French, and the standard Hebrew Masoretic text. No Septuagint (Greek) or Vulgate (Latin)—at least not yet . . . There is also a Koran.

So, yes, I am deeply interested in the bible, in its foundational role for occidental culture, in the evolution of the texts' canonization (what was left out as much as what was allowed in) and after (the theology of translation in other words), and how they both reflect and participate(d) in the splits and negations, the synthesis and negotiations that have shaped, and continue to profoundly mark, contemporary society. In the ways the bible has been, is, could (or need not) be read. Its influence goes so deep, is so engrained, it is too easily overlooked, forgotten or even denied. These books should certainly not be abandoned to the exclusive appropriation by conservatives or fundamentalists of any stripe.

The rabbis of the Talmud—all men of course as far as we know—understood the Torah as a (certainly for them divinely inspired/written) text demanding and necessitating continuous interpretation for both ethical/communal and, ultimately with the kabbalists of course, what are often termed mystical ends, although in the kabbala, ethics—as I understand it, a relating and responsibility towards others (and not only human others)—and mysticism seem to be totally interpenetrating activities directed towards the well-being of the world. I am neither a rabbi nor a kabbalist, but I have nevertheless also decided to digest, metabolize and synthesize from this ethically, psychologically, aesthetically and dialogically rich (and indeed sometimes deeply disturbing and harrowing) work.

JA: Throughout your work public and private, creative and referenced, arcane and open discourses interweave into rhythmical, ideational structures that coordinate the whole, while, remarkably, maintaining their separate voices and validities. What sort of balance do you maintain between research and spontaneity in your creative process? Do you find that your ideas for a poem or sequence more often than not flow from pre-existent and familiar texts or are your ideas, at their inception, largely self-generated?

AB: Goodness, I'm not sure I'd ever be able to distinguish between what might be a purely self-generated idea independent of my surroundings, and one that is clearly text inspired. But if obliged to choose from your dichotomy, I would say the initial ideas, and structures, arise independently of specific texts and coalesce or crystallize quite outside any conscious awareness around or out of seeds that usually take the form of questions. I.e. it often seems pretty much that an idea is suddenly “there” unexpected, unbidden and to a great extent untraceable.

I may then go ahead and write without any further “research” or I may spend variable amounts of time on preliminary preparations—be it reading or looking at art or listening to music or—thinking. What is true is that the writing of the sequences extends over many months during which I will certainly be reading, often, though not always, in areas with quite obvious relationships to what I am working on. So, as I've already said, the writing and the writing process are constantly open to external input and influences, including the most quotidian. And it is this interaction which nearly always takes me and the writing into spaces and possibilities I would never have predicted at the outset.

JA: It’s obvious from much of what you write that the creative use of shape or structure matters as much in your work as the rhythm and sense to which it’s allied, combining this with the rich, inventive and visual pleasure of the language, I was wondering whether it’s more important to you that your poetry communicates as a visual art rather than orally, as something crafted for readings or recording?

AB: Visually AND aurally—writing AND speech (sound)—not always overlapping properties of language which I try to engage as a challenge rather than a problem.

It has been gratifying that some composers have shown interest in my poetry and sought ways to “translate” the layout of the poems, especially the spacing/spaces. In 2003, Mela Meierhans transformed five pages from the last section of the blue pearl, for performance by the jazz ensemble Quartet Noir, for the Lucerne Festival. She selected the pages in the last section of the book in which blank space gradually overwhelms the words such that the fourth page of the five is more or less empty. I did not attend rehearsals, but she told me there were intense discussions about how to play/perform this blankness. I'm somewhat prejudiced perhaps, but the tension on the night as the musicians crossed this space was phenomenal.

My sequences are structured to varying degrees, somewhat like musical compositions, though almost certainly without their complexity. Some of the structures are preimposed forms and constraints, but a lot evolve quite organically as the writing progresses. And these structures are both short and long range and work with both visual and sound elements so that, in fact, those hearing a sequence of poems might more easily identify certain patterns that those (silently) reading the poems might take longer to recognize.

JA: It must have been fascinating and very rewarding to have witnessed your work transformed into a piece of jazz and I think it’s interesting and certainly revealing that composers have been drawn to engage with ways of interpreting your poems. What I was seeking also to discover, and probably expressed badly, was in what ways live audiences responded to the oral transmission of your writing–for instance, in your experience of readings, how do the silences you mention communicate; do the structures you create resonate in a peculiar way on the ear; do you find you need to prepare listeners for what they’ll hear?

AB: I don't think I've given enough readings to answer this question comprehensively. Yes, I usually tell the audience something about the structure of sequences before I start reading from them. I've only read to the public once from worked on screen. I described the notariqon procedure and then began with the very simplest poems, telling them the Klee title, reading the poem quiet slowly and then teasing out the form word by word. I gradually read more complicated poems, and then concluded with simple ones again, but this time letting my hearers, hopefully, deduce the wordbone for themselves.

When I've read from the blue pearl I have tried to “represent” the internal spaces/silences of the third section, as well as the polyvocality of the first section, though I'm neither a performer or actress. I've thought about “translating” the layout perhaps by movement and/or gesture, but have had neither the opportunity, nor indeed the courage perhaps, to attempt that yet. I would like to be able to read from my work with two or three other people, especially those who have other accents, other mother tongues.

JA: What are you currently working on? What projects have you in mind for the future?

AB: I started two months ago a new sequence of (at the moment) fairly short poems, with the tentative title ‘and my smile will be yellow’. More than that I cannot say. Although I do have other ideas tucked away in various brainloops, I expect to be writing this sequence until at least autumn next year and if past experience is anything to go by, the next project will germinate from an as yet unformed or unfertilized, and certainly invisible, oocyte (or should that be oocite?) in this one.

JA: Anne, thanks for sharing your ideas, techniques and attitudes to language and to writing. It’s been very much appreciated. Is it premature to ask what the theme of your new sequence might be?

AB: Mmm, I think I'll remain rather quiet about that for now . . . but it does have some notariqon, in a different and new twist, woven into it . . .

 

 

 

copyright © Anne Blonstein & Jack Alun