Maintenant #94 – Pierre Joris
An interview with Pierre Joris by SJ Fowler.
There are figures in poetry whose contribution to the understanding of the medium is so immense it cannot be properly appreciated when they are still practising their thought as a poet, let alone as also a prolific critic, anthologist, teacher and theorist. All the more is this true when their work is as enormous, and relentless, as it is subtle, generous and deft. Even more so again when they have been at this work for over forty five years. Who would hope to engage more in the roots and edges of poetics in one lifetime than Pierre Joris has over his? He has published over forty books. He has translated hundreds of poets, not just offering new understandings of their work in his translations, but often resurrecting, if not creating, an appreciation in the Western World. He is as exceptional a polylingual translator as the late 20th century has seen and is inarguably seminal in his own work for the revelation of multi-lingual writing amongst other things. He has taught thousands of students, never once compromising the fundamentally ethical, rigorous and complex ideas behind his work and his understanding of poetry in general. He has written numerous articles on his contemporaries, and having lived across Europe, Africa and the United States, those who have constituted his peers are an exceptionally plentiful group. Add onto that his editorial co-presiding over one of the most important anthologies ever conceived, the poems for the millenium. His dexterity and depth of understanding is matched only by his generosity, and the immense legacy he has already cemented. It is a great pleasure, in our 94th edition, to introduce our first Luxembourger poet, by birth, who is rather obviously, a citizen of everywhere and nowhere.
3:AM: The primary legacy of your work and your thought to me has been your ability to make clear the axiomatic negative totality at the heart of poetry and its writing, and that to embrace the poem as always unfinished is to engage with the process of fragmentation and not seek to wield poetry as a quest for neatness, for completion, as essential. Is this a notion that has bound your work together over your 40 years of writing?
Pierre Joris: I’m not sure if that’s the primary legacy of my work (or what, if any, legacy my work will eventually have), but if I were to agree, I would have to add immediately that in this case I am in excellent company — my sense being that this is a fairly common & well-shared realization (passive realization, certainly, even if not everyone acted on it or put it squarely in the center of her artistic process). I’d propose that this realization & the process it logically demands reaches from John Keats & his “negative capability” all the way to Mallarmé’s Le Livre and on through the various arts of the 20C from Pollock’s “abandoned” rather than ‘finished” canvases to John Cage’s or Jackson Mac Low’s writing and so on. In fact for me it is the core event for the whole lineage of so-called “experimental” or avant-garde art, in fact of the lineage of innovative 20C thought generally, be it the so-called humanities or the exact sciences.
3:AM: Do you think there is an ethical / political nexus around this notion of complete-ness / incompleteness and poetics? I.e. is the search for totality the root of whether or not poetry can truly represent something inethical, something suffocating?
PJ: Absolutely. It seems obvious to me that the various 20C totalitarianisms of the left as well as of the right, are conscious and unconscious reactions against the scary fact that we now know that the universe is not fixed, total, one-directional etc., but variable, undetermined, relativistic, an “open universe.” The religious fascisms of the first decades of the present century, be they Christian as here in the US, or Islamic as elsewhere in the world (there are of course also Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, whatever versions thereof), are prolongations & intensifications of those 20C reactions against what we now know of the universe — in other words they are the frantic attempt to use belief/faith systems to negate knowledge. And human fears — essentially the fear of death — are very strong allies for the ponzy schemes the dealers in religion-based post-life insurance biz are trying to sell us, to their, not our, greater enrichment.
3:AM: And is the reverse true? Is a poetics of fragmentation, a poetics that accepts the metaphorical limitation of mortality in its body and form, that advocates a humility of aim, of meaning, of ownership of language, more likely to represent the ungraspable complexity of lived experience, and thus be, in this formulation, an ethical force?
PJ: “Nothing truer than fragment” — I’m quoting Robert Kelly — & I love the coupling of “truth” which in our Western culture is always associated with the single, the whole, the complete with the notion of the fragment, which can only be incomplete, multiple, partial so that the notion of a “true fragment” is de facto oxymoronic. Or even, what grammar allows, the comparative “truer,” is already a way beyond truth, for if something is “truer than” something else, that implies a first or earlier truth now found wanting. So there are multiple truths & again it is a question of staying in Keatsian negative capability. Not sure if this advocates “humility of aim” as you put it in the domain of poetry & poetics or, rather, what interests me are the multiple possibilities, the rich diversity of experimentation & thinking it allows, because the fact that there is not one truth (that would be debilitating, and has proved to be so in all human spheres, political, social, artistic, where such a notion has been applied) does not mean there is no truth, no, ot at all: there are many truths, & it is our exhilarating job to chase them down & rejoice in their clarities.
3:AM: Is there then a fundamental ethic of the avant-garde in the concept that the poem is not political in its message but in its being – that the whole is political, the form itself?
PJ: Absolutely — I think the previous response is clear enough about this, even without going into another detailed analysis of how form and content are but extensions of one another in either direction.
3:AM: You have spoken of a moment of realization where you ceased to conceive of poetry as something one could enter into when one was moved to do so but as an undertaking which was total, lifelong and requiring a dedication of thought that was overwhelming. Could you discuss this?
PJ: My core sense here is to defeat the old chestnut of “inspiration” — a romantic reliance on the muse, whoever she, he or it is meant to be. I tell my students: poetry is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Thinking on this (& trying to find a way of putting it I haven’t already used, as this is something that comes up again & again) & not finding one immediately, I turn away from the work under hand & pick up a book— I’m writing this on the TGV between Paris and Bordeaux — the “light reading” I picked up in Paris yesterday after getting in from New York, this year’s Philippe Sollers’ “novel” called L’éclaircie, which I started reading into during the past night’s jet-lag insomnia hours, & this is what I immediately come across now, here, on the train: “Mallarmé tells how in the morning Manet would throw himself with fury upon his canvases, ‘as if he had never painted.’ A capital notation: one has never written anything, painted anything, composed anything, the spontaneous act belongs to the pure present, always new, without past.”
For me, this proposition in no way suggests an act, of painting, here, but it could be writing too, that would be a matter of muse-inspiration, to the contrary: I this spontaneous act of pure presence “in the morning” also implies a dayliness, in fact can be understood only as part of a daily practice, something I think of as akin to the jazz musician’s wood shedding. The implication being a learning by continual practice of what your instrument can do. If you sit around waiting for “inspiration” to hit you, when, or better, if it does eventually, you’ll as likely as not be unable to write, too rusty, unused — quick pain in the wrist, or fingers not finding the right keys or not fast and dexterous enough to follow the thought. It is this process of writing that interests me, the daily process, call it wrestling with the angel or spontaneous prose notations, whatever.
This fall for the first time in some years I am teaching an undergraduate creative writing course. Besides volume 2 of Poems for the Millennium, useful, I believe, to show students the spread and depth of contemporary poetic practices, and a handful of essays on poetics, I’ll have the class read two books by individual poets: Alice Notley’s selected poems (Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2005) and Clayton Eshleman’s Grindstone of Rapport (which is a CE Reader including poetry, essays and translations). The point being to show students what a life time of involvement with and work in poetry means ― not some slim, elegant, leather-bound-gold-engraved book of well-crafted poems, easily in- and di-gestible by a reader in a leisurely afternoon’s read, but a big, complex and demanding assemblage of work over the long haul that requires investment of time and energy by the reader to honor the life-time of work the poet has put into it.
3:AM: You have given the poet great potentiality, and so great responsibility, in your theoretical writing, conceiving of the poet as the ‘scientist of the whole’, in Robert Kelly’s words, and that a poet can truly utilise anything that is of use, in a way other artists cannot. Do you see this as the poet’s right or the poet’s responsibility? Add onto this you have been a translator for over four decades and in innumerable languages, the process must have become an indistinguishable part of your own process of writing, living around the form of other languages and then choosing your own language of medium must be an immensely complex undertaking each time you write, and one also of inherent responsibility?
PJ: Human language is translation from the word go — of a somatic or physiological process or of a range of sensory ones, be their origins inside or outside, i.e. language translates something seen, heard, felt, smelled, thought. From that angle, interlanguage translation is only one very limited, specific — I don’t even want to say special, just specialized — case of language-work. So, having co-habited since childhood with several languages has probably given me a different way of envisioning language work. As I think on this now, something comes to mind which I had never thought about: even in Letzeburgesch, my mother tongue, in fact especially in Letzeburgesch as it was a rather impoverished oral language, starved when it came to any thinking on a complex cultural level, or whenever you wanted to address a subject of some depth in a cultural or scientific domain, you quickly ran out of native vocabulary & would automatically bring in German or French words, i.e. translate, substitute, collage. Thus you learned very early on that there was no one-fits-all version of language, that language was a d.i.y. process, and that in order to make yourself understood or to convince someone else or even to get yourself to understand a complex idea better, you had to draw on several lan-guages. This also taught you that the fit of language & world was very haphazard or even a purely arbitrary thing. Les mots et les choses did not fit together like the two sides of a coin, and that different languages constructed different worlds, that there was no mot juste. So when I started to write poetry, this to me commonplace vision of things allowed me quickly to move beyond a sense of a purely numinous language and on to a, for lack of a better word, constructivist vision of the poem where anything can be used to get the work done, to let the poem do its work.
Now, you suggest that this is specific to writing & not to the other arts — I would disagree here. Other arts can use and have used “anything that is of use” for a long time now — that in fact is the history of 20C art! In the visual arts, say, from Picasso & Schwitter’s collages to Rauschenberg’s combines & Joseph Beuys’s use of felt & fat rather than canvas & oil paint. The same is true in music, just think of “Ballet mécanique” or so much of John Cage’s work, from opening the window to let the outside sounds into the event of composition to using recorded bird song.
Is this the poet or artists’ right or responsibility? Both, I’d say, in fact if it is her right, then it is also by the same token her responsibility. I like Duncan’s take on responsibility as “the ability to respond.” And that also makes it the poet’s duty. — After writing this I went to sleep, & waking up — here in Bourg d’Oueil, the High Pyrenees, our core summer transhumance place — I started to read into Lisa Jarnot’s biography of Robert Duncan which had arrived by mail a few days before, & came across the following from RD’s 1944 essay, “The Homosexual in Society:” “Only one devotion can be held by a human being seeking a creative life and expression, and that is a devotion to human freedom, toward the liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations. To do this one must disown all the special groups (nations, religions, sexes, races) that would claim allegiance.” The articulation of these two sentences is exactly where the complexity & the difficulty of this stance lie. But that articulation is also absolutely necessary.
3:AM: You have pioneered multi-lingual writing, and your work has played a large part in synthetic language writing, the freedom to use multiple tongues in one text, something that has had a great resonance through many writers in the West post WWII. Do you think this technique relates to your relentless engagement with translation?
PJ: To some degree it does, of course. But here too, I believe that I am simply both a part of & a, hopefully attentive, listener to the world around me. The nomadic comes in here not just as a nomadicity between languages as it expresses itself in & in the work of translation & enters the poem, but also as the lived experience of nomadicity. Just leave the confines of our northern mainly monolingual countries where the other native languages — say, celtic ones in the UK, or Occitan ones in France, or hundreds of native American languages, or Spanish or Black English in the US — have been silenced by guns, by laws, by whatever means necessary to the construction of mono-lingo-lithic nation-states. Once you travel elsewhere & open your ears, you’ll notice that the use of several often very different languages at the same time is the norm. I have never met an African who did not know at least three & often four or five languages.
In poetry it was probably first brought to my attention forcefully when I started to read Ezra Pound — though I had already come across a few Paul Celan poems that used “foreign” words, Hebrew, Russian, & of course there was Eliot’s Wasteland, though for some reason his use of foreign words never seemed essential to me, i.e. they felt like aesthetic “enjolivures,” ornaments, prettyfications, like postmodern architectural curlicues additions before their time. But the opening Canto of Pound’s magnum opus hit me full blast: here was a superb poem in its own right (write?), that was (& remains) great because it is also & at the same time a palimpsest of translations, both in terms of content & form: thus a moment from Homer’s Greek Odyssey via a medieval Latin version is Englished with structural constructs that call on revising/adapting old Anglo-Saxon formal elements updated via modernist moves, in the process creating a vertiginous literary mille-feuille. As if Pound was foreseeing the information layers we now take for granted & have at our fingertips via the internet where, indeed, Pounds prophecy that “all ages are contemporaneous” has come true. The liberation this discovery provided was tremendous & keeps echoing in my work — I remember the occasion & the place: this happened in 1965, on a rainy late afternoon in an armchair in a cozy corner in George Whitman’s Shakespeare & Co. bookshop when I — who knew only a little selected edition of mainly the shorter early poems — found a copy of the Cantos on the shelf.
3:AM: You grew up in Luxembourg, which seems rather a remarkable beginning for someone who has created a legacy of such poetic vicissitude and energy, but perhaps that is unfair to Luxembourg. Did the work of the CoBrA group or De Stijl have an early influence on you, being from their geographical region?
PJ: Not really. I came to those much later as knowledge of movements such as CoBrA or De Stijl was much easier to come by in Paris or New York. When I grew up, Luxembourg didn’t have much serious cultural stuff, except for the trad bourgeois fare, a decent enough symphony orchestra for which classical music stopped in the 19C, a couple bookshops aping their run of the mill French or German equivalents in very safe ways — the bishop watched over what could be read or not — “no sex please, we’re catholic burghers.” The strongest influence on me was probably my grand-mother’s movie theater in which I saw American flicks in the original, i.e. not ruined by dubbing, which led me to read American authors from Mickey Spillane to William Faulkner. Then, in a high school German lit class I came across Paul Celan, which changed everything.
3:AM: It’s hard to overstate the influence of the Poetry for the Millenium anthologies for so many poets. Perceiving it now, a decade on, do you see the volumes as a legacy of sorts? Do you stand as you hoped they would in people’s understanding and perception of the recent history of poetics?
PJ: Yes and no. Obviously they are big books that have & still are making, leaving their mark. But they were and are still, I hope, the open-ended event Jerome Rothenberg & I conceived them as — they do not represent a canon, a door slammed shut on a roomful of precious pretty museum-fähig “masterpieces,” they are a “both and” not “either/or” proposition, an open door giving on an open field, an invitation to roam & add. Jerry meanwhile added (in collaboration with Jeffrey Robinson) a third volume, a prequel bringing in the world-wide romantic precursors to our first volumes. And this November volume 4 of the Poems for the Millennium series, which lives in my head as “Diwan Ifrikyia,” though officially known as The University of California Book of North African Literature, edited by me and the Algerian poet & scholar Habib Tengour will come out. This is a book I have carried in my head for close to a quarter of a century, so I am most happy to have it finally see the light of print. And now I can go back to writing poems, for awhile at least.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of four poetry collections, including Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011). He has received commissions from the Tate, the Southbank centre, the London Sinfonietta and Mercy and he is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a Phd student at the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, University of London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 1st, 2012.