:: Article

Some speaking after-speaking: a conversation about Singed

Tristan Foster talks to Daniela Cascella about Singed: Muted voice-transmissions, after the fire.


Singed begins with a fire. It rebegins: themes and sounds and voices and concerns from previous books are spun again, woven again. (I have interfered.) In the fire, books are burnt—your books. A logical point of discussion here would be to talk about history’s many instances of book burnings. But I live in Australia where fire in the collective consciousness manifests as bushfire, wreaking havoc across populated areas every summer. Smoke fills the sky, even in the cities. The narratives that follow are often of what is left; salt of the earth people standing in the burnt out frame of the family home holding things they’ve salvaged. Typically the fire leaves very little—trinkets and knickknacks. This impulse to sift through the ashes, the use of it in these stories as well as your own, says something fundamental about human nature, doesn’t it? After the fire I found myself concerned with beginnings, their nature and ways; and with the strong perception that a beginning is always a rebeginning. In my specific case here: how to rebegin to write from lack, absence, silence? The fire is one of three key prompts at the core of this book, through which I attempted an enquiry into how to articulate a form of writing in front of different types of silence: the silence of the lack of books after they got burned, the silence of an impossible reference, the silence of speechlessness in certain aesthetic experiences. I wrote after a fire, after a singer who is almost unheard of in the Anglophone literary world, and after a writer who is present to the point of exhaustion. How to write about books when books are burned? How to write about a singer whose work is so common and embedded in a culture/language, and entirely invisible/inaudible in another? How to write from the words of somebody who is overly quoted and quotable, and yet still speaks—how to write through contemplation, which today seems to be a rather outmoded topic, but feels so necessary? In all of these three cases, in spite of the various forms of absence I was dealing with, I realised that I was not writing in front of a tabula rasa, and that a sense of repetition was grounding my words. Even, at times, grinding them. I became concerned with residues—the tangible ones, and those of the mind and of the heart. I asked myself how to rebegin from residue and in spite of them, when you feel silenced, and in the lack of concrete elements to hang on to. And how to do so avoiding (stealing some words from Thomas Browne) “to err in the art of perpetuation”: to retain a sense of the ephemeral, the unspoken, and the lost. The whole writing project became a project of extremes: paradoxes, even. I started thinking about who is quoted, and who is silenced, and how. César Aira says in his interview with Bomb Magazine: “When one reads one makes one’s own novel.” I like the fact that Aira says “makes”, not “writes”. I am drawn to this sense of material engagement with language, at a less articulated level of perception and of making, at a level of poiesis, before and beyond the act of writing. We continue reading with our eyes closed and there, then, writing begins. In this osmosis of materiality and perception. The books lost in the fire, all of them but especially those you connected with, were filled with memories, experiences, fragments of your own life. Stories you made your own—words that expressed who you were at one time or another. Lost in the fire, therefore, are parts of you. Singed is about rediscovering the lost language of these stories. Tell me why you sought to recover it. I sought to write it, with no guarantees of recovery—to make it again through a song and a cadence, the sensation of them as uneven textures, even before they made sense as language. The book happened to take form in a period of uncertainty, with a strong sense of being outside and out of synch—the referendum, the sense of otherness many of us Europeans living in the UK perceived, and on a more private scale, the helplessness and disorientation as to where to place a book so spurious in its form, written by a non-native English writer. Imagine this sense of writing on the outskirts, locked out in a definition of otherness externally enforced. And imagine a sense of writing never entirely aware of how the words sound like: “groundless but not without ground,” a writer once said. I wished to retain its discomfort and difficulty—not as a trophy to display, but as a prompt for enquiry and for writing. Writing, I mean, away from purity, perfection, confinement: as tension, desire, imperfection, ugly even. You sent me your manuscript and in my reply I referenced, directly and indirectly, time: the time it would take to read your book, the time I had to do it in, the time I wish I had to focus on my own writing. I am working on a book, and yet there is life to attend to, and the world, and I feel, at times, like I could give myself up entirely to reading, to sinking into it, to reading forever. How do you reconcile these things? Let’s talk about the writing of a book, and about the reading of books: about the condition of writing, and the condition of reading—the stretches of time that go into the writing and thinking and reading of books (the assembling, erasing, redoing, eroding) and that perception of being which is more akin to a quivering stillness. As writers who also often write about other writers we exist between these two states—hence the tension—but I’m more interested in how we inhabit the porous space between the two, and experience it as a continuum rather than an opposition. Aristotle wrote that “one must not learn, but suffer an emotion, and be in a certain state”: probably the best formulation I can adopt and adapt to think of writing is as a way of being—not strictly concerned with the uncomfortable pressure of “having to produce”, or to write every day even. Think about it,
to suffer an emotion
and be in a certain state,
in a certain pace, and to perceive yourself there (reading?) is the most obvious and the most difficult step that allows my writing project to be—in a modality of writing even when not writing. It’s so difficult because we are constantly told otherwise. All these “tips”—of producing a given number of words per day, and so on—and much less attention given to what happens around words, and then, through them. Instead: what do we intercept when we become aware of a burning core in a project, and it burns even when we don’t see it, or know it, when we don’t write? In the case of Singed, to find myself listening to a specific song by accident was an exemplary episode: it was like being awakened to the fact that I’d been listening to that song even when I did not think that I was listening to it. If I’d had to choose a song deliberately, I would have not chosen that one. The amount of considerations it unfolded was astonishing. There was some preparation going on, somewhere away from or beyond the aware self. Not “putting yourself” in a certain state, but finding yourself there. Seeing yourself, hearing yourself there, acknowledging it. In an instant beyond causality. So in a sense writing for me is to make the effort of going beyond common and given conceptions of productivity and causality. To give form to a modus operandi, to ways of being there. “To read forever” you say, but this is exactly the place to be for us to write: in this state, right here. Back to your Aira quote, and to your remark about “reading forever”: to read—I learn from Kate Briggs in her extraordinary recent book This Little Art—is to encounter “life phrased”, and at once, to perceive a lack in the words because you are not there, and to desire to become those words while inevitably transforming them. “The desire to write is the desire to rewrite.” So reading holds writing. Think about the most minimal writing acts in closest proximity with reading: marking the corner of a page, underlining, copying, repeating, quoting. And how these generate, little by little, a small variance even before writing, because your hands are part of it already, your body and space before any more words put pressure on those words. (Think of how the same quote in two different books can do slightly or remarkably different things). Then we can also talk about writing as convulsion rather than “creation”. It is still, yet it moves.
You’ve spoken about the way the book rose out of uncertainty—including the question of if a publisher would be interested in such a text. Questions of readerships and market forces are very nearly unavoidable in this climate, which is maybe related to my desire “to read forever”. But I’d like to take a step back: a book that challenges is also going to be a challenge to write. The initial challenge was to rebegin to write in the absence of tangible words—to (re)read from memory, embracing the not knowing, to perceive the breathing and the pacing that holds disparate elements together (as Roberto Calasso shows in Literature and the Gods). It demanded a statement of excess; it demanded to state that such excess puts pressure on language, and this is the space of literature. Sometimes, a form of outburst. Sometimes a cadence, a rhythm, an arrangement. A convulsion, a spasm in stillness. To be here and always slightly not quite so. Consider the interferences of different states of time, and of mind; the long stretches of time into writing, the moments of stillness, the thinking that goes into words, out of research and out of sorts, and in excess of words, “the meandering off a theme, the escape from a word and at once the hunt for words, their dismissal”, which Fleur Jaeggy designated as “mental manners of writing”. You quote from Elfriede Jelinek’s Nobel speech in which she talks of writing in the sidelines. I wanted to highlight a “speaking through writing”, a sense of words lifted off the page and sounding (there are more examples of these in the book). Singed is all sidelines—writing around writing. “Groundless but not without ground,” said Jelinek in her speech. Also included is an examination of Roberto Calasso’s book blurbs—again, not writing as such, but writing around writing. Why does this attract? The circling and circularity are perfect devices to embrace waiting, waste, counter-productivity, against any “creative” logic, so to speak. Writing is also being and erosion, exhaustion. I never took writing “as such”, rather: the currents and conversations (not taken literally, and including imaginary ones, with far-away people, with the dead) than run through it, outside, beyond. I am drawn to writing that can hold you in the tension between itself and what is not there. And to the margins that hold it. What are they? A banister that gives you vertigo if you lean over it? An edge that becomes hedge by the addition of an H, breathing in the world? A cell, a prison, a trap? And how to make this state as porous as possible? One way is to stop being confined, to look beyond our circles of safety. And to allow the waste and the purposelessness to invade the writing space. I’m thinking of those situations where you find yourself in a room with other people, and while you should be thrilled by the company, all you end up doing is looking at the trees outside… To look outside the border of where we are supposed to be, and then, to turn what is familiar upside down, shake it and perturb it. It wasn’t until the section in which you discuss Some After-Speaking that I truly understood your project. The brief section is a mission statement, of sorts. After every fire comes the chance of renewal—in this case, afterwards comes the chance of rewriting. What have you made of this chance? I want to ask you in turn, what you made of the reading until you encountered Some After-Speaking—a section that was placed, deliberately, toward the end of Singed because I was hoping for the reader to find their way through a reading engagement without instructions, also, somehow, to trust the reading before sense. I was challenged, I was delighted—occasionally this is the same thing. I was glad when I encountered a familiar face, and when I stumbled into a conversation between Clarice Lispector and Saint Teresa of Ávila. I read the book on a beach that faces the wide Pacific, brushing fine sand off the pages of my notebook as I scribbled quotes and thoughts. Then I want to discuss how it is possible to write a form of criticism that contains dead ends, stammering, breaks into poetry and loops because sometimes you don’t want to go anywhere: you want to stay, and very close. Like when you say you just want to read. Criticism as “being with”, rather than “being about”. You quote Ingeborg Bachmann: “Literature is a ghost.” And she was quoting in turn the words of art historian Ernst Robert Curtius: once again, a transmission of words intercepted and interfered with by different others in different ways. Her lectures were published by Adelphi Edizioni as a book. But you make the comment they weren’t supposed to be a book. I am attracted to, and want to remind us of, the ephemeral nature of our words. What is supposed to be a book? What is literature? What should it be? And what is criticism away from judgement and hierarchies? Bachmann was militant and vocal against any form of fascism: not only the historical, but the types of fascisms at home, in human relationships, and in the formal diktats of a discipline. Likewise in the lectures she is uncomfortable with defining literature, placing her emphasis instead on poetics, and on a form of literature articulated in the doing of writing as a tension rather than an accomplished form—reflecting, although not explicitly, her own shift from acclaimed poetry to the untidy troubled prose of Malina and the constellation of frayed stories around it. She says that “ugly language” allows writing to continue being in spite of its incompleteness. I take Bachmann’s ugly language to formulate literature as transmission and convulsion: an operation on words, an arrangement of systems of attuning and amplification, beyond polishing forms. And there is ground to this uncomfortable being-writing, and a necessity to articulate it as such: there is no other choice. Think of Alejandra Pizarnik’s “Something more and something else than words”, that voiced that form of maladjusted literature trickled from the pressures that being put on her writing. Literature not between inverted commas, not in the capital, not pointed at but carried out—and at once, carried very much within, shaped through marks as much as erasures, like the small blackboard Pizarnik used to write on, day after day, and erase, sentence after sentence, and again, until only a handful of words would stand out. Literature: doing as much as undoing. And books: not closures, rather, spaces of transit, pages for thinking, punctuations, bodies breathing in and out. Do we read writing or do we encounter it? Maybe some of us read, some of us encounter. Singed is a journal detailing writing you have encountered. Motifs recur or, in your words, echo. One of these is Isak Dinesen’s short story ‘The Blank Page’. A blank page but one you have filled in yourself. Superimposing ideas and connections and experiences. Layering other pages on top, so that soon it is neither blank nor a single page. Have you been conscious of these echoes in your reading life or have they coalesced most fully here? Only quite recently have I realised that a sigh, which is so central to Singed, also appeared in my previous book F.M.R.L. by way of Robert Aldrich’s film Kiss Me Deadly and of the song in its opening sequence. And now that you mention ashes, of course I realise that my first book in English took an important prompt from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Ashes of Gramsci. None of this was ever planned, in fact, it was encountered, recognised at a later stage as a kinship, and it discloses some patterns, inner rhythms and tensions which clearly underlie the way I inhabit and connect things, words, experiences. I’d also like us to consider being close to something, paying attention. Isn’t writing also a way to reclaim the need for attention and dedication at a slower pace but also from a singular angle, from the singular? I often describe my writing project as prompted by a need to place the minor in a position of prominence, and view the canonical from the sidelines. In other words, owning material and shape it not because of hierarchies or fashion but for what the necessity of the project demands. This has got nothing to do with the cliché of writing to “find your own voice”: rather, it prompts writing as tuning into many voices, and considers how to allow more than one voice to coexist, which resonant frequencies to linger on, which types of dissonance to employ. I want to talk about Dante. You don’t mention him, do you? I actually do mention him, although very much in passing and between brackets, but exactly in a section in which I make a point about writing across languages and cultures. I mention how once an editor told me that I used too many metaphors and my reply was that of course I did, as I grew up reading Dante. I was trying to make a point about how certain rhetorical forms are embedded in writing—in my case, much as it might look “English” on the surface, there is, yes, an underworld, a layer of rhythms and arrangements that holds my words together from the Italian, and that it would be hard for me to dismiss. And I wish to retain this strangeness in my English-language-writing, shaped by what exceeds it. Your text recalls his trips through the netherworlds. Or is it a trip through language? A poet is his guide, he speaks to the sinners who themselves, through death, have been muted, and relays his experience to us through words. And in a highly structured terza rima that at once constrains utterance and drives its pacing. Does he ever get burnt in the flames, is the hem of his cloak ever singed? Let’s also remember that Dante’s Hell is not always a region of flames, in fact the very centre of Inferno, where Lucifer stands, is a frozen lake. I did not have the symbolism of the elements in mind as a primary concern when writing this book, but if we want to discuss Hell then I’m certainly drawn to James Hillman’s idea of the underworld as chthonic realm beyond any human presence or agency, that is the realm of the depths, of darkness of soul instead of blackness of soil, a pneumatic region, the region of Anubis and Psyche, again, of breathing and of being. Hecate also appears, in passing: Hecate who watches and listens, in front of residues, and does not move much. So hell is a state in which we do not have to descend, but the realisation of being already there, down there: that is, here, reading. Many personages appear from the ashes: Alejandra Pizarnik, Isak Dinesen, Marlene van Niekerk and Italian singer and musician Lucio Battisti to name a few. But if one could be said to be your guide through the ashes, it would be Clarice Lispector. But Clarice’s sigh. I wonder if Lispector will guide you through or, more likely, simply guide you deeper. I love your reading of Clarice as my Virgil, I never thought about that. I’m a latecomer to her work; I vividly remember buying Agua Viva on my birthday a few years ago, distractedly leafing through it while sitting in a pub, and suddenly wanting to leave, and just go home and read—I’m sure you’ve experienced this sense of being summoned, this urgency. In her case the challenge later on for me became: how to write after encounters such as these, that leave us speechless? Are certain words that speak to us about us ever exhausted? How can we hold on to them, not as external factors of legitimisation but as necessary motors of a writing project? The contingency of Clarice and cliché, how to work with that? There’s a specific way I addressed all of this in the book, through listening and dubbing: again, “being with”. I know I did not want to write a form of critical commentary on her words, but produce a dub—in the musical sense—and put her in conversation with other writers through my words. “I am not playing with words,” Clarice writes, and I like to repeat it ad nauseam. There are ways of engaging with books, and songs, and art, through the viscosity of language as material, through rhythms, through proximity, echo and performance, which take other forms than what is canonical and expected of an essay, a review, a comparative study, and they are still criticism. You write: “It’s a particular feeling that I’ve encountered again and again since I switched my writing from Italian to English: the feeling of being on a threshold, as the material from an Italian book resounds in my English writing yet is silent within the context in which I write.” This, you go on to explain, is something to be embraced. I am definitely not one who seeks virtuosity in writing. Rather, as I said before, awkwardness. I’m reminded here of, again, Calasso, and his definition of a singular book: “A singular book is one which something has happened to the author and has been put into writing.” And so there is creative potential here—it is an opportunity “to torment English words even, to make them say what they cannot say if they remain closed and confined”. I’m glad you wrote that, because of, for instance, the book’s title. I am sorry to admit I am monolingual. To me, this play with the word singed was jarring. Aren’t we always slightly out of synch? Often more than slightly. Phonetically, singed shares just enough with sing and sung for a connection to be made, and for there to be anything of singed in Singer, the sewing machine manufacturer—a device which is made to weave threads. For me, the single language speaker, I was ready to reject. For you, the speaker of multiple languages, you saw potential. “To torment words” is an expression used by Michel de Certeau in discussing mystic utterance as it destabilised given, secure meanings to make other meanings and cut through language into silence. Which manners of mutism are adopted between registers, even before languages? The very fact that you hesitated for some time in front of the title—the very perception of a variance, which is not immediately clear, is what I seek. It is also reflected in the texture and pacing of this book: I was aiming for unevenness, a reading effect slightly out of tune, using plausible but not quite right expressions or syntax, mixing in words taken from certain pages in certain books, translating verses from Italian songs and sewing them into the fabric of “my” words (whatever this “my” might refer to), echoing the words of others, mixing broken utterance and essayistic tangents—no well-turned sentences displayed or pointed at, rather, a troubled broken prose that sometimes flows and sometimes is a locked groove and sometimes stammers and sometimes sings. Most of all though, at the groundless ground of this project: the awareness that there are things, words, states, that are silent, and will stay silent, that are mysterious and will stay mysterious, beyond our comprehension. And this does not prevent us from looking at them and being drawn in, and puzzled, and enchanted—and read, and write, sometime. And interfere.


Daniela Cascella

Daniela Cascella is an Italian writer. She is the author of Singed: muted voice-transmissions, after the fire (Equus Press, 2017), F.M.R.L. Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound (Zero Books, 2015), and En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing. An Archival Fiction (Zero Books, 2012). She edits Untranslated at Minor Literature[s] and has published on international magazines such as The Los Angeles Review of Books, Music and Literature, Gorse, Numéro Cinq, The Scofield, 3:AM Magazine. Twitter: @enabime

Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He is a co-editor-in-chief of 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 16th, 2017.