Friday, February 13, 2015

TtD supplement #19 : eight questions for Nikki Sheppy

Nikki Sheppy is a poet, editor and arts journalist. She has a doctorate in English literature from the University of Calgary. Her book reviews have appeared in Uppercase Magazine, Alberta Views, and Lemon Hound, and her poetry in Event and Matrix. She serves as President of the Board of filling Station, Calgary’s experimental literary and arts magazine, and is the author of the poetry chapbook, Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite (Kalamalka, 2014).

Her poems “transgender” and “L’abeille (Labé)” appear in the fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Transgender.”

A: As an ‘oracle,’ gender is unreliable in its predictive insights, and fails to account for different manifestations of agency. This poem emerged partly from my teaching a course in Gender and Women’s Studies, in which the critical insights, along with the subject positions, of my students routinely eviscerated gender norms.

Desire speaks to what each assigned gender might mourn in itself, as things lost by enculturation and experience. So where masculine insight and empathy might lie in refusing the stock narrative of rescue (which offers agency only by proxy) to better support an other’s power, rupture bespeaks a feminine will to be heard in the male-dominated canon that has historically recited female fate. It also offers its narrative as an invitation to responsiveness and listening—traits that in truth are not singularly ‘feminine’—to consider the ways in which more equitable participation (give and take on all ‘sides’) would serve the interests of a more robust literature.

Q: Tell me about the poem “L’abeille.”

A: “L’abeille” (bee) is a pun on the name of the French Renaissance poet, Louise Labé, “La Belle Cordière,” whose elegies and love sonnets were ‘rediscovered’ in the twentieth century, in part due to the German translations by Rilke. This short series of sonnets invokes grief’s companion lute, as named by Labé, though not in a literal sense. In truth, it imagines a kind of chimaerical woman-Queen bee, who has internalized a damaging song from the long-ago past (played, homophonically, by a “liar”), then finds herself fixated (and “harping”) on this past in order to resolve it. The drama occurs in a figural bee hive that invokes her reverie, her fertility and the child-murders committed in her name. The new string she finds in swarming is really a map to a new paradigm.

Q: What is the context for this work?

A: Both poems come from a project I started in the summer of 2012, entitled Bugonia, which I began expanding into a manuscript at the 2013 Banff Centre Writing Studio, with mentors Karen Solie, Jen Hadfield and Daljt Nagra. I was rewriting the story of Eurydice to reclaim agency for her from the canonical tradition of Greek and Roman mythology that either condemned her to hell or lionized Orpheus (and his music) for saving her. In my rendition, Eurydice’s story is a trauma narrative. Since my plan was for her to sing her own way out of hell, I found the bee colony to be useful. Its matriarchy already undermines gendered notions of leadership, power and agency (though, to be fair, the Queen Bee is also enslaved, and productively multiplied, by perpetual childbirth). The ritual of bugonia restates, in metaphoric terms, the psychoanalytic motif of “successful mourning,” exchanging the dead Virgilian bee colony for a living one born of a corpse. Arguably, it is Orpheus—who eulogizes Eurydice even after he has been decapitated, his fate as elegist sealed when it is reified in the constellation Lyra—who is the real melancholic here, though I would not presume to let the canonic myth write him off either.

It is, admittedly, a utopian project about psychoanalytic resolution as a complex magic—even though such idealized abstract medicines often fail in life. The utility of the myth was conceptually precise enough to nevertheless be irresistible. It also made for a lovely harmony with my scholarly work. I wrote my PhD thesis on literatures of loss, so in a way this is home turf to me. One of the writers I focused on was American poet Sylvia Plath, whose wonderful bee sequence nurtured my interest in apian imagery.

Q:  How does the work in Bugonia connect or further your previous work, such as your chapbook Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite (2014)?

A: In Grrrrlhood, I included a series of mathematical formulae in which words replaced numbers. Following each equation, I wrote a poem that deliberately mistranslated the math in ways that undermined the literal, discipline-specific concepts by forcing them into an emotional and psychological field. For example, if mathematically, the root of a quantity might be expressed as that quantity raised to the power of a fraction, I used this idea to contemplate the origins of thwarted power.

Similarly, the project I’m working on now deliberately breaks faith with classical mythology to interrogate power. It rewrites the myth in order to rewire gender and to challenge male-dominated canonicity as a productive literary mode, by revising or resignifying the narrative, the better to express the repressed story of Eurydice. In Ovid and Virgil, Eurydice dies in order to provide a story for Orpheus (who must mourn her in the beautiful song that helps found the canon) and a story for Aristaeus (who must make amends for his role in her death if he is to save his bees). Aristaeus is a sexual predator and small-time feudal lord, whose affluence is realized through the labour of bees, but the myth curiously connects his intention to rape Eurydice with the curse of poverty. Her assault thus refuses to go unmourned. By investing Eurydice’s story with its own coherence and significance, in the wake of other feminist writers, I hope to explore women’s trauma narratives on their own terms, as well as in cultural context. These narratives are often used in problematic ways: to assert that a ‘damaged’ woman has no power, or to convert her story into the dilemma from which she might be rescued by a male actor or used by him for the production of opportunity or capital. My project strives to relieve Eurydice of the role of perpetually embodying loss, and liberate Orpheus from the task of endlessly grieving female powerlessness and his own complicity in it.

This may seem idealistic, given the persistence of gender inequities, but it responds to the symbolic possibilities of mythology, rather than its literal content. I view this myth as an object lesson in emancipation from the archetypal traps of narrative itself: of a gendered narrative fate, if you will. Myths often safeguard criticism, and secrete transformational potential. By looking back, Orpheus agrees that Eurydice will free herself: acknowledges that only she can do so. Indeed, this may be a truth encrypted in the myth. What happens next, in the Underworld (a kind of un-language lab), is Eurydice’s story.

Q: I’m curious as to why you chose to explore and translate Eurydice through poetry, as opposed to reworking through prose forms. What is it about poetry that helps articulate her possibilities?

A: I’m a big fan of Anne Carson’s wonderful scholarship on classical Greek and Roman literature, including her gorgeous Eros the Bittersweet and her fascinating trans-historical comparative study of Simonides of Keos and Paul Celan, Economy of the Unlost. I would not presume to address mythology in an academic mode myself, because I do not have scholarly expertise in the field.

Beyond this, I suppose I felt that poetry permits tampering—and I understood how extensively I wished to tamper. I have read many renditions of the myth, including other intriguing and valid ways of engaging it. My own wish was not so much to revisit it, as to address its silences. What if we invented a backstory for Eurydice and focused on the repercussions for her? How would this story affect our understanding of the other characters, or our appreciation of the mythical dimensions of power? Myths are curious in that they can be both culturally emblematic and weirdly eccentric: fiascos that resonate as simultaneously symbolic and personal. 

I also chose poetry because of an insight that emerged from my doctoral studies: stories of loss (such as trauma narratives) benefit from formal and modal experimentation. When I studied Janice Williamson’s Crybaby!, for example, or Paul Celan’s poetry, I discerned the extent to which their forms, tones, and philosophical foundations were complex, negotiated and, in the former case, heterogeneous. In fact, Williamson’s book is a brilliant alloy of poetry, memoir and cultural critique. The authors crafted new, eccentric forms or ambitiously overhauled their own poetics to do this work. My engagement with this myth has generated epic narrative, glossolalia, palindromes, catalogues, erasure, steganography, collage, visual poetry, and micro-essays. It has also produced an array of tones, from vatic and elegiac to impish, snide and luxuriously sad. Writing in poetry has enabled me to move around, rapidly and at will, within these various forms and modes.

Q: I find it interesting that you presumed I meant “academic mode” when I suggested prose forms when my own thoughts were far closer to fiction, a form which also allows one to float through, with and around a variety of modes. To re-work a story, why not approach as story?

A: I write poetry, journalism and scholarship, so in answering I considered the prose forms that I myself feel able to write. I don’t write fiction. At one point in 2013, I tried it as a verse play, but that didn’t work for me either. It doesn’t seem unusual to approach this myth in verse; historically, it has often emerged as poetry, opera, drama or film. That said, my primary motivation is to accommodate the way this material works for me. Thinking along narrative lines does not come naturally, and in any case, trauma narratives typically resist and subvert plotlines. If in my manuscript, Eurydice’s Hell is an un-language lab, then it is a place of fraught and frustrated verbiage, of bricolage, and of generative repurposing. As head of an unruly literary regime of industrious bees, Eurydice guts canonic texts through erasure; tries to use palindromic spells and spellings as a means of egress from the Underworld (backing out the way she came, as it were); and cuts and pastes Rilke and Carson to reflect on love and doom. She even speaks in an invented, glossolalic tongue when language itself falters. There may indeed be an effective novel here, but such a book would be the product of an imagination quite different from mine, I think.

Q: I do love that you studied Janice Williamson’s Crybaby!, a completely underrated book. There have been some incredibly powerful works of creative non-fiction by numerous writers exploring experimental forms—from Janice Williamson and Anne Carson to Susan Howe, Elizabeth Hay and Aritha Van Herk. Do the possibilities of prose appeal at all, or do you see yourself collecting all of your experiments underneath the umbrella of poetry?

A: I love Susan Howe, and I’ve often imagined that in the future I might play with experimental prose forms. I also really enjoyed Lisa Robertson’s Nilling, both Janice Williamson’s Crybaby! and her Tell Tale Signs, and Anne Carson’s lyric paragraphs and prose appendices to The Albertine Workout. So many others too, as you say. Some experiments with form, genre, and bookishness itself appeal to me. I’m thinking of Aislinn Hunter’s paratextual Peepshow with Views of the Interior; Lauren Slater’s genre-bending Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, material expurgations like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, and Marcel Bénabou’s mischievous modernist un-writing, Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, for example. I’m equally fascinated by books about paratexts and revisions of various sorts (footnotes, marginalia, etc), and such lovely erasures as Barrie Tullett’s editorial corrections / vispo collection, The Ghost in the Fog (XXV: The Corrections).

For the immediate future, however, I think I will start by interrogating the intersections between literature and architectural or cartographic forms. I’m very interested in spatial representations. I previously argued that I would like to mine these interests “to produce detailed axonometric drawings of sublimation machines, or topographical maps of melancholic fixation.” I still think that may be what I work on next, after my back-burner book on derivative forms, which is partially written. Then, experimental prose…

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your writing? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I don’t have a go-to book. I enter the fray. When I’m looking for ways to access more divergent modes, and to deliberately stray from lyric or narrative poems with clear arguments, I read people like Frances Richard, Sylvia Legris, Ed Steck, Lisa Robertson, Natalie Simpson, Jean-Jacques Poucel’s translations of Anne Portugal... When I wish to engage with something that has a more logical lyric, dialogic or perhaps epic narrative structure, I read Tim Lilburn, Sina Queyras, David O’Meara, Rilke, Christopher Logue, Jeramy Dodds. I particularly delighted in two books last year—The Inheritance by a friend, Kerry-Lee Powell, and Broom Broom by Brecken Hancock, collections that both precisely name and vividly intuit abjection and loss. When I want to watch language fall apart or strangely cohere in brilliant, telling (and often multi-lingual) ways, I read Caroline Bergvall, Rachel Zolf, Jordan Abel, Erin Mouré, Dennis Lee, Shannon Maguire. When I want to think about constraint or eccentric experiments, I read M. NourbeSe Phillip, Greg Betts, Susan Holbrook, Christian Bök, the minute operas of Frédéric Forte. When I need something vatic, oracular, melancholic, or probing, I read Sylvia Plath, Paul Celan, Ted Hughes, Lucretius, Nathalie Stephens. When I need to remember how smart humour can be, I re-read “Insert” by Susan Holbrook—and cackle. Sometimes I read literary porn, political diatribe, or manifestos if I feel the need to consider the smutty, profane or disobedient. I delight in having so many options. I have friends and peers who are producing fascinating work in all genres, and these works nurture and teach me.

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