Wednesday, February 7, 2018

TtD supplement #95 : seven questions for Julia Polyck-O'Neill

Julia Polyck-O’Neill is an artist, curator, critic, and writer. She is a doctoral candidate in Brock University’s Interdisciplinary Humanities program (Culture and Aesthetics), where she is completing a SSHRC-funded interdisciplinary and comparative critical study of contemporary conceptualist literature and art in Vancouver. She has taught in contemporary visual culture in the department of Visual Arts at the Marilyn I. Walker School, and is currently a visiting lecturer at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. She also curates the award-winning Borderblur Reading Series in St Catharines. Her writing has been published in B.C. Studies, Feminist Spaces, Tripwire, Fermenting Feminisms (a project of the Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology, curated by Lauren Fournier), and The Avant Canada Anthology (WLU Press, 2017), and her debut chapbook, femme, was published in 2016 by above/ground press.

Her poems “on not wanting to sink.,” “optics make marks,” “blank Plath,” “new blank” and “for a video against the mythology of everyday life” appear in the sixteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “on not wanting to sink.,” “optics make marks,” “blank Plath,” “new blank” and “for a video against the mythology of everyday life.”

A: I’m very interested in the ways that visual and literary texts interact, and how visual narratives or phenomena might be translated to writing. The concepts of intermediality and interdisciplinarity are important in my writing practice more broadly (as someone studying conceptualist art and writing), but in my poetry, I’m often dealing with the challenges of using language to represent visual ideas and phenomena; I’m intrigued by the idea of the indirect path between mediums. (I hesitate to refer to this as translation; it’s more of a conversation. It’s necessarily hazier.) This is at once a simple and frustratingly complicated exercise, as it builds from the history of representational codes and the ways that language and its structures often fail to account for the nuance of the visual, and also for lived experience. At the same time, I’m working through a politics of gender inbuilt within these representational codes, mainly in that I prioritize women’s texts as my primary sources. In my writing, I attempt to encounter the affect of working through theory and poetry in women’s writing and in my own praxis. As well, I pay attention to the embodied struggle of working between visual and literary texts, as recorded in these writings or in my own experience as an emerging scholar and writer. These poems are about the feminine self as a body working, performing. I want to draw attention to the (often visceral) labour inherent to feminist thinking and writing.

My poems, “on not wanting to sink.,” “optics make marks,” “blank Plath,” “new blank,” and “for a video against the mythology of everyday life,” are written in response to texts I’m reading and grappling with, intellectually and emotionally. I encounter books and essays as constellations of ideas, and I attempt to distill these in my writing—often, by writing. I record and translate the work of reading feminist theory and poetics in my poetry, interspersing passages of primary texts with my private reflections on the material. In this, my writing is often dialogical. Poems take the form of short, amorphous dialogues with my readings and my struggle to come to terms with challenging feelings and ideas—feelings and ideas that pertain to feminine autonomy and institutional, structural oppression. “blank Plath,” “new blank,” and “for a video against the mythology of everyday life” took shape as response pieces in this way, and were triggered by a need to signal an empathy for the poetic voice, or the poetics of voice, in the original texts. “on not wanting to sink” and “optics make marks,” which open this suite, emerge from my reflection on how the speaking subject might assume agency within otherwise hopeless situations, particularly from within the structure of the gaze as framed in canonical representational theories, such as the psychoanalytic theories of Freud or Jacques Lacan and their followers, as they pertain to narrative and women’s bodies. This said, I don’t only write within a para-academic frame, but also as a mode of self-sustenance, as a femme woman navigating the world and attempting to reconcile my encounters with complexity in text and visuality.

Q: How do these pieces relate to other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: As I suggest above, these works are part of a larger poetic process adjacent to and intersecting with my academic work and thinking, as well as being a mode for sustaining the creative identity that I more or less actively suppress in my professional life (I originally trained as a studio artist, and have worked as a curator). Last year, I was invited to present my academic work at a concrete poetry conference alongside some of my poetry heroes (Renee Gladman, for instance! And Sarah Dowling! And Jordan Abel! The list goes on…), and I was prompted to begin to think about the possibility of working in visual poetics, instead of simply studying them as a scholar. So, this work is part of a larger project that I’m building in that I’m building towards a visual literary practice from a literary visual practice.

Q: What does that mean in terms of your overall perspective of what you’re attempting, moving from scholar to creator?

A: I understand myself primarily in terms of a doubled-identity that shifts between and/or layers these roles. My appreciation of specific poetics and aesthetics as an interpreter and critic borrows directly and indirectly from my own practical knowledge of making and doing; as a studio artist I used text, language, and collage in my installation work, and was fascinated by artists and writers who prioritized process in lieu of the finished piece. This orientation follows me in my research interests, where I gravitate to the practices of makers, theorists, and critics who think openly and visibly, their thoughts taking on the form of a double helix, often doubling back in a process of revision and/or repetition. The forms that fascinate me are often experimental, self-reflexive, and driven by conceit or constraint, though often not overtly. Intellectually-driven, but without being devoid of politics or heart. Sharp and soft. Affect is important. Coming back to my role as “creator,” I like to assert my agency as a participant, as an active reader in the work, but without erasing the original writer’s autonomy as author, although that’s a risk I recognize I take in using and borrowing from extant text. I think my relationship to text has changed as I’ve started teaching, too, particularly in my current position, as a visiting lecturer in American Studies in Mainz, Germany. Thinking about the intermixing of roles and their various intersections, teaching has taught me a certain concrete responsibility to the text, an ethics, an ethos that was previously atomized and intangible in my approach to writing and making. All of this a work in progress, a process.

Q: You’ve so far published a chapbook through above/ground press. Do you see your work forming into publishable shapes, whether chapbook or book-length forms? Are these even things you see yourself aiming towards, or are you simply allowing your projects to emerge as they will?

A: Publishing and sharing my work with a public is new to me, as I’ve always considered my praxis to be a private method of working through my thoughts, of recording. The thrilling-terrifying phenomenon of my work circulating is something I’m working through in both my creative and academic work; it’s funny to me that both circuits are being activated at the same time. But publishing is important; participation in the conversations, the emanations, that make up a community, whether literary and creative or academic is important, both to the individual voice and to the health of the collective.

The idea of an audience is something I’m coming to terms with. When the above/ground chapbook came out, I was surprised at how many people approached me to share their impressions, or simply show support. (My work was even reviewed in ARC Poetry Magazine by a poet I deeply admire, Nikki Sheppy.) I was similarly delighted by the response to my poem on the Dusie blog (a sort of homage to Eileen Myles). I’ve also been awakened to how poetry can fit in experimental, interdisciplinary artistic contexts, such as when I was invited to contribute to curator Lauren Fournier’s project, Fermenting Feminisms, with the Laboratory of Aesthetics and Ecology, published by Broken Dimanche Press. To address the question less obliquely, though, I do see my work shifting into publishable forms, and am painstakingly assembling a full-length manuscript, written largely in response to research related to my teaching and the slow accumulation of my dissertation.

Q: What was it that finally prodded your work into the public? Is there a difference in the way you see or approach your work now that you’ve been emerging into more public spaces?

A: Engaging with public spaces, for my writing and other creative pursuits, has generally been eased along by specific opportunities and invitations. Although I love performing and am certainly not one to shy away from public speaking (I also curate the Borderblur Reading series in St Catharines, for instance), sharing my creative work at this time in my career has felt quite different from the way it did when I was a young artist, naïve and unafraid of critical response. There is more at stake. In some ways, because I wrote and produced work at a formative age (which is when I uncovered my inclination to work in and with process), then withdrew to explore other dimensions of myself and create a version of stability, then returned to my praxis by means of my all-consuming academic work, I’m more immersed in the critical discussions that gird specific communities and forms. Which is useful in a plethora of ways, but such an awareness intensifies the experience of releasing work into the dense ether. Working with a doctoral supervisor, Gregory Betts, who works creatively and theorizes experimental production, has been extremely useful in helping me to feel comfortable both with the work I produce, and with its circulation. Although I’m fortunate to have several academic and artistic mentors, he was the first person whose attentive reading of my writing garnered a trust that my work might be publishable; he also introduced me to creative and scholarly networks that actively contribute to the shaping and development of my writing and thinking practice, as a means to participate in formal and political conversations. Such introductions have been key to building confidence and opening doors that are otherwise extremely challenging to negotiate from the outside. So, voice, agency, and also feeling welcome have been key in sharing my work.

Q: What kinds of works has he presented that have helped? And how, specifically, have they?

A: Although I had an extant interest in the influence of critical theory and art history on writing, Gregory introduced me to some of the histories, intersections, and controversies inherent to uncreative and conceptual writing strategies, as well as drawing out how a practical and critical interest in curation might be negotiated and applied to my writing practice. Importantly, he also helped me to find how these histories are reflected in Canadian and transnational North American writing communities, which has been tremendously influential in the development of my research. These ‘revelations’ also led to the evolution and expansion of the methods that underlie how my visual and writing practices interconnect, giving my written work a greater sense of personal significance and belonging, or community-orientation.

Gregory was also the first person to recommend that I look at Lisa Robertson’s work in my MA project about postmodernism and Vancouver’s geographies and creative economies, which has led me to continue working with her, both for my academic work and in my creative writing. Occasional Work and Seven Walks for the Office of Soft Architecture (2004) represents one of the first prose poetry works I encountered in a meaningful, sustained way, revealing to me how interdisciplinary creative and critical work can be combined, how language can be simultaneously evocative, agile, unremitting, and beautiful. And how feminist praxis can be all of these things.

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

A: In addition to the works I study academically (and admittedly, the gap between my academic and non-academic selves continues to narrow), I tend to return often to texts by feminist philosophers and theorists whose work speaks to me on an intimate level. I remember learning to find a path through dense works by reimagining them as therapeutic texts, designed to walk the reader through problems or phenomena and propose new ways of conceptualizing these problems or phenomena, rendering specific intellectual and/or emotional-affective challenges productive. Sara Ahmed and Rosi Braidotti come to mind most readily, as their writings bridge concerns of the mind and subjectivity with physical realities, or experiences of embodiment, and also weave together and challenge intellectual traditions and inheritances with contemporary queries about feminist survival. Or survivance; I’ve also recently been writing about feminist Indigenous media practices in Canada, and have found that Indigenous feminisms address related ideas from the perspective of land and body, often in relation to legacies of settler colonialism. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s essay “Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation” (2014) provided one of my first introductions to these ideas, and the work remains inspiring.

I was lucky to study one-on-one, in a directed reading course, with feminist existential philosopher Christine Daigle, and she and I put together a personalized (and rigorous!) syllabus with the aim of tracing the relationships between continental philosophy and avant-gardist poetics. The experience helped me to realize, by means of building a specific lexicon and testing ideas by writing, how my seemingly-eccentric way of simultaneously thinking through concepts and responding emotionally can be approached by means of theory, thought, and argumentation. And so reading philosophy can be tremendously energizing and affirming, especially in relation to poetics and self. Returning to poetry as a reading and thinking practice while actively contemplating such ideas helps generate writing that reflects particular moments in the development of a sense of agency and autonomy, and this feels important at this particular moment.

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