Friday, November 9, 2018

TtD supplement #119 : six questions for robert majzels

robert majzels is the author of four novels, a book of poetry with Claire Huot, and numerous translations, including 5 novels by France Daigle and, with Erín Moure, several books of poetry by Nicole Brossard. He did time as an associate professor in the University of Calgary, and continues to write from time to time.

His “four verses from khArlaMoV’s aNkLe” appears in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “four verses from khArlaMoV’s aNkLe.”

A: These four verses are part of a longer work, which I can call poetry or prose or hybrid, or mixed whatever, depending on what a particular publisher is looking for. I think we’re beginning to realize that simply adding new categories to old labels whether in genre or gender is a form of more or less aggressive normalization. Reason why I prefer to think of it all as simply writing or, if I must describe the genre i’m working in, let’s call it "twisted ankle." The language and form shift as the work shifts between narrative streams, philosophical wonderment, poetic phrasing, political rant, with bits of translational exercises (e.g. the two versions of the Wang Wei poem in the four verses), and self-reflexive wrestling with writing itself and my responsibilities as someone who writes.

The Peony Pavilion, a Kunqu opera by the 16th century Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu provides a scaffolding for kHarLaMov’s aNkLe, which follows the 55 scenes of that Ming Dynasty classic. K’s ankle is also a kind of notebook following my study of several fundamental texts of Daoism attributed to Laozi and Zhuangzi. Because writing is really always first of all reading, I’m always simultaneously writing and studying one or more texts. In the writing of a previous novel, Apikoros Sleuth, I was following the Sanhedrin Tractate of the Talmud. In this case, the near perfect stillness of the dao provides a contrapuntal slowness to the otherwise frenzied pace of the aNklE. My interest in both The Peony Pavilion and the daoist texts is of course a product of time I spent in China and the critical role of that country and culture to the future of the world. The Dao is particularly attractive to me because it suggests a sacred practice of atheism, and a refusal to present an all encompassing theory or dogma. It’s mostly about undoing our assumptions. I’m also fascinated by the daoist withdrawal from the world and refusal to act. The pull between a desire to change the world and the suspicion that it might be best to simply withdraw from it are at the root of kHarMaLoV’s aNkLe.

Formally, I’ve tried to break free of a number of traditional literary techniques. I’m working towards a form that can open up to a more rigourous social, political and literary criticism. I’ve always felt that the long argued opposition between fiction or poetry as social commentary vs formal experimentation is false. It seems obvious that structure and form, including grammar and punctuation are not rules based on some natural order, or a reflection of the “real” world; on the contrary, the formal rules have evolved in the complex power struggles between various social forces. These rules and norms determine the way we think about our selves and our lives. So writing, for me, is about challenging, exploring the limits of literary and other modes of communication to make other ways of thinking and being possible.

I’ve been working on this particular project for several years, with no expectation of seeing it in print. In a way, abandoning the idea of publication was what made it possible for me to write k’s ankle. I had to break with the discursive formation of canlit. Especially after seven years in the creative writing academic mill. I had to find a place to write without an imagined audience looking over my shoulder.

The fact it's taken me several years to write khArlaMoV’s aNkLe is perhaps ironic because the underlying theme of the work is URGENCY. Urgency in the face of environmental destruction, the military industrial complex’s permanent state of war, police racist violence, empty gestures toward reconciliation with Indigenous nations, and the complacency of the rest of us who are deadened by disaster and wasting our lives trying to earn a living. One of the principal strands woven into k’s ankle is a kind of picaresque narrative of the adventures of a group of junky anarchists who call themselves khArlaMoV’s aNkLe. The group alternates between long bouts of doing nothing on junk, when they can get it, and repeated attempts to assassinate Stephen Harper and then Donald Trump. (That’s the utopian aspect of the work — who wouldn't love to light up those bastards.)

The title refers to the Canada-Russia Summit Hockey Series in 1972 when Bobby Clarke, on instructions from the Canadian bench, broke the Russian star player Valerie Kharlamov’s ankle. In a way, that event marks a shift in the Canadian psyche. Gone is the pretence of good sportsmanship, replaced by the will to win, to own the podium. Trudeau’s smiley face may seem to be a return to happier times, but really it’s a thin mask, wagging tongue attached, concealing our active participation in a completely indefensible war on the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, conducted through unmanned drones, high altitude bombing and proxies. What the multinational manufacturers of armaments and their political puppets have come up with is a way to wage permanent war without disrupting the daily lives of their own citizens: unlike Viet Nam and the WWars before it, there’s no conscription, no rationing, no continuous return of body bags. The only disruption comes from the occasional individual suicide bomber trying to bring our war back home to us.

Q: How does this compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: It’s better.

Q: I’m fascinated by your experiments with form, from the structural resonances of Teeth to your current work-in-progress, what you’re referring to as a “hybrid.” What is it about bringing unutilized or under-considered structures into poetry or prose that you feel you wouldn’t be able to accomplish otherwise? And how successful do you feel you’ve been?

A: The big question, the chicken and egg of content/form. As I mentioned in my response to your initial question, I don’t believe that the structures and conventions of writing, including grammar, punctuation, spelling, and going all the way up to the formal rules of poetry and fiction, and especially the distinctions between genres are natural or immutable. They are constantly changing and the result of changing relations of power. We only prize symmetry over asymmetry or closure over open-endedness, clarity over ambiguity, or the phallocentric curve of so much narrative structure over the chaos in our lives because they have been drummed into us for so long. The problem with “Little Red Riding Hood” is not so much the sexist moral — young women should not wear red capes or stray from the narrow path through the woods — as the fichtean curve of the narrative structure. I remember years ago the first time I heard bebop, I told my friend who’d brought me there, “this is just noise.” He said “you’re just not ready for it.” If you listen to bubblegum music all day long, you’re going to have trouble following something more complex. Only a few years ago, the time shifts, tangled narratives, rapid cuts we see in mainstream cinema and television today would have been unthinkable.

When I was teaching, I developed an argument about experimental writing. I compared it to medicine: mainstream bestselling authors are like general practitioners; they see many patients but nothing too complicated; literary writers are like specialists; they see fewer patients but treat more complicated issues; and experimental writers are like research scientists working in the lab; they see no patients, but their work is essential to the specialists and generalists. That usually satisfied my students (though they were mostly all thinking, “please, god let me be a general practitioner”.) After dealing with writers and students for a few years, I don’t really believe in that argument anymore. It reminds me of the claim writers make in the face of the indifference of the general population to their work that canlit contributes to the economy. I certainly don't want to contribute to the economy. I think so-called “realist” writing is as accurate a reproduction of the “real" world as pornography is a true representation of sex. And the effect is similarly corrupting. It objectifies the world and shackles the collective imagination. We’ve known for a long time, for example, that iambic pentameter is not the natural rhythm of the English language, that Shakespeare’s plays were not conceived in five acts, that no one’s life actually follows the phallic curve to climax of conventional narrative structure. I agree with Nietzsche: “we are not rid of God because we still believe in grammar,” and Lynn Hejinian: “there is no need to distinguish poetry from prose.”

I think writing is as much about undoing our assumptions, disassembling the structures that limit what we can imagine about what is possible, juxtaposing what may seem to be unrelated images, phrases, words, as it is about creating anything new. When I write, I'm trying to do dreamwork. I understand the impulse to write clearly so that a progressive message can be communicated, to see writing as a kind of sugar coated pill delivering sometimes harsh medicine. But I don’t believe that’s what happens when an audience encounters the text. I support the struggle for inclusiveness and diversity, but I’m wary of the attempt to encourage tolerance and respect by simply substituting a different character in a familiar story. I don’t agree that we are fundamentally all the same. If we believe that, what happens when we encounter someone or something that is fundamentally different.

With the 85 project, I worked with Claire Huot to undo the poetic line, and the distinction between translation and original writing. With “kharlamov’s ankle” I’m trying to get rid of the literariness of writing. I want to write something that can’t be easily integrated into the pretensions and bourgeois values of the literary, with its allusive elegance, its prettiness, but at the same time not a simple flat prose. For example, the elimination of the sentence, the elimination of most punctuation (not telling the reader where to pause or striving to eliminate the deferral of meaning), the use of the period as a musical notation rather than a limit, all these open up the space of writing for me.

Q: What was it that prompted you to collaborate with Claire Huot? How did the 85 project come about?

A: Claire Huot is a sinologist by trade, fluent in reading and writing Chinese, and speaking Mandarin. She has taught Chinese studies at the Université de Montréal and the University of Calgary, published two books on contemporary Chinese culture, and served as the Canadian Embassy’s Cultural Counsellor in China. From 2000 to 2002, we lived in Beijing, where I learned some Chinese, and began to scratch the surface of Chinese culture. At the same time I was trying to find a way to write poetry out from under the boot of the line. In my research for my novel Apikoros Sleuth, I had come across a book by Marc-Alain Ouaknin entitled Le live brûlé (The Burnt Book), in which he cites a Talmudic debate over what constitutes a book. Long story short, the rabbis conclude that a book consists of a minimum of 85 letters in continuous movement (you can see the article on the website below for more how the rabbis got there). I started to write poems in 85 letters. Claire pointed out that one of the classic forms of Tang Dynasty poems, the jueju, consists of four lines (columns) of five characters each. Since a Chinese character is the equivalent of a word in English, these poems were composed of 20 words, which averages out to about 85 letters. We began a long complex, radically ethical process of translating Chinese poems into English. Our goal, in Lawrence Venuti’s terms, was to resist normalizing the poems, “to register the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text” in the translated works. In that sense, we were following Pound’s attempt to allow Chinese poetry to impact what poetry in English could become, rather than transforming Chinese into something we already recognize. In particular, by paying attention not only to the meaning of the Chinese characters, but to the radicals and phonemes contained within each individual character, we were able to explore the connotations within words as well as their literal meanings. The 85s ended up adopting various incarnations, as visual poems, stencils, video taped readings, three dimensional sculptures, and as a set of five books.

You can find a more detailed description of the 85 project online as well as examples of the poems and video recordings: http://www.85bawu.com/Assets/Articles/About%20the%2085%20Poetic%20Project.pdf

Q: What effect do you feel such an immersive project had on your subsequent work? Were you, as you suggest, able to get “out from under the boot of the line?”

A: The 85 poems combined formal rigour with a transgressive impulse. On the one hand, there was the 85 word limit, and the need to remain faithful to the source text in Chinese; and on the other hand, the resulting works moved across a variety of genres, transgressing the rules of each. My favourite incarnations of the 85s were the oral readings (which can be seen on the 85bawu website). The reading is made difficult by the layout of the poems (running down instead of across and right to left), so that it is virtually impossible to produce the usual flowing poetry reading to which we are so accustomed. The oral 85s are marked by stuttering, repetition and doubt. A sound and rhythm I enjoy very much because it enacts the relationship with another culture and language that is translation. At the same time the reader is humbled in a manner not unlike the feeling you get when you try to live in a language not your own.

The effect of the 85 project for me was twofold. On the one hand, it failed to make Claire and I rich and/or famous; at the same time, it opened up disruptive possibilities, freeing me from the constraints of commercial and academic poetics. That doesn't mean I'm against constraints or formal rigour; writing is inevitably an activity shaped by constraint. Even Bartleby the Scrivener's exquisity writing practice, standing in a corner in silence, was constrained. I just want to find new forms to reflect the world we live in and resist the tyranny of conventional thinking. "If it looks like art, it isn't art." The 85 project along with my stepping away from my brief life in academia, made it possible to write “kharlamov’s ankle,” to break with lyrical prettiness, and to include within the work its own critical component, so that it’s possible to respond to your question by citing the text:

"can we cut that insidious artful shit creeping back in after we swore we wouldn’t do that on account. of this ain’t yer litter-rah-rah-ry press sucking off the state’s tit acts just like a big press only smaller this ain’t reading in yer shithole town tonight this ain’t. yer artsyfartsy goody2shoes creeeeAtif writhing grad-you-it stewed.ent mean while. hackademics jerk off another critterical paper at one another for performance points in the annual review we were emilianO’s bandits on smack booger junior says you drop. the bombs we’ll locate targets refuel yer killing machines our dirty oil hELLo I’m bob and I’m a poet hello bob I haven’t written a poem in 24 hours some folks would say longer those marShall islanders shall we welcome them with open arms my idea any idea is a sponge only a sponge in a tsunami well… meAnwhile some boys lost their dirty jobs in the dirty oil patch concussed hockey heads broke kharlamov’s ankle joined up killed men women & children in rival oil fields overseas and all the while puffed up poets drank. cocktails with that grinning monkey of a governor-geNeral"

I wonder if there's a press out there who might be willing to publish a book like that? Probably not, but you never know. Even a publisher can occasionally be self-destructive...

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

A: I’ve drawn inspiration and pleasure from a range of texts over the years, but my process is less about returning to old favourites than finding and gathering together the texts that directly or indirectly inform the specific project I’m currently working on.

I mentioned above, some of the Chinese texts I was reading while working on “kharlamov’s ankle.” A starting point for the project was a concert I attended in Beijing in which an encounter between “East” and “West” was staged in the performances of a countertenor in the European Baroque tradition (Purcell, Dowland, Byrd, Handel, etc.), and a Chinese kunqu opera dan, a man playing a female role. I was immediately struck by the ambiguity and disruptive nature of the male high voice. I did some reading in those two areas, including Peter Giles’ comprehensive History and Technique of the Counter-tenor, from which I gleaned the name and story of a 16th century English countertenor who was also a spy Nikolas Morgan.

Also, at the same time, I returned to Valerie Solanas and Kathy Acker, to undercut the masculinist undercurrents in my own literary practice. I included Emily Dickinson and Emily Carr as characters in k’s ankle (all my characters since my second novel City of Forgetting have been borrowed), Dickinson because of her strange unclassifiable poetics, partly a product of her reclusive existence, and Carr because of her relationship to the world, to what, in a strange dissociation, we call “nature” and “animals”. Also, her grave happens to be across the street from where I lived during the writing of k’s ankle. I imagined both Emilys as assassins targeting Stephen Harper and Donald Trump.

Anyway, those are some of the authors and texts I read in the course of writing this project, a real hodge-podge of a bibliography. This method of research is also, of course, a form of self-education, though unlike any traditional academic curricula. I’ve not found academic approaches and structures useful, the isolation of disciplines, the divisions within disciplines, the isolation of English literature as a department separate from other national literatures, the classification of works within literature into categories invented and imposed on writing by literature’s clerks, their inflexible periodization of literature, and the inevitable exclusion of valuable marginalia that follows. I’ve seen first-hand the terrible normalizing, spirit-killing instruction of those clerks and watchdogs of literature. I won’t state categorically that it hasn’t and will never produce any literature that isn’t formulaic and boring, but it’s not for me.

Rereading the above, I think I’ve highjacked your question. I apologize.

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