Lisa Samuels works with poetry, prose, sound, film, and visual art. Her recent works include Symphony for Human Transport (Shearsman 2017), Foreign Native (Black Radish 2018), The Long White Cloud of Unknowing (Chax 2019), and a film version of her book Tomorrowland (director Wes Tank, 2017). New theory writings are on soft text, distributed centrality, and luminol historiography. Lisa lives in Aotearoa/New Zealand and is a Professor of English & Drama at the University of Auckland.
Her poems “Hope goes both ways,” “Whether” and “Movies for the blind” appear in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “Hope goes both ways,” “Whether” and “Movies for the blind.”
A: I’ll start with description, partly to remind myself – they’re each eleven lines of poetic prose; they have titles that serve a little to magnetize the filaments of the words beneath; they enjoy logical, descriptive, narrative, and metaphorical formulations and propositions; they reference affect and agentives from the social nature of language and other planetary features; they suppose time in-poem and out-of-poem. They’re also on the road, in gardens, in institutions; their sensory mechanisms perceive out and are themselves precepted, in ways that maybe decouple normative ontologies with aims of freedom – in constraint, since the formal eleven lines help parallel energy happen across the poems. It’s like trees or waves: you see differently in a forest with like-minded trees or you hear differently when the waves are steady or when they suck and drag in jerky crashes. So the poems have gentle plexiglass containment fields in being held with matching line and margin shapes: each para-sentence enjoys perhaps the reflexivity of its containment. Different sameness without exactly same difference.
If you mean the context of their composition: I was traveling and writing in patterns involved with perception, interiority and exteriority, identity malleability, as experienced in the transnational contexts of that travel. The resulting poems are most likely organic machines meant to record and prompt the subjective correlatives I always value. Such orientations are not choices, really, so much as results and manifests; yet one wants to enjoy the possibilities of their in-betweens as art.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: Well, a new work that happened in the first lockdown here is titled Breach and is quite different from the TtD poems – it arrived unexpectedly across a few days of intense writing in relation to pandemic feeling. I had started a formal imitation exercise model for my poetry students and it turned into a book-length poem with very short lines, the kind of line brevity characteristic of the poet Pam Brown, whose style I was setting the students to imitate, though I suppose the Breach lines are closer to Tom Raworth’s in style. I almost never compose in such short lines, and I found the extreme enjambments and lexical parataxis delicious. Happily, Boiler House Press plans to publish Breach in the new year.
My most recent book, The Long White Cloud of Unknowing, is poetic prose: it’s a punctuationally single sentence focused in a scene, a room, with an anchoring figure, a woman. Its meditative urgency and interest in heresy and other patterns of thought and memory are differently directed from the TtD poems, but there are probably some lexical touch points between the two, since the TtD poems were composed in late 2019 when Chax Press published the Cloud book and I was performing it. I also included five pivot photos in the Cloud book – taken in various places – and they do symbolic work in relation to the language.
I’ve been taking photos too for a manuscript titled Livestream, whose conceptual feeling partly responds to the Christchurch shooter using a wearable camera to record his violence and also to identity and authenticity anxiety in online immediacy/social media activities – these situations seem related. Also Livestream is involved with ecological carrying, for example resources streaming human activities (without being asked – and then being imagined as askable, as with the Te Awa Tupua Act here in 2017 granting legal personhood rights to the Whanganui river). The Livestream photos are harbingers, black & white ghosts of observations of stuff like city angles, street wiring, and printing and communications devices such as a lighthouse beacon. They splice between the poems as melt-downs or electrifications. The Livestream poems – since I’m here in your question – are also different from the TtD poems: sometimes they are spectral arrests of violence: symbolic, fictive, actual. Sometimes they’re like sculptural moment evocations, fractal chiaroscuro on bitumen stages.
I’ve recently made other visual art, from glass vials filled with text slices (Foreclosure Series, 2019) to a large piece, Tenter (2019), made with a wide abundant green cloth draped on a big easel and flowing down on the floor. Next to that I set a small pitcher of water on a short stand. The water has a paintbrush in it that viewers can pick up to write on the cloth in water, to make water writing. So it’s collaborative and ephemeral, materially and socially. I’ve had the lovely chance to discuss this work publicly and I plan to make more such art. Even though the poetry I write is always committed to multiple potentialities of interpretation – not because I plan it that way, but because I am that kind of artist – the print poems have to contend with page/screen areas holding words that are not necessarily instantly recognizable as departing from instrumentality. With the visual art writing I’ve just described, the scene of representation is different in terms of expectations and permissions.
I’ll demur from any detail about my theory writing, but I’m writing more about distributed centrality and newly about luminol historiography – and withness, which I played around with years back and am exploring in an essay. I’m also investigating an idea called wild dialectics. This theory writing is different from the TtD poems because it participates in economies of explanation. I always, apparently, prefer to make art, since I’ve never yet managed to concentrate my rare research time on an essay collection to bring it to fruition.
Q: I’m curious about the relationships between your writing, performance and visual art. How do the individual threads interact or interrelate? Do you see them as separate threads, or as elements of a larger, ongoing, singular process? Are there ideas you wish you could engage with in one form, for example, that you end up exploring through another?
A: There are ways of being with language that I want to cross-pollinate, for sure. Many people approach language as though it’s a solar system: at the center there is meaning, the “clear statement” work that language can be made to do directively and indexically, with the deepest centre of the solar-lingual the performative power to incarcerate appoint wed etc. This civically-enforced performative power, this deepest centre of the solar-lingual, is part of what binds some ideas of effectual language use to “clarity” in the notional sun of this solar lingual system. After all, some people might say, language is regularly used to incarcerate appoint wed etc., so there is a zone where that happens. When someone hitches their discourse to this centralized power idea, they are generally trying to make something happen in terms of a stable structure: a professional argument or a genre expression, etc.
As one moves further from this central solar lingual, the ideology is that one moves from clarity to obscurity. At a symposium I attended last year, some of the poets asked aloud why they didn’t just write clearly about their experiences, why they felt the need to be obscurely poetic. I found this discouraging to hear, because it indexes the strength of this solar lingual model. As though expressivity, ethics, or descriptions of planetary realities have one zone where they most effectively happen, with everything else further from the light.
Language happens everywhere it happens with equal distribution of possibilities of message, method, identity, representation, beauty, trauma, communication, and expressivity. It’s just that the modes and performative contexts are different in each case. It’s habit – and the enforcement of habits – that leads people to accept the dominant narrative of the lingual solar. And even then, people regularly perform very separately from that ideology: shouting in surprise, using lingual semaphores for affective communication far from any notional clarity. So everyone knows and performs, at least sometimes, in zones away from solar lingual suppositions.
I’m engaging your last question here, though I hadn’t intended to imagine this solar lingual image when I sat down to respond on this chilly southern spring morning. I want to write in any zone of the lingual and have the language able to be imagined from the point of view of any other place in the lingual. A poem can be an argument or an expression of love, even if it doesn’t seem to be – though not, for me, as a secret code: I have fairly automatic ethical signage limits that spring up in my feeling whenever a composition is making a too-controlled undecideable. I don’t seem to want to make those, though I can perceive and enjoy them when I read, say, some OULIPO texts.
Anyway so you could say I make things “out there” in the lingual distal and perform them always in the proximal, insisting always on radical equality. Proximal materials are always distinct. That doesn’t obviate the chance to articulate a poetics that may well be in evidence. And that in turn doesn’t obviate the unknown in its many permutations, from inspiration to hovering.
It’s great you use the term “threads” since I find myself recurrently drawn to cloth though I’ve not done – anyway. Threads are never without discontinuities to enable their pliancy. But you are using the term threads more symbolically, so I’ll consider that part of your question in terms of an example: if I take a poem to perform, say “The first of the last wings” from Foreign Native, ideally I print it out and place the paper sheets on a music stand or similar support object. This allows my hands to be free to use sonic materials. Often I source local stuff, for example I had a great time in Boston last year – the first time I’d performed in that city, where I was born – because it was raining before my reading and I went in to a bicycle shop to stay dry. I started playing with the bells and then really desiring the sound of one of them. Then I had to figure out how to be able to play it in the reading coming up the next hour. One of the bicycle shop technicians kindly and expertly fixed the bell on to a sawn-off bike handle, so I could ring the bell on a handle that was entirely disconnected from any particular bike.
I took this bell with me and read with it: I was so happy to have a regional sound whose pure high extended tone became a differential echo accompaniment to my voicework. It enabled the sonics to be more multiple and involved with more bodies and timings. So the imbrication of the “threads” there performs multiplicity, differentiation, spontaneity, site-specifics, somatic exponentializing, and cross-species sound in relation to the senses, semantics, expectations, cadences, tones, and body politics of me standing there in a bookstore reading space in front of mostly people I didn’t know. All those multiplicities can in turn encourage a scene of participation in the listeners and viewers. They too can glide on differential aspects of the performance: they don’t have to prefer semantics in the poems. The bell-tone is like a hovering word. The multiple materials multiply uptake and redistribute potentials of feeling and meaning.
I think this response leaves unaddressed only (well, “only”) the matter of non-lingual visual art. Here I’d say that creating material bodies that are free from the pressures of instrumentalized language is definitely a draw. To allow signage its own accords. Yet all the visual art I’ve made includes the lingual too. It’s like taking a magnet to the filaments of the lingual and drawing them in multiple directions. I probably thought of the earlier poem example (“The first of the last wings,” whose title’s from a Paul Celan line) because I always shift its orders around in performance. A poem is an n-dimensional event structure open to different instantiations; a work of visualingual art keeps its signage variants company.
Q: With a handful of published books and chapbooks over the past fifteen or so years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: This is an intense question! It’s funny how its language reflects ideas about the Growth and Journey of the artist. I suppose it is a bit like that, though I might swerve rather than develop, maybe. Anyway so we’re talking from Paradise for Everyone to The Long White Cloud of Unknowing, because from 2005 to 2019 I published fifteen books as well as the CDs I made of Tomorrowland and – other work.
In terms of change, there has been a lessening of individual Poem Visitations and an increase of sustained Desire Projects. This trajectory is familiar though not ubiquitous in writers – larger sweeps start to look more possible, apparently. The first event like that for me was Tomorrowland (Shearsman 2009) and its partner/follow-on Gender City (Shearsman 2011). The draft material for both was composed in a compressed half-year, during my first research sabbatical in 2008. So that’s one change. Mama Mortality Corridos (Holloway 2010), Anti M (Chax 2013), Tender Girl (Dusie 2015), and the Cloud book are all sustained projects, even as each is distinct from the others.
The drive to expand my genres and styles, for example to compose a memoir and a novel, is also a change in that time. With Anti M I wanted to create an experimental memory machine for responsive imaginings, so I carried out omissive work with my memoir of childhood, retaining only some of its words positioned across the pages. And with Tender Girl I wanted to unfold a phenomenological and humanimal novel, a picaresque vision through the body of Girl, the invented daughter of Maldoror and the shark. These genre expansions might go along with my revivified return to more theory writings.
So you could say those fifteen years feature increases in the types of signage I deploy and desire. My commitment to and participation in sound work has increased. And the performance work has intensified over the last decade particularly. As has my understanding that I could make marks that participate in the urges of poetry yet carry and report more-than-lingual signs. That started with the drawings I made for Mama Mortality Corridos, which was the first time I put images together with my writing – as I did also for Anti M and the Cloud book and now for Livestream.
As to where my work is headed, or bodied, I’ve mentioned two current poetry manuscripts: one strips out full-page activation (I mean things like float clusters, omissive work, accompanying visuals) in favour of an excoriated continuous line attention. That’s Breach. The other includes photographs and builds an interrupted stream of ecological violence and response. The TtD poems are part of something I’ve set aside for now but will come back to. I’ve also recorded the whole of Tender Girl – six hours of audio! – and need to decide how to platform that work. I will probably make occasional sonic interludes rather than the continuous soundscapes I composed for the Tomorrowland CDs. Meanwhile Tender Girl is being translated into Serbian, and I’m working with the translator on that interesting adventure.
I’m also working with performance studies collaboration, and I hope to do more of that. It’s partly a matter of time and contexts – my graduate supervisions are almost all writerly, and I don’t have a movement studio as part of my direct job. So I stay open to other pathways. I was to go to Greenland and Copenhagen in November and December to pursue and develop my interest in darkness thinking, but those trips disappeared because of the pandemic. The vision of seeing without eyes, of perceiving without norm apparatus, darkness visible, of interruptions of the digital and stable talking face and of the idea that illumination is best for observations and ideas, voicing in the dark, are probably extensions of my long-held interest in “imagining what we don’t know” and of my commitments to forces like soft text and other magnetisms on the other side of the apparent. Also of my increased attention to body rights in imaginal spaces. So yes – in the end I find I can answer your question, articulate some legible expansions in my ways of making art!
Q: When moving out into soundscapes and translation, how do these experiences and explorations return to impact upon generating further text-based works?
A: I’m definitely a lingual imaginer, so the words never leave – if anything they are more material in their evidences when I am engaging with modes that are not only writing. I’m surprised when people say that my vocalizations and soundwork help them hear the sound-forwardness of my writing and, by implication, better understand the work. Sound-fixations feel to me so evident when I write and then on the page. In a way everything is sound, as in the synesthetics of the Wallace Stevens line “Music is feeling, then, not sound”; so in my poetry meaning is sound, then, not reference, though of course that’s an exaggeration since these matters are mutually supporting and co-constituting. Sound makes meaning in many directions: it’s rhythm, volume, patterns, pacing, breaks, silences, phrasing, labials, echoes, sibilance – these sound effects happen in printed as well as spoken language. And since I lost my hearing in a near-fatal childhood accident, then got most of it back, and finally got hearing aids as an adult, I know what it means for sound to be something other than the human norm. Maybe in these comments, “sound” stands in for language’s simultaneously abstract embodiment. Maybe it isn’t surprising, then, when sound can remind us how meaning is situational and embodied and transactive.
In terms of translation: it’s hard to write only in English, because Englishes are so variable yet so often interpreted as though from a target-frame, as though Englishes write back to an English. This source-target frame is part of the historical discussion of translation, often described as tricky or impossible, when arguably all language happens in the very in-between of the “across” from situations and tongues to other situations and tongues. The target range approach to translation is allied with the instrumental approach to language, at least when it is treated as though univocal “clear” and “direct” communication is what’s needed, or is lacking if it isn’t there: that’s a homogeneous expectation, whereas global Englishes are heterogeneous. This situation is exacerbated for those who have learned different human languages and whose literate minds are steeped in the multilingual – then, any one language is a facet of the multilingual: of potential and other versions of itself.
So all writing is translation. As others have said for centuries in one way and another. It’s a topic with constancy because, among other things, there are such strong cultural urges to stabilize signs and such strong human urges to have the closest possible connections across signs, between oneself and an other.
To answer your question with respect to my books, you could say that my work in extra-lingual modes has given my writing permission to be more multiple. Not only in forms – the inclusion of images and soundscapes, the making of visualingual art – but also in languages, as in the multilingualism of The Long White Cloud of Unknowing, which wreathes Spanish, French, Latin, and Māori among its Englishes. Even when I am writing only in Englishes, other letter combos, other languages whether established or potential, are trembling in the page. Another somewhat increased register for me is sound response poems: e.g. in Foreign Native the poems “Mercy Proof” and “Summons” were composed as/during listening to sounds.
Overall then my work is freer over time in making shapes for variances. Although there are many approaches to and rationales for making what gets called art, for me there is no point making art that does not feel free.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I’m in a prolonged state of mind in which author-centered work as such is not what I look for. I am drawn to discourses that jump wires among contexts. When I find language moving in relation to other language - to possibility, energy, gesture, the transplace, the more-than-social-human - I am glad to be alive and creating. Languages are like water from multiple sources moving along and you step into it and write with it and it flows around with your activity blended in and then bends to continuing changed circulations.
The lingual work that moves me to respond expresses, one way and another, freedom, insouciance, egalitarianism, performed ethics, and resistance. It doesn’t worry about who wants to read it or whether it’s publicity-oriented or on trend. It doesn’t worry about whether it’s fresh or original. It just exists in adamancy, intense feeling and mindful contingency, ideational pleasure, and openings out from fixedness toward relation. I never know when I am going to pick up or open up or listen to something that has those properties. It can happen anywhere with anything.
One challenge is to find those materials, since the writing pushed as exemplary usually focuses an idea that some socius, with variant media powers, wants to push at that time. Such information is important in terms of thinking about what a culture is looking at, but I can’t count on its energizing my own imaginaries. So I have to find ways to look elsewhere, and it seems like I am always looking slant to find something that might be speaking in freedom. Of course such work needs to be findable, so fostering plenitude, and making archives accessible, and being grateful for the work that small press publishers do, are all commitments I value. And when the present feels fuzzy, I can always turn back to the beautiful struggles of Charles Peirce.