“Chapter 1” of his work-in-progress “The Seventh Chamber” appears in the thirty-sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “The Seventh Chamber.”
A: The Seventh Chamber is a book largely derived from other texts, and includes historical documents and translations turned to its purpose, a work of intertextuality in the proper sense of the word. Not influence, but confluence. I remember writing, in my teens, a prototype of this work derived from the “night town” section of Ulysses, The Barbary Shore, Saint Julien the Hospitaller, and Gwendolyn MacEwan’s Julian the Magician. Sometime in the eighties, I wrote a long introduction to a work that was meant to include a series of several books taking their stories from anecdotes in Marjorie Freeman Campbell’s magnificent A Mountain and a City: The Story of Hamilton – several notorious murders, the Bloody Assize of 1814, the HSR strike of 1906, visits to the city by Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman. Only two of these books have been written. One of them, Beautiful Lies, tells of the murder of Ethel Kinrade by her sister Florence, and the other, The Seventh Chamber, includes the story of the butcher Mike McConnell’s murder of his landlord. In the first of these books, the “essential anecdote”, as Mallarmé called it, is not recounted, although it’s hidden in plain sight on the back cover of the book. The impetus for this approach came from Marguerite Duras’ Emily L. In The Seventh Chamber, the essential anecdote – the murder of Nelson Mills – is told twice.
Although they can be read separately, the two books are similar in their structure and method. They don’t so much mix genres as oscillate between them. Although I refer to them at times as novels, I more often think of them as serial poems in prose. Alongside or within the “murder mysteries”, which take place in the distant past (in terms of Hamilton time), runs a kind of parallel or imbricated text set in the “present” – the 1970s in Beautiful Lies, the twenty first century in The Seventh Chamber. This second text is partly autobiographical. I’m presently referring to The Seventh Chamber as an alternative autobiography. In Beautiful Lies, the character in this second text is peripherally present in the first and may simply be the narrator or author. In The Seventh Chamber, this peripatetic character narrates his own story and may or may not be aware of, let alone be the ‘author’ of the parallel texts. There is also a third textual element, a kind of chorus in which, originally, the two sisters conduct a dialogue. These are recognizable by the absence of punctuation. In The Seventh Chamber, the two voices are still busily commenting on the literary unconscious of the work. They are now twins, and toward the end a third voice arises, that of the so-called narrator or author. This may be a device for setting up a sequel made entirely of this unpunctuated choral work.
I recently came across these words of Tzvetan Todorov in his Theorie du symbole which I think apply to the structure of The Seventh Chamber:
It is possible to conceive, in the abstract, two forms of coherence in a literary work. First, coherence between its strata: a certain number of levels can be seen at work throughout the text, harmonious and, in some manner, vertical. A second coherence is at play between the segments of the work – if we cut its continuity into pieces, we will find that each part is necessary and interdependent with the others; this latter is, so to speak, a horizontal coherence.These books also incorporate translations, as does most of my work. These translated texts are modified in most cases by a slight change of detail – location, time – that allows them to fit into the ongoing narrative. This practice owes something to the work of Rodney Graham, in Landor’s Cottage, for example, or The Piazza. In most cases, but not all, these translations could, with the readjustment of the divergent details, stand as “faithful” renderings of their originals.
The first book, Beautiful Lies, is available from CUE Books. The Seventh Chamber is being published in three parts – in feuilleton, as I like to say. The second part is currently available in SOME fourth issue. I’m still working on the final section and appendices, which I expect to publish soon in a journal or as a chapbook.
Q: I’m curious about how you see this particular project alongside your other works. The way you describe these seems less a matter of individual works than a single, ongoing trajectory, of which this current project is simply the latest in a line. How do you see the trajectory of your work, and the relationships between your projects?
A: I don’t see much in the way of a direct relationship between these works and other projects that I have completed or continue to work on. That is, other than certain methodological procedures: the serial poem, the book as unit of composition (Spicer), the incorporation of translation, my own lyric presence in the text to a greater or lesser extent. What I see when I look back along the ‘trajectory’ to which The Seventh Chamber belongs is a life-long trail of disasters, of failed attempts to write a novel. I don’t read a lot of novels, but when I do get captured by one I am always amazed at the nature of the writing and the labour involved. I don’t seem to be capable of that. I think it’s a result of a certain devotion to lyric, a short attention span, and an inability to write prosaic sentences. On that last point, my effort is always to write sentences that slow reading down, encumber the reader, not ones that move the story along, if there is a story at all. I find it difficult to write sentences such as those that punctuate dialogue, for example: “Joachim sourit, content de pouvoir s’expliquer,” or “Il se retourne et lui fait face.” Or sentences that simply maintain the momentum and bridge events: “In high spirits, we skipped down the steps and across the walk to the front doors of the courthouse,” or “I watched the leafy trees and many banana palms go by the tram windows.” These examples are taken from two novels that I’m currently reading – novels that I admire and enjoy reading: Anne Dufourmantelle’s Souviens-toi de ton avenir, and Larissa Lai’s The Lost Century.
Q: You mention Jack Spicer, but I’m curious at what brought you to the point of working on, as you say, the book as your unit of composition. Was Spicer an early influence? What other writers or works prompted your preference for the book-length structure?
A: Well, I named Spicer because I’ve always associated that phrase with him. I probably should have said “the Berkeley Renaissance”, since the practice is common to Blaser and Duncan as well – think of The Image Nations, or The Structure of Rime. In “The Practice of Outside”, Blaser refers to the “the special value the poet [Spicer] gave to composition by book.” I’ve seen the phrase attributed to b.p. nichol, but I wouldn’t know where he got it from. I’m not really one of his readers. Anyway, there’s nothing new about this practice. I could just as easily have said Hesiod, Vergil, Dante, Maurice Scève, Louise Labé or Basho. Or more immediately, Pound, Williams, H.D. or Zukofsky. For me, probably my first sense of this practice came from books I read in my teens – Rimbaud’s last two books, Bliss Carman’s Sappho : One Hundred Lyrics, Kora in Hell, Helen in Egypt, Joanne Kyger’s The Tapestry and the Web. My first conscious use of this method was probably the composition, in the early 80s, of a series of dizains modelled on Scève’s Délie.
Q: With numerous published books and chapbooks over the years, as well as this current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: I wonder this myself. It always begins with reading. When asked if I’m writing, I often say that I’m reading toward writing. Right now I’m reading a lot of Dante and Dante criticism, ostensibly toward the completion of The Seventh Chamber and the writing of an essay on Cavalcanti. I’m reading Anne Dufourmantelle and thinking about the case history as ‘literature’. This began as a work of translation but that project slipped away with her death. I’m reading the Duncan/Levertov correspondence with the intention of writing a short coda to a paper I wrote a few years ago on the Duncan/Blaser quarrel. I’m reading a lot of long poems, I’m not quite sure why yet. And I’m looking again at Rilke’s Vergers with an eye toward translation. At some point I always find myself writing. It surprises me to discover that I’m ready, but I always carry the utensils.
Q: I’m curious about the ways in which your writing and your translation work interact with each other, if at all. Do you see them as separate threads, or something intertwined? How does one impact upon the other?
A: I’ve always treated my translations as part of my writing, whether they were literal or entirely divergent. The earliest translation I remember writing was a short poem of Apollinaire’s. It took its place in the chronological ordering of my own poems. In the poem he addresses his mother in a way that corresponded perfectly to the situation I found myself in at the time – living on my own in a rooming house. And so it’s been for me since then – not living alone in a rooming house, but situating the place of translation within my ongoing work. The only exception to the practice I’ve just described is the translation I did with Donato Mancini of A Flea the Size of Paris: The Old French fatrasies & fatras. As the first translators of this body of work into English, we felt a responsibility to the poems and to the reader that we could not shirk. Donato is presently doing more adventuresome things with the fatrasie form. With regard to ‘literal’ and divergent translations, some examples of the former would be the Mallarmé translations in Beautiful Lies and The Seventh Chamber, or the translations of Ponge that I published years ago in Raddle Moon; some examples of the latter can be found in my most recent books, Duets and Tracery, or the ‘translation’ of Canto 28 of The Purgatorio in Beautiful Lies – loosely based on the Dante, it is written in prose but retains all the features of terza rima.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I’d have to say Mallarmé’s prose poems, including Igitur, Dante’s Comedy, H.D.’s wartime writings, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Cocteau’s film Orphée, Robert Duncan’s Passages, André Breton’s Vases communicants, Agnes Varda’s Cléo de cinq a six, Bach’s Cello Suites and Partitas and Sonatas for violin, Beethoven’s Late Quartets, maybe Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, Celan and Hölderlin, Lyn Hejinian, Godard’s La Chinoise, Julia Kristeva, The Cocteau Twins, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Maya Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time, Eliot’s Four Quartets, Plato’s Phaedrus, and so on. At the very least I’d need Dante and Hegel.