An Interview with Lisa Samuels (2014)

Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 1 [Issue #49] (October 2014)

An Interview with Lisa Samuels
[via email / August-September 2014]

Emily Dickinson

Lisa Samuels

teaches at the University of Auckland in English, Drama, & Writing Studies. Her B.A. in English is from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; she also has an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. She has published nine books to date, as well as soundwork, chapbooks, and essays on poetry, criticism, and theory. Her novel Tender Girl is forthcoming from US publisher Dusie Press.

  • Anti M (creative nonfiction). Tucson: Chax Press, 2013.
  • Wild Dialectics (poetry). Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2012.
  • Double CD, Tomorrowland (voice & soundscapes). Birkenhead: Deep Surface Productions, 2012.
  • Gender City (poetry). Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2011.
  • Mama Mortality Corridos (poetry & drawings). Auckland: Holloway Press, 2010.
  • Tomorrowland (poetry). Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2009.
  • Throe (poetry chapbook). Norfolk: Oystercatcher Press, 2009.
  • The Invention of Culture (poetry). Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2008.
  • Increment /a family romance (poetry chapbook). Milwaukee: Bronze Skull Press, 2006.
  • Paradise for Everyone (poetry). Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2005.
  • War Holdings (poetry chapbook). Columbus: Pavement Saw Press, 2003.
  • Editor. Anarchism Is Not Enough. By Laura Riding. An annotated critical edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • The Seven Voices (poetry). Oakland: O Books, 1998.
  • Guest Editor. Special Issue, “Poetry and the Problem of Beauty.” Modern Language Studies 27.2, 1997.
  • LETTERS (poetry chapbook). Buffalo: Meow Press, 1996.

Lisa Samuels
photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd

  • What writers do you keep on coming back to, and why?

  • The more I think about your question the more I realize I have to express an answer in terms of categories. My reading is pretty catholic: I’ll as soon be inspired by patterns, sounds, place histories, images, philosophy, statistics for a country’s fabric imports, dictionaries, encyclopedias, poetry, experimental drama, strange comics, physics hypotheses, theory, and manifestos as I will be by particular writers. Nonetheless certain writers are recurrent for me, sometimes as a matter of the note I need to have plucked at a moment of thinking. Writers of excess can help me re-imagine our boundaries and exposures in the world – here I’m thinking of William Blake, Lautréamont, Friedrich Nietzsche, Laura Riding, Georges Bataille, Kathy Acker, William Vollmann. Writers who metaphorically compress such excess give me great – not to say painless – joy: Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Robin Hyde, Lorenzo Thomas, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Bill Griffiths. Writers whose opened-out pages, polygenres, and intellectual visions seem interested in populating whole micro-worlds of thinking and feeling are also real food for my reading: Kamau Brathwaite, Leslie Scalapino. And writers who jam (as in press, and the sweet stuff we put on toast) visuals with interesting words are amazing in their models of how visuals and semantics can really operate each other: Bob Brown, bp Nichol, Tom Phillips, Cecilia Vicuña, Lisa Robertson (in her Soft Architecture essay book), and Maggie O’Sullivan. I’m also really transacted by translingual writers such as Myung Mi Kim, Sawako Nakayasu, and Stacy Doris, whose French infuses her English, in my reading, though she’s more a translational writer than translingual, I suppose. Stacy Doris also sits for me with writers like Robert Duncan, Lyn Hejinian, Alan Halsey, and Renee Gladman as occidental imaginers who turn the forms and categories of self and cultural givens into strange attractors and repellers – they repopulate the examined world as attentive ways of constituting it. Another category here is imaginative theory: I’m certainly thinking of William Blake, but also of medieval mystics such as Theresa of Ávila, Marguerite Porete, Julian of Norwich, and the Cloud author. Imagination theorizing sometimes gets focused in poetics or philosophy-theory itself: in that rank I’ve been especially responding to Charles Sanders Peirce and Theodor Adorno, while the poetics of William Carlos Williams always points toward an appealing freedom. And yet another category is sound intensities, often carried for me in syntactically, metrically, and rhythmically sophisticated poets such as John Donne and Gertrude Stein. In other words these embrained sound writers are doing something like what the aforementioned images + words writers are doing, only with a sound emphasis that performs their alternative visions of what the world yields up. Then there’s a whole ’nother category of the exposed psychic self. The writers I already mentioned definitely demonstrate psychic amplitude, yes, but writers like Georges Perec, Scott Hamilton, and Nathanaël read as though they are not hiding anything, which is a particularly admirable self-exposure – at times a cultural evisceration, or a co-evisceration.

  • You mention in your reply “a whole other category of the exposed psychic self,” and give Scott Hamilton and Georges Perec as two examples of what you mean. A number of people have mentioned to me that they “don’t understand” or “don’t get” your work – by which I presume they mean they find its lack of conventional syntax or lexical connections confusing. What would you say to such people? Is it simply a matter of confusing an abstract with a representational artistic practice? Georges Braque with Andrew Wyeth?

  • I would say my work is completely representational, in the sense that what people call abstract – particularly in language – is also representational. But I suppose I use that word “representational” in a kind of all-encompassing way. I don’t think there is any such thing as “anti-mimesis” or “anti-representation.” Everything represents; it’s just a question of what and how it represents.

    I don’t choose to write the way I do, nor do I choose it to be confusing. I suppose some people might say they’d wish to find their star in the work that is of most moment to their contexts, so that they could feel a dialog was happening. But most people don’t have any such opportunity – which is a different, though related, subject. For here, what I mean is that everyone I’ve ever observed is lonely with the diremption between what happens in their inner experience and what is reported as normal in normative representational works. In those latter – maybe the kind of thing people don’t find confusing, the kind of writing they “get” – we see Ordered Words that purport to explain things, and syntax whose shapes are familiar, and we presumably believe in the reality of the stability they represent. And then, when we’re alone, when we’re not being “guided,” we reorient into the dispersed inexplicable. Recognizably ordered words are good for many circumstances: it’s comfortable to ride familiar syntax and to feel like there is a cultural narrative that ties things together or shows some kind of given real. But I want to represent the dispersed inexplicable, since that for me is the most real. For example, when I am driving across the Harbour Bridge, I am simultaneously walking at the bottom of the ocean water and remembering my body in some other position in a truck and composing fragments of music in the sound part of my mind and thinking about how humans are related to the buildings I can see and wondering how on earth we can evade ideas of possession and thinking about what events have happened that can be traced in the atomic substrates that perfuse this whole geophysical area and feeling my nose’s dryness and blinking my eyes and pondering the number of eyeblinks we’ll have in our lives, etc. All those dispersals are reality, phenomenologically, and that’s just in one body moving across one event. I am very conscious of the billions of people on earth alive now who are dispersed from each other and each other’s experiences and each other’s assumptions about historical and cultural and bodily coherence. I mean that both traumatically, in terms of human beings suffering constantly, and also descriptively, constatively. There is no center of meaning nor norm of representation I wish to cling to, for there is no center of meaning nor normal representation, though there are representational norms in different times and societies.

    Imaginative writing, for me, is most importantly a challenge to cultural givens, not a re-instancing of them – except to the extent that it cannot escape such re-instancing, given the languages we know and the times we live in and the particular cultural knowledges we have amassed. I am not in search, to quote William Carlos Williams, of “the beautiful illusion.” What I’m interested in is how the particulates that are used to examine, understand, and constitute any person, situation, or society are contingent and can be reassembled – which is the very thing that makes it possible to challenge what is given and to be attentive to the dispersed real.

    Another answer I might have, for those readers you mention who generously pay attention to my work but aren’t sure what to make of it, is that I love sound. When I teach I talk about “somato-psychic” enactment: you cannot know the consequences of a given practice as an abstract quantity of information in advance of trying that practice. You have to put your body – the body of your words, in the case of writing – into that practice in order to experience its consequences. So maybe listening to my writing can teach you what it knows better than I can say it separately, since paraphrase is only one part of apprehending any language practice. In other words sound is meaning, and the sonics of my writing want to mean via the ear of the mind, to perform meaning rather than report on it afterwards. This is one way I read Gertrude Stein: that the sound is the meaning, that making the world in and as the sound patterns of language is a way to build and apprehend reality. Language is our most important tool for organizing the “meanings” of the world. It’s also our most important tool for challenging the meaning orders of the world. That’s why it’s controversial to use language in ways other than normative communication, which relies on obscuring the abstraction and contingency of language in order to assert its putatively real elaboration of a stable cultural situation. So people learn to think that there is a sense and that language makes it (only) in certain ways, and that using language in other ways is “not making sense.” But that’s a learnt attitude, not a real fact about language or the organizational possibilities of the human world. Another answer is that I want my writing to be like machinery for imagining. I hope it moves any reader through differential experiences and thoughts, of sound and memory and realization. I want it to open (to quote William Blake) “the doors of perception” – to help us, as I’ve said before, imagine what we don’t know. I don’t expect my writing to represent what is already there; I want it to activate the machinery of ethical and bodily attention, of embrained feeling, at the moment that it is happening. Like a music box that activates you when you open it.

  • I really enjoyed your description of driving over the harbour bridge and delineation of all the other things going on in your mind at the same time! Would you see the task of gesturing towards the immense multi-levelled complexity of our relationship to language as one particularly and uniquely suited to poetry, or is poetry, for you, just a nonce word that stands in for writing? Looking at the draft of your novel Tender Girl which you sent me, I wonder if you would regard that as significantly different – except, of course, in scope and length – from the work you do in “poems” (so-called)?

  • Yes I do regard Tender Girl as different: everything in it is directed toward a reading of the experience of a being who was born from the union of a human and a shark. Girl is also amphibious, though we see mostly her land aspects, with her breathing pores and being around air and humans. The novel’s language is put into the service of a psycho-biological portrait of Girl encountering human events and consequences. So the experiment of that book, which is forthcoming with the U.S. publisher Dusie Press, is how to imagine language performing this character consciousness. I did not want to circumscribe the impacts or understandings of Girl’s encounters too much – I didn’t want to turn them in to a report from a distance. So the language is unusual, perhaps, as a report from within a strange, literally impossible, imagined ontology, with the tracings of the effort of that report.

    Poetry is an emphasis within writing rather than a segregated field. Maybe we call something an example of poetry when it’s labelled “poetry.” After all, given the amplitude of poetic experiments over the past 125 or so years, it’s impossible to deny writers the right to use the term “poetry” to describe their work. That self-naming right is part of an ethical development in our assumptions about identity. Given the importance of language for social order and explanation, maybe it’s no surprise that “poetry,” with its huge appetite and its resistance to limited definition, is a crucial language zone for contests about identity and representation. The “immense multilevel complexity of our relation to language,” as you put it, is certainly one of the manifestations and topics of the poetic. But I don’t think poetry is a term for all writing. I think we need as many kinds of writing as we can get.

  • The British writer John Cowper Powys once described his novels as “propaganda for my way of life.” Looking back over your work to date, would you say that you detect common themes or overriding intentions in forming all of it? Or is each of your books and poems designed as a new “raid on the inarticulate”?

  • I’m so happy you mentioned Powys, as he has been a favored author for me sometimes. His adamant sensual broken animistic excess pleases me – he’s like the tortured-happy modernist version of the kind of energy that animates William Vollmann’s best fictions. Anyway, to your question. I reckon all writers are extruding from their preferences, “doing what comes naturally,” writing their obsessions. But propaganda, hmm. I think not, though I wouldn’t be the best person to be clear on that, given ideology and the return of the repressed and all those fun aspects of being human. And I know you aren’t necessarily ascribing Powys’s self-summary to anyone else’s work.

    Since I started writing work that has been important to me – since my first poetry book in 1998 – I have certainly had themes and styles recur. It’s pretty clear that semiotics, materialism, and phenomenology are touchstones, in theoretical terms. No matter what the style or genre, my books are focused in identity, transculturalism, ethics, the body, violence, love, social power, perception, and imaginative unknowing. No matter what the focus, my styles are transfixed by an urge to manifest representations that come out from the observing subject to report on the real fragmentations of being human. In other words, we are fragmented, and fragmentary language is a true reflection of our experience – it feels true to me, truer than styles that try to render language as transparent. So a thematic of encounter with fragmentation could be said to characterize my writing. Moreover, a release from singular identity is crucial to my perceptions in language: the writing is not the same thing as a person standing in a biological and social place. That’s why what I sometimes think of as dramatic polylogs are a recurrent pronominal and experiential part of my writing – they come quite naturally as I lift away from social me to write in the linguistic transhuman. Plus “polylogs” sound like little frogs, which is rather nice.

    Still, I’ve changed from writing exclusively “lyric” poetry books – if we can define “lyric” loosely, as relatively short poem-events – to also writing longer and different kinds of works. For example booklength poems like Tomorrowland and Gender City, with their recurrent personae and sustained focus on, respectively, transcultural transmigrations and embodied urban creation trauma. And prose works like Tender Girl and the manuscript I’m sometimes fiddling with these days, The Long White Cloud of Unknowing.

    I think you are asking only about so-called creative books, but I also write speculative talks and essays about particular authors and about how we read and what representation and genre and critical practice is and can be. For example I’m working right now on two talks for upcoming conferences, thinking about concepts I call “withness” and “recurrence.”

  • What advice would you offer to young poets starting out, or – for that matter – older people trying to enter (or re-enter) the world of poetry?

  • This question takes me back to the ethics of self-naming. The possibilities of poetry are completely open, which may be one of the things that makes some people uncertain about how to approach such an infinity of potential – and which I suppose is why you ask this question.

    Bearing that openness in mind, I’d give three pieces of advice. First, learn the infinity of poetry’s potential. Learn everything you can about as much as possible in anything called poetry: approaches, times, authors, styles, topics, sounds, open and strict procedures, techne like books sound paper and canvas, typefaces, inks and printing, new media ventures and forms, oral performance techniques and histories, rhythms, syntaxes, names of linguistic and grammatical parts, past and present poetic “movements” that draw together manifestos and visions, magazines that present intense editorial judgments and drives, canons and repressed works (i.e. celebrated and relatively unknown poetry), topical obsessions (history, ecology, sexuality, race, nationalism, magic, identity, the nature of thinking and imagining) and how they are approached in different times and places, styles of representation and how they mingle and swerve into and out from simplicity to complexity and back, and the permissions for, arguments about, and experiments in what is called poetry.

    Second, write poetry in different styles so you can expand your poetic skills. Be patient with yourself as you write in different ways. Each distinct style can be as challenging as learning to write in a heretofore foreign language. Accept that difficulty and presume it’s part of expanding your abilities – don’t stop too soon because you want things to be comfortable in your use of language.

    Third, after – and while – you work these first two registers of learning and expansion, do exactly what you want. Write freely as often as you can. Understand that composition needs to be unfettered in order for you to produce charged and committed writing. Anything charged and committed can be shaped once you get to the revision stage of your poetry (if you turn out to be interested in revising, which not everyone is). This third self-permission will help you bring into focus what poetry can be for you, in your languages and communities. And overall this third piece of advice is the one I would give most emphatically, since poetry should be free. That freedom and openness are what draw so many people to want to write poetry, which is why it’s so plentiful and so everywhere.


Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 1 [Issue #49] (2014): 42-50.
[also available at:]

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Poetry NZ Yearbook 1 (2014)

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