Northern Poetry Review: Archived

Interview: Lisa Robertson (2012)

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Lisa Robertson just LisaRobertsonpublished a new book of essays, Nilling, with Bookthug. Her most recent books of poetry are R’s Boat,  (University of California Press) and Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip, (Coach House), which was selected by the New York Times as one of the top 100 books of 2010. She lives in France, and supports herself as a freelance teacher, lecturer and arts essayist.

Lisa was interviewed by Carmelo Militano in July, 2012.

Your chapbook ‘On Physical Real Beginning and What Happens Next’ casts a wide net.  It begins with notions of measuring time (How to measure time? Where to begin to measure time? Stop? Who says so?), the connections between love and desire and political speech-making (as opposed to love-making) which ‘lusts for public light by engorged rivers by populated foliage…’ and the Epicurean idea of the greatest good in contrast to Marx’s idea of the greatest good, in other words, pleasure vs materialism, and the mystery of Lucretius himself. Now my question: Is the poem an attempt to show how all these activities (including the mystery of Lucretius’ biography) and feelings are not separate but in fact shape and influence understanding and maybe even our political behavior.

All these activities together are the sensational season we call Spring. That’s when it all begins — Printemps d’érable, Printemps Arabe, Mai ’68, the return of growth and desire. Where there is no desire there can’t be politics either. Time is the only medium for having a body, extending a voice, acting towards others. Lucretius, who was an Epicurean, begins his poem On the Nature of Things with an invocation of Venus as Spring. Spring is an opening in time. He needs her to calm down the political situation so he can have the peace to write. Maybe now we need to heat up the political situation so we can write. The festival of desire can erupt anywhere. Marx, who was also an Epicurean, said in his dissertation on the atomist philosophers “Since according to Epicurus time is change as change, the reflection of appearance in itself, the nature of appearance is justly posited as objective, sensation is made the real criterion of concrete nature. . .” I love that statement: sensation is made the real criterion of concrete nature. That’s a good definition of both desire and politics.

Your chapbook, perhaps all written and published poems by their mere presence, challenges and pushes at boundaries of what we call poetry and how poets write poetry. I am thinking, for example, how your chapbook ends. It pretty much reads like a small essay on what we know about the life of Lucretius except for the way the line and paragraph breaks work. Can you comment on how you see your poetry working in this instance?

I am compelled towards boundaries, not away from them. I don’t feel much of a difference between poems and essays. The marrying of the two began with Montaigne; when I first read him, maybe in the mid-nineties (I come late to everything!) whatever residual institutional walls that might have persisted between genres just imploded. Then Adorno’s essay called The Essay as Form confirmed my implosion-sensation. He says “For the essay perceives that the longing for strict definitions has long offered, through fixating manipulations of the meanings of concepts, to eliminate the irritating and dangerous elements of things that live within concepts” For me the poem as essay and the essay as poem are liberators of these irritating and dangerous elements. I want to get at these “things that live within concepts.”

I like or am very much attracted to the idea expressed in your poem of thinking as a kind of sensuous activity. Can we see this notion as part of what the poem is trying to express?

Yes, all thought is sensual. I think this is what the poem is living, rather than expressing. Has there ever been a bodiless thought? Why else would we fear death?

Wallace Stevens writes — I am paraphrasing — that good poetry is often almost comprehensible. In other words, poetry is often suggestive and evocative in the way it creates meaning. Would you say that is part of your poetic aesthetic in this chapbook? How would you describe your poetic aesthetic?

I just try to make a poem that can think its own thoughts. Which is to say that the poem’s language sets relationships in sensual movement, and this movement can’t be arrested by an interpretation. Any reading, any interpretation, adds its particular life or grain to the movement. There’s a shimmer, a surge, a twist, as words, images, sounds, greet one another and transform. My own experience is not prior to this motion. I want the poem to be a creator of experience rather than a record.

Author: Alex Boyd

Alex Boyd is the author of two books of poems: Making Bones Walk and The Least Important Man. He also writes essays, reviews and fiction. His first novel, Army of the Brave and Accidental (a modern retelling of The Odyssey) was published in 2018.

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