Nicole Brossard: The Idea of a Landscape (Interview)

After a bit of digging, I discovered more material that I didn’t use in the interview with Nicole Brossard that I published in dANDelion and re-published here. So, here are the “DVD extras” from the previously posted interview, published here for the first time.

The first paragraph here was published in the original interview as part of a response to the last question. In retrospect, it works better to open a new interview and the last one is better ended where I’ve ended it now. In other words, the interview opens with Brossard’s comments, and my questions are boldfaced.

The Idea of a Landscape (Going Further with Nicole Brossard)

This interview was conducted in English, on Sept. 25, 2007, in person at the Hampton Inn, Calgary.

In Mauve Desert there is a translator, in Baroque at Dawn I created a narrator coming to lunch a new book in translation in Montréal, so I could become a stranger in my own city through that character.

In my most recent novel, La capture du sombre, which came out in September 2007, a woman decides to write a novel in another tongue than her own, so that she might feel in a different way and think of something totally unknown to her while writing the novel. This novel does not deal specifically with translation but it says a lot about my obsession with reading and writing as if we were foreigners at the heart of a reality difficult to understand without having to feel its strangeness as our own strangeness.

Through “translation” of our foreignness we constantly deploy and renew ourselves. I guess my future works in prose will always be in relation to the question of identity in language with the vast background of memory, civilization and desire that comes along with it. I know a little bit of Spanish, and I find it exciting to have access to a new language because it opens the door so one can discover or dream about the culture beyond that door.

For sure, falling for another language stimulates the imagination and the openness to difference. So, yes I can say that my fascination for translation and for being someone else in another language, has been there or been shaped mostly around the early 1980s. Especially if I think that I started writing Mauve Desert in 1983-84. Before there had been other experiences with a text titled L’Aviva and with two chapbooks with Daphne Marlatt.

What about writing changed for you when you began to be translated?

Well, firstly — with English especially — if we think of feminism, I think translation brought me material, through reading and meeting women writers in Canada or the United States. I think that has always been very important. Also, it’s also important if once in a while I am away long enough that I speak a lot in English, and there might be a contamination of my language in a positive way.

For example, I am exposed more to narrative in English poems and things like that. So that interests me very much and I learn from that. Even when I was at Sage Hill recently as an instructor, it was very exciting to see a range of different writers and to see writers who are close to the tradition and those who are renewing and scattering that tradition. It’s always interesting to see that range of approach in another language.

Last year [2006] I was writer-in-residence at the University of Montréal, and the writer-in-residence has to organize a one-day conference on a subject. The subject that I picked was the long poem, because I had noticed that in English there’s a lot of long poems, the long poem is major material, and in French since Mallarmé we write short poems most of the time — very abstract and existential and very few of them are narrative. So we had a lecture on that, and I would like to turn it into a book, because I noticed with the long poem that writers writing in English have gotten rid of the “I” of subjectivity but in French it’s the contrary, it is with the long poem that we bring back this subjectivity.

Is it an interesting thing for you to talk to Robert Kroetsch? [The event surrounding this interview involved a panel with Brossard and Kroetsch.] Because he’s of course the one in English Canada, at least on the prairies, who is most responsible for jettisoning that “I” in the long poem and really being an influence here.

Yes. I want to talk about prose and poetry because both of us write prose and poetry, but certainly this is a topic that we could discuss.

Now, when you say you think you’d work on a book concerning the long poem, do you mean writing long poems yourself, or a critical work?

No, we’ll put together some of the, not the lecture, but the papers, the proceedings. Because I think it’s interesting, because even the professors in French think that idea of the long poem is not with them. If you plug in that idea then suddenly you read Québec literature in a very different way. So I look forward to it and I might have a text also from someone writing in English, a critic.

In the English edition of Mauve Desert, Maude Laures translates the word “inventing” from the first text as “storytelling” and then “lying” in the latter text. Of course this is the English edition, and not necessarily the words you’ve chosen, but in what way is a translation an invention, or perhaps something that can also be considered a story, or species of lie?

It’s interesting, but in Mauve Desert or in general?

In general, or in the book if you prefer.

It’s a different posture, though of course because of the freedom I had, as the one writing the third part — I had to really push myself because it was laborious, it was a labour. It wasn’t the same thing as in the first part, when I was totally free to go wherever I wanted, because in the third part I was labouring with the material I had to translate.

An invention, story? I think the idea might be more relevant to that specific relation in Mauve Desert. I guess the translation can be an invention or a reinvention, but a lie? I don’t think it can be a lie unless it is transformance. But if it is a translation I don’t think it can be a lie, because definitely you have to recognize a universe, the universe of the writer.

You have to recognize something, and unless you are a very bad translator it does not become a lie. So maybe it that those two dimensions of storytelling and lying are more connected in this specific book, Mauve Desert, than in a general sense of translation. Certainly, if you want to go into it one way, if you want to absolutely prove that a translation is a lie — well go ahead, that might still be possible.

In what ways maybe a story? I think especially Mauve Desert tends to posit translation as the story of its own coming into being. And that is always the case in a certain sense, that a translation, in addition to being what it is, is in some respect also the story of coming into this other language. Is there a sense in which this book is also pointing to the story of its initial creation, reception, and re-creation?

It could, absolutely, it’s a matter of how the reader can locate those passages, those traces — but when we talk about Mauve Desert, it is the story of translation but it is also the story of reading, because the translator will reshape the language but nevertheless her first task is to read. And as a reader she will make mistakes. She will over-invest certain passages, she will go too fast on other passages, and so on.

So in that sense, it is the story of loving — falling in love with a book and then reinventing the book, in the sense that getting stimulated by the material she finds in the book, and getting stimulated enough that she would like that book to belong to her as a translator. I would say it is a love story with a book, and it is a love story about reading and what reading does to us, which is allows us to fly somehow in the language — in the imaginary, but as well in the language.

When I was reading the English edition of Installations there’s a line that reads “the text is an invitation” and certainly the text is an invitation to read, but is the text an invitation to translate? Is every reading a sort of translation?

Well, it would be an appropriation of the text. With the word appropriation then, we certainly have the word meaning. The appropriation of the universe, appropriation of the meaning that can be swallowed by our own individual singular imagination. In that sense, and this is what we keep doing all the time — that’s why also I was interested in translation, because we keep translating what people are telling us even in the same language, in our own mother tongue.

So we are always interpreting what is being told to us or spoken to us all the time. Of course, sometimes we follow the easy path, but most of the time our mind has to process what’s being told to us and translation is that process, which is redefining meaning, and of course rhythm if you talk about poetry. But in the case of my novel, I would also talk about rhythm. Especially in Mauve Desert, even if you read just the first page you see how important the sound is.

Is translation a radical act? Or can it be?

Oh, it certainly can be a radical act, absolutely. Of destroying, or of love. Of a kind of embracing absolutely.

And, well, it can be a neutral act as well. For most of the people working for big publishing houses, they are being given a novel and told, “You translate that in the next three months and you give me some results.” That’s one thing, but I have been lucky enough to have had translators who I believe liked my text and liked my obsession and my approach. Therefore, they have a very special relation to the text that they will be translating.

There is a stanza in “Apparition of Objects” that reads

the thousand and one possibilities of the toe, the foot
the ankle
images in the subway glued to each other
faces pressed against the whys

To me this recalls Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” especially considering the English title of this poem, but it almost seems to be the antithesis of Pound’s poem in many ways. Where Pound is highlighting the uniformity of the crowd, your poem seems more intimately concerned with the variant possibilities of the crowd as expressed through the individual and its parts. Are you consciously reacting against Pound in this poem, or against his aesthetics, or is this allusion something that has arisen naturally from the poem, or been introduced by the choices of words in the translation?

Well, it certainly has no intended relation to Pound’s poem. I would need to see the poem again. A lot of these poems were written while I was in New York. It did not occur to me to create any link to Pound, but certainly the image.

Well, it makes you laugh, when you see all the individual possibilities of life in each of the individuals. You get tired if you see it, but if you don’t see it then it makes of you a misanthrope, in a way. Because then it’s a bunch of flies. So you have to bring back for each face in the crowd the individuality. This is, I guess, what humanism has taught us. It’s not bad, because it’s so easy to become misanthropic.

Images connected with writing and words having to do with grammar recur as a motif in your poetry, and I’m wondering why it’s so important to you to draw attention to these things. Is that constant attention to language as a living and material force influenced or motivated by your personal politics?

I think it is motivated by a fascination for language. I like to bring back words that will refer to language. Some people might be excited by the word “roses” or “dandelion” or different flowers, but if there is a word referring to language it excites me.

It opens doors. Sometimes I will not enter that door, but nevertheless it creates a landscape of images in which I feel good and I feel responsible. I feel ludic. It gives me energy, and with that energy I hope to be able to create another landscape, or the proposition of another landscape – it’s not necessary to create another landscape, just the proposition, the idea.

What we realize is important, but the material we transform in realizing what life is all about is also as important as what we realize.

At this point in your career you’ve amassed a substantial body of work, which is known for being diverse and for having experimental qualities. To what extent do you see yourself engaged in developing a body of work like that, or when you begin a new project are you just thinking about that project and not so much how it will add to or complement your previous work?

Usually I am interested in the new project, but I can see now with time the coherence. I can see the recurring obsessions, the recurring questions, and I can see also the curves that I’ve taken. For example, if the text goes too slowly for me, if the sentence is too slow and hasn’t enough tension in it, then I will soon try to put a new tension in the sentence. Because I get bored and I don’t like the text to be too slow. Sometimes your whole line needs that slowness though, sometimes you want to oppose speed.

I wrote a long time ago that I write to understand, by which I mean I write to understand process. I’m a poet, but I have a fascination for science, for exactitude, or at least for understanding process.  At the same time, I make space for the singular. For the I. And I make space for whatever at that moment in my life seems to be important. If it is not, then it will fade out by itself. If it is not pertinent it will fade out, but nevertheless I will have given it a try.

Why is that kind of that experiment, that constant experimentation, important to you?

I don’t think you can rely only on yourself, on your experience or your own personal vocabulary. I think that if you go digging in the language it will bring you material. Not only to express, but material to think, to feel, to renew you.

Yesterday, I read three short poems in French [at the reading the previous day]. I gave myself the constraint to write a poem where all the words in that poem would start with the same letter, A or B or C [etc.]. Sometimes I cheat a little bit, but mot of the time I respect the constraint. That was a very interesting experience because I could see how much we deprive ourselves if we don’t go and dig into that huge immensity of language.

Usually very often poets think, “Oh I know enough, I have my own images, I have my own words, my own vocabulary. I can write a poem.” Yes, you can, but nevertheless the reservoir/pool of language — you have to go in. It’s there, it’s there, just look and see what you can do with it. In those poems I wanted not to make it just a frozen object or only a performative object, I wanted also to infiltrate some “Je” [“I”] but very few of them.

You mentioned earlier longer poems, and I’m wondering how you work differently when you work in a longer form like that as opposed to a book where the poems are very short?

Well, again, if I can talk about the last book that came out in French, there is the first part which is “after words” in the sense of what happens when there are no more words to express, to talk. If there’s only images. For example, you can think of the society we live in or you can think of someone losing memory — if the words are not there, what effect does it have?

So I wrote a long poem and in the long poem it calls, in my case, for a certain lyricism and a refrain. So I think that I would tend to repeat a few words, but it’s interesting how at the same time I want to I do it and I refuse it. …

Lyricism is the word accompanying the idea of long poems in French for me. I know that in English it can accommodate so many things: commentary, documents, anything. The long poem, you put anything in the long poem!

At least in the prairies, we put everything in the long poem. But it seems to me to be much more narrative in English.

All the time in English. Even in the short poems, it’s narrative with two last lines. With a punch and everybody’s supposed to laugh.

How do you approach the novels differently then the poems? Are they similar in the sense of process?

No, because it’s about time. The novel, whether we want it or not, even if my writing is political, it’s about time.

It’s about a long process. Even though I try to keep the tension in each sentence, as I do in poetry, in a novel you cannot keep the tension all the time. And that is what I resist. And that is what I try to tame.

So in the novel time works for you, works against you, but it’s there all the time as opposed to poetry where you are always writing in the present tense. When you write poetry, even though you might take six months to write a poem, you are still in the present tense.

I am very much in my novels and that is why they are not real novels. In the traditional sense. I’ve always said that I write novels to negotiate with reality. If you look at my series of novels since A Book, you have these little squares where I pretend I am going to write, “So, once upon a time…” And they go on for one page. And then in French Kiss they come again! But this time they go on for five pages with the same idea, “Now look at this! This is like in a real novel.” And then you come up to Picture Theory, in the third chapter, which is called “The Ordinary.”

And then more and more until now. Prose has expanded, and the idea of narrative has expanded in my novels. And so maybe one day I will write a real novel, I just don’t know!

But it’s interesting. If you just look at them in terms of space: there’s one page, then three ,and then a whole chapter, and then you haveMauve Desert, which really looks like a real novel. So probably what is lost in the sentence, the tension that is lost in the sentence, is taken back in the structure of the novels.

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