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Posted: Thursday May 7, 2015
In Conversation with Sandra Huber and Garry Thomas Morse

Sandra Huber’s most recent book of poetry, Assembling the Morrow (2014), explores the poetics of sleep.

Garry Thomas Morse’s forthcoming collection of poetry, Prairie Harbour, will be published this fall by Talonbooks. Minor Expectations, the third book in The Chaos! Quincunx series, a set of nodal, experimental novels, was published by Talon in 2014.

In today’s Meta-Talon installment, Huber and Morse discuss their recent works, intertexts, and writing processes, touching on dreams, metonymy, “sleeping through history,” Ada Lovelace, Guy Maddin, and film, among other delights . . .


GTM: I should preface by saying that we first met (properly) in one of Daphne Marlatt’s Creative Writing workshops at Simon Fraser University, in 2003, I believe. I recall that fondly as a pivotal time in my writing life when I met you and Daphne and also began to channel my lyrical tendencies into the prose poem and fiction. You and I were part of a smaller writing group in Vancouver a bit later on, and you shared with us Lyn Hejinian’s splendid essay “Strangeness” [in her book of essays, The Language of Inquiry]. Ten or so years later, my literary projects tend to betray the influence that essay had on my subconscious processes, but I digress . . .

In “Strangeness,” Hejinian refers to a Roman Jakobson term, “association by contiguity,” when speaking about describing a world of objects through the metonym, rather than the metaphor:

Metonymy moves attention from thing to thing; its principle is combination rather than selection. Compared to metaphor, which depends on code, metonymy preserves context, foregrounds interrelationship. And again in comparison to metaphor, which is based on similarity and in which meanings are conserved and transferred from one thing to something said to be like it, the metonymic world is unstable. (quoted in The Language of Inquiry by Lyn Hejinian)

I am interested in Hejinian’s findings for description of aspects of brainy operations in general, but in terms of your book, what place does metonym have in your poetics of sleep, or for that matter, in the act of describing a sleepy/sleeping brain?

SH: First of all, I remember bringing “Strangeness” to our group and I actually have that essay entirely pulled out of Hejinian’s The Language of Inquiry to better carry it around with me (obsessive, yes), so I love this question. I vaguely remember us calling ourselves the Tiny Hermiones & Old Dirty Bastard . . .?

In “Strangeness,” I think part of what Hejinian is talking about is the need we have to find a language of dreams, and she brings in metonymy. With Assembling the Morrow, I set out to locate a language of sleep, a lot of which occurs without dreams, and I wanted to drop out of the major literary devices, out of metaphor mainly, but also out of metonymy, and drop into a kind of illegibility. This is almost impossible, but you’ve noted how Jakobson brings up contiguity, and if you follow this to its end, you come to a proximity so woven there are no ruptures, no “objects,” just a continuous line. This applies to sleep, which is less a jumping from thing to thing than a process of having no thing, a parataxis where it’s not the connecting grammar that is missing, but only the connecting grammar that is left. The language of neural oscillations lives here, because it has had the task, at least since the 1930s, of bringing sleep to a sense-able sphere, to a graph actually, but it’s a graph that’s not entirely legible, at least not yet. Nobody really knows why we sleep and no one can really read this writing it’s brought back in. This not knowing is maybe the proximity that addresses sleep’s privacy.

In Minor Expectations there’s another kind of sleep that I wanted to address. Diminuenda Minor says at the end that “some stuffed shirt of a prude shall conclude that I slept my way through history” – and this offers a handy move from how I’m talking about sleeping in AtM toward how Harryette Mullen might be in Sleeping with the Dictionary. You, Old Dirty Bastard, are very playfully bringing your reader back through history in a time machine of popular literature, and there is more than an obvious frisson to the promiscuity of jumping from one genre to another. In terms of literary history, could you talk a bit about why you chose to have your female protagonist sleep her way through it? (And: can I suggest “Good Frond” as the name of any future poetry groups?)

GTM: Fortunately, I have a wonderfully retentive memory for such folderol! The Tiny Hermiones naming convention was a three to one vote I lost and then ran off into the night, howling (if only it had been the Emma Watsons!) and your memory is politically correcting a bottle of Fat Bastard we shared at Bin 941 on Davie Street after a Roy Miki class. That was actually our first Fellini-esque meeting of any consequence and you were dressed like a sailor and we toasted the night away to some character we had invented called “rheumy old bastard.” Roy had said something about being able to “dream awake,” so doubtless he’s to blame. Then we sat down at English Bay in our fancy dress and greeted the dawn beside a beached whale who glared at us accusingly, and then we saw a glimmer of what life might have been, had we only been able to get up.

Regarding Minor Expectations, I think you’ve got something there with the promiscuity of jumping from one genre to another. You spoke of dropping into a kind of illegibility. In this case, it’s more a sense of illegitimacy I’m getting at, thinking of how we view history. So from the start, William the Conqueror (a.k.a. William the Bastard) is historically connected to Alfred J. Bastard, my nasty literary critic character from Rogue Cells who writes the preface for MinorEx. Often, I find that there’s a moral imperative that is projected backward through particular events in history, and this can be found in many contemporary historical novels. In this case, the textual fabric and immorality of the Chaos! Quincunx series is cast back through “spots of time,” as Wordsworth called them. I tend to think of it as a Menippean satire, a novel that contains prose and verse, something along the lines of the Satyricon by Petronius, not satire of particular individuals but more our contemporary mode of being, as if our contemporary contact with history would cheapen it somehow. Countless ethnographers will also point out that it is very much in the Kwakwaka’wakw style of storytelling to combine a derogatory ribald style with a noble heroic style. In other words, Petronius!

As for “sleeping through history,” I feel obliged to fall back on James Joyce’s “history is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” However, the entire series inevitably leans towards erotic scenarios (albeit often linguistically complex ones). This is partly a comment on the recent mainstream popularity of diluted forms of this genre, but also the way in which we are inundated by stimuli that redirect our senses toward commercial ends. That is nothing new but technology has inexorably firmed up this hard-wired hardcore connection. As for Diminuenda, she inherits something from the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette, who, unlike the victimized Justine, wields the whip hand where empowerment through sexuality is concerned. I’m not really a theorist though, and Simone de Beauvoir certainly wrote better on Sade’s themes than I can.

Talking of Joyce, there are times when reading AtM reminds me a bit of reading the slightly hungover sleepy narrative in the “Eumaeus” chapter in his Ulysses. I must add here that you’ve given me much ballast for my personal odyssey by sending me Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea and Hans Henny Jahnn’s The Ship. The fact that I am working with reportage from an historical sea voyage is yet another digression, but in “Strangeness,” Hejinian indicates that “dreams present reportage problems not unlike the reportage problems that are an issue in explorers’ journals (Captain Cook’s, for example).” So, do memories and descriptions of dreams communicate the essence of dreams, or do they have their own (asemic?) vocabulary? I’d be interested in anything you can tell me about dream reportage, either generally, or in relation to AtM.

SH: Ol’ Rheumy! Soon this “interview” will have the danger of falling into reminiscing about derogatory wines and Roy Miki (everybody should take a Roy Miki class) and you’ve just reminded me how we’ve always managed to have this special friend/colleagueship where it’s never really about you or me but about writing and being involved in writing and sacrificing some of the other stuff for it.

About dreams, I have to say (and I wish I were saying this over a bottle of Fat Bastard rather than typing it out from a plane’s wobbly tray table where the woman next to me looks like she may swat me with her stowed purse if my elbow bumps her tomato juice again) that when I went to the sleep lab, I found that the most fascinating thing about sleep was dreams. But after nine months spent at the sleep lab, I found that the least fascinating thing about sleep was dreams. What began to hold me much more was this loss or lacunae that occurs in sleep and how science has made from that an object, in the form of oscillations, that we can look upon. It’s somehow like a relic brought back from the deepest parts of a sea or like one of those birdgifts that I read about in an article lately where there’s this little girl who keeps getting weird little items delivered to her by crows. Or it’s like an amulet.

Hejinian has this wonderful line in “Strangeness” where she says, “the very writing down of a dream seems to constitute the act of discovering it (one ‘remembers’ more and more as one writes until one wonders if it’s the writing itself that ‘dreams’).” But the actual language that appears in the long poem / oscillations in AtM is not taken from my dreams (and maybe this is the confusing thing), but comes from a poem I wrote a long time ago that I used in my application to Artists-in-Labs for the residency in Lausanne. This poem changed a lot when I spliced it for the lines of the oscillations that you see in the book, but I still wanted the ghost of the “original” to appear somehow. So then maybe you could say, in relation to dreaming, that it’s the dreaming of the old poem that composes the new.

Your above response reminded me of the Benedetto Croce line wherein he says, “All history is contemporary.” History always seems to be more about the present than the past. The one thing that remains with Diminuenda through her adventures through history is her amulet, this kind of constant present. I think I’m so fascinated by it because in AtM I’m also working with how the behaviour or process of sleep becomes encapsulated in neural oscillations or brainwaves, and I’m wondering how something like an amulet is like those brainwaves, a thing that is not a thing, but has a kind of magical (especially in the case of the amulet) sheen. How does the never-ending contemporary moment allow itself to be held? This is less a direct question and more a kind of knot I’m trying to un-knot.

Plus, in the less-oblique-questions department, is there any hope of a reprise for Diminuenda’s adventures? I’m living in Berlin at the moment and I can’t help imagining how much fun she would have romping around in a Christopher Isherwood novel, par example.

GTM: You’re probably thinking of The Berlin Stories, and if so, then yes, there is fun to be had there, for a while anyway!

While you’ve been challenging language to get more inside the thingness of sleep, I’ve been working on a phantom sixth part to The Chaos! Quincunx series that has a few conceptual constraints, although I’m always bound to break any set of rules (that’s the point of having them, surely). So it began with a sort of template based on the varied form of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy before those metrics began to evolve. There’s a technique in TC!Q that is used very lightly, say where scenes and the style of language from Henry James’s The Golden Bowl are set in the strange dystopia known as Carbon Harbour, or in MinorEx where letters derived from Ada Lovelace’s letters, based on a hypothetical laudanum or opium trip, take a turn toward a Frankenstein kind of narrative. This technique is used more intensively in the cat’s cradle or stretch of Morsemblage I tentatively refer to as my Fugue, presenting reworkings of scenes from literary classics as often as from films.

This was off the record, but you had asked me some months ago what there was in Winnipeg besides Guy Maddin. The answer happens to be filmmaker John Paizs, a forerunner associated with the Winnipeg Film Group. I owe a great debt to Jonathan Ball for writing a highly entertaining book that came out in 2014 called John Paizs’s Crimewave, partly for introducing me to Paizs’s quirky and innovative films, but also for giving me some of the tools to communicate aspects of my own aesthetic approach. Paizs’s film, “Crimewave,” features tribute artists whose acts of imitation have the potential to replace the original artists, although these possibilities are limited by the frustrated and unstable screenwriter, who can only write beginnings and endings. I understand that Paizs has veered away from the critical term “pastiche,” although that may be because it has picked up negative connotations, as if describing the mess of Antonioni’s painter. Even in Italian, it has come to mean a figurative mess, although for Vivaldi, a pasticcio was an opera including not just his work but also that of other composers, with their styles and tunes meticulously reworked to cohere to the whole of Vivaldi’s vision. So in a sense, a pastiche used to be more indicative of something made by a tribute artist.

All of this to say that my own approach is not quite parody or satire because of the element of homage in it, and that it expresses my ardent belief that rewrites are a way of making something new. This is a vital aspect of a number of my books, include Minor Expectations, but nowhere so much as in my wretched madcap pastiche of a Fugue.

Talking of films, in my favourite section of AtM, entitled “Non-REM 3 and 4 Sleep,” you speak of a shift from black and white to colour and also describe scenes involving Monica Vitti’s character Giuliana from Antonioni’s “Deserto rosso.” Recently, I’ve been watching movies by Antonioni and by Andrei Tarkovsky, and it is interesting that in an interview with Maria Chugunova, Tarkovsky suggests that the use of colour in “Deserto Rosso” got Antonioni “high on pictorial aesthetics” although in “Nostalghia,” a film that characteristically flits between black and white and colour, Tarkovsky does make use of that same formula you reference in Antonioni’s film, the 1 + 1 = 1 equation with the two drops of water forming one drop. In “Nostalghia,” the Russian poet character suggests to his Italian translator that it would only be possible to understand one another if the frontiers of states were destroyed, and I think of this when you speak of “the seamlessness of any unified field” being debunked and opening. I see that beautiful pollution, that island of memory in the sea of Tarkovsky’s film “Solaris” when you speak of “ever-present islands of sleep in the wake and wake in the sleep.”

Cinematic imagery aside, I am indeed fascinated by Marcos Gabriel Frank’s hypothesis that populations of our neurons exhibit ‘microsleep’ while we are awake (possibly even more than when we are asleep?). Mainly though, I would like to know a bit more about what you were attempting to communicate in this section of AtM.

SH: First of all, for all Winnipegians out there, I was not suggesting that I think there is nothing in Winnipeg besides Guy Maddin, but more along the lines of: Guy Maddin is amazing. And John Paizs, yes. And I shall spend the rest of my life in Winnipeg.

The section about deep sleep was my favourite section of AtM to write, mostly because it’s such a rich territory – this state in sleep that we bring nothing back into the waking world from in terms of “memory” or recall. I really got into Giulio Tononi’s integrated information theory, where he teams up with the consciousness-as-information camp and suggests that even a photodiode could be seen as having the minimal amount of consciousness. This to me is panpsychism, and it goes back to Spinoza (who I didn’t get into in AtM, but who is def bookmarked for another project) and it goes back to William James. This is the type of consciousness that I imagined deep sleep aligning with, and it’s the consciousness that can be seen blooming up in technology, it’s the state that makes us re-evaluate what we think consciousness is at all. Consciousness-as-information as opposed to consciousness-as-thinking is an uncomfortable theory and Monica Vitti in “Deserto rosso” played this discomfort perfectly awkwardly – her performance was criticized at the time as not being very good, but I think it couldn’t have been better. When you start tackling the subject of sleep, you have to start thinking about “consciousness” differently, and the state of very deep sleep offers a space to open up this already undefined noun into spaces you wouldn’t normally think it could exist in. Monica Vitti’s jittery, almost alien(ated) Giuliana sent chills up my spine when I saw that film.

You brought up Ada Lovelace, and I think both of us are dying to discuss her. She’s really the Connecting Engine between our works. Your Lovelace letters in MinorEx are hilarious and so on the nose. Some of my favourites: “My Dear Frond” and “Mr. Babbage was fumbling about behind the scenes of The Rake Punished” and “Secondly – my unparalleled reasoning faculties” (as stand-alone sentence), and of course “yours affectly” (and I giggle nerdily to myself while writing these).

Your stress on how Lovelace was not shy to self-praise reminds me of Gertrude Stein who was also a self-proclaimed genius, and there is a kind of bravado in these two women who were immersed in very male-dominated traditions that comes off as both hilarious and, in Lovelace’s case, somewhat poignant and then, given their legacies, actually pretty true if “genius” is even a thing anymore. It’s almost like they existed simultaneously in their present worlds and in a future world where they could look back at what they’d set out for the rest of us.

This concept of being in two places at once is in a way what “microsleep” is about, but instead of present and future, it suggests that the brain is both awake and asleep at the same time. Individual cortical columns (thus “micro”) are seen to go into ‘downstates’ when one is awake, and this baffles theories that would propose that the function sleep is to restore the brain/body; in fact, your brain is restoring itself in pockets while you’re engaged in your waking life, and the same thing can be seen when you’re sleeping – individual neuronal assemblies will go into waking mode (think: sleepwalking). States of the brain and mind are less dichotomous than previously supposed, and there is really a yin-yang quality to being that is cropping up more and more in contemporary neuroscience. Combining words, which are always awake, with traces of sleep, was my way of entering this space that is neither one or the other. Maybe this is like a living, organic pastiche we are always engaged in.

In your sense of operatic pasticcio, which you define as a kind of tribute to voices that had been there before, what inspired you to bring the Lovelace letters (which, arguably, were not set out to be written as “literature”) into the mix of card-carrying literary genres? I’m curious what it was about Ada Lovelace that sparked you, besides the fact that she actually goes remarkably well with bodice rippers in the way Jane Austen novels lend themselves to zombie apocalypse . . .

GTM: My interest in these Byrons would have begun in high school. First, I was interested in the life of Lord Byron and I suppose I was under some kind of delusion that I was also a poet, and for that, I was sent to the school psychologist. Then I had phases involving very little sleep during which I taught myself a number of programming languages and put together some primitive game applications, while somehow zombie-ing my way through classes that seemed awfully uninteresting to me. It was not long before I found myself skyving (geek of geeks that I was) to read about the history of computing and Alan Turing and also Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace, who seemed to embody these varied interests of mine.

When it came to writing MinorEx, I wanted something to stand in for the nineteenth century that would be a nod at the epistolary novel form. The fact that Lovelace’s doctor would prescribe a healthy dose of laudanum, opium, and claret in combination gave me some leeway in having her refer to the protagonist of my novel as the Enchantress of Number, the provocatively dressed “Fairy” who coaxes her ideas along. Perhaps that makes Ada Lovelace the “Bottom” of the book, if Diminuenda is only a hallucination or dream or vision in those neuronal assemblies of hers, whether awake or asleep . . .

I did start with mostly a pastiche of actual quotations from Lovelace, stitched together to create imaginary letters to a secret admirer called Frond. The result is indeed rather Maddinesque, as the gothic novel form emerges out of Lovelace’s letters, in a way bringing her closer to her father and his friend Mary Shelley, writer of The Modern Prometheus! The main struggle for me, and the most difficult part of the entire book to write, was the undated letter of 1843 in which I had to explain her most important contribution to science without losing the naturalism of her own voice. To generalize, I mean her imaginative foresight (or present-sight) to see the application of Babbage’s mathematical engine for analytical use. Anyway, she was to formalize what has become so familiar to us since the late twentieth century: the concept of feeding the engine instructions (data) that undergo operations in columns (memory). In other words, a model of what was to become the computer. Her famous and elegant description is paraphrased in that letter:

We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.

I’ve read a number of different sources on the matter (including yours!) and honestly, it’s a murky business trying to figure out where Luigi Federico Menabrea’s Italian paper on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine begins and where Ada Lovelace’s translation of it ends. However, her ability to parse the mathematics and communicate the ideas in that paper, along with funding and promoting Babbage’s work like a boss, make her a unique figure in the history of computing. Clearly, in my novel, I gave part of the credit to Diminuenda, who is quite clever but she is also getting her information by frequently popping an NGF (Neuron Growth Factorizer) to learn her history lessons in a hurry. I feel closer to the real Ada Lovelace though (whoever that is by now), more so than to Diminuenda. Madame Lovelace, c’est moi!

This section of MinorEx also provided a helpful thread, just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves! Roughly one hundred years later, Alan Turing would be working on machines based on such theories to decode German ciphers. In MinorEx, the subsequent WWII chapter is written in such a way as to present something like a symbolic language. These scenes are simple enough on the surface but they perhaps need to be decoded by the reader and they are subject to Turing’s theory of contradictions that was essential to his code-breaking. Or as my characters like to say in that chapter, “the contradiction is where the cock-up comes from.”

Now, we’ve only scratched the surface of AtM, but perhaps we could close with you talking a little bit about the long poem that you have sculpted onto the neural oscillations of sleep. Your book includes foldouts of your visual poetry artifacts and then oscillations of type that read like sound poetry. Fancy! Would you be so good as to talk about your methodology in creating/tracking what appear to be different stages of sleep?

SH: I think “Madame Lovelace, c’est moi” may be the title of our upcoming literary/science/media salon that we’re going to be hosting bi-yearly between Montreal and Winnipeg. (Any joiners?) The Tiny Monica Vittis can be an offshoot that sits in the back of the room wearing tweed and leather while writing apostrophes to a variety of unmeltable ice cream cones (cue video clip of “Modesty Blaise”).

I’ve always wondered when you’ll combine a work that bridges your alternate lives as programmer/computer nerd and poet, and let me tell you I will be the first one to grab it off the press. When??

Regarding “Desert rosso”, I got a totally different meaning from it than the industrial dystopia theme. For me, Giuliana was part of that industry itself, she was part of that technology, and she was stuttering through a world that put up dichotomies between self and machine, barriers that no longer worked anymore. Antonioni refuted claims that the film was about environmental destruction and alienation from the environment – rather he posited that it was more about a kind of evolution or fusion of the human into technology itself; something like that. Needless to say, critics and viewers take issue with this, but I actually think it’s the more interesting reading, than say just positing that there’s a war between industry and environment being played out in the film and we’re on the environment’s side with Giuliana. That’s not it at all. Giuliana feels her boundaries dissolving. I connected with this instantly because it’s reflective of my views on consciousness, that dichotomies like organic and inorganic just don’t work anymore, that technology is part of the environment and long a part of the human body. This could be taken in a lot of scary directions of course, and that’s when morality has to come in, but with this work on sleep, for me it was really about finding this particular kind of consciousness that exists separate from “thinking,” and there’s a place in very deep sleep where we’re not only put on par with each other but with plants, for example, or technology for another example, or language or writing itself. Suddenly everything comes alive in the way that sleep is alive.

In terms of writing the brainwaves, this is best shown in the screenshot of SleepWriter that appears at the end of the book. Basically I worked with a programmer, Manolis Pahlke, to make an app where we could vectorize the EEG registrations and make these vectors writeable. As I said, I used cut-ups of the original Assembling the Morrow poem and manually fed lines along the “lines” of the brainwaves. I had different constraints for each different stage of sleep; for example, in REM sleep I’m using more pronouns, in non-REM 1 sleep there are a lot of gerunds happening, and in very deep sleep there is more of a passive sentence structure – that’s being reductive, but you get the gist. I had a pretty detailed system that would take a while to get into, but I think if you take a look at the transcriptions in the section “The Line” differences will start to pop out at you about how the stages of sleep are written, and within them how different grapho-elements of the EEG such as neuronal silence and sleep spindles are being written.

I really liked your illegibility/illegitimacy comparison and I sort of wanted to come back to that, as an ode to Ada Lovelace or Fat Bastard. I think that what both of us are dealing with, or even a lot of poets taking the more experimental route are dealing with, is getting to a point where reading shifts into something that is behind reading. I had teachers who taught me early on that this illegibility shouldn’t be intimidating or terrifying. It’s a kind of opening. I wanted to put it in the book, but there wasn’t room and I kept circling around it anyways, but there’s this line from Merleau-Ponty in The Visible and Invisible paraphrasing Valéry, which says, “language is everything, since it is the voice of no one, since it is the very voice of the things, the waves, and the forests.”