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Kevin Spenst interviews Cecily Nicholson, whose first book is Triage.
Your first collection of poems, Triage, is certainly one luminescent explosion of a book. While reading it I found that it needed to be voiced out loud. I’m curious to know if you wrote it out loud? Reading and rereading lines? Do you consider the oral dimension of the book an act against the privileged status of the silent, written word on the page?
Cecily Nicholson: I often do read my work out loud but this happens at a particular point in the writing. It’s not something I do all the time. It’s the moment when I start to realize the form of the poem, the poem starts to form in a more solid way and the vocalization is part of the smoothing. I’m very attuned to rhythm. I’m definitely influenced by a relationship to music and have a long history of composing and participating in collaborative music. I don’t suppose my poetry is all that musical, but rhyme is critical to how I relate to the text. I don’t have a lot of experience reading poetry out loud in public. I only started doing that about three years ago with a great deal of anxiety, but in recent memory I’ve grown more comfortable with it having had the benefit of the good company of poet friends.
Part of the writing process is the public performance. There are a number of pieces in Triage that I read at various events or efforts. I hang out a lot at Rhizome café –that’s one of those places – and often, based on the experience of reading it to a group of people, the relationship to the audience and people’s feedback becomes part of the process as well as. Poetry seems to get realized in that moment in a particular way that becomes part of the editing but it’s relatively new to me and corresponds with the point in my life where I’ve became somebody who reads poetry out loud. I’ve written my whole life.
The second part of this question: I hadn’t thought about it as a privileged status of the silent written word, but it’s a good frame. When I think about the cultures that have influenced me – that is to say my people – who are multivariate and also my culture of influence on a regular basis currently – who I spend time with who is my community, etc – most of those and much of that is significantly based on oral culture. In the downtown eastside for example word of mouth is swift, efficient and common. Sharing stories, learning to speak, breaking silence these kinds of tropes are quite common. I’m definitely influenced by that as well as by the idea of what it means to make work accessible. So the written word is not necessarily accessible especially when we’re working with folks who may not be speaking English as a first language, who are dealing with literacy barriers and who are more likely to be present to listen to poetry than pick up a book and read it.
I recently had the pleasure of hearing you read at an evening entitled Poetry at the Barricades: La Commune 1871/2011. Triage pulls together all manner of corporate and industry jargon to problematize any easy acceptance of local and global events. What were some of the most important guides that took you through the editing of your “poetic barricades”?
Cecily Nicholson: The first thing I think of is the idea of responsibility to the topic. I feel very responsible to the topics that I take up. I feel that on a number of levels. One way is a kind of affinity, aspects of familiarity. In other ways it is the real effort of solidarity – not necessarily my experience but what is my responsibility to it – so no matter the framing of the sections or the pieces of poetry this is always present to me. Those principles are always present to me and that’s not just a matter of writing poetry it’s a general approach to life.
I’ve had a lot of great conversations and feedback from people leading up to these sections becoming a book and so in terms of others people’s work influencing my own… I would say in many ways those are guides. I’ve always looked with admiration to folks like Rita Wong and Dionne Brand who have a capacity to create really emotive and rhythmic and moving writing while incorporating the hard detail, fact and material grounding. I think that’s critical and it’s an art – the topics and subjects don’t always lend themselves to that. I could have a tendency to be withdrawn in my work and contemplative in my writing in ways that are not helpful so I’m concerned about a broader project. How does it relate to communities I struggle alongside, how does it move forward in concert with organizing efforts, towards movement building and the like.
There’s an intriguing repetition of language that occurs throughout Triage. From the opening poem, “Copper Mine”
business endeavours the main thing hit
like a tonne per operated hour operating
the main thing to keep the main thing the main thing
inexpensive it takes focus – a perfect shift
to a doubling of words throughout a number of poems. My sense was that words/phrases are repeated into something that sounds like the crush of heavy industry (or “double-bunked” to show the lose of freedom) but this strategy also forces us to hear words in a different, more critical, way. At the same time there are a number of poetic effects such as alliteration and assonance that sing throughout the book. While writing Triage did you ever find yourself moving too much towards the “choking of language” or conversely moving too much towards a “poetic aesthetic” ? How did you arrive at that beautiful balance?
Cecily Nicholson: It’s the first stanza in the book and it’s meaningful that way. It’s deliberate, but in particular that line “the main thing to keep the main thing the main thing” is almost a direct quote that I took from signage I observed while visiting an open pit copper mine in Arizona. There is this intense signage in areas for workers to see that was reiterating various mantras and direction around productivity, so they actually use that sentence –there was another verb in there “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”. I was floored by it and their inability to recognize themselves, what they were doing. The repetition of language for me is a very simple device and necessary, not in a deliberate attempt necessarily to force people to think about it more or in different ways – although that is tangentially an effect because that’s what happens with language when you repeat it, even our own names, it just becomes alien – but more out of necessity for what is being represented.
So “the crush of the heavy industry” as you describe, that’s part of what’s being mimicked there, part of what I’m being drawn to possibly but that crush is not one that I experience myself – indeed what I experience personally in my consumer life, my everyday benefits consistently and without consequence from industries of mining and extraction. My stance towards it is an extremely privileged one and I think more about what it means to grind as a laborer, what it means to contend with holes in your land and the primarily indigenous communities globally that have consistently and historically been displaced through these industries, and the ways in which its been normalized. It’s been normalized in the context of a rich country, it’s been normalized for those of us who don’t have to think about it – simultaneous that normality, I’m blown away by how disturbing normalcy is. So there is a function to repetition in some ways.
Thinking about alliteration and assonance… it’s funny, poetic devices or poetic effect –
never studied it never studied poetry in an objective way. I don’t think I’m all that fancy, when it comes to how I put language together. It’s actually in some ways quite juvenile in terms of those kinds of devices. I can remember learning alliteration and assonance a long time ago before university, but to me it is more an aspect of rhythm. There is a desire at the same time as I’m recognizing that grinding normalcy, that oppressive and marginalizing force of all our industry I’m also recognizing that it’s quite a rhythm. It’s quite a pattern – one that’s integrated in the flow of traffic even and I have a strange fascination possibly, so it’s problematic, but I enjoy the aesthetic of industry.
Part of that’s coming from a rural context where I was for many many years so when I came to the city for the first time, I was absolutely astounded by what people can do. This has also been my experience visiting mining operations, I can’t fucking believe what we can do as people and then, that that’s what we do. So yes there is a sense or desire to recognize that there is a beauty to the process if we could possibly separate it out from all those intense ethical and ecological issues, but we can’t. So it’s more about creating a tolerance I suppose in the effort of telling the story.
This juxtaposition the choking of language and the moving towards a poetic aesthetic – it’s an interesting either/or. The choking of language… I’m not sure what that means.
“The main thing to keep the main thing the main thing” We’re not moving forward in that line and it has the effect of draining the words of poetry in the traditional sense. You could write a book of poetry on that single line repeated again and again and say, “Look this is what the world is becoming,” This constant pounding of industry towards profit and people would look at that book as somewhat extreme. But you have more poetic play in your work which is interesting to follow.
Cecily Nicholson: The choking of language. There are points in the book where I’m drawing direct focus to the idea of choking. I employ it in the context of these artificial narratives about gagging. I’ve seen too much in my life of people who’ve lost or never had the ability to speak. And I have seen many examples of people who stand up and speak their mind in opposition to these horrible forces – the stuff of heroism and leadership, in a best case scenario – but for the most marginalized person the damage can be to health and loved ones and home. What could be deeper than that?
So it is critical to represent that in my writing. It’s not something I set out to do deliberately and possibly its more that that tension is in myself. I find myself – you know, talking about coming to the city and being overwhelmed by the process of industry that’s astounding to me – and also consistently overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of text in my life. What do I mean by that? I guess the healthy thing would be to block much of it out but I don’t seem to have good filters that way. Poetry is one of my ways of coping with the intensely overwhelming nature of text, mainly through corporate structure, so advertising obviously. I’m super sensitive and happy to observe the in between, text that occurs in the public eye that’s generated by people. Overall though to me the cacophony that overwhelmingness lends itself to a kind of choking and futility about what it means to utter anything.
Another powerful aspect of Triage was the surprising shifts taken through a multiplicity of voices: from Neil Young to street graffiti, from French and Spanish back to English on the street “everyone knew that hotel was a goner” and of course from the mission statements of governments and corporations to voices of resistance. In spite of all this, there’s no sense of any authorial claim to omniscience, no privileged ground. In fact, there’s the theme of partial knowledge that runs through the book. If partiality is a goal, how do you know when a poem is finished?
Cecily Nicholson: The manuscript is due. It is actually one of the things that’s been useful about working into the printed page to an actual published work. There’s a finality that comes to you as opposed to you coming to it and I struggle with that. I don’t suppose I’m the only one. I chronically edit or pull things apart and put them back together again ad nauseam to a limited productivity and am constantly extracting words from the text. I appreciate the observation that there’s a multiplicity of voices and to me it’s one of those elements of necessity – I don’t know how to tell a story personally – you know, it’s a particular stance round the fact that there is no authoritative voice, there is no one perspective or firm fact. I take cues from writers like Haraway who have understood that knowledge is necessarily situated. That it forms when we recognize our partiality together to create some holism around it. To me it’s not about writing per se as much as it is a broader goal and it’s humbling – what could I possibly represent or speak to wholly from my limited position.
How do I know the poem is finished? There are points where I turn it over and allow it to connect with other people and that’s the moment that I’ve committed to it being finished enough for it to be shared. I do that when I feel a level of comfort with what I’ve said or done. I do that when I feel like its ready to enter into a dialogue. So I don’t suppose that at that moment when the poem is finished that it is finished. That it’s in a book and on a library shelf is amazing to me but if we’re critical about how knowledge is produced and shared then we know that most people aren’t going to be picking up my book in the library and reading it. Generally most people in this city aren’t going to read it. I have more opportunity to potentially interact with people again as a spoken phenomenon than a written one. I’m not as panicked as I once was about something being finished or the import of a particular poem. It’s not precious.
It’s not everything and if I’m lucky its part of a lifelong project that hopefully will continue to be read with some kind of synthesis. Those of us who care to engage more deeply and regularly with the kinds of conversations that might be happening in poetry, maybe there’s some patience in the long run to hear what I actually might be saying. Most things I write feel immature almost immediately. I remember a great conversation with Marie Annharte about what happens to the poem when its done. She talked about the loathing that can come and the distancing and I appreciated hearing that because it was a feeling that I shared. For me it was self-destructive, sharing the feeling softened that a bit. I no longer feel that loathing or level of repulsion toward my poetry, but I have learned that it’s always going to be incomplete.
One of my favorite poems in Triage is “Warm,” a poem that deals with Redding, California, one of the most polluted mining sites in the world. The poems employs a great deal of word play “strong string circular circus” while exploring our relationships to these far off environmental catastrophes “Cannot control how I am used by proxy”. I loved how the poem revealed itself and its layers through each successive reading. Do you write layer by layer or do poems start as a compounded “ligne donne”
Cecily Nicholson: Thank you for the close reading of “Warm”. It absolutely relates as many of the poems do, to the idea of mining and also to art in some ways. I was writing a particular number of poems along these lines in the lead up to the Olympics. Do I write layer by layer or do poems start as a compounded “ligne donne”? My writing comes from notes. I make notes chronically throughout my day. The day I don’t write notes I forget everything so I’ve learned to do that as I go. Often it might just be a couple of words or a recording of what I’ve read, so it’s not always initially formed, sometimes it happens by accident. So I take those notes and then typically there’s a downloading kind of process and usually I do that about every week or two. It’s a joy those moments when I have a window and the mood hits you and tonight or this morning is a time to write poetry so I sit down and transcribe my notes and that is usually quite generative to start finding relationships between what I’ve recorded.
Sometimes I’m setting out with a topic in mind. I need to write a poem about this for this reason. I’m infuriated, I need to respond. I’m in love, whatever, you find these reasons to write towards, but the language informs what happens. So the research –I guess it’s a kind of research—the recording kind of informs what’s going to happen. That’s where I discover these sometimes serendipitous, sometimes glaring relationships between things that I want to have this tiny bit of power to put into relationship on the page. So the lines do occur as layers. Sometimes I’ll have layers of things happening in one corner that I’ll discover from six months ago and find that they actually relate to another set. It might be a matter of geography, actually where the notes come from, it might be a matter of subject, my tone toward it or it might just be a matter of the language itself.
Sometimes parts of language just finds itself relating. I find those moments most enjoyable because they seem to find themselves and are happening outside of the conditions of time, if that makes sense. Every once in a while there are those lines that are just so clear. That’s every once in a while.
On the whole, do you find talking about the writing process” conducive or antithetical to the writing process?
Cecily Nicholson: It’s super conducive. It’s super useful for me (I’ve been hanging out with Matt Hern lately so the word “super” keeps creeping into my vocabulary). It’s really conducive for to me to take a step back and think about writing as a process because everything forms with process, so it seems like a self-awareness and maybe developing some criticality around that can’t be a bad thing. I also enjoy it. It’s quite curious to me how this thing has come together and it’s curious to have people interested in that. I’m sure that my practices will change over time, it’s not a fixed thing at all. What’s happened to me in the past couple of years has been a settling into the idea of language.
Years ago in conversation, particularly with Wayde Compton, it’s one of the reasons I thanked him in the book, he was very direct with me: “Well, you’re a writer and you should make a book.” It was something that I appreciated. I needed to settle into this process and I just needed to do it. Once you have confidence in something you can start to relax into it. Now’s a good time probably to take that a step further, “How can I push myself more? How can I work a little harder?” – in a pleasurable way because I love this.
Writing poetry for me is something that is not consumed by processes of capital. I know it is outside of me the moment it enters the book economy and all of that crap, but for me personally in terms of what it means to create it, it just taps into such a warm place, a place where change occurs for me, that’s one of the ways I shift how I think – through writing – and I just feel lucky, even luxurious to have that time and that space to do that work. So yeah, I like thinking about the process. I like thinking about that in general.
The last poem of your book ends in some gorgeously uplifting lines: “hearts round like family,” “plumage splendid/ seldom brought to the ground.” As you wrote Triage, did you have to make any editorial decisions based on a balance between outrage and hope?
Cecily Nicholson: I think this is an effort for life. We have to work towards balance in life. I could be outraged all the time realistically, reasonably I think. Hope on the other hand… Not surprisingly there is a tension in the writing. One of the things I know about myself or my writing or what I sense it emotes is a when I shift into a voice or a tone or a context that is foregrounding “nature” I’m tapping into something different from that intense anxiety I was talking about earlier – the barrage of text, the movement of the city and the way I find that overwhelming.
There is a clearer path for me –I don’t know about the reader –to something a little more optimistic and hopeful because no matter what struggles we are in or caring about, none of us are going to be able to escape the dilemma – the word is way too insufficient – of ecology, the slippery and devastating path we’re on in terms of the balance of the earth. If I’ve any hope it’s that more people decide to have a relationship to the land and to recognize it as having its own history and its own future that’s got nothing to do with us arrogant people.
So hope for me as it functions in language, that’s one of the sites. The other site has to do with the bridging and strengthening of social relations both of which in my life I try actively to work towards. I see life as impossible without having that being a driving force and I’m inspired – I’ve said recently in a conversation with Jules Boycoff– that I’m inspired by the people around me. I’m cautious of romanticizing this when the conditions are hard for people who are hard working in a way that privileged people never are, never have to be, because we’re talking about issues of survival – people who despite conditions manage to wake up, be present in a social way that’s joyful, with humour and who can attach to happiness, with intelligence, in the midst of enormous tragedy, who are incredibly generous despite the extreme limitations of their conditions. How do you observe and participate in relationship to that and not want to take all your petty stuff and set it aside and think and work toward hopeful things. How do you not want to imagine something better. So yeah, it’s an active effort. It doesn’t come naturally.
So much of how our systems are organized discourages hope for real justice. That said I hope I’m not being false. What I’ve said is tinged by elements of nostalgia and sadness, I wouldn’t necessarily remove that from an idea of hope, but it can make it bitter sweet.
This interview was posted on July 19, 2011 on Kevin Spenst’s blog.