Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Each city has its own soundscape: a conversation with Kate Eichhorn

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Each city has its own soundscape: a conversation with Kate Eichhorn

By rob mclennan

Ottawa writer, editor and publisher rob mclennan is now into the second series of his 12 or 20 questions interview series and here is his recent conversation with with Kate Eichhorn.

Kate Eichhorn is the author of Fond (BookThug, 2008), shortlisted for the 2009 Gerald Lampert Award, and co-author and editor of The Belladonna Elders Series # 6 (Belladonna Books, 2009). She is also co-editor of Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics (Coach House Books, 2009) and Open Letter’s special issue on feminist poetics (Summer 2009). She lives in Brooklyn and works as an Assistant Professor of Culture and Media Studies at The New School.

RM:

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

KE:

It didn’t. It seeped out over seven or eight years, and then it just was. Intentionally, it lacks many of the markers of a published book. There are no page numbers. The cover is barely distinguishable from the text block. It’s a book about a manuscript, a book that includes pages from its own manuscript versions, and a book disguised as a manuscript, so naturally it resists closure. And since my first book is still a manuscript in many senses, it evidently shares much in common with my most recent work, which also exists in manuscript form.

RM:

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

KE:

About ten years ago, I was working on a novella. The main character was a palindrome obsessed with crossword puzzles, so the book soon became about various compositional constraints—writing backwards and forwards, writing in tidy multidirectional blocks. At some point, I had to face the fact that I was more interested in miniscule units and constraints than any recognizable novelistic conventions, so I “let” myself begin writing poetry, too. But Fond did not really begin as poetry but rather as an attempt to write something that could be read as prose when read from left to right across the page and simultaneously be read as a series of short line poems when read down the page in columns. The fiction and poetry were both deeply contaminated from the beginning. In a way, this is not surprising; my literary inheritance is one with few generic allegiances.

RM:

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

KE:

“Come quickly” isn’t a term I would apply to writing.

RM:

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

KE:

I don’t think about poems “beginning,” and I don’t think about poems. I’m engaged in projects and these projects appear in the midst of other projects.

RM:

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

KE:

In terms of my own work, I’m interested in the performativity of texts and publishing networks rather than the performativity of the public reading. I think about how a book enters the world, in what material form, as a sort of performance. I am currently working on a project that will appear in installments. One installment will take the form of a mimeographed “found” chapbook from the late 1970s. I recently won an eBay bid for a mimeograph machine so, once I figure out how to operate it, planning for this stage of the performance will begin. There is a lot of play and a little bit of deception involved here, but like a public reading, it’s about finding a way to bring texts into the world in some other form. But this is not to say that I don’t appreciate public readings. I curate many literary events precisely because I think there is a place for the public reading. Of course, good readers are rare and so are attentive listeners.

RM:

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

KE:

Without theoretical concerns, why would one write?

RM:

7 - What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

KE:

This is something that came up in many of the interviews carried out for Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics, an anthology that I just finished editing with Heather Milne. Primarily, the writers in this collection are interested in approaching language as a problematic—that’s why they were selected. However, most of these writers are also exploring how linguistic innovation can be used to approach “big questions,” be they political, ontological or epistemological. So among other things, this anthology provides a basis upon which to think about writers and writing in a broader cultural context. Lisa Robertson talks about coming to writing through collective labour in the context of the Kootenay School of Writing. Catriona Strang emphasizes the centrality of collaboration in her practice. Rita Wong explores linguistic innovation in relation to the complex web of ecological, social, technological and affective systems we navigate on a daily basis. There are many other examples, but you can read the book!

In New York, I’ve been working with a group of writers to organize an upcoming conference, Advancing Feminist Poetics and Activism, which will take place at the CUNY Graduate Center in September. Many of these writers, including Rachel Levitsky, Akilah Oliver and Laura Elrick, have established creative practices that are engaged in social critique and social action in very direct ways. For example, last summer, Laura Elrick donned an orange jumpsuit, signifying the uniforms worn by prisoners at Guantánamo, and just walked down the street in midtown Manhattan at noon. People went out of their way to pretend she wasn’t there. Her performance revealed just how intent people are on remaining inattentive and as long as this remains a cultural norm, writers and artists clearly have an important role to play in culture. Of course, not everyone needs to be engaged in the kind of embodied work that someone like Laura has chosen to take on. There are many less public but still essential interventions that can and do take place on the page and in various ephemeral acts, and it’s this continuum of engagement that excites me most.

RM:

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

KE:

Working with an outside editor is always difficult and always essential. I live with a great editor, and we read and engage with each other’s work on a regular basis. I have also had the privilege of working with Margaret Christakos—a careful, meticulous, brilliant reader and editor. You should hire her to edit your next book.

RM:

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

KE:

Early on, I was told that the university can be a great place for a cultural activist—that is if you’re willing to maintain a necessary critical distance from its rituals and bullshit and remain willing to take risks. I’m grateful that I was given permission to think about the academy in these terms, and I am always thinking of ways to deploy it in the service of artists and writers. In Canada, we have some great role models—people like Barbara Godard, Fred Wah and Pauline Butling are all exemplary models. Over the course of their careers, they’ve demonstrated what it might mean to engage in sustained cultural activism that depends in part on the redeployment of institutional resources. Unfortunately, most people with academic positions, even those who are writers, don’t appreciate the fact that an engaged literary or cultural critic isn’t someone who simply theorizes existing work but also someone who creates the conditions under which new work is generated. Of course, few people will thank you for operating like this and it won’t help your career, which is probably why it’s not a widespread practice in this age of neoliberal self-protection.

RM:

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

KE:

Any creative project I’ve initiated has first appeared in dialogue with a critical project.

RM:

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

KE:

I don’t schedule writing into my day. I schedule everything else—teaching, working out, cooking, cleaning the toilet.

RM:

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

KE:

I usually have three or four overdue projects on the go. When I stop working on one project, there is always a more pressing project that gets my attention. But that has nothing to do with the presence or absence of inspiration! I never wake up and look at my lover or cat flaked out on the bed and feel “inspired” to write an occasional poem for them.

RM:

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

KE:

Work influences my work. Everyday labours. And interactions with the other thinkers and writers who are part of those work relations. I’m also influenced by my context. In the past year, I’ve spent time in at least twelve cities around North American and Europe. Each city has its own soundscape. If you stay in the same place for too long, you naturally filter out these soundscapes, but because I’ve have been traveling, and moving back and forth between New York and Toronto on a fairly regular basis, I’ve become more attentive on this level. For over a decade, I lived no more than a block away from a Toronto streetcar line. It’s a very particular sound that originates at ground level and emanates up out of the street to structure your life in all sorts of ways that are difficult to appreciate until you find yourself living on a daily basis in another soundscape.

Now I live in Greenpoint, which is a very industrial area of Brooklyn, although there have been people living here for more than 150 years. There is the constant rumble of trucks, which I think are mostly full of shit, since Greenpoint is home to the luminous, 54-acre Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Talk to the NYC Department of Environmental Protection and they’ll tell you it’s a major cultural attraction. When they lit up the “digester” eggs for the first time, a spokesperson actually said, “Each evening we will be reminded of the elegant combination of engineering and art in the blue aura of the structure.” That might sound strange, but Greenpoint, also the site of the worst oil spill in US history, is structured around contradictions—organic cafes and grocery stores thrive at the scene of a massive industrial accident and there’s even a nature walk through the sewage treatment plant. Of course, contradictions are also generative, especially if you understand recycling “waste” as an integral part of your creative practice.

RM:

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

KE:

Books in general, including books on books, are essential, but so are some of the people behind these books. That I have a small group of writers and artists in my life who I really admire and love is something I would never take for granted. I don’t see or talk to all of these people on a daily basis, but they’re present and essential.

RM:

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

KE:

Archivists and librarians are among the most politically radical and brilliant people I know. In a quiet way, their agitations profoundly restructure how and what we know. Don’t underestimate the revolutionary potential of introducing a new Library of Congress subject heading! More than ever before, we live in a world where knowledge is mediated by systems of information retrieval. Archivists and librarians are rewriting entire frameworks of intelligibility, but unlike most writers I know, they’re not looking for credit. Their work is a very quiet but deeply pervasive form of inscription.

RM:

17 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

KE:

I just read Rachel Zolf’s new manuscript, The Neighbour Procedure. I’ve been reading it in progress over the past three years, but I recently read the complete manuscript. It represents another intense, difficult and unique book for Rachel, and you can read it too in 2010.

RM:

18 - What are you currently working on?

KE:

On July 7, Barbara Godard and I will launch a co-edited issue of Open Letter during the Scream Literary Festival in Toronto. This issue features poetic statements by and essays about a dozen or so innovative Canadian women writers born since 1960. There’s now at least a generation or two of avant-garde women poets who have received very little critical attention in Canada, and this issue responds to what we perceive as a significant oversight in Canadian literary criticism. As mentioned, Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics will be published by Coach House Books this fall, so I’m working with the publisher to organize launches in New York, Toronto, Montréal, Winnipeg and Vancouver. And as always, I also have a large stack of manuscripts in various stages of completion: there are bits and pieces of a novel, part of which recently appeared in a co-authored book published as part of Belladonna’s Elders Series in April; a poetry manuscript that I may or may not revise; a few hundred pages of critical writing beginning to come together in book form; and something that appears to be taking the form of a manifesto.

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