Early this spring Elizabeth Hall asked California writer and editor Christine Wertheim to answer a few questions via email about herself as a poet, feminist, and editor.
EH: Since this interview is really about hearing your story, can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up?
CW: My Literary Life - Chapter 1- in which it is revealed that the author was raised in a hovel.... No seriously, where I grew up is irrelevant....I started my post-school life as a dress-designer then moved across various visual arts to painting, which abandoned me after some years. I had developed a question I couldn't explore visually. So I belatedly went to university where I ended up studying a concoction of literature and philosophy of my own devising, focused on unpacking my question, rather than learning some already constituted discipline, and I ended up going through the full 3 degrees.
During this time, as now, my primary research tool was a kind of playing with letters that dis-covers things to me. I would then write up long discursive papers explaining what these alchemical compositions revealed. This went nowhere fast, or rather very slowly, as I continued at it for another 9 years after finishing my dissertation. I then moved to America, where at some point my colleague at CalArts, Matias Viegener, saw them and suggested I simply present them as poetry in their own right without the extraneous “explanations." .... and so I became a poet.
EH: As a young poet, what books really turned you on? What texts do you continue to revisit?
CW: I never was young as a poet. By the time I became a poet I was practically middle-aged. However, there are books that definitely influenced my work, and which I still think about alot. The three most important of these are, Genesis, Paradiso and Watt, by Samuel Beckett. Genesis showed me that words can invoke worlds. Paradiso showed me that you can push beyond the current limits of your own linguistic capacities, and Watt showed me how incredibly flexible is the English Tongue. I spent about a decade obsessed with Watt. To me it is the story of a man called Watt who goes to work for another called kNott, and the closer Watt gets to kNott, the more he finds it difficult to distinguish between Watt he is or if he's kNott, because in this book, in English, one can both be Watt one is and yet also kNott. Discovering that had a profound and very long-term effect on me. (Funnily enough when Watt is translated into other languages they keep the proper names in English as Watt and Knott, so as far as I can see, it is a book you can only read in English, at least at the moment.)
The work of Jean-Pierre Brisset, whom the French call a fou litteraire, or outsider writer, is I think the closest I have ever seen to my own project, and I love what he did. But I didn't discover him till many years into my own project, so I can't say he affected me, but it was certainly nice to discover that other people take languages as Tongues seriously.
My favorite books, to read for enlightenment, rather than to further my own project, are mainly "women's novels" like Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, For Love Alone, etc. I think Middlemarch is the best literary critique of capitalism I have ever read, because it shows in so many different ways how the language of affections has been colonized by the language of capital, which I think is a theme of many great women's novels. I am also incredibly taken by Beloved, which I think does an amazing job of exploring a post-slavery existential condition.
EH: language as Tongues. When did you become interested in litteral poetics?
CW: I discovered the principle of litteral poetics in 1986. I was trying to understand the idea of 0/Nothing. (This was the question that drove me to university.) For me this was somehow connected to space-time, because in physics space-time is supposed to be a pure form. All the forces and substances of the universe are somehow kinks or depressions or knots in space-time. At least this was and still is how I understand that concept in physics. Then one day it just came to me that if you reverse the word and slightly alter the graphics of the symbols you get +|’me’S-pace, which I interpreted as representing the rhythm through which a being shifts between the position of agent and the position of patient. And I saw this as the form/substance of the psychological universe, or mutli0verse, as I prefer to call it. From there, it just expanded.
EH: Can you talk a little about the editing process for Feminaissance?
CW: Well, we had the papers from the conference, which I really liked, but I wasn’t sure how to see these as more than a group, rather than a collection, which is something different. Then Juliana and Stephanie’s piece, “Numbers Trouble,” was published in the Chicago Review, and Vanessa had the idea to print a shortened version of their paper along the top and put the other pieces below, sort of the reverse of footnotes, with the other pieces exploring issues “Numbers Trouble” hadn’t dealt with. “Numbers Trouble” had generated a whole lot of debate in the literay blogs, and most of it seemed to just circle round the idea of how calling oneself a feminist was “essentialist,” and hence theoretically retrograde and old-fashioned. Not only did this misrepresent everything Juliana and Stephanie’s paper had done, it closed down discussion of all the fascinating topics covered in the other papers. So then the book became a way of indicating and celebrating this diversity; the whole idea of women speaking as women, and how such conversations might have their own unique issues, irrespective of how one thinks gender assignations are made, and how closely people stick to the idealized images of these assignations.
To me it is politically and ideologically necessary that we find a way to get beyond this reductive dichotomy in which either all identities are seen as constructed, and hence empty, or they are given by extra-social forces like biology, and hence essential and unchanging. As I wrote in my introduction, neither of these positions takes time, that is, history into account. Identities and identifications can be constructed, but still be of such long standing that they operate as if they were eternal. This does not mean that they cannot be changed, only that they cut very deep, and that transformation may require eons of conscious hard work, not simply a wardrobe rewrite. Really, this is one way that so-called “post-modernism” has been used in a very regressive fashion, to shut down debates about differences in social formations and hence in access to all kinds of resources, including air time.
EH: Have you always considered yourself to be a “feminist?” If so, has your definition of ‘feminism’ shifted over the years?
CW: Yes, I have always been a feminist. My mother had 6 children and no help, and was a founding member of second wave feminism in the 60s/70s in Australia, so I have always been aware that there was a need for a more equitable distribution of access, along gender, race and class lines, to social resources, including discursive space, and validation for one's contributions to life. That has always been my main definition of feminism/s. In the 90's, through my encounters with psychoanalysis I added an extra clause, that access to what the Lacanian's call "symbolic" resources is also crucial, and that if our current symbolic resources by definition exclude certain kinds of articulations, i.e., the perspectives of any specified social group, then those symbolic resources need transforming. This is one of the tasks for feminists, as it is of all social justice movements.
EH: In Dodie Bellamy’s essay The Feminist Writers Guild, which opens Feminaissance, Bellamy describes her experience with the short-lived activist group in relation to Julia Kristeva’s concept of “tiny revolts.” She writes, “Need the success of a political group be measured by its impact on a larger social order? What about the ways it transforms the lives and psyches of its members –their tiny revolts—are they not profound?” What kind of role does ‘community’ play in your conception of feminism? How important is fellowship with other women writers to your work?
CW: I love Dodie’s article. She is one of the best writers of creative non-fiction today, and I think she makes a very powerful point in her paper. As far as I can see, for many socio-political movements, the larger the impact, the more they fail. Look at Colonialism, Socialism, Capitalism; they've all been disastrous for most of the people they've impacted. On the other hand, the civil rights movement, including feminism has been quite successful, though nothing like as much as is required. And community played a hugely important role in achieving those early successes. It seems as if the current stall is related to an inability to collectivize on a large scale. I don’t understand why this is so difficult for us now. But I believe it is one of the most important contemporary questions.
However, I also think most people in the rich western world (however defined) could do with more serious self-reflection and self-transformation before they start trying to change the world, i.e, other people. Such "tiny revolts" may be small on a world scale, but they are much more difficult to achieve than developing big ideas and schemes for world-transformation, which basically anyone can do.
Fellowship with other women is central to my life. It is my life. My writing I mainly do alone. My professional fellowships vis-a-vis writing have been mainly with my publishers T + V. Of course I have friendships and conversations around issues in writing and literature with many individuals, including Dodie and Matias. But conversations about the specific issues my own work engages are few.
EH: Currently you serve as Program Chair for the CalArts MFA Writing Program. Before joining the faculty at CalArts, you taught critical theory and studio practice at Goldsmiths College. How has your role as teacher and mentor affected your writing?
CW: As I previously said, before coming to CalArts I considered my manipulations with letters and words as a research tool, like digging for archeologists, which then generated other more discursive work. Then Matias encouraged me to just show people the diggings and forget the “explanations.” I can't do that entirely, but the overall balance has definitely changed. However, that is an effect of my relations with my peers, other teachers. I think teaching in all its forms helps me generally to think more clearly about the issues I teach, but as these are not mostly related to my own poetic-research, I'm not sure that teaching directly effects my own writing as such.
EH: What space do you think poets occupy in contemporary culture? Do you believe that writers assume certain “responsibilities”-- political, personal, intellectual, social, et cetera?
CW: I don't know what space poets occupy in contemporary culture. It's not something I think about. I'm interested in work I find interesting, whatever its medium or form. I don't think writers have any more or less responsibilities in any field outside writing than anyone else. If a writer is especially responsible in some area, such as being politically active, or just a decent human being, then I applaud that, just as I applaud any person who is. I don't think being an artist is intrinsically linked to being ethical. Of course it depends on your definition of art. You can have a definition which defines "Art" as work that is ethical, but then, and leaving aside the need to define what ethical means, most of what is currently called art or literature wouldn't be included.
EH: In your book of poems, +|'me'S-pace, there is a real sense of playfulness. How important is play to your work?
CW: It is extremely important. Living is very hard. The only thing that makes it enjoyable is play, if that play is done well, really well.
EH: What projects are you currently working on?
CW: I have two main projects and a third little side one. The third one is a book of 100 pieces, each articulating the moment of its own conception. It’s called Exercises in Style Too: How to Conceive a Poem. I thought I could write them all, but I can’t so I am having other poets help me by writing their own versions. Like the original Exercises it’s a kind of textbook of contemporary poetic styles and procedures. (If anyone has any of their own I am happy to use them and give credit to their composers.) The other two have been in the works for a long time, but I am hoping to finish one this summer. The first is my second book of poetics on mOthers and mOuths. It is the sequel to +|’me’S-pace. (This was supposed to be a book about my sister and I, but I’ve discovered in the writing that the mOuther book is what needs to come next.) The second is my theoretical opus magnus, the book that discursively explains all I have learned from my litteral poetic play. It’s the book I always planned, but now it will look substantially different than the original concept because the different sections were written over a 20-year period and hence have different styles. I’d always planned to redo them all in a unified style. But I’ve decided to just let them stay as they are. The argument is continuous, what does it matter if the style changes? Understanding the argument has been for me an organic process realized over a very long time period. I feel now that the book should reflect this and not pretend to a synthetic unity that denies its own history and development. Of course, I might not find a publisher, but that’s another matter.
Christine Wertheim is author of "+|'me'S-pace" (Les Figues Press). She edited "Feminaissance,” and with Matias Viegener co-edited "Séance” and "Noulipo.” She is currently an editor for the journal Tarpaulin Sky. Recent critical work is published in "X-tra," "Cabinet,” “Issues” and "The Quick and the Dead”; recent poetry in "Drunken Boat," "Tarpaulin Sky" and "Veer." Works-in-progress include a poetic suite on Mothers and an exercise in style, "How to Conceive a Poem.” She is Chair of the MFA Writing Program at Cal Arts.
Elizabeth Hall was born in Louisiana and raised in Georgia by two back-to-the-landers who got bored. She is primarily interested in 20th century women’s literature and the occasional slow-burn. Currently living in Los Angeles, she is an MFA candidate at CalArts and an associate editor for Les Figues Press.