Interview with Jan Clausen – Part 2

 

Jan-ClausenThis is part two of our interview with Jan Clausen (part one here), author of Veiled Spill: A Sequence (GenPop Books), one of the more important books of poetry published in the last year.

In addition to Veiled Spill, Clausen is the author of a dozen books in a range of genres. Other recent poetry collections are From a Glass House and If You Like Difficulty. Prose titles include the story collection Mother, Sister, Daughter, Lover; the novels Sinking, Stealing and The Prosperine Papers; and the memoir Apples and Oranges: My Journey Through Sexual Identity. Clausen’s poetry and creative prose are widely published in journals and anthologies; her book reviews and literary journalism have appeared in Boston Review, Ms., The Nation, Poets & Writers, and The Women’s Review of Books. A resident of Brooklyn since the 1970s, she maintains close ties to the Pacific Northwest, where she was born and raised. The recipient of writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she taught for many years in the undergraduate creative writing program at Eugene Lang College, the New School. Currently she teaches in the Goddard College MFA in Writing Program and at New York University. She blogs at her revamped website, Ablationsite.

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TS: In Part I of this interview, you mentioned your work with a “play of forms” in relation to a “play of perspectives,” connecting both to the “storm of contradictory emotions” experienced at a time of terrible losses on a planetary scale. Could you say more about how shifting perspectives structure Veiled Spill?

JC: The book’s structure reflects my preoccupation with the limitations of individual perspective: how you can’t get beyond it, how you must get beyond it. I come out of a literary and political lineage that emphasizes the centrality of identity and social location to our knowledge of the world, warning against the dangers of a false universalism. And yet there is a unity to our human fate as members of a self-threatened species and constituents of a delicate biosphere. Either we’ll collectively pull off the high-wire act I call “fragile ongoing” into an indefinite future, or we won’t. It has become terribly important to imagine these stakes in fresh ways, getting beyond familiar tropes like the white guy with his finger on the button, or the engineering wizards coming up with a last minute techno-save, or the vaguely multi-racial handful of First World survivors blasting off to replicate the American Dream in deep space. What would it mean to narrate from the planet’s point of view? (Impossible project, ridiculous question, yet it must be asked.) So, for me, the dialogic structure of Veiled Spill—a text frequently in conversation with world events and engaged with multiple points of view through its almost obsessive use of quotations from literary and journalistic sources—is about simultaneously acknowledging a personal, location-bound perspective and trying to push beyond.

In this context, visual experience gets quite a workout. Looking becomes a metaphor for how we experience the world and locate ourselves within it. Visual information frequently occurs in a disembodied way that may deceptively promise authoritative knowledge it can’t really deliver. For instance, there’s mention of the “spillcam” that added a bizarre visual dimension to public reception of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Or, in the context of the well-photographed tsunami that triggered the Fukushima meltdown, the question is posed: “What does it mean/ that anyone/could get cameras up there// but not/ plug a leak?” The phrase “What are we looking at?” recurs, understood both as a literal inquiry about visual data and in its figurative sense of “what’s the significance?” as in the lines: “What are we looking at?// We’re looking at teamwork” in reference to transcripts of exchanges among U.S. military personnel who called in an airstrike on a party of Afghan civilians. Meanwhile, visual experience also figures crucially in the content of those conversations, as the soldiers try to interpret murky video footage. The murderous outcome of their deliberations turns on what they think they see through the veils of their imperial assumptions: “So, it looks like those lumps are probably all people.”

Of course, the whole point of wearing a veil is to introduce a visual barrier between the wearer and the world. “Veiled Spill #9,” with its extended meditation on the notorious French law banning the full face veil, includes a good deal of self-reflection on gender and disclosure: “Face, what a burden it is to compose you, every time one faces the so-called public.”

That all of this emphasis on looking should have emerged organically as I worked on Veiled Spill is fascinating to me, given my frequent suspicion of visual media. It’s often been said that in “Western” culture, the eye is privileged over the other sense organs, assumed to afford detached (implicitly masculine) mastery. In contrast, as a poet, feminist, and enthusiast of vernacular language, I think of myself as a champion of the ear—or simply a “word person,” full stop. My first poetry book was called after touch, and I loved Susan Sontag’s On Photography, with its withering skepticism about photography’s claims to offer objective knowledge. There’s a pervasive sense in Veiled Spill of the speaker wanting to flee the Panopticon of our hyper-visual culture, a sentiment partly rooted in my experience as a writer in an age when written forms have lost their cultural primacy thanks to the dominance of screen-mediated experience. Along with this comes the hope that what belongs to the ear and not the eye might become a truer source: “No spillcam at the/blabfest// (mercifully)”—the poet/speaker is romantically envisioned as a hacker of consciousness, flying under the radar of an obsessively visual social order.

Yet this mistrust of the visual can’t long be sustained. At times, the speaker takes great pleasure in looking, as in lines about Earth’s curvature, seen from an airplane at sunset: “that ridge of hot light/like some sweet/rind of flesh//red-orange/ just cupping/ the horizon.” Perhaps the point isn’t to fashion a new hierarchy of senses, but to use all of our organs as aids to participation and not mastery.

TS: In light of this, what do you have to say about Veiled Spill—the book—as a visual experience?

JC: It’s a much more intentionally visual artifact than any of my previous books, poetry or prose. Some of that has to do with my decision—which, like most of the other formal choices, emerged gradually during the composition process—to prioritize idiosyncratic arrangements of words on the page. There are pieces arranged in two columns, as if two audio tapes were running simultaneously (text I enjoy performing as a “duet” with another reader). There are many places where white space plays a huge role. In the climactic piece, “Veiled Spill #14,” words break the levee and flood the pages, creating visual patterns that I repeatedly rearranged until they satisfied me. And then there are pieces that conform to the poetic convention of lines set flush left, sometimes in couplets.

It was my tremendous good fortune that my publisher, GenPop, turned out to be totally committed to the visual dimension of the work. (I felt pride and a touch of guilt on being informed that my manuscript was harder to format than any this publisher had ever encountered!) One element I hadn’t even considered, and which GenPop handled beautifully, was the need for a larger-than usual book format appropriate to the visual designs I’d created. My publisher also encouraged me to find cover art that would function as another dimension of the text, not simply an attractive packaging element. The perfect image came from my photographer friend Robert Schaefer, Jr. He’s been producing work using an old photographic process called cyanotype. I love the blue of the images that result. When I first saw this picture of a sky showing through what appear to be twisted wires, the sense of freedom glimpsed through barriers suggested imprisonment, while the joining of the wires, resembling hands and arms, reminded me of human solidarity. It turned out that the photo, taken in Barcelona, is of a sculpture called “Homage to the Castellers,” castellers being participants in the construction of the human towers or “castles” that are a popular feature of public events throughout Catalonia. The combination of the amazing cooperation required and the fact that this can be a quite dangerous sport, given the heights attained by those atop the tower, corresponds to my sense of human history as a potentially liberating structure, despite its fearsome dangers. It reminds me of lines from Osip Mandelstam that I’ve loved for many years:

we will remember even in the Lethean cold,
that the earth has cost us ten heavens.

(“The Twilight of Freedom,” translated by David McDuff)

Given GenPop’s meticulous attention to production values, I’d like to think that Veiled Spill reflects a concept of visuality that offers an alternative to the alienated looking invited by spillcams and military video feeds. Let’s think of it as a visuality committed to an ecology of the senses.

TS: It’s interesting that in what you refer to as the climactic piece, “Veiled Spill #14,” any preoccupation with visual experience seems to drop away.

JC: The piece is a litany. So right away, we enter a quintessentially oral dimension, one marked by the sense of intimate communication proper to prayer. In fact, there are overtones of responsive prayer, given that Christian litanies are traditionally patterned on voicings divided between clergy and congregation. The I-thou connection pre-empts the separating gaze. “pour thou only on us/pour thou only in us….” This is the point at which the elemental breaks out and streams forth. The “it” that is the subject of the action (“it breaks off//it continues”) “speaks” and “says” while also acting in countless other ways; the invocation “pour for us”—world-motion as spillage—substitutes for the plea “pray for us.” Perhaps the activity of looking has dissolved into the totality of experience—as the living body inescapably submits to the onrush of birth or death.

In the spirit of this motion, language, too, partakes in the flow, the spillage. It can’t stand apart to describe.

For me, “Veiled Spill #14” is an effort to narrate beyond narration. To tell a kind of story in the space beyond story. This relates back to an earlier piece that riffs on a quote from Janet Malcolm, who inquires, “How can one see all the ants on the planet when one is wearing the blinders of narrative?” My version wonders how one can “bear/the blinders of narrative” given that “what is veined/is spilling everywhere?” On one level, I read my own lines as being about violence and suffering—how can you justify the selection that “story” entails, since it is bound to exclude some part of an ocean of damage? But it can also be about the proliferation of points of view, the limitlessness of sentience in any given moment. This burgeoning cannot be directly experienced—after all, “My I is right here.” And yet: it must be honored, metaphorically apprehended. It’s this overflow of experience, perspective, sensation, consciousness, and event that “Veiled Spill #14” endeavors to set to the music of pouring language.

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