Erin Mouré – Dialogues and Polylogues
Erin Mouré is one of Canada’s most respected and eminent poets. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Furious, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for Domestic Fuel, the QSPELL Award for Poetry for WSW, Mouré has published twelve books of poetry, including A Frame of the Book (aka The Frame of a Book), which was co-published in the U.S. by Sun and Moon Press, and Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, shortlisted for the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize and the City of Toronto Book Award. Her most recent collection, O Cidadán, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award in 2003. Mouré lives in Montreal and writes with a tripod of languages.
Erin Mouré When I first left Calgary, I went to Edmonton! I don’t know that I’d call that “escape”. It was just the usual young desire for movement. Then I spent a decade in Vancouver. Then moved to Montreal, which I discovered as a city of languages and poetry and great conversation, of generosity and celebration of differences, of curiosity and not of fear or judgement. It’s a tolerant society, a peaceful society, an open society. It suits my temperament.
paulo da costa Speaking of a city of poetry!… And a culture of poetry. In Portugal they are sculpting 18 life-size statues of living poets to line one of the new avenues in a city near Lisbon. In Europe and South America it is common to see statues of poets in squares and gardens. What do you think might be the ingredients involved in creating communities where poetry is part of the fabric of its cultural geography, soul and identity?
Erin Mouré: Well I’d rather people read poetry, rather have it appear in their reflections and approach to the world, than have statues of poets… it’s true though that we belong to a culture where poetry is not foundational.
pdc: What might be the reasons why poetry and poets are so invisible and perhaps even neglected in North America?
EM: Perhaps our foundational literature was built more in prose genres: pioneer diaries, stories of getting on in a strange place, taxonomies and mappings, letters home, inventories. In other countries where poetry is more part of the fabric of life it’s those foundational writings that are uppermost in peoples’ minds in general, not the contemporary literature. In Galicia, for example, with its wealth of poets, incredible wealth of poetry, the average person still talks more about Rosalía de Castro, who was from the 19th century, from the Galician Renaissance, and they talk of the cantigas, which were medieval. Still, a greater proportion of people there read poetry… but their foundational lit was poetry.
pdc: What might be some of the present greenhouses of poetry in North America and might we expect them to take hold and enter the community at large and become part of most people’s experience?
EM: There are many such greenhouses, but I don’t know that they’ll directly enter the “community at large”. I see poetry as influencing other arts, and influencing the people who do read it, and those people then go on and do other things, plumbing and engineering, who knows, partly under the influence of poetry. It enters the community at large as ripples, gusts of fresh air, a look, a belief in the possible, a wish that gives someone a bit of energy when they might otherwise give up, a song, a line, a way of talking about rain.
pdc: How did you first meet poetry?
EM: Mother Goose! Then A.A. Milne “never go down to the end of the town if you don’t go down with me!” But I remember getting a Mother Goose book and feeling very rich. Much later, I just read poetry on my own, from the Alexander Calhoun Library branch. It was there I first read PK Page, Irving Layton, Al Purdy, Phyllis Webb, Eli Mandel, Jay MacPherson, Anne Marriott, Margaret Avison. Then by the time I was finishing high school, I bought my first poetry book, Margaret Atwood’s The Circle Game, at Coles on 8th Avenue. And Bowering’s Rocky Mountain Foot. And John Newlove’s Black Night Window. And his Lies. And bpNichol’s Martyrology. Plus Shakespeare and Milton and Blake and Chaucer. And I found Joyce on my own, and Beckett.
pdc: “energeia entelecheia transport parousia gram” (OCidadán 12) Do we need to understand poetry for it to have value?
EM: We “understand” poetry when it resonates with us, echoes with us, haunts us, piques our curiosity, compels us. That’s what has value.
And just to situate fS readers: the line you quote (such sounds! to be transported on such sounds!) follows the end of a poem early in O Cidadán, and is a type of line that appears in italics at the page end and acts as a kind of chorus of words… and like a chorus’s chant, the individual words may not be fully audible; they are heard bits of words. The poem above talks about resisting appropriation. Don’t you think that line resists appropriation? Yet if we know those words, or decide to look them up, they add gestures to the poem.
That kind of chorus appears as well as structure in an earlier book of mine, Pillage Laud (Moveable Text, 1999), so in O Cidadán it is also beckoning back to something in my own practice.
Poetry is what pushes at the borders of what we think “understanding” is. If by understanding we mean mastery (and, yes, that’s a gendered term) or appropriation, then that is what O Cidadán argues against.
Which doesn’t mean an argument to get rid of understanding in its conventional sense. We need it! But we need work that pushes, in different ways, at its borders too. That’s where “value” lies.
pdc: Are the stakes of poetry too high as it demands heterology? Is hearing the ultimate value of a poetry that relinquishes accessible meaning(s) or is meaning an inevitable destination of the mind that hears and reads. A free falling mind looking for ground beneath its tongue/feet and to hold on to?
EM: I’d say “no”, and “the latter” (for minds build meanings – from different types of evidence, particles, hearings, clues – and reach to build it in different ways!). And… ground shifts, and that’s good, coz otherwise we’d be ground in, ground down, ground up. And if there’s “free-falling” there are also many points of reference, points de repère. Remember too (I know you know this already, Paulo!) that accessibility, as Charles Bernstein said long ago, is one of the most ideologically driven words there is. I’d just add that what’s accessible is what we already know. Poetry can’t help, much of the time (or what I write!), pushing at the boundaries of what we know.
pdc: Do writers need to engage further in the political arena to educate the dominant perceptions/ideologies of the value of language experimentation, of poetry, in the same way that environmentalists, feminists have engaged /drawn attention to the debasing of their values and in/through that process have slowly began to change attitudes, values and priorities in those areas of private and public engagement?
EM: Ah gee. I think poets just have to write poetry. Poets have been experimenting wildly and willfully with language and what it can do since the 19th century: Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé. Right through the dadaists and surrealists (one kind of experimentation on representation). Yet every century, early or late, has had people doing things in verse that others want to control or condemn. Poetry’s rich with the possible, that way, and brushes the fur of Authority the wrong way, even the Authorities of Poetry. You notice the experimentation less, perhaps, in the standardized view of 20th century Canadian poetry in English for what’s presented in canonizing anthologies and taught in schools here seems to skip a lot of Canadian practice. Do you know that the three best known Canadian poets outside of Canada are bpNichol, Steve McCaffery and Nicole Brossard? There’s a reason for that!
pdc: “To make sense is perhaps, as I read, to be susceptible to indication (not definition) (OCidadán19) To open rather than close words, to open language itself rather than close it. Is this one of the directions of your work and where would you like it to take you?
EM: I’d definitely say it’s one of the directions of my work: not resting in existing definition, not trying to seal up the word or world but following the indications, reading as indication. Where will it take me? Somewhere, many wheres, I did not, could not expect.
pdc: “It is citizenship’s acts I dream of” (OCidadán42) What relationship do you see between the structure of the state and the structure of language?
EM: Language is infinitely more varietal. That quote points to a central concern, or perhaps, finding, of O Cidadán (which is, yes, an exploration of what citizenship might mean in our era) – that the citizen is not just someone who belongs to a certain place, who stands within certain borders, who was born somewhere, but is someone who acts. And the way one acts is what is central to citizenship.
The state is infinitely more inflexible, is meant to code and corral, in many ways. What’s important, I think, is that its various borders (metaphorical, mythical, cultural, real physical geographical) be porous. The border exists, perhaps, to beckon people in. When it is just used to shut people out, there is a withering going on, the danger of a pull toward fascism (that’s a leap to make in this interview, but in the book’s unfolding, it’s clearer, I think).
pdc: The concept of porousity and approachability in borders and language interests me. This connected to the hierarchies and the power achieved through language. Distinctions between higher and lower languages, coded languages, secret languages, access to information and all this connected to concepts of civic participation and inclusivity. Fascist governments also close borders and language by bureaucratizing language and communication, making their borders, language and text impenetrable. There is no democracy without engagement. Can one reach a level of complexity in a text and in a political system without recourse to obstructive lingoes that jeopardize approachability, flow through and participation… thus shutting most people out?
EM: One urges onward and one moves. Each of us can only figure out how to work on our little bit of the fabric in an open way. Then the whole system will move a bit. Then we will see from there, because the view will be slightly different from this new place. I don’t know that we need an over-arching view to have hope. Just a way of acting, as an individual in community, and signaling to others who would also act, and open. That’s where hope lies, to me.
pdc: For the untrained eye of a non-expert reading a challenging text there might be no distinction between a text dismantling barriers and a text that is building barriers. Such differentiating lines might not be readily seen and understood. What might be the discerning factor here?
EM: To me it would be the willingness of the reader to engage with the text, to be curious about it, to rather than trying to consume it, ingest it. Usually the barrier is not in the text, it is just a text, it is in the reader. And the reader can change.
pdc: To read and to act. To what extent do you see the private act of reading be a catalyst to acting and reacting in the world?
EM: When we can look up from the book and no longer see the world we saw when we lowered our eyes into the book, then the book has altered us, freed us. And, then, can we help but act differently? The act of reading is a moment that seems private, but really it removes us from our private selves to drink from a river that has passed through the world and will pass again into the world. To drink from this river is to be lifted by its current to another place. To have our ground disturbed, dislodged. When we go to the river, we risk slipping in, getting our feet wet!
pdc: Now that we seem far from the times of storytelling around the fire, is the act of reading today essentially an individual act? And can the solitaire act of reading find action and solidarity, gather momentum, in a collective act of social intervention?
EM: A lot of reading is perhaps escapism or consolation, comfort. But enough of it is done by people wanting challenges, not wanting to be reaffirmed in their comfort, in the status quo. Collective acts are richer, fed by reading. Are more possible. Dreams are more possible. People find each other through reading because reading opens them to the possibility of discovery.
pdc: Could the resurgence of slams, poetry readings and gatherings, festivals of words mean that we are now gathering in increasing numbers to respond to the unattended hunger of listening together, in the same shared space, and from that experience perhaps act/create/respond together?
EM: Sounds good to me! There’s definitely lots of word-foment going on… and more that crosses borders than there was once, which is heartening. Listening and sharing are good, but egad, one also needs time for quiet contemplation and searching in words, idioms….
pdc: Is representation inherently violent in politics and in language as it reduces the individual?
EM: Representation has its uses, but it is not the whole story, it is a moment of coalescence in a process of coalesce/dissolve/mutate/coalesce. Even at a given moment, a given representation is not the whole story. Literature, and art, have been puzzling this out for a long time. It isn’t solved yet! One representation is, surely, though, reductive… and to more than the individual. The one story hurts us, shuts us up, makes us sad. In any literary work we love, in art we love, the story makes more stories, refracts off them, there is more than one way in. We crave this.
pdc: The centralized media conglomerates bombard us with their story, their version of the world. They repeatedly demonstrate their aversion to the multiplicity of voices. What do you think is being asked of the artisans of the word in today’s world in face of those massive machines manufacturing social and political consent?
EM: Write poetry. Translate other poetries into your own literature. Cross borders. Listen. Pay attention to other languages, other modes of being in the world. Take care of your shoes so you can walk further in them. Pay attention to the proportion of the people in the world who have water and those who don’t, who have access to food for their children and who don’t, who can keep all their limbs intact through their lives and who can’t. Cherish water, touch, rice, air. Call out to say you cherish it. This cherishing is an act of defiance against cruelty and greed. Many such acts can make a chorus.
pdc: The I of power speaking for the we. What can poets do about this framework?
EM: Just keep exploring, I guess. And speak slant (at an angle to that I of power). And listen. Poets can just explore their own work, the “we” of which is incredibly multiple. The existence of poetry, and poetry’s difference, is a botheration to the I of power. I think here of my friend Chris Daniels in San Francisco, who in the face of US unilateralism grieves, protests then goes home and translates more Brazilian poetry into US English. The fact that Brazilian poetry is not American and can exist in American English is a kind of defiance and jubilance, and a wish for another world.
pdc: [O cidadán your she’s veritable]/[moving thru a coalect of genre]/ où ce qui ‘anétatique’ m’accueille/ tant / oídes/ ((OCidadán82) The multilingual text is a presence in your works. In our multicultural, multilingual societies do you see the future of the text increasingly reflect these cultural realities and push the reader to listen to the linguistic structures outside one’s comfort zones?
EM: Ah. It does English good to be jostled and entered by other tongues, motions, gestures, beings. It keeps it alive. From the perspective of having a decent command of 3 languages, and living avidly in all of them, and knowing so gladly what these languages bring to my first language, English, how they force it to open new possibilities it didn’t know it had, well, I can say that having one language only is a real flattening of the possible.
One thing your question does make me think of is my wish that more writers would bring their other idioms into their work. That there would be more of a glad environment in Canada for work in many languages. I have a dream of doing a poetry workshop where people are all doing their writing in different languages: English, French, Portuguese, Cree, Japanese. What these writers would learn from each other!
pdc: Your transelation of Pessoa’s “O Guardador de Rebanhos” is not a mirror, an echo of the departure text but a response to the poem and the poet himself. What is the difference for you between a transelation and a transladation?
EM: What is a transladation?
pdc: I have cross-pollinated the Portuguese word transladar with the English word translation. Transladar means to remove or change place and used in particular when moving/removing the remains of a body. It is also the same root as for transcription. It comes from the Latin root translatus = transfer.
EM: Hey, I like that! Maybe I would say “transledation… and add in the Galician adjective, feminine, leda. Which means “happy.” For ‘transelation’ has elation in it.
My transelation was my way of inserting my little “e”, my erin “e”, into the translation. That work, actually, evolved on its own – it started out as a translation of Alberto Caeiro/Fernando Pessoa’s O Guardador using a slightly different register. I was really just amusing myself (well, I don’t watch TV, so I amuse myself with words and languages). It was Caeiro himself who upped and entered Toronto; the work, seriously, just carried itself over, lifted itself up and appeared in Toronto. I, the translator, just kept on going.
But it makes, curiously, the translator visible in the text. Or more visible – makes it impossible to hold a view of translation as a transparent reproduction of an original. Of course, no translation is, but people commonly think it is. In any translation, if you can read it and the original language, the sitedness of the translator in the translated version (what social class they are, what community they come from , what their values are) is apparent. It’s just not apparent if you have only one language, the one into which the work is translated. Then you are easy to fool, are fooled. Constantly.
With the Pessoa text, I as translator ended up being a second-degree heteronym, a variant on Caeiro. That doesn’t happen with every translation though, nor is there one strategy for translation.
pdc: How might your practice evolve when translating a living poet who would then respond to your own dialogue/translation of the text?
EM: Well, that would really vary! But have commonalties too with the Pessoa. Say, when translating Nicole Brossard with Robert Majzels, we’re able to have a dialogue with the poet when there are lines or lexicon that can’t be “reproduced” and someone has to make a choice. Since Nicole’s there to ask, we ask her. She’s very used to being translated of course, and is used to being surprised and glad at the choices someone else makes. With her work, we try to keep the timbre, tones, syntactical breaks and idiosyncrasies, the wordplay and sense of generation of text through wordplay. Not all of these instances in the original can be transferred into English, but we try to find parallels. Sometimes we have to make leaps. It makes us push at the borders of our own capacities in English. Extremely enriching.
When I translate Chilean poet Andrés Ajens (who is likely very much alive and lively and willing to respond), a lot more dialogue is needed. I come from a northern culture and he comes from a southern one. So many of the imperatives and influences and echoes in our two cultures are very different, that finding a timbre, finding a register, a way to deal with his absolutely excessive wordplay – he’s like Paul Celan with Tourette’s, that guy – and finding a way to achieve the cultural echoes of his work in English, in Canada, is a monumental challenge. In Brossard’s work, we translated from one culture to a very similar culture, we have a shared history with Quebec, even if the English stories are told from the other side to the French ones. In Ajens’ work, the Canadian reader would miss too too much in an absolutely literal translation – bringing the references over is harder, the resonances.
Galician poet Chus Pato’s book m-Talá, which I’m currently translating, brings up a whole other set of problems: she jams together registers and tones and levels of language, erudite discourse and historical knowledge with bits of lyric… she’s working against a lyric vein in her own culture (or her work does… she isn’t deliberately working against it… consciously, yes, but her goal is other than “working against”) that imbues the literature there far more than it does here. Trying to find the right tones, registers, that will work in Canadian English, in Canada, will resonate here, has been difficult.
But I love the work, and all these different poets and languages!
It challenges me, and brings me to the deep place, the unutterable place, from which my own poetry struggles to emerge. I learn a lot. And it gives me joy to bring work into English, my English, the English of my place and time, so that all these people, and this work, can join my literature too.
pdc: When did you first come in contact with the language and culture of Galicia and what drew you to integrate this new language into your poetry?
EM: 1994, I went to Galicia (in the NW of Spain) with my father and realized (speaking only English and French, and holding a Spanish phrasebook) that people weren’t speaking Spanish, but a different language. Guidebooks said it was a dead language (they were still informed by Francoism, which suppressed regional languages). It lives. I decided in 1998, after a subsequent visit, to learn it so as to learn more about the literature and people, and so that people didn’t have to talk to me in English or French. If I’m there, I should learn, right?
I learned it too out of respect for the people and their defiance of the supposed non-viability of their language. For a small language to survive, to thrive, it is critical that it be able to welcome new speakers. I decided to become one of those speakers. I like who I can be and what I can think in Galician, and who I can talk to.
And also, out of respect for the ancestor whose name I bear, one Benito Moure, who in about 1849 left the village where I brought my father in 1994, to find work in Lisboa, París, Londres. And who died. Of course I come from other cultures too, Polish and Ukrainian and Irish and French… but it’s fun to be in Galicia where my name always gets pronounced correctly!
pdc: English is the imperial language of our time. It has conquered the world, erased other languages through attrition and acculturation. It is as extension and perhaps an instrument of the economic and cultural muscle of the empire. There is immediately more visibility for those who write in English. Given that tacit privilege and power, what can a writer do while writing from the linguistic belly of the beast as most writers in Canada do?
EM: Write in English as if it were a language among other languages, touched by other languages, interpenetrated, filtered, and incomplete. Not use it as a totalizing gesture. Which means, you have to learn another language, and then another. And use, valorize, the languages you might know, let their rhythms enter your working in English.
This would be easier if Canadian literature had a tradition of welcoming other language’s literatures into its own. In other words, if we had an indigenous practice of translation: choosing the works ourselves, publishing them in English (or French) among our English and French works, letting them move among our own works and affect our rhythms, gestures.
But our funding structures for literary production mean that we receive other literatures only through the American or, less frequently, British optic. We deny ourselves a lot of nourishment for our literature that way. It’s a problem.
pdc: Is Canadian poetry still in the shadow of England and the USA or do you see us nurturing a distinct voice, finding our own posture in the world?
EM: In my experience, Canadian poetry is not very visible outside of Canada; we need to engage in more dialogues and polylogues with others, with other poetries and languages, we need to be present as listeners and active exchangers too. We need to let ourselves be entered and affected and disturbed by other histories of language. When we do this, there are definitely people, poets, listeners, ready to engage with us. But we’re kind of inward-looking, or don’t tend to look further than the USA (Quebeckers excluded from this… francophone writers tend to have more contacts and exchanges in the world.)
pdc: Who are the poets that you to return to in your reading?
EM: Rilke, Lorca, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Césaire, Vallejo, the Galician-Portuguese medieval cantigas, Cunqueiro, Celso Emilio Ferreiro, Chus Pato, Claudio Pato, and contemporary American women writers such as Norma Cole, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, Carole Maso, and, always, Clarice Lispector, but I’ll also jump back and immerse myself in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, then grab Frank O’Hara, Lorine Niedecker right after, followed by the 15th century northern prose version of the Rule of St. Benedict written for nuns. Then I’ll read Daphne Marlatt and Nicole Brossard, and Phil Hall and Roy Miki and Fred Wah and Gerry Shikatani. And Gertrude Stein, which leads me to bpNichol. And Bernardo Soares, Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, well any of Pessoa… and Lidia Jorge. Then I’ll come back to Canada and read Lisa Robertson and Nicole Markotic and Natalee Caple. Then, Norma Cole and Cesar Vallejo, one after the other! Egad, some of those write prose… I guess I read a lot of philosophy too. And I like to read and translate at the same time… and this answer is so incomplete!
pdc: And you have time to write, too! What projects are you involved in at present that you might let the fS readers in on?
EM: Oh I have a few projects on the go. A book of essays drawn from various poetics talks I’ve given in the past 15 years or so, called my Beloved Wager, which should appear from The Mercury Press in fall of 2004. I’m half-finished shaping a new book of poetry, much different than the series of 3 books that closed with O Cidadán, called Little Theatres at the moment. And I’m halfway through a translation into English of Galician poet Chus Pato’s fabulous m-Talá. I’m hoping Canadian institutional attitudes toward translation will shift enough to let me publish it in Canada, for I really wish I didn’t have to “emigrate” the book to the USA.