Waggish

An Interview with Lisa Samuels on Laura Riding and Poetry (Part 1)

Lisa Samuels edited and wrote an extensive introduction for the University of California Press 2001 reprint of Laura Riding’s 1928 collection of essays and stories, Anarchism Is Not Enough. Lisa has also published three books of poetry, most recently The Invention of Culture (Shearsman Books, 2008), as well as several chapbooks. She teaches at The University of Auckland in New Zealand.

How did you first encounter Laura Riding?

LS: I found Riding in graduate school at the University of Virginia, after I had finished all my coursework and exams. In retrospect, it’s odd that I didn’t learn about her at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I earned my B.A., since William Harmon was one of my teachers and knew and championed her work, as I found out later.

I first read Riding in 1994, the same year I finally found out about not only the Language poetry movement but also about what I think of as some of the core texts and ideas of the real revolution of ‘modernism’ (thinking of 1905-1930, roughly, and mostly trans-Atlantic): Stein, WC Williams, George Oppen, Georges Bataille, Mina Loy. The ‘broken’ writers, the Blakean modernists.

I differentiate these still from the smoother, more Wordsworthian modernists, the ones I did learn about in school and knew very well: Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Marianne Moore. The division between these kinds of groups is perpetuated to this day, of course: the raw and the cooked, the smooth and the striated, the broken and the whole. It is difficult to set aside these binaries, mostly because people operate, understandably, by making distinctions and, unfortunately, by waging war on the ‘Other’ distinction.

Riding is such a singular figure that she is difficult to associate with any particular school of poetry. But would you compare her to the Objectivists like Zukofsky and Oppen?

LS: Laura Riding I wouldn’t necessarily put with Zukofsky because her poetry is systematically more abstract and allegorizing than his, less explicit in its processing of particular urban identity, in spite of her being raised in NYC and situated principally in urban contexts until the move to Majorca in 1930. She does share some of Zukofsky’s sense of verbal energy, especially as we see in his early “A” segments.

But I would put her next to George Oppen – not least because they both ceased writing poetry, or at least participating in poetic production, for a very long period in the middle of their lives and of the 20th-century, but also because of a commonality in their investigations of imaginative experiencing, he more from a phenomenological and minimalist perspective, she more from a dramatic/role-playing and exuberant one.

What effect did Riding have on how you read and interpreted poetry?

LS: Riding was part of my dissertating education, and her effect on how I read other poetry was that I looked for the kind of rigor, absolutism, hunger, presentness-of-voice-as-not-a-social-self, anger, adamance, energetic eschatology (rather than broken-hearted cultural despair) that Riding evinces.

Riding’s “rigor and adamance” is one of the major aspects that drew me to her work in the first place, a similar sort of spirit to that which I find in Robert Musil. Yet what I like about them at their best is that they deploy that critical acumen in the service of doubt and uncertainty without ever embracing willful obscurity or definite answers. And like with Musil, Riding’s rigorous and aggressive skepticism led to a problematic constructive project. Is it possible to have the negative project without the positive project?

LS: Tricky, isn’t it, given the personal energy that must be generated in order to overcome the will-to-repudiation once one is ‘in touch with’ radical contingency. That personal energy can immediately or swiftly or gradually overtake one’s ‘good self-abnegation.’ (One has to work very hard to ‘never be famous,’ as Bernadette Mayer exhorts.) Your question is unanswerable in absolute terms – I mean that even the term ‘negative project’ is a contradiction in terms, since absolute negation would never be traceable in the productive materials open to our view and to this consideration.

But one can comment on it from different perspectives – Nagarjuna, for example – and adduce a few examples of artists I think of as hovering pretty resolutely in projects of ‘positive negation.’ Oppen is one, and some others come to mind: William Blake (there he is again, all imaginative project and no apparently possible social ground), Larry Eigner (20th-century American poet, with lifelong cerebral palsy), Tom Phillips (contemporary English artist and writer, splendid stuff – I may not be right about the negative project, given his polishing excellence, but…), Veronica Forrest-Thomson (20th-century English poet), Oskar Pastior (German contemporary – from what I know of his poetry, which is not a great deal), Kathy Acker (20th-century American novelist), Emily Dickinson (surely), Lautréamont (The Songs of Maldoror). There are others.

To be continued. The next installment will discuss Riding’s abandoning of poetry and her prose works.

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