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An Interview with Lisa Samuels on Laura Riding and Poetry (Part 3)

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.

What influence did Schuyler Jackson have on Riding, and what was the nature of their working relationship?

LS: I think Schuyler Jackson was ‘bad’ for Riding – one might say they were ‘bad’ for each other, encouraging the most self-generating sense of How Things Ought To Be. But that judgment is from the perspective of the world that wants more writing, please, from talented and imaginatively liberated persons. I think Schuyler and Laura found in each other the freedom to articulate a perfect world of dialectic-toward-agreement kindness and prescriptive verbal accuracy. Riding had started writing what became Rational Meaning before they met, having a contract in the 1930s with an English publisher (I forget which one, probably Cape) for a unique sort of Dictionary. Schuyler became part of her project, and it is hard to say exactly what part he played in the details of that tome. Laura is careful to insist on his co-authorship in the Prefaces, but she would be careful, given her history with such matters (her own practical exclusion from co-authorship attribution for work she did with Graves, especially on A Survey of Modernist Poetry, which of course was the impetus for William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, as Empson noted in the first edition – leaving Riding off the list of authors of the Survey and then in the second edition eliding entirely his debt to Riding’s and Graves’s book).

Riding steadfastly resisted being categorized with any identity group. To what extent do you think her “outsider” status, rejected or not, influenced her writing?

LS: Riding’s father was a firebrand Socialist, and her New York upbringing would have been at times infused with issues of how language shapes people’s thinking. I certainly think her writing evinces clear ‘woman writer’ identities, even as Riding resisted being labeled a woman writer (and for good reason, given how overt sexism was allowed to be in those days, not least in intellectual communities and not least in the U.S.).

Being an outsider, as woman and Jew and daughter (and remember how overt anti-Semitism was also allowed to be back then) in such a heated political climate, no doubt contributed to her urge to investigate ordinary language. But one might say the same for many persons at the time, so we have to make room for an element of inborn linguistic obsessions that translated into her poetry. Her investigations of ordinary language in part led her to push against genre boundaries, and that pushing might be seen as a healthy aspect of Riding’s work to retain her ‘outsider’ status.

I see in your own poetry a mixture of the high and low, the particular and the general, the abstract and the concrete. Do you intend a dialectical approach?

LS: I don’t intend the poems to elicit dialectical responses, but others have also remarked on the mixed levels of code, word class, etc. Dialogic, perhaps. A kind of overarching catachretic metaphoricity. For my part, that happens when I close my eyes and write. And I think it’s a not uncommon phenomenon in contemporary urban experiments with poetry. I’ve been exposed to a number of countries and languages in my life, and it may be that the urban experience of globalization is leading many contemporary poets to mix different rhetorics together in close proximity.

Particularly in your latest book, The Invention of Culture, I noticed the frequent use of “you” in your poetry, not to address the reader but as a third person, sometimes an interlocutor and sometimes a listener, but usually a physical presence in the poem.

LR: I think you have spoken to the heart of the matter: ‘a physical presence in the poem.’ My compositional imaginaries are always spatial and repeatedly visited by relations to an other or a self-as-other, sometimes in the form of language as a pronominal being, sometimes in the form of composite, dream-like others that exhort or are exhorted.

What contemporary poets do you see as working within the verbal and philosophical tradition that Riding deeply ploughed?

LR: In the UK, Alan Halsey (he’s more overtly literary-historical about it), J H Prynne, Marianne Morris (she’s more cheerful about it), Keston Sutherland, and in the U.S. Leslie Scalapino, Stacy Doris, Barrett Watten, and Justin Katko come to mind, and from Canada Lisa Robertson, from Germany Ulf Stolterfoht (whom I read in translation). Not that there aren’t many other interesting writers, but I’m trying to think of poets who interrogate the word, and syntax, and power, and the acculturated body in relation to those.

In “Jocasta,” one of Riding’s critical works collected in Anarchism is Not Enough, she writes, partially by way of criticizing Oswald Spengler and Wyndham Lewis:

Man’s powers from for reconstructing reality are really a misuse of his powers for constructing himself out of the wreckage which is reality. The only true entity possible to man is an analytic entity: the synthetic entities of art are all parodies of self.

What is Riding prescribing here, for the artist and for the reader?

LR: If I were to paraphrase the two sentences, I might write this:

Normative mimetic works are an abuse of the possibility of works that keep us in accurate (constant, vibrating) relation to radical contingency. A resolved picture is a false image.

Psychological symbolism, in this view, is another form of normative mimesis (if you take at face value the kind of interiority portraits that Virginia Woolf and Henry James were going for).

I think Riding did want people to be ‘liberated’ into a ‘responsible’ relationship to art. That is prescriptive, but she couldn’t tell people how to be in this relationship exactly or they wouldn’t have access to the radical contingency her early writing self was transacted by (I think her later writing self was too; but it becomes much more complicated). The contradiction is inescapable, and I don’t try to resolve it.

My thanks to Lisa Samuels for agreeing to this interview and for taking the time to respond in depth to my questions.

An Interview with Lisa Samuels on Laura Riding and Poetry (Part 2)

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.

Riding’s poetry reads to me as a far more open-ended questioning of language and meaning than her later critical writing, which can be didactically strict in its directed goal of redefining how language and meaning should work.

LS: In her poetry, Riding wants to redefine ‘how language and meaning should work’ but, because of the nature of language, she in fact (in my view) demonstrates a more open-ended ‘questioning of language and meaning’. Again, that’s in her poetry. In her early critical work and short stories (until 1939) I think she is more direct and directive about the lamentable limits of the human imagination in the face of what language is capable of – what it does do to us and what it can do to and for us.

How intentional was this open-endedness in her poetry?

LS: I think one can only usefully address this question by looking at specific poems and poetics passages of hers and tracing the balance of go-thou-and-do-likewise with watch-me-constellate-into-disappearance.

How do these methods manifest themselves in the stories of Progress of Stories?

LS: Her tone can be crisp in those stories, as you say; but her combinations of the fantastic, fairy tales, interrogating language as power, investigating what it means to draw and disassemble characters, challenging the reader to be aware of their desire for narrative and syntactic seduction, and so on, make for a situation, in my reading, of multiple possibilities (rather than precision) and messy genres (excess – I mean that in a good way).

How did these two opposing approaches resolve themselves after she gave up poetry around 1940 and refused to republish her poetry for 30 years?

LS: After 1940, with the changes in her personal and intellectual life (namely the intense identification she and Schuyler Jackson had with each other, & their encouragement of a kind of impatience-with-the-world and a monastic focus on certain ideas about the inner workings of language), Riding turned toward two prime impulses. One of these was rather socially angelic: she wanted to people to be their best selves with each other (we see this in the 1930s, too, but later it’s more constant and prescriptive), to realize that being is ongoingness, intense and constant communication using the best of our best selves, our most responsible and loving language attitudes. One sees this in The Telling and Some Categories of Broad Reference, especially. Her expression of this impulse are utopian and language-fixed, but there’s almost nothing silly nor unthinking about it, and it is aligned with plenty of theorizing one sees from legitimated Continental writers at the time and later on.

I think there’s ‘almost’ nothing silly about it because Riding is still so directive, so rhetorically self-unfolding, that even though she’s calling out the Other in tender terms, her manner of presenting the materials can make people feel she’s telling them what to do. And indeed, in her second prime impulse, brought to its apex in Rational Meaning, Riding (with her husband Schuyler) is in fact telling people what to do. She wants to install an attitude toward the nature of language that amounts to viewing meaning as innate – kind of like Plato’s Cratylus dialog redux, but this time the voice that represents the Rule of Use (akin to Hermogenes) is really not permitted utterance except as misguided.

I think both of these prime impulses are connected in the desire to connect, albeit on her own terms. Riding wants to get as close as possible to words, via human and textual conduits.

Certainly she comes to Plato’s view of banishing art from the republic; but I can’t help seeing everything she does as (at least also) art, because of (always) her methods and styles.

To be continued. The next installment will cover Riding’s working relationship with Schuyler Jackson and Samuels’ own poetry.

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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