An Interview with Juliana Spahr

Sep 21, 2010 | Archive, Interviews

Juliana Spahr is the author, most recently, of The Transformation (2007), about colonialism, language politics, cultural geography, queer theory, the academy, and the effects of all these on three people who move between New York and Hawai‘i. Previous books include This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005), a series of poems written in the lead-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You (2001). Spahr edited Poetry and Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary with Joan Retallack, and cofounded and edited the journal Chain with Jena Osman. She teaches at Mills College in Oakland, CA.

Interview by ALEX CHAMBERS

Black Warrior Review conducted this interview on a humid day in mid-September, 2009, at a picnic table overlooking the Black Warrior River. BWR learned that it is best to verify that your recording device is recording before the interview really gets going. If the interview seems to start in media res, this may be why.

Black Warrior Review: I think teaching is often a part of being a writer or artist in our economy, and I’m wondering how—you might address maybe, further thoughts on anti-colonialism with regard to, and concerns about, the academy. I’m wondering if your interests in modernists and avant-garde poetry have influenced your teaching.

Juliana Spahr: Yes. One thing that is interesting about modernism is that it is a bunch of writers who attempt to think through what it might mean to be writing in a time of globalization. Modernism is all about the urban and about the entry of the colonies into the European capitals. I’m thinking here of that great article by Tyler Stovall that talks about the large amount of people that were brought over from the African colonies around WWI to do the work that wasn’t getting done when Europeans were off fighting, so there’s this incredible influx of a colonial population into a place like Paris around the time that modernism is happening. And one of the ways that modernism seems so crucial to our thinking right now is that it is in some way, although sometimes I admit in a very indirect way, negotiating this legacy. I also want to see a lot of the poetries that come after modernism–even the ones that define themselves as kind of anti-modernist such as the identity poetries of the 70s–as somehow engaged with similar questions at the same time.

So a sort of answer to that pedagogical question you ask is that modernism asks a lot of questions that a lot of contemporary literature also asks. And so it feels impossible to not be constantly talking about it.

BWR: And so do you tend to work more, in your classroom, around the questions that modernism brings up? Trying to answer a certain set of questions?

JS: Well, I try not to teach literature so that it perpetuates a patriotic nationalism. I’m interested in the other than nationalist uses of poetry in this time. I think you can’t really understand contemporary poetry without also seeing it as a series of dialogues and reactions to modernism, and you can’t understand modernism without seeing it as a series of dialogues and reactions to kind of the work of the colonies, like the oral traditions that were coming back. I think of this as a sort of literary parallel to what gets called primitivism in the arts.

BWR: Can you say a little more about the primitivism in the arts? Is that related to Orientalism?

JS: Similar to how Picasso took from African sculptural forms, I think it makes sense to see someone like Stein taking something from an other than western oral tradition. I’m also thinking here of those moments where Eliot talks about how poetry is a savage art and comes from the savage on the drum. And I keep trying to think about Eliot’s observation, despite its dated language, as an attempt to acknowledge how poetry is under the influence of more than just European cultural traditions. Very similar to poetry’s influences today.

BWR: Yes, yes. Maybe you can talk a little bit about the trajectory of modernism in your own work, sort of the story of your own work in relation to modernism, and how that relates to language use and the function of poetry with regard to place.

JS: I feel like I grew up on modernism. Or really on Pound and Stein. Almost on Pound versus Stein. Or that is my memory of my undergraduate literature courses. I’m sure it is not an accurate one though. Then when I was at graduate school, I was going to write a Stein dissertation, and ended up writing a kind of Stein-and-poets-who-came-out-of-and-after-her dissertation. When I went to Hawaii I became interested, I remember there was a Joyce scholar, and someone had said to her that the last thing students needed at Hawai‘i was a course on Joyce. And I remember being very interested in that. In part because I had been never really questioned the value of modernism. But also because there was much to think about that Joyce was trying to do with his negotiations with a kind of localism and an internationalism, a kind of colonialism and an anti-colonialism all at the same time. And that felt like it was very applicable to the literatures of Hawai‘i. And also I am interested in that question of what’s the balance when you’re teaching in a place like Hawai‘i; how much of the local literature do you need versus how much of the national tradition versus how much of the American tradition versus how much of the English tradition versus how much of those other traditions in English versus how much of Pacific traditions, etc.

I have this moment in this book that I’m currently working on where I talk about how I had to teach this course called “Poetry and Drama.” The rule was that you had to teach a Greek and a Shakespeare. So I did Antigone and I did The Tempest and I added Stein’s Tender Buttons and then this play by Alani Apio, a contemporary Hawaiian playwright who writes about sovereignty. And in this course students kept saying about Tender Buttons that it was the equivalent of a pidgin, a kind of European pidgin. And I became interested in thinking about how Apio’s play, which is written in English, and Hawaiian, and Pidgin, negotiates these language issues in ways that parallel and diverge from Stein’s work.

BWR: And, do you feel like that thinking influenced your own poetry as well?

JS: Oh certainly. I’m trying to write this critical book on the literature of the 1990’s, and the rise of a literature in English that includes other languages. And one of the things I’ve been trying to think about as I’ve been writing it is that my book of the 1990’s, Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You, has a lot of Hawaiian and Pidgin words in it, and it’s something that I wouldn’t do today. And I am interested in that, how these language issues felt very crucial at that moment and how it feels not so crucial now, and why is that? And is that a conservatism on my part, or is it a respectful acknowledging of the limits of my knowledge base? And I actually think it might be more conservatism than…

BWR: How so?

JS: Because I–the thing that I try to argue in this book is that that move to include other languages, even languages that you’re not fluent in, is a kind of progressive gesture. It’s a reaction to things like the English-only movements, the Oakland Ebonics controversy that were so much in the national news. So that including words in other languages felt like a critique of that sort of language hysteria. It felt like an anti-U.S. nationalism gesture. There was at the same time a lot of attention in the 1990’s to how English was becoming a global language, to how it was edging out more local languages. So my argument is that in the 90s this really interesting poetry about language shows up. And then I think, although I might be being paranoid here, that after 9/11 a national poetry suddenly rises up again. I keep wanting to shorthand this as a “Bush poetry.” I’m thinking of the sudden national attention that poets like Ted Kooser got, the reassertion of a plain-speech poetry about the weather, or about the values of rural life.

BWR: That’s interesting. So with your move away from using the kind of Pidgin languages, it sounds like you worry that it’s a conservatism on your part. But at the same time, you’re concerned about these sort of global, systemic things. It’s not a conservatism in the sense of what you just described, with the “Bush poetry,” the Ted Kooser kind of conservatism—or is it? And if so, then what’s the value of that?

JS: I just started writing this book so it isn’t totally worked out yet. But I was going to write this book about multi-lingual poetry, and then I was working on the works cited for it, and I was like, oh interesting, all these books that I had thought were coming out of the 70’s and the 80’s and the 90’s, they’re actually clustered around the 1990’s. And I just became interested in trying to wonder about what’s going on there, why was that happening? And while it’s not like it stopped happening, I’m also wondering why does it become less dramatic after a certain moment?

BWR: And in terms of using poetry to think through the concerns of the culture—you’ve done really interesting work with prose as well, with The Transformation or in smaller things like the Dole Street piece—do you think of that as distinguished from your work of poetry or do you think of it as an extension or just pretty much the same thing?

JS: It’s pretty much the same thing.

BWR: Okay.

JS: Both use sentences, etc.

BWR: Yeah. Right.

JS: (Laughs) It’s just arranged differently.

BWR: Okay, makes sense. Well, my question that I e-mailed to you was also sort of a general freebie question, of what you are thinking about these days. Is there other stuff on your mind with regards to your writing?

JS: I’ve been thinking about the ‘90s a lot and this sort of multilingual thing, and I’ve been trying to think some about what keeps getting called conceptual poetry which I keep wanting to called appropriation. And I’ve been trying some to think about that in relation to the work in English that includes other languages that happens in ’90s, wondering about whether it is similar or not, is it just yet another way to include others’ words in the work? Is that the same kind of thing? If so, why is it so different? I’m still thinking a lot about environmental issues and place issues and how they intersect which feels like an extension of work I’ve already done. What it means to be located in a place and what role poetry has to play in that.

BWR: Has your thinking about environmental issues and place issues come out of your being a poet and your work as a poet, or has it come from other kinds of aspects of your life?

JS: Probably both, and then, like it’s impossible to separate them finally. Living in Hawai‘i got me thinking more seriously about what’s happening environmentally in part because Hawaii’s just such an at-risk place for species because of its uniqueness and separation.

BWR: So it sort of focuses all those questions?

JS: Yes. I’m interested in what parts of nature poetry have we inherited from colonialism. And, what parts of it might be able to work against colonialism.

BWR: Right. There’s that sort of idea in what we were saying [before the interview] about beauty and how colonialism will take one aspect of a place, the nature aspect maybe, and describe it and we’ll think of that now as beautiful writing.

JS: Yes. I’ve found the scholarly work done by Beth Tobin on the botanical drawings really nice and helpful here. She has this really great article about the tradition of the botanical drawing which happens with colonialism. How all those early exploratory ships have illustrators on them and she talks about how the illustrative tradition is to draw the plant on a white background in isolation. So there is no evidence of the parts around it or how it intersects with other plants or where it grows or how animals use it or how it is invasive or how it is disappearing. And that seems a really interesting way to think also about nature poetry. Does it do something similar? Or are there moments where it suggests another way?

BWR: One more thing I was sort of curious about, on a totally different track than what we’ve been talking about. I’ve noticed some of your work has been published by subpoetics self-publish or perish, a project you helped start. I was wondering if you could talk about that.

JS: Yeah. Once upon a time, there was this thriving e-mail discussion list, back when e-mail discussion lists thrived, which is no longer true today, that was subpoetics. And it was started by, I think, Douglas Rothschild. But I might have this history wrong. But it started as CC list and it was mainly for people to complain about what was said on the poetics list, the Buffalos Poetics list. And then it turned into a listserv of about fifty to sixty people. Out of that came at least two projects. One of which was subpress. And subpress is around nineteen people who each donated one percent of their income every year and the idea was that you would edit one book every three years. We were able to stop donating after six years. In part because some projects never got done so there is some cushion of money. And in part because some of the back list sold a few copies. That project is still ongoing. It is far from a sustainable press. No one is on salary. The editors do their own design. Etc. But it still produces books. And then another project from that email discussion list was the subpoetics self-publish or perish thing. And this was just where anyone on the list who wanted to would make a chap book a year, usually around twenty people did it, and then send it out to others on the list. I think this might have happened for six years,or something like that. It seems to have stopped. Although perhaps someone would resurrect it. That would be nice.

BWR: Yeah. It seems like a nice project.

JS: It is and was fun.