Laura Mullen and Jonathan Stalling’s Phonotaxis: The Way We Travel Through Each Other

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The Conversant is pleased to publish Phonotaxis: The Way We Travel Through Each Other, a collaborative project by Laura Mullen and Jonathan Stalling.

Cristiana Baik with Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang
Kao Kalia Yang

This interview took place at the home of Kao Kalia Yang, on July 25th, 2013, near dusk, in Minneapolis.

Cristiana Baik: You start your memoir, The Late Homecomer, by saying, “The feeling that she was Hmong did not happen until the preparations for America began as her family was being processed.” The memoir seems to be focused on that fractured, internalized space created by the negotiations of identity making, one that can be argued as particular to experiences shaped by diaspora.

Kao Kalia Yang: For me, that statement makes a lot of sense, as I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand; it was all I knew. Everyone who lived within that fence was Hmong. We lived within the restraints of Thailand’s “humane deterrence” policy. All of these lines in my life . . . you’re born into it, so it’s natural and it’s normal. But the adults around me kept saying that this wasn’t the world we belonged to, that Laos is across a raging river and that America is this place across the earth. So the feeling like you’re home was being told continually that home is someplace else, a place beyond your imagination. And I only had my imagination, because I didn’t have books when I was growing up in the camp (Ban Vinai). So for example, when I was young, I’d hear so many stories about tigers, yet I didn’t encounter my first tiger until I visited Como Zoo, right here in Saint Paul.

Angela Buck, Leonard Schwartz and Victor Reinking on Abdellatif Laâbi

Victor Reinking and Abdellatif Laâbi
Abdellatif Laâbi and Victor Reinking

This monthly series will feature highlights from the Cross Cultural Poetics archive. Cross Cultural Poetics is one of the longest-running radio shows in America focused on contemporary poetry and poetics. Based at The Evergreen State College and hosted by Leonard Schwartz, the entire archive, running from 2003 to the present, can be accessed on PennSound.

As I select installments, I’m not only listening for interviews that speak to the present moment, but I’m hoping to revive conversations that could add new dimensions to our ideas about poetry’s role in a global society.

This month, I’ve chosen an episode from 2003, the radio program’s first year, which features an interview between Leonard Schwartz and Victor Reinking—translator of one of the best-known living Moroccan poets, Abdellatif Laâbi. Laâbi was imprisoned from 1972 to 1980 for “crimes of opinion,” and later sought exile in France. At a time when the Arab world seems to offer the greatest cry of resistance towards oppression, this interview serves for me as a reminder of the political possibilities that poetry can create. –Angela Buck

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Victor Reinking teaches French and African literatures at Seattle University. He edited and translated a volume of selected poems by Abdellatif Laâbi entitled The World’s Embrace and is currently working on a volume of Laâbi’s prison writings.

Poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, translator, storyteller and human-rights activist, Abdellatif Laâbi is one of the most prolific and critically acclaimed of contemporary North African writers. He was born in 1942 in Fez, Morocco. In 1966, he founded the avant-garde literary and artistic journal Souffles, which helped spark a literary and artistic renaissance throughout North Africa. Sentenced in 1972 to 10 years imprisonment for his political beliefs and his writings, he was released in 1980 after an international campaign in his defense. He has published 14 collections of poetry, four novels, a collection of plays for theatre, three children’s books, 10 collections of essays and profiles of artists and a book of letters from prison. Laâbi has also been active as a translator, and his French versions of major contemporary Arab authors (at last count, sixteen books) include, among others, works by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Moroccan poet Abdallah Zrika, Iraqi poet Abdelwahed Al Bayati, Syrian novelist Hanna Mina and an anthology of thirty-six contemporary Palestinian poets. Laâbi has received numerous prizes and awards for his work, including the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie in 2009 and the Grand Prix de la Francophonie of the Académie française in 2011.

Jon Curley with Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Jon Curley: Can you envision what kinds of poems, whether structurally or thematically, you might consider writing beyond the realm of your past practice? Are there elements of poems outside your usual patterns and activities you might try to integrate into your work?

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: The easy, straight-forward answers are “yes” and “yes.” But all the interest would lie in what these “yeses” might plausibly mean. So the answers might also be “no” and “no.” Let’s see what all this means.

Jeffrey Williams with Michael Bérubé

Michael Bérubé
Michael Bérubé

Michael Bérubé regularly crosses the divide between academic and popular spheres. Bérubé launched onto the scene in the early ’90s with a Village Voice article debunking charges of political correctness in the academy. Just out of grad school, he had already earned an academic reputation with articles in places like PMLA and a book on the reception of contemporary literature, Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon (Cornell University Press, 1992). But through the ’90s he came to serve as an informant of matters academic to the literate public, publishing at a brisk pace in the Voice, Harper’s, The New Yorker and The Nation. He also did early work defining disability studies with his book Life as We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child (Pantheon, 1996), which teases out the theoretical nettle of the nature/nurture argument, as well as recounts parenting a child with Down syndrome. He staked out the blogosphere with American Airspace, which comments on politics as well as on more specialized pursuits like literary theory. His 2006 book, What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education (Norton), defends the humanities and higher education.

Following Marginal Forces, Bérubé’s second book, Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (Verso, 1994), calls for a more publicly relevant criticism. Responding to attacks on the university, he also co-edited the collection Higher Education Under Fire: Politics, Economics, and the Crisis of the Humanities (with Cary Nelson; Routledge, 1995). After Life as We Know It, he published a collection of his essays, The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies (NYU Press, 1998), which continues his commentary on cultural politics and focuses on the academic job crisis. It appears in the NYU Press series, Cultural Front, for which he serves as general editor. Alongside Liberal Arts, in 2006 he published a wide-ranging collection of his essays on the Sokal hoax and the science wars, the state of academe and the academic left, Rhetorical Occasions: Essays on Humans and the Humanities (University of North Carolina Press). In addition, he edited the collection The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies (Blackwell, 2005). Since this interview, he has continued his commentary on cultural politics with The Left At War (NYU Press, 2009). Among his most notable journalistic pieces, see “Public Image Limited,” Village Voice June 18th,  1991; “Discipline and Theory,” Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities, ed. Edmundson (Penguin, 1993); “Life as We Know It: A Father, A Son, and Genetic Destiny,” Harper’s, Dec. 1994; and “Public Academy,” New Yorker, 1996. His blog archive can be found at

Born in New York City in 1961, Bérubé attended Columbia University (BA, 1982) and the University of Virginia (MA, 1986; PhD, 1989). Beginning in 1989, he taught at the University of Illinois, where he ascended through the professorial ranks, and he moved in 2001 to Penn State to take the newly-created Paterno Family Professorship in English, which he has since resigned. Now he holds the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and is Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities there. In 2012-13 he served as the president of the Modern Language Association.

This interview took place in Jeffrey Williams’s apartment in Pittsburgh, on August 11th, 2006. It was conducted by Williams, then editor of minnesota review, and transcribed by David Cerniglia.

Jeffrey Williams: This year you have two new books on cultural politics and the academic left coming out, and you have a blog that is one of the more noteworthy ones for those of us in the humanities. It seems to me that your role now, or one of your roles, is defending liberal education. Certainly in What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?, you mount an even-toned and good-spirited defense of liberal education.

Michael Bérubé: Thanks for the kind words. I actually think of What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? as continuous with the same project of Public Access. There’s a line somewhere in Public Access about how the first job is to scrape off the nonsense that has been said about us, then get around to explaining what it is we really do. I actually didn’t start Liberal Arts with that in mind; I started with a Chronicle of Higher Education essay I wrote on dealing with a disruptive student in a seminar. It turns out to be incredibly difficult to try to describe entire courses. The amount of labor that goes into a course comes to hundreds and hundreds of pages when put into prose, and at first the book was just going to be something like that, more along the lines of  “this is what teaching undergraduates actually looks like.”

Tony Trigilio with Sandra Simonds

Sandra Simonds
Sandra Simonds

In his monthly poetry podcast, Radio Free Albion, Tony Trigilio interviews poets about their recently released or forthcoming books.  Always informal, each interview is a conversation—two poets talking about the work and play of the creative process, and showcasing some of the most innovative new work in contemporary poetry.

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Sandra Simonds is the author of Mother was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012) and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009), House of Ions (forthcoming, Bloof Books, 2014) and The Glass Box (forthcoming, Saturnalia Books, 2015). She lives in Tallahassee, Florida and is an Assistant Professor of English at Thomas University in Georgia.

H. L. Hix with Warren Heiti

Warren Heiti
Warren Heiti's Hydrologos (Pedlar Press, 2011)

In the hopes of encouraging a broader exchange among U.S. and Canadian poets, H. L. Hix has designed a series of one-question “mini-interviews” for his Canadian peers. A selection of these interviews will be incorporated into his forthcoming book Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 2015). The subject of this interview is Warren Heiti’s Hydrologos (Pedlar Press, 2011).

H. L. Hix: The subject made explicit by the book’s title, water, is present throughout, from the title/first word of the first poem, “Rain,” to the last image of the last poem, the sound of “tap water striking teakettle.” But the sentence “Time is a symptom of music and light,” in the poem “Hourglass,” names three other pervasive presences in the book. Is there any sense in which, for the poems in your book, time, music and light function as “the first three dimensions” from which one “abstract[s] the fourth,” water?

Warren Heiti: Thanks for your terrific and difficult question. I’d intended Hydrologos to be the first entry in a quartet of manuscripts, each dedicated to one of the four elemental dimensions (originally formalized, I believe, by the preSocratic philosopher Empedokles), but that project was hijacked by others. Anyway, my untutored hunch is that water is more fundamental than, and thus not abstractable from, time. But it will take some time (!) to unpack that hunch. The sentence that you mention, “Time is a symptom of music and light,” is a perplexing one. While working on this manuscript, I found the device of the mask indispensable for thinking around the edges of the internal critical voice (the homuncular, premature editor who tends to yell through a little battery-powered bull-horn). This particular sentence was smuggled out of the underworld of primary process by its speaker (a character called “Ofelia”) while I was trying to distract the cantankerous secondary-process censor.

H.L. Hix with Jan Zwicky

Photo of Jan Zwicky courtesy of George Sipos.
Photo of Jan Zwicky courtesy of George Sipos.

In the hopes of encouraging a broader exchange among U.S. and Canadian poets, H. L. Hix has designed a series of one-question “mini-interviews” for his Canadian peers. A selection of these interviews will be incorporated into his forthcoming book Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 2015). The subject of this interview is Jan Zwicky’s Forge (Gaspereau Press, 2011).

H. L. Hix: I keep returning to this sentence from “Night Music” (20): “You are only trying to say / what you see in the world.” The “only” there seems crucial. If  “see” can be taken to stand for all the senses—what you perceive in the world—then this sentence seems as though it could describe an ambition common to your three primary modes of inquiry/expression, music, philosophy and poetry. But that “only”: Is it a form of acquiescence? of humility? of resignation?

Jan Zwicky: Thank you so much for your interest!