Catherine Taylor with Andy Fitch

Catherine Taylor

Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Taylor’s book, Apart (Ugly Duckling Presse). Recorded May 6th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: In case the term seems fraught or unfamiliar to some readers, can you give a working definition of “reportage”? Your definition of reportage sounds more exciting than most. How does reportage relate to, or differ from, description, witness, testimony? Do you feel broadly invested in this mode of discourse? Did this particular project call it forth?

Catherine Taylor: For me, reportage first signifies some connection to histories of journalism. It suggests that the author has made a concerted effort to conduct research in a number of different modes, which might involve observation, archival investigations, interviews. This puts the investigator on equal terms with the writer—even if the end product, the finished piece, looks radically different from what you often find in a magazine or newspaper. Even if the writing seems experimental, it makes certain assumptions about documenting experience or facts or data. Of course the final written piece might manipulate those findings in a variety of ways, not necessarily fictionalizing facts, but using language that traditional journalistic forms reject.

AF: So in terms of if you provide a more exciting definition…

CT: I consider my definition much more boring.

AF: And did this particular project call forth a distinct mode of reportage?

CT: Absolutely. I do think of my work as part of a genre, called non-fiction. I do feel invested, vested in it. My connection to the field remains partially romantic. I have suspicions about my own romantic investment in the concept of reportage, but can’t seem to give it up. I love projects that grow out of meticulous observation—research that touches upon ethnography or history, historiography. I guess I also would say that “reportage” means you’ve made a pretty serious time commitment. Not that invention doesn’t take time also. But copious observation and ethnography and research take tremendous amounts of time. This often goes unacknowledged in contemporary non-fiction discussions, particularly those focused on the essay.

AF: Finally, in terms of “reportage”: that word sounds like collage, montage. Do you know what the suffix does? I’m just dumb with French.

CT: I don’t.

AF: Does reportage come from French writers?

CT: We should look that up. Why do we call it “reportage”?

AF: Or when you refer to histories of journalism, which of those histories most appeal to you?

CT: I first got engaged with narrative journalism through accounts of Vietnam. And modernist projects like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men fascinate me, despite their problematic representations of race. I even would include books like Reznikoff’s Testimony, which does not offer official journalism, but adopts found texts from legal sources. I sense a connection to journalism, in trying to convey specific material conditions, something about people’s lived experience. I guess with my first book, focusing on midwives…that finding some way to represent what felt crucial about their work reaffirmed for me this aspect of narrative journalism, despite the fact that my next book, Apart, became much more experimental linguistically. This reminds me of a passage in the book, right before archival excerpts that report killings and abductions and violence during South Africa’s political unrest in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Just prior to sharing those excerpts, I provide a brief meditation on visiting archives and trying to understand my place in relation to representational futility. There I realize that my own archival sources once functioned as reportage, once attempted to shape the world as events unfolded, but now sit on this shelf turned into a kind of history. Then it becomes clear that their role as reportage in fact persists, because history remains persistent. Those inequities hadn’t disappeared, so these reports from forty years ago still can function as a kind of journalism for the present. And finally this section considers how archives can operate as a physical/social space—that the archivist always feels called upon to exit the archives, that studying journalism from the past puts pressure on a researcher to deal with his/her present. I’d constantly felt, while working in the archive, that I needed to leave and document life on the streets right now. Here again, in terms of your question about how reportage differs from witness or testimony, Shoshana Felman makes a great point when she says: “Testimony cannot be simply relayed, repeated, or reported by another without thereby losing its function as testimony.” She’s talking about Celan, whose disruption of “conscious meaning” allows his words to “enact” rather than merely report. Of course reportage can seem to lack this intimate engagement, to provide a second-hand telling without this same testimonial power. Though I would argue that often we only have access to testimony because of such second-hand reports. So the archivist’s challenge becomes to perform this enacting that Felman calls for. Can you move your second-hand discussion of some testimonial piece into a zone where the reader feels its present enacted, in a vitalizing way, pushing us beyond passivity?

AF: Along those lines, could we discuss Apart’s architecture, its heterogeneous profusion of forms and textual parallelisms: of prose inquiry culminating in poetic flourish; of documentarian word and image; of transparent testimonial record and kaleidoscopic paratext; of lyric allusion and scholarly inquiry? Presumably this hybrid approach embodies your broader point that the telling of the collectivity remains inseparable from the telling of the individual, and vice versa. At the same time, you write that we can call “South Africa’s legacy a narcotizing mix of electoral democracy, multi-culturalism, despair, inequity and material conditions unchanged, crimes unpunished, all the things to write, but not coming to the conclusion that reconciliation’s hegemony must be interrogated, so that the sjambok of the past can still sting. No heliotrope here.” Given your specific engagement with South Africa’s post-apartheid legacy, given your abstracted inquiry into the potential for literary representations to prompt historical reflection and present action, given what you’ve just said now, I feel pointed back to Apart’s initial Wayne Koestenbaum epigraph—addressed to those “sick of mediation, of words that get in the way.” I wonder if, as you put this motley/intricate book together, it seemed more or less mediated in the sense suggested by Wayne’s epigraph. What had words gotten in the way of? And how do your parallel structures seek to evade this impediment?

CT: Hmm. Words got in the way, but maybe even more, familiar narrative structures got in the way of conveying both the complex histories I wanted to tell, and the impossibility of narrative closure for each of these “stories” I encountered. I would recognize that the archival information, the dialogues and events I absorbed did not contain complete stories, though I kept feeling trapped or pulled back into story mode. Perhaps I struggled most with how to step outside that, but without writing a text that disavowed narrative. Of course some books do this brilliantly. Some versions of my book tried to do that. But little nuggets of story kept appearing, because we always, in some way, form stories as part of our meaning-making process. I wanted to acknowledge and keep this present in the text, but still have every story fall apart. Just when the reader starts to get comfortable with my narrating voice as a guide, or comfortable with my position vis-à-vis race relations, or comfortable amid the contemporary South African setting, something new should make them uncomfortable. I want to return them to a place of discomfort or confusion or at least interruption. I hope to trace the knife edge of meaning and understanding and then realizing that a meaning we’ve made might be the wrong one. And then to ask: how could we tell it again?

AF: I hadn’t thought of Things Fall Apart. I’m probably the last reader to get that allusion. Do you want to describe, in “Duffer’s Drift” for example, the types of narrative split that occur, the types of mediation you evade, or construct?

CT: “Duffer’s Drift” presents one text at the page’s top, and a different text at the page’s bottom, with a large white space in between. I’d started with a simple sense of the top text providing a white traveler’s narrative, which dominates the bottom text’s attempt to offer something more explanatory and less personal. The top text tells the story of me visiting a dance hall with my cousins, in a very white neighborhood, and in the middle of this community dance an intermission occurs where the band stops and a troupe for what is called a “Cape Colored coon show” comes on. My cousin cringes and tells me yes, this really is a coon show, but you don’t understand. So when I went back and wrote the bottom piece, I researched the whole fascinating history of minstrel shows that traveled from the United States to South Africa in the late1800s—how they became a local tradition in colored townships around Cape Town, which continues to this day. I wanted to explore how the coon show remains an inevitably racist institution, though not necessarily racist in the way it first appeared to me. So my top narrative sounds moderately lyrical, and tries to sustain the moment of my confused encounter with this performance. The bottom half traces my research, yet never offers a complete account. Again, each evades narrative. Then somewhere in the essay’s middle I start including images juxtaposed against the text. Some images develop a trope, if you will, of tents and shelters—photos of black South Africans forced to live in tents under apartheid. Other images show well-intentioned but naïve white students on U.S. campuses living in fake shanty towns (myself included), and then white South African soldiers, deeply involved in the oppressive regime, inhabiting their own military tents. Here I follow those juxtapositions with a quote from Jacques Rancière, who describes montage as having two different functions. One mode asks viewers to think about montage “revealing one world behind another: the far-off conflict behind home comforts.” Yet Rancière also describes this second form of montage, of pulling unlike elements together, taking supposedly foreign elements and establishing a new sense of familiarity. Both of these montage movements happen at once, and become what he calls history. I like that idea. I kind of wish “Duffer’s Drift” could run five volumes long, because I want to proliferate the juxtapositions and bring so much more into the text. But as always with archival work, you end up leaving so much out.

AF: Sure, basic questions of volume emerge through this dynamic contrast. Length limits could prompt anxiety on your part, but instead provide a constructivist means for creating new forms of readerly awareness. Perhaps this is a corny cliché, but the binary or tension between “truth and reconciliation” kept coming up for me. Have you just described something similar?

CT: Well the idea that a nation could stage events in which truths get told, and this telling of truths could allow for reconciliation, remains kind of an amazing one. It could sound amazingly naïve or amazingly utopian, but has become a real and tremendously powerful fact for many South Africans. Of course this bid for reconciliation failed to retain its utopian promise beyond that moment when the government broadcast it and sucked viewers into the spectacle of it. That spectacle had a cathartic impact on people, but without economic reparations or material shifts in citizens’ lives to follow, they couldn’t sustain this utopian space in any way. So definitely the truth and reconciliation dichotomy preoccupied me when I first got there. I first thought this book would focus on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work. I’d hoped to find moments of reconciliation I could recount. But that just wasn’t my experience. The TRC’s work felt incredibly distant. Nobody I spoke to seemed all that focused on reconciliation. People talked about poverty and redistribution of wealth. These quickly became far more important than the truth and reconciliation rhetoric that so dominated public discourse in the ’90s.

AF: Again it interests me how testimony and something like rumination or critical reflection continually push against each other in Apart. In some abstract sense, truth and reconciliation seem to exist simultaneously within a piece like “Duffer’s Drift.”

CT: I certainly hope that happens. Facts and reflection hopefully become inseparable. “Duffer’s Drift’s” strict demarcations begin to collapse. Then maybe in the book’s later prose-poem sections, similar tensions grow more tightly entwined. Apart opens on the topic of oscillation, of shifting back and forth, because I want the reader to feel continual oscillations between modes of discourse. Those increasingly rapid alternations might work even better in film than in a written text.

AF: Well, questions of address get foregrounded throughout, most obviously in the letters addressed to “A.” This oscillation between the idiom of the journal-keeper and the idiom of the letter-writer intrigued me. From the opening Cape Town journals, you foreground scenarios in which a detached, dispassionate voice gets challenged, gets triangulated, pulled between self-consciousness and group-consciousness. The discursive register shuttles among self-identified black and colored and white South African voices. Perspectival shifts keep taking place. Then, amid all these shifting vectors, all the sudden we read “You are writing a letter in your head,” and encounter subsequent letters to “A” which offer this new mode of address, this tone both more intimate and more detached simultaneously. Can you discuss the role that those personalized/abstracted addresses to “A” play here? And please feel free, given what you’ve just said about cinematic possibilities, to bring in Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil, which ends with that memorable line “Will there be a last letter?”

CT: At first these letters felt heuristic for me. But I kept them because I did want that sense of intimacy you mentioned. The letters pretend, or attempt (but I want to say pretend rather than attempt) to provide some access to an intimacy with the narrator. They offer a quick glimpse of me in a relationship, separate from the history I seek to excavate, though critical to this research project. Trying to tell this one person what happened helped me keep going forward. And without that one person…I couldn’t write a letter to the collectivity. Some writers can, or do, but I couldn’t. Originally I didn’t know whom I was writing the book for, or writing to, beyond myself and this one other person. Though I also think that something about the letters’ erotic subtext…. I can’t tell how much this comes through, but an almost libidinal economy motivates the letter-writer, which gets tied to the personal relations and intimacies of her other stories. And of course, letters addressed to a specific other, then read by the reader, make this reader a voyeur. These letters both address and don’t at all address the reader.

AF: That keeps the libidinal economy palpable for the reader, who again feels triangulated amid the exchange.

CT: And hopefully, if the reader becomes aware of this voyeuristic space, he/she can transfer that same awareness to other moments—to recognize the voyeuresque moment of the archives, or of overheard dialogues, or overheard encounters.

AF: To return to Sans Soleil, your letters themselves present Marker’s film as a point of reference. And of course in Sans Soleil each letter begins with a female voice declaring, “He writes…” They imagine for us, or ask us to imagine, a respondent, presumably a letter-writer herself. Likewise, throughout Apart, I never have a definitive sense of a historical, autobiographical “I” coordinating the book. But then those letters seem to stage, to perform an identity, one specifically addressed to me, so calling forth this embodied subject on both sides—constructing a reader as much as a writer.

CT: That’s why I preferred to use the word “pretend” just now. This book offers no real pretense that the letters come from or go to a particular person. But they do, as you say, provide some sense of a staged identity, both individual and collective.

AF: Here can we move a bit from the epistolary topic, the letters, to citation and transcription? Could you describe some types of research in which Apart engages? So many quotes arise—from Robert Sobukwe to Steve Biko to Frantz Fanon to Joan Didion to Walter Benn Michaels. Can you discuss how these citational practices relate to your own mode of reportage? If reportage typically offers facts on the ground, yours seems to suggest a much broader archival, scholarly, reflective process.

CT: I’m tempted to answer by turning to somebody else’s work. Your question makes me think of Rachel Blau DuPlessis, her intensely scholastic notes to the long poem Draft. I’ll often end up reading that poem as footnote to the footnotes, as if the poem’s linguistic explorations represent a response to her essay in footnotes. And I feel that my own work has some similarities, that citations form its base, that the citations represent a long-term engagement with particular texts and types of historical research—though again it didn’t interest me to reproduce those histories in a comprehensive academic manner. Still citations truly undergird this text, even if they seem to present some fringe apparatus. They give little glimpses of that wall that stands behind everything else.

AF: Your book also responds explicitly to Gertrude Stein, Edmond Jabès, George Oppen, Robert Duncan, Robert Smithson. This particular grouping led me to wonder where you would position yourself amid attempts to distinguish between a political and an aesthetic avant-garde. What I mean is: Stein for one seems unlikely to appear in most accounts of South African history, yet ends up fitting perfectly here. Do you think of yourself as reclaiming political valences often ignored in the work of such figures?

CT: No. I don’t think of myself as reclaiming something political in her work, though that might be there. Poets like Stein help me develop my own politics within my own aesthetics, but I don’t seek to make some broader claim about her work in this way. I don’t try to push that backwards onto Stein. Apart feels somewhat like a commonplace book, a glimpse into everything I’d read over the span in which I wrote this. Yet all those specific readings made perfect sense at the time. You know when you’ll get in that space where everything you read seems connected? I think this impulse to connect probably just provides a way to listen in on the internal conversation you’re already having—that the authors who appear in Apart are the ones who helped me think. People like Biko, or Ruth Leys (writing about shame), emerge in a much more focused way. Poets like Oppen offer more a general life raft. When I couldn’t think about this project anymore, I could go read Oppen and feel buoyed for a bit. Referencing here often just means honoring those who provided a productive model. How can I keep going with incredibly difficult questions and problems about representation that seem endemic and perpetual? I can’t get around them. I either have to walk away or keep trying. Those authors you mentioned helped me keep trying, because I’d watched them try something similar.

AF: Along such lines, in what ways can we consider Apart a broader attempt to write, ethically, from the perspective of privilege? You say somewhere that “the question of choice is always so buried by privilege.” That “so,” in “so buried,” seemed perhaps the strongest editorializing in the whole book. And here the Gramsci epigraph stands out: “The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. Therefore, it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.” The infinitudes of historical process and the traces that these leave inside us…does it remain an impossible task to extricate oneself from these types of privilege? Again, what negotiations between truth and reconciliation can guide us as we write from a perspective of privilege?

CT: Or as we try to figure out what that would even mean: what might it mean to write ethically from a position of privilege? What does it mean to be able to acknowledge privilege without dwelling too much on it? For me this goes back to the trope of oscillation. I need to acknowledge. I need to leave that trace. I need to make clear my subject position, though really this subject position seems not quite interesting, not what’s at stake. So the aesthetic question becomes how long should I stay there and how quickly can I move off? When and where do I need to come back? How often could or should such examinations resurface in any text I write? Because I always write from a position of privilege. Or, to date, I’ve always written from some position of privilege. And perhaps, as writers, we all always write from a position of privilege. So how to keep those traces apparent without letting them take over the story?


Catherine Taylor is a writer, editor, and teacher. Her first book, Giving Birth: A Journey Into the World of Mothers and Midwives (Penguin), won the Lamaze International Birth Advocate Award. Taylor is a Founding Editor of Essay Press. She received her Ph.D. from Duke University and teaches at Ithaca College.


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