Andy Fitch with Lisa Robertson

LIsa Robertson
Lisa Robertson

Last summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Robertson’s book, Nilling (BookThug). Recorded July 3rd. Transcribed by Maia Spotts. 

Andy Fitch: Could we start with the acknowledgments, with the ongoing occasional nature of your prose projects? First, do these various professional alibis serve as a corrective prompt to some shyness on your part? Do they allow you to say things you otherwise wouldn’t? Do they deliberately demonstrate your active engagement with specific traditions, discourses, audiences, communities? What continues to compel you to foreground the institutionally constructed nature of these investigations?

Lisa Robertson: Much of my critical prose remains occasional simply because I don’t have much time. When I write a catalogue essay (as in the case of some Soft Architecture pieces) or give a lecture (as with most of the Nilling projects), I try to make that occasion work toward my own current interests. Here I had the idea to construct a book of linked essays, loosely exploring a conceptual field and used a series of lecture invitations to explore that concept. I never have the time to both fulfill my institutional invitations and to write an unrelated book. I work slowly and just can’t crank out six essays. Similarly, back when I started The Office for Soft Architecture’s occasional works, I supported myself as a freelance writer so had to find a means of bringing my economic life together with my research and creative interests. I suppose I foreground these contexts out of gratitude.

AF: Well could you discuss if/when such institutional engagements provide space for something like institutional critique—as that phrase gets used in visual art? In the case of exhibition writing, for the “Perspectors/ Melancholia” piece, let’s say, you seem to trace the epistemic confines of certain critical practices rather than to provide some interpretive context that makes the artwork more legible. Your prose will stand alongside the art or text that it purportedly supplements. It becomes part of the exhibition.

LR: Canadian art writing includes a kind of minor tradition of the parallel critical text. My prose has developed in this context. I don’t believe that practices of critique need to make art and its institutions more palatable for anybody. I don’t think literary criticism inevitably should make texts easier to consume. Interpretation doesn’t compel me, not as a reader or a writer. It interests me to elaborate upon a work’s problems—in the most positive sense, to probe the problematics I discover (not to gloss over these problems, but to complicate them further, to make them juicier). Often that seems the most engaged and respectful stance. Hadley and Maxwell, the artists whose installation I responded to for “Perspectors/ Melancholia,” don’t want critics to turn their juicy, complex, problematic work into something easy. They want viewers to engage its difficulty, its layeredness, multiplicity, multi-textuality, openness. My job does not consist in creating closure, but rather exploring the openness I find present in a work.

AF: Again this layeredness and multiplicity you respect in fellow artists often finds its way into your prose. It interests me, for example, how Nilling’s discrete, occasional commentaries change when extracted from their oral context, from their relation to specific artworks or social spaces—as they get assembled into a collection. Did this book itself begin as a commissioned enterprise? How does its selection of pieces reflect Nilling’s overall function or form of inquiry? What particular theory of the book gets implied/inferred by projects such as “Time in the Codex”?

LR: BookThug did not commission Nilling, though we’ve worked together in the past. They published my book of poems The Men. And Jay MillAr, BookThug’s publisher, has started a subseries focused on experimental critique, which includes projects by Sina Queyras and Phil Hall. Still I didn’t develop this manuscript specifically to fit that series. I just followed what interested me, such as this notion of passivity or abjection as a form of agency. All the writers who publish in Jay’s series have the opportunity to work quite closely with the series editor, accomplished poet and critical thinker Kate Eichhorn. Kate and I worked on shifting the register of these texts so they could come together as a book—also on sequence, which becomes crucial to the book’s trajectory. Nilling begins with a history of materiality and moves towards an immaterial poetics of politics.

AF: In terms of shaping a reader’s experience, I’ve often considered your prose to be structured around the sentence as the basic unit of assertion, momentum, play, erotic pleasure. Yet these current pieces seem to showcase an ever-expanding range of modular practices. “Time in the Codex” complicates its own investigation of serial processes by adopting a numerical list form—one I associate with numbered maxims or manifestos by grid-friendly artists such as Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Joe Brainard. I also think of John Coplans’ Serial Imagery catalogue, in which he discusses Gertrude Stein’s uncanny practice of counting (one and one and one and one). Then later your piece “Lastingness,” again derived from a delivered lecture, provides its own distinctive measure, suggesting some sort of projectivizing prose, sculpting its argumentative and associational pivots.

LR: For the “Codex” essay the shaping came later. I started with two separate pieces—a talk I gave and a catalog essay, both for the artist Marlene McCallum. Later I had this flash to splice those texts together and present one as subtext to the other, so that they could appear on the same page. Both went through major editing. And in terms of the numbering, which I have used before: I model my numbered texts less on conceptual art (although I love and certainly follow such discourses) than on philosophy (Wittgenstein, for example). I appreciate the slowed-down, serial nature of that numbering. It suggests a carefully constructed, fiercely logical, causal building of relationships—which my prose does and does not provide.

AF: So if we consider Office for Soft Architecture the template by which most readers know you best, could you discuss how the propulsive, descriptive prowess developed there plays out in Nilling’s more meditative, scholastic, philosophical projects? Does the description of complicated phenomenological, hermeneutic, interrelational processes call forth a different distribution of syntactical and rhetorical intensities than the flâneur-esque flair at play in Soft Architecture’s seven walks?

LR: The Soft Architecture texts started with a simple problem—how can I construct a description, a document, that maintains an indexical relationship to this city I experience in my quotidian life? How can I develop a description that moves? Description long has interested me, partially due to its abjected place within the discourse coming out of modernism. For Soft Architecture I wanted to describe the tactile, temporal experience of urban change. Then Nilling, as you point out, seeks to map a much more contemplative, philosophical terrain. I couldn’t just walk around and take notes. Instead I’ve tried to track the profound cognitive pleasure (one that approaches, for me, the intensity of a sensual pleasure) that I always have experienced as a reader of philosophy. I have no background or training. I read philosophy as a poet. I pursue this delicious process of getting lost and needing to slow down all my cognitive habits and backtrack—as if learning to read a new language. This thick meandering plays out stylistically, too. No rehearsed, subconscious structure helps situate me, and I hope never to lose in life this furthering, this unbound broadening I experience as a reader of philosophy. For example, as Nilling makes obvious, I have enjoyed a long and deepening and marveling relationship with Hannah Arendt’s books. An undergrad course with Robin Blaser in the mid-80s turned me on to The Human Condition. Robin also got me started reading Giorgio Agamben. I already had read, on my own, Nietzsche and Heidegger and some Roland Barthes. But Robin’s class showed that a wider community shared these concerns—that they comprised a broader discourse. Of course this discourse also contains some of our most intensely gendered, authority-ridden constraints. As a woman with no authority in the field, it actually frightened me to admit I wanted to write these essays. This writing process did not produce the immediate glee the Soft Architecture book produced. In fact, in the future, I might aim more consciously to bring glee into philosophy. It took a long time to figure out what types of sentences could describe this nilling, this scooped-out negation I wanted to probe as a literary space. I don’t consider these essays light or fun to read. They didn’t feel light and fun to write. But I don’t know. . .during the time I wrote Nilling all kinds of major events happened in my life and the lives of people I love. Serious illness and death and major changes informed this biological space I entered. As I finished writing the book I received treatment for breast cancer. One of my closest friends, Stacy Doris, suffered through a cancer that killed her. Although this writing never directly addresses the autobiographical, inevitably our corporeal condition shapes our work—and not just in terms of erotic pleasure. Sometimes it’s terrifying.

AF: On this topic of corporeality (as well as on your discussion of trying to construct a description that moves, a philosophical register that foregrounds glee), Nilling announces the caesura as a regenerative point of reflection for the reader. Yet I appreciate how often this book, and your prose in general, gestures toward a pause, but provides no obvious space for it. Instead we keep moving on with this dream of the pause partially fulfilling us. Here the poetic line perhaps would pose a more dramatic break than the prose sentence does. Still do you think of these essays as providing room for a reflective pause? Or do they sketch a mode of reading philosophy that doesn’t demand such ponderousness? Do they propel us forward rather than forcing us to stop and seek out answers?

LR: Many of my past prose-poetry and prose texts (already a false distinction) have foregrounded this declarative, manifesto-esque forward push. Always in my work I’ve tried to face something that I don’t know. When, as a 30 year-old, I explored XEclogue’s splashy bravado, that felt new to me. I’d been a retiring, melancholic person in my 20s, then suddenly discovered a community. I encountered a series of discourses that opened fresh terrain, and I experienced wild joy in that. Then at 50 you just enter a different space, which again shapes the stylistic surfaces you want to pursue. I do feel that Nilling’s essays try to explore the conceptual space of the caesura. They ask, what goes on in this pause? What you’ve described as the dream of a pause sounds about right. The wild joy of writing now has to do with deepening my capacity to enter into and sustain an equivocation, a space of cognitive ambivalence where, rather than promoting and defending substantive positions, I explore the spaces between the substantives—the scary groundless middle before you make an argumentative leap.

AF: Since the concept of nilling itself embodies this fused appeal both to cognitive leaps and to interstitial stillness, perhaps we could discuss nilling.

LR: First off I should say I don’t fully understand this concept.

AF: Perfect. Again we can engage a philosophical discourse with no fixed sense of our own place within that tradition. And here we might draw in your consideration of Pauline Réage’s Story of O, with its frictive contest between a simultaneous willing and nilling. Your discussion of this conflicted or conflated or convoluted process recalled for me Nietzsche’s treatment of the aesthetic priest in Genealogy of Morals—where Nietzsche internalizes Hegel’s master/slave dialectic and places it within a single, multiplicitous self for whom any outward achievement demands its own obedience to impulse, to will (just as any external surrender implies a victorious passivity conquering within the submissive subject). Or Emily Dickinson’s “Master Letters” seem to exemplify the erotics of nilling. Could you discuss how such models, or any others you wish to offer, relate to Arendt’s concept?

LR: Sure. As far as I understand, Augustine’s Confessions first directed Arendt to this concept. Her doctoral work addresses three formulations of love in Augustine. So to that extent, the profoundly ambivalent agency of this willing/nilling conundrum derives from a tradition of Christian thinking. That legacy of Christian thought of course conditions European subjectivity. Foucault situates the crystallizing Western subject in late-antique texts—the time of Augustine. I hadn’t thought of Foucault and Arendt together until right now. But Augustine’s work first dramatizes this doubledom, this negation/agency knot Arendt pulls. She says any act of the will gets founded on a simultaneous resistance to that propulsion. Likewise, some of my Nilling essays try, almost at an intuitive level, to frame these philosophical problems of the will and the counter-will historically, and vice versa. All of my work has swayed more or less between discourses and disciplinary regimes. With this particular book, history and philosophy seem to provide that axis.

AF: When you speak about graphing such structures of consciousness, and treating them both philosophically and historically, I remember how “Time in the Codex” ends with the line, “She is free to not appear”—evoking the vanished face that concludes Foucault’s The Order of Things. But I also think, more generally, of the nature of the aphorism. Do aphorisms provide a particularly pointed way of mapping or tracking mental movements and constructs? Can we say that some aphoristic projects (Wittgenstein again comes to mind) basically catalog structures of consciousness?

LR: Yes. I like that way of putting it. And in terms of the lack of time I’ve mentioned: there’s always room for an aphorism!

AF: There’s also a built-in caesura. An aphorism always implies a subsequent (and maybe a preceding) pause. And in terms of punctured texts, perhaps we could move to your piece “Disquiet.” Does Pessoa also whisper in the background here as we discuss the aphorism? Does John Cage’s Silence resonate? But first I should clarify that your book encourages us to read the “Disquiet” pieces with a specific sound accompaniment. These sound recordings serve to structure our temporal experience. That’s where Cage came in—his “Indeterminacy” prose segments, for instance, each of which gets read in a 60-second interval. I wondered if I should read your individual “Disquiet” sections in precisely the amount of time each recording allotted.

LR: Yes I have been a repeated reader of Pessoa. And your own reading strategy sounds hilarious and fabulous.

AF: I tried it out. Of course I never finished most sections on time. But whenever a particular recording would end, I would seem to have reached a sudden, all-clarifying assertion such as “it distributes sound as non-identity.” Silence would re-emerge and feel quite charged and disquieted. Then I would continue reading at my fast pace because I already had been reading fast—all until “Edge Dwellers,” which finally allows for space to hear the endless sound of endlessly rejuvenating kids’ voices. Could you describe the types of discrete and/or symphonic experiences that “Disquiet” shapes (auditory, textual time-bound or post-temporal)? And the recordings themselves all contain caesuras. They have pauses in them.

LR: Initially I gave the “Disquiet” piece as a lecture, using those recordings as interludes between the prose sections. But your pursuit of simultaneity delights me. And the recordings (made, in some cases, many years before my lecture) capture ambient urban sound discovered at the sites of early 20th-century photographs taken by Eugène Atget. I would travel to where he took the photos, try to stand exactly where he must have stood, then make a recording. At the time I wrote this lecture Stacy Doris and I worked together as a collaborative unit called The Perfume Recordist, collecting ambient everyday recordings which we remixed as 18th-century perfumes. We planned to compose a two-hour performance to give at a colloquium hosted by the Kootenay School of Writing. We learned together how to use GarageBand, and read tons and tons of theoretical and critical and historical work around sound. We read Cage, for sure. Then when I went back and tried to make some use of my 30-second Atget recordings, I finally hit on the idea to double them. As soon as I doubled these recordings, they had a shape. In order to mark that doubling I include a 10-second silence at each piece’s midpoint—a direct citation of Cageian silence.

AF: As you describe how we can make meaning out of even the most abstracted sequence once we hear it twice, I wonder if philosophical discourse often develops similarly—introducing a concept then returning to it until we find it familiar, then redirecting it in new ways. But if I could get back to my masochistic, time-bound reading of “Disquiet”: I loved, both here and throughout your book, how the encounter with dense philosophical reflection can resemble (and I mean this in a good way) skimming, walking, flâneuring a bit. Even as I rushed through, my attention would catch on and somehow arrange “Atget,” “Haussmann,” “margin,” “radical politics.” Do you think we could consider this quick, time-bound absorption a productive mode of reading? Does it, like many mystical and aestheticized departures (or partial departures) from philosophical speculation, grant distinctive access to what you call “our own bodily opacity?” Could you describe how Nilling hones and refines the reader’s sense of one’s own bodily opacity—perhaps by tracking kinetic operations of logic, thought, reasoning, or by providing a saturated text with too much to take in at once? Here I remember the over-stimulated audience-subject called forth by, let’s say, Brecht’s theatrics or Godard’s cinematic simultaneities. That always has seemed to me the most civic, democratic subject that I can embody. Whom else do you consider prophets of this “prosody of noise”?

LR: Godard fits much more than Brecht. And I love that you’ve brought cinema into the conversation, because who I discovered cinematically, while writing these essays (it embarrasses me how late I came to him), was Robert Bresson. I watched all of Bresson’s cinema and I also discovered the Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa. Costa often collaborates with communities living illegally on the outskirts of Lisbon. His film In Vanda’s Room gets shot almost entirely inside a young woman’s bedroom as she smokes heroin with her sister and has fabulous conversations with people who come to talk to her about their problems. In the background you hear wrecking balls because, in fact, Portuguese authorities are just then demolishing the shanty-like structures these people inhabit. I find the way that Costa makes room in his shot for all of this information incredibly moving. He seems just to sit still, permitting our perception to dilate on the present in all its insane, senseless variousness. Pedro Costa’s cinematic project currently shapes how I want to think about corporeality and politics—that goal of providing an unfathomable, minimally mediated density in which a reader, a viewer (and I) can receive glimpses of corporeality as a collective, shared experience (not corporeality as a demarcation of self, but corporeality as always a trans-corporeality, always interrupted, disturbed, layered, polyphonic, problematic, threatened, terrifying and pleasurable at the same time).

AF: In terms of how corporeality negates and/or allows for philosophical reflection, you reference Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker, which has that mythic originary scene, traced by Roland Barthes in The Neutral, of Rousseau getting run over by the Great Dane—where he wakes up with this moment of bliss for which he can’t account. All of his book’s subsequent wanderings and writings seem centered around that pre-/post-verbal bliss. Something similar happens for me when my flâneur-esque reading of “Disquiet” reaches a sudden silence. In that repeated moment, I can’t say whether the absorption of ambient urban sound has represented a relief from philosophical inquiry, or a further intensification of it. I seem to have been thinking with, rather than against, the vernacular. A utopian vantage emerges—as if philosophy could happen as fast as sound, as if profundity could come as easily and endlessly as background chatter does.

LR: That would be ideal.

AF: At the same time, after recently moving out of New York City, that utopian vantage of endless meaning spreading out in all directions seems to some extent a delusion that the city evokes. Not that some non-delusional place exists, but I do wonder if and how a city’s intimations ever get realized. I liked giving myself up to New York’s prosody of noise, but now I also appreciate turning my back on it. So here’s the question: Nilling’s overall trajectory would feel quite different, perhaps more valedictory, if it ended with “Disquiet’s” openness. That release into ambient city life would resemble the conclusion of John Ashbery’s Three Poems—which propels us from the movie theater to walk the daylit city streets. Here, instead, you close with the fabulously dense “Untitled Essay.”

LR: Well, “Untitled Essay” explores the relationship between civis and domus (between civic and domestic space), vis-à-vis the idea of the vernacular as a politicized, collective engagement. From there it proceeds into a poetics. And in a way “Untitled Essay” begins in the city, in the density that “Disquiet” has shaped—opening with a citation I found in Louis Mumford, from the Greek rhetorician Eubolus, who describes this noisy, insane density of the Greek agora (which contains everything from clocks to legal contracts to whatever. . .food). I wanted to end Nilling with a strong proposition about what a poem does and can do. And I decided to place that idea of the poem within the context of the city and of noise and disquiet and the caesura and density of corporeal experience. You could say the entire book gets set up in order to deliver this replete poem as a multi-corporeal vernacular space of potential and resistance.

AF: Your dog stretching at the end of that sentence added a nice touch.

LR: She’s sitting here. She’s talking to herself. She’s been sitting, watching me for our entire conversation.


Lisa Robertson was born in Toronto, lived for many years in Vancouver, briefly in Oakland, and is now in rural France. Her first chapbook, The Apothecary, was published by Tsunami Editions in 1991, when she was 30; Bookthug still keeps it in print.

1 comment
  1. Given Ms. Robertson’s new interest/enthusiasm for the films of Pedro Costa, am wondering if she is familiar with some important writing done on him by Jacques Ranciere? Especially a catalogue essay he did on Costa for Tate Modern’s Costa retrospective a few years back called The Politics of Pedro Costa.

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