Vanessa Place: Two Rounds of Conversation

I first heard of Vanessa Place and Les Figues in a cab going from JFK to midtown. I was with fellow poet Christan Bok who had much to say about Place, the press, and the upcoming n/oulipo publication (a compendium of the noulipo conference). Then I saw the novel and was smitten. You’ll find a mini-review of it here, alongside Marie-Claire Blais, but I repost some of it by way of an introduction to the interview that follows.

Relative newcomer Vanessa Place, a criminal appellate attorney and co-founder of the magnificent Les Figues Press, offers a 50,000 word, one-sentence novel set in World War I, and often right in the trenches of it. Circumnavigating, diverging, listing, relishing in the feast of language on so many levels…it comes out, as Stein says, and after a while it doesn’t have to come out ugly. This is the price paid for all the experimenting…our “crisis jubilee”….

Dies: A Sentence is a thing of beauty right from the beginning:

The maw that rends without tearing, the maggoty claw that serves you, what, my baby buttercup, prunes stewed softly in their own juices or a good slap in the face, there’s no accounting for history in any event, even such a one as this one, O, we’re knee-deep in this one, you and me, we’re practically puppets, making all sorts of fingers dance above us, what do you say, shall we give it another whirl, we can go naked, I suppose, there’s nothing to stop us and everything points in that direction, do you think there will be much music later and of what variety, we’ve that, at least, now that there’s nothing left, though there’s plenty of pieces to be gathered by the wool-coated orphans and their musty mums, they’ll put us in warm wicker baskets, cover us with a cozy blanket of snow, and carry us home…

Difficult to excerpt, but my experience with it so far is really one of waves, small, very distinct movements that blend one into the other. And the language! Check this out:

there was sausage in my veins and roast pork beneath my feet, what’s worst you say, you callous bastard, how can you squat there armlessly stirring a pot of camp stew and feign sudden irony, it’ll get you nowhere, you know, that bit of levity one wears like a rubber nose in the face of cold terror, such weak crooked lenitive proves a man’s uncrutch… (29)

Not since The Waves have I been compelled to read an experimental novel through. Not just to appreciate the concept but to actually read it through…and I am still reading and thinking about what makes conceptual fiction work. And why this one seems to work so well. I’ve made it through to the end, but only because I had to for the sake of discussion. I’m going through again, and it’s a slow, sensual pleasure and a much deserved break from various essays on the boil. Vanessa Place agreed to talk to me via email. Due to time constraints our conversation has taken place over weeks and it isn’t finished either. I offer you round one.

LH: Vanessa, from what I can gather, Dies is your first published novel, but surely you have written fiction before that?

VP: This suggests Dies is fiction, which suggests interesting issues of form and institutional critique. The shortish answer is I had been working on a large project (La Medusa) and wrote Dies between drafts. I spent about 10 years writing Medusa; the first draft of Dies was written in about three months sometime around year four. I then put Dies away, and returned to the bigger monster. I did write a few odds and ends along the way, pieces published as everything from experimental nonfiction to straight poetry, but no sustained work. After finishing my final draft of Medusa, I took Dies out and polished it for Les Figues. Happily, Fiction Collective 2 is publishing Medusa this August.

LH: I should have said “prose” rather than fiction. Is your resistance one of genre, or form?

VP: I have no resistance to form, which would be like having a resistance to red clay, or lead white. Genre’s the thing, foolish thing, oddly stubborn. The most avant-seeming people ask you straight-faced if you are a poet or a fiction writer. I find yes is a very good answer. It reassures the questioner, without solving the question. Rather like answering whether someone is guilty or innocent.

LH: Where did the idea for Dies come from? Was it an idea that morphed, or a project that you proposed and then fulfilled?

VP: Dies was contrapuntal. As noted, I had been working on a very big project composed of very many fragments for a very long time, and wanted a palate-cleanser. The plate-spinning of the larger work immediately suggested its opposite: a single form that falls constantly, though incompletely, apart. The sentence is the basic formal unit of prose, counted as the container of thought. Shortly thereafter, I saw a photograph of a WWI soldier crossing a field who had gotten a leg snagged in some wire, and wondered what it would be like to be suspended in that wait, anticipating the bullet or blast that you cannot escape but can only attempt to negotiate. Death marks, or punctuates, the basic formal unit of human existence; death is the basic human sentence. The formal question becomes how to kill the sentence, how to grope pathetically towards “Death, once dead there’s no more dying then.”

LH: The torn leg is one of the tropes that leads us through the text. It’s a powerful image, and speaks to the obvious disconnect of war and carnage, but also to our investment in compartmentalization I think. Was that something you were thinking about?

VP: Fragments, I suppose, are always on the mind. They can be a bit of a cheat as they too easily serve as synecdoche, but are not a cheat in that they also incant the missing, playing the positive role of negative space. Compartmentalization is a gorgeous device for feigning wholeness, just as warrens create the illusion of connection and at least the potential for movement. Stew is good for food.

LH: “Death marks, or punctuates, the basic formal unit of human existence; death is the basic human sentence…” This is intriguing, and certainly forces one to think of text literally as body. I’m thinking too of Stein’s bumpy ride through the first world war, which one feels here. As one feels the resistance to closure. A resistance that becomes emblematic of a desire to live. Which leads me to ask, is this found text?

VP: That’s a wonderful question; I wish it were, or I wish I’d thought of incorporating found elements within its folds. But aside from the Hugh MacDiarmid poem near the beginning of the book, it’s all my creation. That makes me slavish to that same desire, I think.

LH: I am astounded at the deft way you shift in and out of consciousness. I’m working through the novel and I keep being distracted by my desire to pinpoint transitions. They are so seamless. How did you do that?

VP: I like to listen while I’m talking.

LH: Recently I watched Atonement, which I wasn’t intending to, and to my surprise I found the movie intriguing, particularly the war scenes in which Robbie finds himself wandering in a kind of carnivalesque masquerade. I come back to this notion of literalization, which I’m trying to work through—it comes from Marjorie Perloff and has been a site of interrogation recently by Jennifer Ashton. In any case, your novel takes us through many consciousnesses, which all seem convincing, the language, the cadence of mind but also very tangibly body. Perhaps this is why I was so convinced the text was found. It seemed like a time capsule of this moment. Then the contemporary references started to crop up etc. Is there something about the body and consciousness you wanted to say in particular?

VP: I think I say it more directly in La Medusa, and said so again in my paper for the Conceptual Poetry conference that Marjorie Perloff sponsored: we are embodied in a post-Cartesian sense. There is no split between consciousness and the sack of skin it comes in. Kenny Goldsmith’s nice mention of my paper in Harriet misses precisely this point, as the paper included not only tampon insertion instructions, but an Army marching song and a Yeats poem. Language may be found roaming about or Romanticized, but always falls with an orific splat.

LH: There are several sequences I want to speak of, the Time for one: “Time took a foil from its throat, well, I can’t answer that now can I…” (49). In her introduction to the novel Susan McCabe points out that time is animated here, and further that “hanging over it all is the despondency of the future conditional.” Perhaps this gets at the immediacy of the text, a kind of avant-terrorism (in McCabe’s words) that illuminates as it interrogates the constant creative force of thinking/remembering. It feels very reorienting, and I wonder if that is partly your intention.

VP: Constant reorientation. English is a wonderful bastard tongue, but comes up short in its verb tenses; to remedy this, I gave the future conditional a personality (like Time has its high-heeled personae), and then resorted to enjambing tenses. Time being physically reconstituted space, the enjambment forces a constant shuffle between history and geography, until, with any luck at all, there’s no divide between the two – just like real life. It’s very mimetic in that way.

LH: As you know I’m a big fan of Beckett. Could he have been a figure in Dies?

VP: He could have been its wet-nurse.

LH: I’m marveling at the language, which I’m still surprised to find isn’t found. Your text has the energy, the enjambed imagery of a found and/or sculpted text—flarf or recombined. You talk about reorientation—and yes, it is, but strangely so given the compact and often startling word combinations. It’s like oral/aural crack: “chill and cannonade,” “tinted an ill-augur’d pink,” “our bailiff will gladly comb you for nits and eggs of hate” (40), “we marveled at the knacked welter of our biceps” (66), hard to choose from so many on every page! And then there is the imagery, not just the sound: ”each cage thickly trophied with these thin and brittle scalps” (74), “he tied a length of silk to one of the sparrow’s legs” (13), “a golden turtle with alabaster mail, a mutton-mouthed lion with candlestick paws” (104). Are you a collector of sounds? Is this beadwork? Is this a Panopticon of perspective?

VP: Sounds, yes, not so much collected as petted as they trip through the pats of text. That’s what’s so ineffably lovely about writing, you know, the meat and musical motion of the thing. These examples you’ve picked are nice in that you call them oral while they are aural and textual, and still, I aim for language that begs to be put in the mouth. And I do love the panopticon, almost as much as I love the eyes of flies. But beads are a bother.

LH: “…for it’s a plain truth that color trivializes life…”(30). I loved this section—which goes from grays to granite to pale fingers a “lacquered pumice,” to a meditation on time—one of many—or Hannah Arendt navigating LA freeways?

VP: I want writing that’s so thick with sound and sense that you can see right through it to the pent little hearts within. We are a terrible and puny species. Don’t you think tatting is our grace?

from Dies:

all unhappy families are identical as apricots, and all men idem,

and the stone-centered quiddity of our suffering is what puts the

bread on the butter or the butter on the bread, it’s all very sad,

this bread and butter business, it’s as if we’ve given up dancing

altogether and although I find myself temporarily legless, I keep

my hops up, never say die, that’s what I say, not while there’s

still another limb of lamb, for that’s what hope dines on, and

there is hope, sure as bread pudding, you see how I retreated

there, I saw you wince at the coming shot and so I

recharacterized, I can, you know, nothing’s written in stone, or it

is, but we’re penciled in at best, we’re a sketch-book of emphatic

caprices, a homespun comfort for the quilted set, those happy

many, who damn violence with but a single hand, brightly

ribboned at the wrist, still, a passing paraphilia made Time tarry,

the two struck up an argument on the pleasures of sheet music,

for which the spoiled beauty was a heartless advocate, but Time

sneezed, categorically dismissing the whole encounter as

hoarding and wasting, what was the point, Time clucked, of

keeping track of a tock, it’s a schoolboy’s trick to note the

passing minutia, and the lady, whose nails were bitten to the

quick but to no end, begged to disagree, she said such sweet

sounds were in themselves sweetly spent, whereupon Time

puffed its bejeweled breast and bragged there was no knell that

wouldn’t lisp under his authority, but Time’s rude boast was

duly altered by me, yes, you too, Juan, you’re a genius, don’t let

them tell you any different, well, let’s be honest, we’re both

geniuses, we have that at least, that’ll give us some comfort in

the early fileted light, we’ll go out in a blaze of particulate glory,

I imagine, with an éclat of fat and a frenzy of mythomania,

Round One originally published July 10, 2008

This conversation picks up where Round 1 left off. You’ll find an introduction and bio, as well as much conversation around Place’s novel Dies: A Sentence.

LH: You ended our last discussion with a comment about wanting a language that is “so thick with sound and sense that you can see right through it to the pent little hearts within…” a sentiment I understand completely. For me I want the text to be giving but so firm I can hang it from two Firs and drift of an afternoon. And yet have that give, that netted quality. Is this a quality that can cohabit with “story” in the traditional sense of the word??

VP: Story has a weft and web of its own, don’t you think? More than one, if tradition is any gauge. So yes, within whatever version of story you choose (saga, legend, fairy tale, romance, with or without capitalization, detective, discursive or short), good words will out. Of course, you may mean prose versus poetry or something that coddles a narrative. Still, I don’t think there’s a competition in the conjoining, but rather a kind of ballet between sound, sight, and sense. In the best ballet, there’s the engagement of all elements, parts wedded to parts in piled confusion. I suspect here I’m just cheating off Yeats.

LH: You say that there is no split between consciousness and the sack of skin it comes in, which leads me to believe that you see no split in language then, or the sentence, and the body that crafts it…or time and the handling of it? Or is that too literal? And if so, what happens to narrative? Is there a continuous engagement with denouement?

VP: Part of my thesis would seem to include that there can be no being overly literal, just as there can be no being overly conceptual, given one is the other. It’s a trivial point, in many ways, because it’s both true and doomed to distinction. Without delving into the abyss between language and living, we can note the gape, while agreeing that it’s immaterial for our ragged purposes. What can’t be said, can’t. This makes for desire. Desire makes for form, form is narrative. Denouement is another form of narrative desire, though mostly pleases as a party favor, not unlike the period at the end of the sentence.

(Contrarily, Stein said commas are slavish, and they are, but we Americans adore our service economy.)

(N.b.: You left out the body that reads it, or hears it, or chucks it across the room and decides to order in.)

LH: Do you see your text as architectural?

VP: Yes — a henge.

LH: What was the last text that knocked you out?

VP: Patrick Greaney sent me a copy of his translation of Heimrad Baecker’s /transcript/, to be published by Dalkey Achieves; it’s a collection of language about the language of National Socialism, conceived and presented as concrete poetry. It’s documentation and citation at the highest degree, sparing nothing including nothing * itself. If I may, I really liked /Lemon Hound/, and have been commending it promiscuously as a terrific example of honest homage. I’ve also been going through loaves of Pound lately, using slices for a song lyrics for a visual/sound project I’m doing with Stephanie Taylor, and reading a lot of aesthetic/art theory for the conceptual poetry book that Rob Fitterman and I are writing for Ugly Duckling Presse. Though the last absolute knockout was probably Golding’s translation of Ovid, which changes everything.

LH: Can you tell me about the text, “A Parable, I suppose,” in a recent edition of Western Humanities Review. Is this part of Medusa?

VP: No, it’s from the work I’m now working on — The Gates. The section excerpted there was a rough draft of a small portion of the beginning; the book itself is a gluttonous abomination.

LH: A gluttonous abomination??

VP: It can absorb almost anything without belching; pure hubris on my part to think I could take on The Gates unscathed. The form is suicidal in its consumptions — Rodin never finished his, Ghiberti’s took twenty-seven years to complete. Though there is some comfort in knowing one is engaged in failure.

LH: When is Medusa coming out? Is it conceptual? You said previously that you spent ten years writing that. Can you tell me about it?

VP: Medusa’s just in from the printer. Conceptual, yes, perhaps even post-conceptual. Some appropriated bits, chunks of narrative, some poesy. Ur-conceptual in the sense that it began as a documentation project, where I logged thought-shards for 41 days, then built off these broken bits. I had a neuron’s belief in impulse, receptors, and emplasticity. I wrote the first draft in a year or so, then worked on the words. The final manuscript was well over 600 pages long, and it took some time to find a publisher both willing and able to handle her.

LH: “I had a neuron’s belief in impulse, receptors, and emplasticity…” Intriguing, but I need more. You are working at a very molecular level here, is the sentence the unit of composition? Are you building a narrative? Why “ur-conceptual”?

VP: If by narrative you mean the narrative of the entire oeuvre (as Joyce announces his at the end of Portrait of An Artist and Christian Bok sets out his in his ‘pataphysics treatise), perhaps. The Steinean trajectory would be the word to the sentence to the paragraph. I think I might be working backwards in this: the paragraph (Medusa) to the sentence (Dies) to the word (Gates). Image would be next, the point at which language is. “Ur-conceptual” because, like everyone else, I yearn for the primal. The birth of consciousness, the birth of self aware of self. It’s terribly romantic.

LH: Is there a project you yearn to do but can’t quite fathom?

VP: I would truly like to write a sonnet crown of holocausts.There is a larger notion buzzing the very back of my brain that I’ve no form for as yet, but I think I can discern a bit of shadow. Something grasping, something about something I’m frightened of.

LH: The thought of writing a crown of holocausts frightens me—do you mean in the sense of facing the abject? Or facing one’s fears? Or facing the impossible as a literary practice?

VP: Yes.

LH: Changing the subject entirely…Women and the Internet: is there a woman you read daily?

VP: An Internet woman?

LH: Yes, I’m thinking about women and space, women and the way we inhabit space. Women’s intellectual discourse, where and how we encounter it. Is there a woman that you read daily then, a woman who offers commentary, who is involved in a political, poetical, public discourse that you connect with?

VP: Like a woman, I confess most of my best exchanges are privatest. I am lucky enough to have very clever friends scattered about who are ongoing correspondents in ongoing conversations; there’s a steady stream of smartness publicly coming from them, but there’s also a great willingness not to know or to probe that is more easily explored via email. There’s your blog, of course, and some others, but I’ve found a funny gendered inclination towards (or alee) public serialized pontification and free-ranging authority. I enjoy it myself, an occupational tic, perhaps.

Did you want me to name names?

LH: No names necessary. This is perhaps just me coming to terms with the absolute genderedness of public space. No wonder women write so much…in private. The idea of the feminist boot camp appeals. I would like see women making grand philosophical and political statements in public, and have them batted down and have to defend and joust. Is this why academic women are so appealing? I wanted to say sexy but I’m not sure that’s it…you are a fan of Simone de Beauvoir though, and other thinking women. Does their publicness come into the picture for you?

VP: Sexy is exactly it. I adore that photo of de Beauvoir nude, fixing her hair in the mirror. If there is an ethical obligation, it would include the obligation of public pronouncement, and the utter willingness to show one’s backside.

LH: I know you have a press, which might be the answer to the following question, but perhaps you can address that in the mix. Do you think about community when you write? Or, is writing a kind of social praxis for you? Is it political?

VP: No. I hate community. Community breeds lynch mobs and Hallmark cards. Writing is ethical, which is the smallest unit of the political.

LH: This is a question I asked here on LH recently about compassion fatigue really, and the responsibility of artists to see… Does seeing the problems really make one pessimistic? How to look without getting burned out? Is it better to tune out? What do we do with all this information? Is it useful to know that there are 191 million global migrants. On the other hand what does business see when it looks at a floating island of garbage? Sometimes just picking up one piece is a start, no? Isn’t optimism confronting things head on?

VP: These are perspective choices in a pro-choice world. I feel sans choice, or sous chose, I suppose. As you know, I am a criminal appellate attorney; I work for the defense, representing indigent felony sex offenders and sexually violent predators. Poor rapists and child molesters. I do not feel that either my vocation or avocation is about compassion or optimism or even the sanctity of utter damnation. I am by turns confitor and conspirator, guilty as any good bystander. I want to be burnt, out and in, to have seared into my consciousness the consciousnesses surrounding me; I worship at the altar of Sisyphus, and consider myself lucky at that. The beauty of humanity is its feeble insistence on the possibility of transcendence—to pick up one piece of garbage is a ridiculous prayer, made more marvelous by its utter inconsequence. Head on, face first.

LH: I hear you about perspectives, and I guess that’s partly what I’m getting at here. I always remember the story of the man who started picking up garbage in the Don Valley in Toronto. One day on his walk he bent down and picked a piece up. The next time he picked up another. Then he started to make note of what he was taking out. Then he got a cart. Then others took notice, and so on. I hear you, absolutely, but that story above always gives me hope.

VP: This is why the Canadians are better people than we are. Here’s a joke that’s in Medusa, which I love: The CIA, FBI, and LAPD are each bragging that they’re the best law enforcement agency in the world. As a test, the President releases a rabbit in the forest, and tells them to go find it. The CIA goes out first, investigates the terrain, interrogates the other animals, takes some infrared photos, scans all satellites, pays off a snitch, etc. Returns nine months later, saying, “Mr. President, sorry to say, there’s no such thing as rabbits.” So the FBI goes out, sets up an encampment with armored cars, sharpshooters, media center, etc., waits a week, then sets fire to the forest, burning deer, bear, moose, squirrels, birds and bobcats—and one rabbit. FBI hauls the burnt bunny back and says, “We’re sorry about your rabbit, Mr. President, but the motherfucker had it coming.” Finally, the LAPD rolls out. Five minutes later they come back dragging a beat-up bloody raccoon, who’s yelling, “OK! OK! I’m a rabbit!”

LH: I’m a fan of Lisa Robertson, as I’ve mentioned, and one of the things I like about her work is the sense of it always being created. The thinking seems to be occurring as one is encountering the text. Your work has a similar quality. Is that something you have identified as a need for you? a necessary quality of text in general?VP: Yes to all. This gets into the conflation of enactment and embodiment, demonstrated by the de Beauvoir nude and the allegorical nature of writing itself, or at least writing that’s worth talking about.

LH: The other way in which your text reminds me of LR is the sheer beauty of it. The way you connect words–you mentioned lacing earlier. What I wonder is if beauty is a way to offer solace when there is so little real solace. I mean so much poetry or “fiction” in the mainstream sense of the word seems so delusional because it wants to console. LR suggests at points that the delusional space is perhaps the most ethical…

VP: I don’t believe in delusion, but do believe in beauty, and its ethical imparative*. Though I consider beauty, as I’ve written elsewhere, to be a verb.

LH: Does your conceptual appetite extend to movies or can you abide Woody Allen? Will you see the new one? And do you have a favorite director?

VP: Not him for conceptualism, though one of my favorite films of all time happens to be “The Sorrow and the Pity.” I’ve a number of directors or director’s films I quite like — Lang’s “M” is a series of perfect mis en scenes, and I can watch “Army of Shadows” and “Elevator to the Gallows” repeatedly. I’ve been on a binge of Ozu mixed with Melville and other Nouvelle Vague gangster films for the past couple of years, and have developed some flabby theory that they’re about the same thing — familial disappointment and uncritical fidelity. I realize my film choices are unutterably fey — Teresa once told me that she didn’t realize that part of being with Vanessa meant never seeing a film in English, or in color. (Or sometimes sound: I also really like Buster Keaton, and much Chaplin — have you seen Monsieur Verdoux? Just great.)

LH: An artist to watch?

VP: Stephanie Taylor, who is merging conceptual writing and conceptual art in excellent and necessary ways; Molly Corey, merging historicity and conceptualism to good effect. There’s more works than specific artists; Mary Kelley’s recent 1968 dryer lint piece was wonderful, I loved Jenny Saville’s Fulcrum painting and Alexandra Grant’s wired words. At the moment, I’m reviewing Gillian Waring’s Pin Ups, quite inspiring as a manifestation of the endlessly looping subject/object — what Rob Fitterman & I are calling the “sobject.”

LH: What about this business of being a writer and having a body—do you train? It’s an odd question, but I wonder how we of the bent over our screen generation will fare physically. We think about the body in text, but what about the daily.

VP: I grew up in a multi-generational military family: a soldier must be equally trained in mind and body. I’m not as disciplined as I ought should be, but do attempt to move all parts on a regular basis, sometimes strenuously.

LH: Humour. Obviously you have a keen sense of irony, a quick wit. How would you have done at court? Versailles, 1782?

VP: If I were Benjamin Franklin, I imagine quite well. If Marie Antoinette, not so hot.

Round Two published September 9, 2008