An Interview with Lisa Robertson

By Brecken Hancock

In a 2011 interview with Ted Byrne for The Capilano Review, there’s a node at which you speak frankly both of the ways in which “it was difficult to become a writer as a young woman” and the potentially debilitating stasis of gender politics in writing and criticism. Referring to VIDA’s 2011 Count of published reviews in prominent critical literary venues, you are open about your reaction to the survey: “And it’s still just fucking disgusting, if you look at the numbers in the LRB and the New Yorker, the NYRB, so on down the line. The numbers—it’s fucking Neanderthal, you know, 20% women, 11% women, it’s still the same shit.” In the Byrne interview, you urge that “it’s imperative to do something” about the lack of parity. I read some anger in your answers to Byrne—it’s an anger I relate to when confronting the statistics—and I’m wondering if that anger becomes productive for you (does it burst open the energy to “do something”?) or do you feel that political action requires drawing on other reserves?

Yes, you’re right, that’s anger! I think that anger indeed can become productive. Especially if one gives oneself the space for reflection too. And certainly anger can aerate the debilitating sadness that is another response to the rampant institutional misogyny that structures much public and commercial discourse. But my sense of “doing something” remains a little vague. I suppose that what I do is to continue. And my sense of what political action consists of is very broad. There is direct action, which is imperative, but there are many many other modes of action. To publish is to act in the world, as is to teach or to mentor. Sometimes to wake up and eat and work is an action that can require all affective reserves, including anger. It is a fact that women are often punished for expressing anger, subtly or otherwise. I know that in my life I have sought out women’s anger. That search has led me to music, to texts, to individuals, and has helped me take the leap into new work, new forms. I think there is a strong relation between emotion and form, just as there is between emotion and bodies. In fact, they’re not different. It is my body that is angry, and that thinks, and that cuts through certain conventions to find ways of working with language that feel direct, liberatory. What we’re talking about here is bodies, their imperative to act. We can’t free bodies without listening to bodies, including our own.

Moving from anger to apprehension, I’m interested in an interview with Andy Fitch where you discuss your most recent book of essays, Nilling. You reveal that you approached writing the essays with some anxiety: “[Philosophical] discourse… 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.” And in “Time in the Codex,” you write, “In heavy and worthy houses, I feel a violent dismay. It gets harder and harder to be a female in one’s life in such a house.” I have to admit that it caused me alarm to know that you were “frightened” to engage in a male-dominated, philosophical discourse—mostly because I employed a fantasy in which your career as a poet, essayist, and thinker afforded you the right to stride confidently into the conversation. Do you feel pessimistic about the possibility for women’s thinking and writing to be embraced as integral to cultural discourse?

You’re asking about fear. To feel fear is not unusual at any point in one’s life. It can even illuminate necessity. I try in my life to go towards the things I fear, to approach difficulty and complexity as closely as I can. The nature of my fear around writing doesn’t pertain to my projections about its eventual reception. I try to not engage in projections like those, at all. To claim a discursive right you have to engage intimately, and repeatedly, with that right’s potential at the most intimate sites of your relationship to language. A right is not only given by a community or institution. It must be psychologically and intellectually confronted, even invented, in the privacy of cognition and composition. The fear has to do with that process itself. My relationship to philosophy has been that of a passionate life-long reader. Writing the Nilling essays I made a decision to enter this discourse, as an amateur. I don’t write from the position of having a career. I write from the position of someone trying to open her thinking in language. For me this can be an extraordinarily difficult process. I’m plunged in a solitude that is both imagined and actual. I have to invent how to think at each step of the process, even within the moment. I often feel that I don’t know how to think, I don’t know how to write. I try to seize this experience of not-knowing and let it become sentences. That is simply my work, the way I work. The other side of fear is the intense pleasure, exhilaration even, of the sensation of a cognitive opening. It feels like I am physically building synapses—when I perceive success at the micro-level, that is the most astounding sensation!

Where the question of feminist politics overtly enters this process is at the level of specific readers. Women have helped me achieve what I attempted. Kate Eichhorn, my editor at Bookthug for the Nilling essays, very patiently accompanied me through the trepidation I felt. She extended to me the thinking space of a generous, and disciplined recognition. She helped me rethink each essay, and she helped me structure the book. Erín Moure is another reader who brought her insistent precision to these texts, proofing and copy editing at the last moment. She told me the work deserved to be as perfect as we could make it. Many women extended to me the invitations that these essays responded to—Jen Scappetone, Suzanne Stein, Nathalie Courtoi, Marlene McCallum, Lola Tostevin, Kathy Mezei. Acts of meaningful generosity like these are exactly what give me hope for the future of women’s thinking and writing. A facilitating practice of mentorship is part of the feminist work that makes a space for our practices and our texts. This happens overtly at the level of solicitation, editing, and publication. But it is present at a subtle level too, within the solitude of composition. It doesn’t take the fear of the process away, but it makes a space for it. I am certain that I am not the only woman who has sometimes found writing scary. Maybe naming that fear could be helpful for others. All affect will enter this process. We need to permit and accompany one another’s solitudes.

One of the barriers that women still face is rooted in the material: how can we dedicate long unpaid hours to participate in necessary collective feminist interventions and, at the same time, read and write and progress with our own work—and, at the same time, afford to live and eat? You’ve worked in feminist collectives of writers and visual artists in Vancouver in the 1990s at the Kootenay School, Raddle Moon, and Front Magazine. You were also a bookseller. And you have taught, read and worked all over the world. How have you done the work that you’ve done and survived artistically and materially? Any thoughts on how women artists can be more strategic about political work, artistic work, and basic financial survival?

I’ve survived by a series of flukes. I’ve kept adapting my plan. I’ve often lived on next to nothing. Sometimes friends help me. I’m not sure if my experience can be instructive in any way. Where I live now, in rural France, living is relatively affordable. I can no longer afford to live in cities. I lived in Vancouver while rents were still low. Before that, I lived on Saltspring Island in a free cabin. I call that my early retirement. I spent a few years in that cabin working very little and reading everything. Webb, Proust, Heidegger, Barthes, Genet, Woolf, Pound. It was a great preparation for writing. I learned how to read as slowly as possible, and how to follow my own paths, how to recognize them, simply by taking my time. A key to having a successful freelance life is low overhead. I haven’t had children, and I’m single, so my financial responsibilities have been minimal. (Not that this is necessary, but it has let me make choices very flexibly.) Also, other women taught me how to conduct a freelance writer’s life. Erín Moure, for example, and Eileen Myles. They work constantly. They travel constantly. They showed me how it’s done. And they, and other women—Susan Clark, who published Raddle Moon, Jenny Penberthy at Capilano Review, and most of the women curators in Vancouver (Cate Rimmer, Kathy Slade, Karen Henry, Vanessa Kwan, Kathleen Ritter, Lorna Brown)—gave me work to do, sent paying opportunities my way. I have made my living more through being an art writer than through poetry. It is good to develop specializations, so people can recognize you for specific tasks. In the late 90s I decided to focus on the relation between architecture and the contemporary visual arts. I formed the Office for Soft Architecture, hung my shingle out, and people came to me with commissions. It started with friends, then spread. As a result of that work, I now teach in fine arts programmes.

We have to support one another. We have to solicit one another’s work. We have to find ways to pay one another. It’s also important to be vocal about one’s own financial requirements. If I am working with an institution that has money, I ask for money. I sometimes politely ask for more than is initially offered. It can feel awkward, but it’s necessary. I apply for grants regularly.

But I want to say too that it has been crucial to continue to seek out, craft a balance, between solitude and social visibility. Retreat is also an economy. As well as developing social and political critiques, we need to nourish our inner lives. This is also something we can help each other with. The neo-liberal economy has put financial and institutional survival at the foreground of nearly every intellectual’s life. And as women we are conditioned to serve others. We can’t let this exigency obscure the parallel need to be improductive, to locate value otherwise. I am more and more Epicurean as time passes. I’m referring to the school of philosophy as examined living, not the popular myth of gourmandise. We need to form communities that help us live outside the general economy, to cultivate resistant paths of thought. I’m interested in exploring the notion of a feminist solitude. I’m interested in experimenting with time.

Is there anything about writing and thinking as a feminist that gets easier and easier?

Well, yes. Teaching gets easier. Giving readings and lectures gets easier. Writing doesn’t. I’m not entirely sure how my feminism is or isn’t part of this experience. It might simply be an effect of aging.

In only one year, CWILA has seen improvement in the numbers of some of Canada’s most prominent critical publications: “most notably The Walrus (23% to 56%), Canadian Notes and Queries (25% to 46%), Fiddlehead (29% to 58%), Geist (38% to 49%) and the National Post (33% to 42%)” (Gillian Jerome, “The CWILA Numbers 2012”). Since 2010, VIDA has also noted some improvement, but many major venues for reviews, such as Harpers, The Paris Review, The New Republic, New York Review of Books, and Times Literary Supplement continue a “gross (& indecent) neglect of female writers’ work” (Amy King, “VIDA Count 2012”). Because you’ve travelled so widely and lived in Canada, the US, and France, I wonder if you’ve noticed political differences in terms of the potential for feminist intervention across borders.

Yes, there are major differences between these countries, and Great Britain as well, where I’ve also lived, and now often work.

Actually, I’m not sure what you mean by feminist intervention across borders. Do you mean the differences between forms and expressions of feminism in the different countries?

Yes, exactly.

I hesitate to make broad statements about places that I have lived in only briefly. But I suppose that if I am to answer, I’ll have to!

I sensed that in the USA, where I recently lived for three years while teaching in San Francisco, political discourse, including feminism, is more directly shaped by the need to be employed by an institution. If you don’t have a stable job, you have no health care. Perhaps therefore you can’t choose to have a family. And the institutions are mostly private. People are generally very circumspect in institutional settings, out of a real need for self-preservation. I sense that there isn’t really public discourse in the USA. In the experimental poetry context that I work within there, feminist critique is very minor. It just isn’t really part of the vocabulary, the way it is for us, with the work of Brossard, Scott, Moure, Zolf, Queyras, Lai as active as it is—or so it seems to me from this distance—at the forefront of Canadian public discourse. It seems that in the US, feminism is functioning at the level of mentorship, career assistance, private conversation, etc., among women, because institutional risks are too dangerous. There are some notable exceptions—Belladonna for example, the reading series and publishing project in Brooklyn, started by Rachel Levitsky; Leon Works, which is Renee Gladman’s press; and Les Figues in LA, run by Teresa Carmody and Vanessa Place. (Belladonna, by the way, is about to publish the first English translation of the 1984 Québécois feminist book edited by Nicole Brossard, La Théorie, un dimanche, translated as Sunday, Theory, which includes essays by Louky Bersianik, Nicole Brossard, Louise Cotnoir, Louise Dupré, Gail Scott, and France Théoret. I was thrilled that they asked me to write the introduction.)

In France the numbers are actually deplorable. We think of French feminism—Kristeva, Irigary, Cixous—and these women are in fact major figures in public discourse, but their presence doesn’t reflect a more general integration of feminism into publishing and literature. Poetry here takes place outside of academia. There are no MFA programmes—it’s just not a part of literary and educational culture. So communities are more ad hoc, scattered. Though I’ve been here for ten years, I can’t say that I actually understand yet how it works. It’s part of the interest of being foreign somewhere. Maybe there are whole layers of feminist activity that I haven’t yet discovered. Another part of that interest in being here is the very different nature of political debate. For example, discussion around veiling and headscarf laws for Moslem women in France has taught me a great deal about the structure of argument within secular republican discourse. I hadn’t recognized before how very conditioned my modes of critique have been by Canadian multiculturalism. I grew up in the Trudeau era.

In England there is a truly fabulous generation of young feminist poets, women now in their 20s and 30s, after an endless dire period where feminism simply was not welcome at an institutional level. Denise Riley, for example, the feminist philosopher and poet, active since the 1970s, has found more institutional support in the USA and in Europe than she has in her own country. Likewise for Caroline Bergvall, active since the early 90s. Now though, younger poets like Andrea Brady, Redell Olsen, Amy De’Ath, Sophie Robinson, and Francesca Lisette are extremely prolific and vocal. There is a new flourishing of feminist reading series, small presses, magazines, and the critique to go along with these forums. It feels very exciting to me.

Given the exemplary excellence of Canadian feminist writing, I see one of the big problems for us is getting our work to circulate outside of Canada. It’s something I can help with, but to a very minor degree, since I have no institutional position. The decimation of funding for Canadian writers outside Canada through Foreign Affairs, and the gutting of Canadian Studies programmes all over the world, since the Conservatives cut the funding, has meant that Canadian writers are very under-represented outside our own country. I wish it were different. These two defunct programmes were the very ones that supported the movement of my own work outside Canada at key points in my life. I feel we have an astounding, rich literary culture, and when people learn even a little about what we do, they are amazed.

In Nilling you write, “It feels true to me to claim a utopian status for thought. But such a claim can also seem to obfuscate the historical contingency of the thinker’s milieu”; you elaborate that thinking is “conditioned by historical pressures and protocols” and that it “veers freely. Both.” Later, in “Untitled Essay,” you “test the ways the institutionalized and gendered dualism of civis and domus as spatial contraries might be capsized by the historical and temporal force of rhythmed vernacular language.” Do you think that etymological and philosophical investigations that reshape our understanding—of rhythm, of citizenship, of domesticity—have the potential to redefine historical systems of power or bring us closer to an embodied utopia? I’m thinking here of a line that one of the voices speaks in R’s Boat: “I saw amazing systems that immediately buckled.”

I believe that thinking is emancipatory. That is why it is frightening, to individuals and to political regimes and institutions. Thinking is a form of acting, an acting within the space of language. I don’t mean language in any autonomous sense. Language is already historical, it’s never not political and historical. To act within language is always to act among others, and in the temporality of others. We change language itself by thinking and writing. Other people’s thinking and writing has given me the space and the will to work. I hope to contribute to this quorum, however modestly, because this is what it means to live in history and in politics. It is already a world, already a utopia. I want to insist that creative and intellectual activity is real, although it’s situated outside the mainstream of the economy. The neo-liberal political economy is not real. It is violent, and aggressive because it wants to claim the space of reality in order to quantify it. What we are doing, speaking together, reading and publishing and critiquing one another’s texts, eating at tables and arguing, loving each other, giving life to one another, is already embodied utopia. That doesn’t mean it’s simple. It has to be reinhabited at each turn. This ongoing reinhabitation is the necessary amazement. It’s politics, it’s the future, and it’s happening in kitchens and in online spaces and classrooms and gardens right now. It’s a resistance.

I’m wondering about resistance at the level of reading, and public discourse about reading. In an interview with Julie Carr for Evening Will Come, you make a link between reading practice and gendered embodiment: “I’ve always had an intense pleasure as a reading female. It seems to me that this radical differentiation that unfolds within the experience of reading is not really the aspect of reading which the institutions that have formed themselves around reading tend to validate, or tend to open up or offer as the official version of what reading is. The institutionalized form of what reading is has been more a transmission of power, knowledge as power.” It occurred to me that this same description could apply to critical culture, particularly if we think of the institutionalized role of reviewers as tastemakers. Do you see the “female critic” or the “critical female” as radical? Do you see a criticism that arises out of women’s reading as, by nature, subversive?

No, I don’t think there’s anything that is natural to women. Including subversion. Any number of examples of reactionary women politicians and critics can show us that. I do think that it is subversive to read and critique as a feminist. And in the Carr interview, I was trying, clumsily, to get at reading itself as a radical activity. I can say that I acquired my feminism through reading, first of all. Reading itself gave me the space to think critically, and recognize myself, before anything else did. It continues to do so, though now that space is supported by networks of other readers. Is it paranoid to propose that the foreclosure of the culture of books, and the humanities, in the current economy, is a planned attack on the subversive and critical potential of reading? Maybe this banal notion of the end of the book is really about the planned abolishment of reading. It could be that feminist intellectuals have had to develop subversive tactics in order to develop and survive. Maybe in that sense we will be the ones to show the others how to resist, how to flourish against the grain of the current economic regime. Feminist critique, and the critical discourse of the other in its various senses, will be the avant garde.

Julie Carr, in that same interview, asks you to answer a hypothetical antagonist who asks, “If you argue that the present moment is already ripe with agency and a potential utopia if experienced the right way—what does that do to the hope for actual revolution or political transformation?” You answer that “action has to be situated in a detailed seizing of the present.” Do you see CWILA as enacting one possible way to seize the present moment? Do you feel at all hopeful about the potential for political intervention in the institutions of critical discourse?

Yes, certainly what CWILA is doing is important. In terms of the potentials of political intervention, hopefulness is not a word I would choose. It’s too vague for the facts. History has repeatedly shown that institutional interventions work. It is certain that such interventions, in their many many guises, are in fact what shape institutions. This is what the various suffrage, labour, and liberation movements have proven. History is the movement of discourse. It’s what we transform as we speak among others. Language changes life. This is why I write. The modes of change are not necessarily as direct or immediate as we might wish—they also function deeply and gradually, sometimes discontinuously, at the level of belief, habit, epistemology, and perception, both collective and individual. It has to be a long-term commitment.


Lisa Robertson PhotoBorn in Toronto in 1961, Lisa Robertson moved to the west coast in 1980, and stayed until 2003. She studied English at Simon Fraser University from 1984-88, left without completing a degree in order to become a bookseller, then was the proprietor of Proprioception Books for six years, also working intensively with the Kootenay School of Writing and Artspeak Gallery, and editing at Front Magazine and Raddle Moon. Tsumani Editions published her first chapbook, The Apothecary, in 1991, then her first book, XEclogue, two years later. Since the publication of Debbie: An Epic by New Star in 1997, she has travelled widely for readings and lectures. Her first writer’s residency was at Cambridge University in 1998, followed by residencies, fellowships and short-term teaching posts at Capilano College, UC San Diego, American University of Paris, UC Berkeley, California College of the Arts, Simon Fraser University, Queen Mary University of London, and currently, Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. In 2014 she will be Bain Swiggett Professor at Princeton University, and Coach House will publish her 9th book, a long poem called Cinema of the Present.

Brecken Hancock’s poetry, essays, interviews, and reviews have appeared in Event, CV2, Grain, The Fiddlehead, and Studies in Canadian Literature. She is Reviews Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine and Interviews Editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. The Art of Plumbing, her most recent chapbook, is out with above/ground press and her first full-length manuscript of poems, Broom Broom, is forthcoming with Coach House Books. She lives and walks dogs in Ottawa.

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