Sandeep Parmar in Conversation with Chris Pusateri
Interview by Chris Pusateri
Chris Pusateri: As a scholar of modernism, you have produced a body of critical work that focuses on women writers of the period. Poets such as Mina Loy and Hope Mirrlees have garnered some critical attention while eluding the wider readership enjoyed by many of their male contemporaries. Some might see your scholarly work as an argument for the inclusion of figures like Loy and Mirrlees in the literary canon. In my reading, your work on Loy and Mirrlees seems less interested in the canon (with its associations of permanency and enduring value borrowed from an ecclesiastical vocabulary) and more about the tracing of a particular historical lineage. Can you speak a bit about your interest in figures like Loy and Mirrlees, and about the appeal that the genre of autobiography has for you?
Sandeep Parmar: It’s worth beginning here by saying that Loy, Mirrlees and, more recently, Nancy Cunard are poets that were read during modernism and deserve to be continually read alongside their male contemporaries. The obvious trouble with canon revision is that one is wrapped up in validating marginalized writers which only reinforces the canon. So, yes, I’m most interested in the complete lives of women writers—not just the moments when they flashed onto the scene of a party with so-and-so, wearing something extravagant and wrote something erotic or controversial. Mirrlees, Loy and Cunard had whole writing lives that temper our understanding of modernism as male-dominated. The autobiographies of Mina Loy (unpublished for the most part) testify to the failure of the avant-garde to change the political and social climate around her. She’s more interested in the future of humanity and imparting whatever wisdom she has as directly as possible. There’s an oracular fire that inhabits her final manuscript version, ‘Islands in the Air’. A chapter of it was published in a very small journal, the Italian Poetry Review. In it she calls her life-long book project ‘intermittent…unfinishing’ which, quite frankly, is no failure. The ‘masterpieces’ of modernism make us such bad readers! I want to follow these women’s supposed failures and read them against their ‘successes’ for a certain kind of dominant (male) aesthetic culture. At the moment, I’ve just finished editing Nancy Cunard’s Selected Poems (it’s really almost a Collected). Parallax, like Mirrlees’s Paris, is a kind of apex of modernist writing—another great long poem that comes out of reading The Waste Land. But Cunard’s early poems, the two volumes and the Wheels anthology, make decipherable in her later war/modernist poems the ethics of lyric testimony even before the first world war. She calls herself a child of the century—she was born in 1896—and she certainly lives up to it.
CP: I’m interested in the emphasis you place on ‘complete lives,’ rather than concentrating solely on literary output—or easily consumed biographical bon mots —at the expense of lived experience. There has always been this tension between lived existence and literary invention, between an author’s wider life and the narrow band of cultural production that scholars often choose as their focus.
I see some of these concerns reflected in your use of Helen, who figures prominently in Eidolon, your latest volume of poetry. In a recent discussion with Juliana Spahr, you wrote: ‘For me, Helen was a vehicle to displace…racial and national states in my own head that are British, American, Indian and more. Places that I felt I’m not at home in.’ Later in that same exchange, you mentioned having read your poetry at the Times of India Literature Festival. It was ‘the first time in my life I read to an audience made up entirely of Indians.’ However, the audience did not respond to the work’s post-colonial themes in quite the manner you expected. You wrote, ‘I was bearing some wound they could not diagnose,’ and you described this sensation as feeling ‘placed.’
What I find compelling is that the feeling of disconnection results from feeling excessively placed rather than displaced or unplaced. You mention that you carry two passports—US and UK—in your handbag wherever you go, and that act reinforces the idea that a person who appears at the intersections of cultural borders creates instead a third, unique condition—one that incorporates US, British and Indian influences, but does not aspire to resemble. As such, it resists being defined solely by its proximity to US, UK, and Indian influences, and is perhaps closer to what the artist Lee Lozano meant when she wrote that ‘identity is a vector.’ My partner, Michelle Naka Pierce, herself a Japanese-American, describes the territory between cultural and racial borders as liminal space, and argues not for the post-identity utopia so often encountered in avant-garde writing and theory, but in favor of a third category that, by its very existence, challenges purist notions of identity and culture.
In my reading, the Helen of Eidolon undergoes a similar transformation. Her story has been told and re-told, and the struggle for control of her narrative—if power over Helen can be reduced to the story that is told about her—is well-documented. Eidolon, however, operates at a lesser remove: it takes Helen from what Mikhail Bakhtin calls ‘mythical time’ and locates her firmly in the present tense, amidst the quotidian, even mundane environs of Indiana. In so doing, Eidolon affords Helen the complete life denied her by myth: instead of a personification of ideal beauty, she is Helen of the black cab, Helen of the church potluck, Helen of the supermarket queue, and Helen of the kitchen table ready meal. The more I read Eidolon, the more I became convinced that she occupied all of these spaces simultaneously. Helen, then, not as one woman, but many; and yet she constitutes a multiplicity whose component selves resist being reduced to a ‘composite of an idea’ that robs them of specificity.
Helen’s ability to occupy more than one space brings to mind Gerald Vizenor’s writing on Naanabozho, the Anishinaabe trickster figure. According to Vizenor, Naanabozho’s power comes from his ability to be many things: he is androgynous, at once wise and foolish, frivolous and serious. As part of an oral tradition, Naanabozho’s story is never fixed: he changes from telling to telling, and his ability to incorporate many different qualities makes it impossible for him to be colonized by those resident experts of culture, the anthropologists.
As traditional boundaries of culture and identity are being probed and transgressed, we see the concurrent rise of nationalist forces in both the US and Europe that are mobilizing to defend those borders. I’d like to ask if you see the claiming of liminal spaces as a viable form of agency or resistance? Is liminal space always a tertiary space, given its relationship to the boundaries on whose perimeter it resides? And what kind of public role for poetry could result in a meaningful redrawing of such borders?
SP: There’s a terrible tragedy waiting to happen in ‘liminal space’ so I think it’s worth discrediting straight away. Liminality implies regulated borders and borders are undoubtedly spaces of violence, boundaries where one discriminates against the private and public versions of the self. The third space, hybridity, like liminality, are real lived places that no one really wants to live in. My sister, who is an international emergency medicine physician often working on borders in refugee camps (open air prisons in many cases, as with Burma’s stateless Muslim Rohingya population) are spaces to where one is pushed and excluded. I see this in cultural equivalents as a means of persecution, a disembodying or placing of the culturally stateless person: I would instead argue that the fraying in-betweenness is a function of interminable discourses and not the body in space and in time. The violence of having to self-define through obscurantist language and theory is that one lives in a borderland. One learns the language of the open-air prison and accommodates life on either side of the border—into which one is certainly not admitted—as fair and reasonable. Hybridity, in the case of artists and writers, has already made monstrous creatures of us, assembled from the rubble of post-colonial binaries: English-speaking head seeks Indian-resembling body. I carry both my passports not because I worry someone is going to ask for them—that, in our day and age is a privilege. Nor would I produce them should I be greeted on the street by someone spitting ‘go home, Paki’, as has happened on occasion over the past fifteen years in the UK. My ability to claim citizenship here—or in the States—is irrelevant to the urge for monoculture that rises up in the face of globalization and its victimized angry communities looking for someone to blame, some Helen whom to hate and burn again and again insatiably. The passports are, for me, documents that ground me simultaneously in two places: in the UK where I live and work and write and the US where another self, a younger, more hopeful self with a complete family is frozen in a particular space. The immigrant is sometimes unfortunate enough to be locked into the moment of arrival and they replay it interminably. I am one of these. I am many of these, too, and the person who is pressed on by futurity without any sense of a continuous narrative. But why should the narrative be continuous? As I’ve stated elsewhere, our inflexible reading of writers of colour—as exotic, foreign, clichéd oftentimes—emerges from a contemporary and market-driven need to subsume the other, to neutralize it, to map it within certain borders. It’s all too easy for me to wave my two passports and wish for no home or to claim to operate in between places—but as the Brexit vote last week suggests, my sense of place in this country is vastly different to my neighbour’s and she and I will carry on these states simultaneously regardless of what the next Conservative prime minister decides to do with the land we live on, and its borders. I think your question anticipates my reply: there is no way to redraw the borders of public poetry in order to give agency to marginalized voices. What would such a poetry do, what would its role be? I’m reminded of Juliana Spahr and CO Grossman’s collage-poem of Wikileaks cables about US State Department poets. But we can, as readers and writers, resist the authority of some extreme examples of lyric and experimental poetry’s assumption into canonical space: a conservative, nationalized, co-signed voice that I find most startlingly grim in some of the mainstream poets of the British postwar period (and since). Moves towards linguistic simplicity, political apathy and anti-intellectual, urban self-centredness of a younger generation of UK poets (influenced by all the wrong aspects of O’Hara and the New York School) similarly grates.
I think you’re right, in some respects, about Eidolon and mythical time. For me, Helen not adding up does indeed give her the bodily life she is denied by her many authors, excepting perhaps HD. Helen appeared to me in a very strange way, and I write about this a little in the book’s epilogue. But the truth of it is that I poured the longing and loss of an itinerant person into her. She was the perfect vessel for this, being nobody. I was influenced unconsciously by a few books at the time of writing (besides the obvious versions of Helen since antiquity): C.D. Wright’s One with Others; Rachida Madani’s Tales of a Severed Head and, inevitably, Anne Carson’s Men in the Off Hours which I’ve been reading tirelessly since it appeared in the 1990s—for me, it is her best work. At the time, I was teaching Bessie Head’s Question of Power and Christa Wolf’s Cassandra. No doubt the formlessness of female desire slipped into the autobiographical triggers in my poem.
CP: You make a number of good points about liminality; namely, that borderlands are violent spaces and that liminal ground—a place to which one is relegated—is territory that no one wants to inhabit. It is my hope that liminal spaces—and indeed, liminal conditions—can be used as staging areas for resistance and, should such resistance prove effective, that liminality can become an agent of its own obsolescence.
Yet something in me resists the idea that liminality can only ever be tragic, because it implies that occupants of a tragic space will assume the character of their surroundings. Tragedy is aligned with the past, because it can never have a future. When we label tragic bodies in space, we imagine them in a way that makes their liminality permanent. Like the open air prison of the borderlands, tragedy has its own vocabulary, and we are wise to guard against its normalization as well.
Ultimately, we are talking about and around categories, and categories, by their existence, create borders between things. Taxonomies of being are inherently colonial in their outlook, because they come about through acts of discrimination and are defined as much by what they exclude as by what they admit. You said in your previous reply that ‘the fraying in-betweenness is a function of interminable discourses and not the body in space and time.’ I have little doubt of this. Because discourses traffic in just such categories, it makes them particularly ill-suited to dealing with anything as concrete as bodies in time and space. A body that is subject to discourse cannot be considered as individual, as a singularity, because it is too busy being pluralized, pressed into service as the representative of a category, and thus is considered only as derivative of that group. All of which is, as you indicated, its own form of injustice.
Before we depart the topic of discourses and categories, I wanted to ask about your recent experience as a BBC New Generation Thinker. One of the stated aims of the program is to encourage those working in the academic disciplines ‘to cultivate the skills to communicate their research findings to those outside the academic community.’
I’m always very interested in how academics interact with so-called popular audiences. Around the rough edges of this desire to translate research findings into something of interest to a general audience is a kind of incredulity that I often encounter in my life as a poet. While I studied writing and literature at university, I’m not a career academic; instead, I make my living in public libraries, engaging daily with the very non-academic people that programs like New Generation Thinkers hope to reach.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is an appetite among some general readers for difficulty, for writing that is politically and socially engaged, for a type of literature that extends beyond the more normative aspects of traditional narrative. This is substantiated by my own experience. On occasions when I’m contacted by readers of my work, they are rarely poets and almost never academics; instead, they’re musicians, videographers, designers, nurses, schoolteachers, and record store owners.
However, when I raise the prospect of non-specialist audiences with my academic counterparts, they often exhibit a palpable disbelief, and quite frequently, a pronounced lack of interest in the subject. American academics seem convinced that the professionalization of poetry has produced a readership that does not extend beyond campus. As such, the American professoriate tends to write for itself, which may explain why so much American poetry is long on self-regard. The art critic Nicholas Bourriaud writes that ‘form [in art] can only come about from a meeting between two levels of reality. For homogeneity does not produce images, it produces the visual, otherwise put, looped information.’ Despite this, American writing departments expend remarkably little effort to reach non-academic audiences.
There is clearly a level of difficulty in your poetry, not to mention a far more nuanced approach to subjects like aesthetics, race, and gender than one often finds in popular (‘or populist, depending on your view’) poetry. Given the objectives of the New Generation Thinkers program, I’m wondering how you negotiated the need to reach a broader audience while retaining the complexity that is present in your work? Were there institutional expectations about the form such a project would take, and if so, how did you manage them?
SP: The rationale behind the New Generation Thinkers programme is a meeting point between two institutional constructs that see themselves as ‘public-facing’: the BBC and the University sector. The value given to public engagement—via research—in the academy is quantified by the regular exercise of the Research Excellence Framework, or REF, which judges the health of the University by the impact of research on society, culture, policy. Like many academics in the UK, I’m skeptical about whether this exercise produces better sites of learning and thinking. But a sense of target-driven, quantifiable engagement with the ‘public’ informs much of what we do, in this case facilitated by one of the UK’s main research funding bodies, the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I won’t dwell here on neoliberalism in the academy or the REF, or even the BBC itself. What I will say is that I’m grateful to be able to share my research on (for example) Nancy Cunard’s poetry or issues of race in avant-garde poetry with a wider audience. The limits of the format—BBC Radio 3 is where most New Generation Thinkers appear—are of course not conducive to layers of difficulty but, like National Public Radio in the US, it’s a place where you’ll find yourself learning about niche subjects (depending) like the history of furniture or the life of Muriel Spark. I’m currently preparing a Sunday Feature on Hope Mirrlees’s poem ‘Paris’—which we’ll record on the streets of the Left Bank. Maybe I’ll convince a few dozen people to read her incredible work, even beyond her best-known poem. As far as my own poetry, I rarely bring this to the New Gens programmes. With the exception of an episode of ‘Free Thinking’ on the Liverpool Biennial which I co-curated. I read a few poems from Eidolon and considered legacies of the classical world within the Biennial’s structural episodes, one of which is ‘Ancient Greece’. Probably the audience that receives these programmes is not far from your model of the knowledgeable listener who exists outside of the academy but has a stake in culture generally.