Welcome to Terspischore’s Atrium, where the Hermeneutic Chaos editors find delight in the elfin task of confronting their contributing authors with some really tough questions.
Today Shinjini Bhattacharjee will interview Carol Shillibeer, whose contributed three brilliant poems to our Issue 2. Do meet them, and then come back to enjoy this interview.
1.‘The Empress’, ‘Relative Alchemy’ and ‘A Practical Guide to Zero Gravity’ somehow appeared to me as representing art in a state of free-fall-caught in a palpable tension between ephemerality and permanence. Was it a deliberate decision to portray them like that?
No. When I first write down what will become a new poem, my mind is blank. My fingers just write. (Think of it as a kind of automatic writing.) Now having said that, this is not a kind of spiritualism, but the result of a life spent paying attention to the various communicative modes the human body has evolved throughout its long (pre-hominid) history. When I blank, my fingers record what my skin (or ear, etc) is modeling about the world. Think of all the various sensory modes as individual perceptual nets designed to sort millions of bits of data to seek the “important ones”. Most of the time this process is unconscious. Your skin (for example) never shuts off, but what it records about the state of the world does not need to become conscious unless it threatens the stability of the organism in some way. The ambient temperature is always being “read” but you’ll only hear about it once the sunburn you’re getting makes a mean-face. Because of my neurological anomalies, and because of my history, I’m able to listen to these sensory channels with much greater ease than most. These “channels” surfaced in “The Empress”, “Relative Alchemy” and “A Practical Guide to Zero Gravity”.
Now as an editor, when I work with another poet’s material, this is when I can see the kind of tensions that power a work. In my own case, in the act of writing they are there, but only because I am a tension between ephemerality and permanence and I know it – because I’ve thought about it, studied it, experienced it in the births and deaths which circle my living. If in the moment of inscription my ear is caught on the soft croak of a baby crow asking to be fed, then what surfaces in the words on the screen will be related to that, even as they express the deeper awareness of thematic tension. If I I am caught up with my own physical pain, something else will appear, but still surfacing out of the larger environment of my history in living. In the case of the poems you published, I was experiencing a net of physical and emotional pain that surfaced through my knowledge of Western magical techniques and histories – a complex that I personify as Historical Rage and her sisters, “I do not matter” and “The absurdity of life is what makes it beautiful”.
Poetry is not deliberate for me. What is deliberate is the vast amount of work I put into reading widely, carefully and into developing reason. This, I think, is what makes my work feel as it does.
2.How can one successfully graft science and literature together?
By studying both. Human thinking is both evidence based (what I call the tool-makers mind) and narrative (a kind of autopoeisis of specie). All human behaviour is a function of both. Poetry is no different. In the world dominated by the lyric, narrative predominates, but this doesn’t mean evidence and concept are not there. We just prefer to think of ourselves as the story-telling soul. But we are really a story-telling ape. The “ape” bit constrains, for example, the kind of stories we tell. Our primate nature shows in our obsessions with sex, violence, food, authority, autonomy, etc. If we were story telling snails we’d be obsessed by other things – like shells, growth rates, bird beaks, scent trails.
Science gives you the material world. It allows you to move from your own point of origin (the ape thing) to consider another’s (the snail). But it takes work. It’s one thing to claim a particular animal as your “essence” based on some minor anecdotal bit of knowledge or experience, it is quite another to go find out how those real creatures actually live, think and act in their larger social and material environment. Giving up assessing reality only based on a favoured anecdotal experience is required to utilize science.
To be both poetically and scientifically minded requires holding the power of narrative in one hand and the evidentiary knife by which to carve it in the other – and never favouring one hand over the other.
3.The best thing about your poems is that they exude an effortless cadence that belies the vigorous painstaking contemplation and restless editing nurturing their fruition. Could you elaborate on your poetic process?
The creative phase (inscription) of writing is an ice flake swirling atop its home glacier. The glacier is silent and mostly pre-linguistic. It is everything a writer has lived, read, written, felt, seen, assumed, done, etc. All of that surfaces of its own accord. If you get out of the way (i.e. shut down the part of self that wants everything to be golden) and just let your life speak, and if you’ve put in the time reading/writing/thinking/working/walking etc, words surface. I let them smear out across the screen (I write on a computer) without any intervention. Spelling mistake? Pah! Grammar? What’s that! The skin does not care about the existence of direct objects. And what (and how) the skin communicates is vital to our existence.
Sometimes, when I read my inscription pages later, there is something there that is nearly complete as it is. When grief surfaces, it is often like this. Then sometimes it is just a phrase or an image and the work it takes to make a poem is long, and often, I go through dozens of versions before I feel comfortable sending it out. My more directly conceptual poems require fact-checking, and more conscious artifice when it comes to the matching of theme and form.
I also use an inscription process I think of as bibliomancy. I use books in the way I read tarot – to create a focus point. For example, I choose a book at random. What this actually means is that I’m letting my skin (or ear, or vestibular) choose. Whatever the sensation is that is surfacing (say a tingle in my left knee), I use that as a guide to what phrases to select from a “randomly” chosen page. By sticking with that particular sensation, an emotional logic is created in the resulting text. That’s how “The Empress” was written.
4.In one of your numerous bios, you talk about imagining yourself as a “languageless human being.” Do you think the limitations of language pose barrier to the spontaneous silent voices of human imagination?
Yes, if we don’t work to re-consider the other communicative systems available to us. But to rephrase your question slightly “the silent voices of the human body” constitute a very large part of what we call imagination. I’m talking about our skin, ears, tongue, the vestibular, the way the knee communicates to us the nature of our terrain. These “voices” construct reality well before language and conscious thought can begin to categorize these bodily knowings into words. I’m fond of saying that language is like a flashlight at night. For a species as individually vulnerable as we, the dark is often terrifying. Yet if you walk in the mountains at night, a flashlight might seem a miraculous boon, but taking the time to be able to feel the dark is actually safer. The trick is to use language for all it can do, and simultaneously pay attention to the skin’s sensor array and the knee’s 3-D environmental modeling nodes.
5.Many writers talk about a particular place-“a room of one’s own”-gardens, attics, living room floor that offers them the required artistic inspiration. Where do you write?
Writing has two quite distinct mental phases for me. I use the terms “inscription” and “rendering” to think about this. Inscription is the act of cutting something out of a surface to leave behind a message. A stone is carved with a loved one’s name, for example. The act is one of careful removal, so that the space left empty communicates to another who can read emptiness. This is creation. In this phase of writing I prefer to be outside. At a cafe table on the sidewalk is fine, but I prefer to be in a forest or at the ocean’s edge, or in a fossil field. In those places I feel most at home and I can let the world hold my mind. Another way of putting this is that I stretch my sense of “self” until it is coincident with my particular environment, and -pop- my head feels like an empty lung. The “I” just floats out to what my skin feels – or where my eyes are focused – and in that “silence” my fingers write. Often I won’t know what is there until later, when it comes to “rendering.”
Rendering (with object) causes “to become.” A poem is an act of becoming, an emergence, a gif on an endless loop. Rendering (without an object) is an act of separation through melting. Together they are the process of editing the shape of the inscription. This process requires the “I” to pretend it has no ties to the skin, the larger world. So I edit at my desk in my bedroom (with the door firmly closed) or in my car on a laptop. (I used to live in my car, so it feels safe, like a sheltered harbour).
6.Last year, you experienced participating in a radio show for the first time. Was performing your poems any different from writing them?
Very different. The pair that run the radio show are both natural performers. I am not. At best, when I get up in front of an audience, I become a teacher. Years of teaching adults to think surface in those times. I’ve been trying to learn how to think more like a performer, but having a hard go of it. I’m not good at reading social cues, and just don’t care enough about this lack of mine to do the work necessary to becoming a performer. Still, I learn a great deal by reading at open-mics, and strangely enough I have a good reading voice so I love making mp3 files of my poems. Reading to an audience is a bit like working with echoes in a canyon. You can feel your words bounce off the bodies of the audience. In that dynamic there is much to be learnt about poetry. So despite my reservations about my lack of performative skill, I do attend open-mics on a fairly regular basis.
7. Has tarot reading influenced your approach towards writing?
Yes. I was a tarot reader before I was a writer. Reading tarot is an act of metaphorical mapping. You have to learn how to leap chasms on the back of the colour blue. You need your body to do that. Becoming a good tarot reader requires that you listen to those “silent voices” you mentioned before. I’m very good at chasm leaping. It shows in the kind of things I write.
8.Name a song you would want to dance to right now.
Serpiente Negra (by Guadalupe Plata) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqgb_0aJnZc