canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Lisa Robertson

Lisa Robertson is the formerly Vancouver-based poet responsible for XEclogue, Debbie: An Epic, The Weather, among others. Though she garnered a Governor-Generalís award nomination in 1998 for Debbie, Robertson is, really, the underground Queen of Canadian letters. The small presses that have published her poems are a whoís-who of unknown imprints: Tsunami, Sprang Texts, Meow, DARD, The Berkley Horse, Nomados. Even after achieving mainstream recognition for Debbie, Robertson turned to Astoria, Oregon-based Clear Cut Press for the first, American release of Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture in 2003 (and re-published by Coach House Books in 2006).

Interview by Jay Smith: Winter 2007.

*

The interview begins late and Robertson is surprised that Jay Smith is female. Expecting a male, she thought that the voice of a Canadian female on the telephone was calling about Public Lending Rights with the Canada Council. Not so.

Jay Smith: It is me. After a suitable delay trying to figure out how to call France.

Lisa Robertson: Right, no. Iím used to that now. It used to take me at least half a day to muster an international phone call.

JS: Itís all about Googling "how to call France".

LR: Ah, yeah. Now Google tells you anything.

JS: I donít know what people did before Google.

LR: Yeh. I donít know what I did before GoogleÖ. Well, I tell you, one thing I didnít do was spend half a day eBaying designer clothes.

JS: The thing I always find about Ebay is that you find something you want, but itís inÖ

LR: Itís in Singapore.

JS: Yeah, and once you factor in the currency change, and the shipping charges, and the fact that the auction goes off at 3:30 in the morningÖ.

LR: Yeah, I just found this amazing thing, but too late. Iíve been looking for a bicycle. Iíve had this fetish about old womenís Dutch bicycles. Iíve never had an account with eBayóI just ogle things. And I found one, one village away from where I live. But I was too late. The bidding was closing in ten minutes, but it took longer than that to register.

JS: Oh. And someone had bid on it already.

LR: Someone had. It was a really good price. These are just classic vehiclesÖ They still make them, but theyíve looked pretty much the same since the twenties or something. Theyíre just big black chunky bikes that look sort of old fashioned, are incredibly solid and well machined. Ö Now you can start to Google them.

Ö

JS: Iím kind of scared to start talking about the books.

LR: Thatís okayÖ. I donít bite.

JS: I think Iím scared because Iím shy because Iíve liked your writing for a long time.

LR: I understand. I still can hardly speak to anybody I really admire.

(Laughter.)

Ö

JS: Iím supposed to be talking about the new ones, though.

LR: So youíre supposed to be talking about The Men and the re-release of The Office for Soft Architecture.

JS: Iím curious about how it came aboutÖ why you picked the men and why is it about the men.

LR: Itís kind of the least premeditated of my published work in that I didnít have any specific critical framework that I set out to explore or address. I just, one day, found myself writing these poems in my notebook when I was supposed to be doing other things. It was when The Weather was in production. Like, I finished writing it and it was being edited and typeset and stuff. And I was really busy writing the essays for Soft ArchitectureÖ they were all coming out as catalogue essays first. So I was in this period where I was getting lots and lots of work writing catalogue essays. It was just a really rapid turn over: researching, writing, next. As well as that, I was doing of magazine writing, like I was totally making my living freelancing. So I was really, really busy doing freelance work and it was just before I turned forty, and I was feeling kind of odd about that. And I just found myself writing poems in my notebooks when I was procrastinating.

I wrote the first section of that book very quickly, like within a couple weeks maybe, the first twenty odd pages. I gave it to a friend to read, Erin OíBrien, who the book is dedicated to. She really liked it and so I just decided to keep on going with it. But it wasnít planned. I wrote lots and lots and lots of those poems before I even imagined it being a book, but then I couldnít imagine it being a book because it was just so unlike the other poems I had written. I put the whole stack of papers away for a good five years before I started shaping it as a book. So it was kind of an accidental book.

JS: The style seems a lot more personal... you use the first person pronoun. And, well, the particularly the first section seems a lot more accessibleÖ

LR: My hide tends to go up when I hear the word "accessible." Tell me what you mean by that.

JS: Well, I guess I can say that itís the amount of effort I feel I have to expend to follow whatís going on, how much work I have to do as a reader.

LR: Well, itís got a simpler vocabulary, I think. One comment I tend to get from my books is that people have to use a dictionary. Oftentimes, thatís mentioned in a tone of disappointment or dismay. Itís true that thereís often a lot of archaic language in my projects, or technical language, or scholarly language. And thatís not so much the case in The Men.

But itís not an unmediated first person. I say that I just wrote it in my notebook, but what I was reading at the time was Petrarchís sonnets. So within that renaissance sonnet tradition, thereís a suppleness to the voice, thereís an effect of simplicity. Thatís what was pleasing me in reading Petrarch. So thatís what I was trying for in my poems.

That whole thing about the sonnet and the lyric tradition is that itís song based: that sort of lends a simple line of melody that could make a poem seem more accessible on first reading to a reader. That simple melodic voice line was not a goal or criteria in my other work. In fact, in The Weather I was trying to make a sort of polyphonic, multiply voiced layered text, where the effect would be many voices overlapping.

JS: Thatís interesting. Ö I know you go into this in the introduction of the text, but can you give info of how The Office Soft Architecture came about?

LR: Well, the first text that I wrote for that project was the Soft Architecture manifesto and that was something I wrote as a catalogue essay. You know, I had no idea it would become a whole series of texts. Ö I had a freelance job then writing a column for this art magazine in Toronto called Mix, the column was called "Beneath the Pavilion." They wanted a regular column on the art scene in Vancouver. At that point, I was already becoming interested in Vancouver as an architectural site. And without really telling them that I was changing the assignment, I turned it into a column about the relation between art and architecture in the city.

I tried basically to teach myself how to describe what I observed in the city in a way that had some velocity, some density to it. At the time that I wrote the Soft Architecture manifesto, I had already been writing my column for Mix for a year or so. And then those two things both ended. The manifesto was published as a little catalogue and my job at Mix ended. I went away from Vancouver for a residency in England.

It was when I was away from Vancouver and thinking about what I wanted to do next that I kind of realised that the ideas that I had set out, established, in the Soft Architecture manifesto were, to my mind, kind of complicated and opening up [in a way] that I could continue with those ideas for some time. So I made a decision to continue writing in that vein. Ö They were published under the name of the office after that point.

[My] decision to form a fictional architectural office, [was based on the fact] most architectural firms donít actually get any built work to do, [at first] theyíre just writing proposals. So their practise is actually a language-based rhetorical practise, describing architecture that doesnít actually exist. Theyíre just proposing built sites that they would like to exist.

So I figured that I could do that as well as an architect, and be a sort of virtual architect.

JS: Thatís great.

LR: So it just got started that way.

When I got back from Cambridge I continued to make my living as a freelance writer, mainly writing catalogue essays. When someone commissioned a catalogue essay or a magazine article from me, I would try to convince them to let me write it as the Office for Soft Architecture and for them to publish under that pseudonym.

At first people thought it was pretty odd, but I managed to convince them and then it sort of became a thing. Then they started asking for Office for Soft Architecture pieces for their catalogues.

JS: And the seven walks?

LR: The seven walks were also published under the Office. Not all of the walks were published before the book came out. The first three were commissioned by Front Magazine, the Western Front Galleryís magazine.

JS: I think I read one of those, years ago when I was in Vancouver. I came across something in Front Magazine.

LR: Couldíve been. The editor was, and I think still is, Andreas Carr. And he thought it was a fun idea. And thatís what I started writing foróa series of pieces. And he did lay-out and took photographs for them. The walks had a bit different tone and approach but were parallel to the more research-based pieces.

JS: How did you and why did you publish with Clear Cut? They were very young at the time. [The Office for Soft Architecture was the second book that Clear Cut Press published.]

LR: They approached me. They asked me. Basically I go where Iím invitedÖ Because Iím too chicken to make cold calls. (Laughs.)

It was two men running Clear Cut, who were starting it up: Rich Jensen and Matthew Stadler. Rich was the publisher and Matthew was the editor.

And I had worked with Matthew as my editor for years. I started working with him when he was the literary editor forÖ oh, whatís that entertainment weekly out of Seattle. I forget whatís calledÖ Anyway, itís like The Georgia Strait [Vancouverís free weekly] but in Seattle. And he got me writing reviews and essays for him & I really liked working with him. When he moved on from that newspaper, he started working for a New York-based design magazine called Nest & he was the literary editor for that.

So I worked for Nest for years and I had a regular column in Nest magazine as well, also under pseudonym, called "The Decoratorís Horoscope." (Laughter.)

So I worked a lot with Matthew. And he was a really exacting and precise editor and he really helped me to learn how to write strong prose. So when he and Rich decided to form this publishing house, Clear Cut Press, I was completely keen to work with him. I completely trust and respect his projects. I liked the texture of communication that goes on between us, between me as writer and him as editor. Heís also a really really fabulous writer and a novelist, as well. And I just wanted to work with him.

Also, they had this really interesting sort of utopian notion of Cascadia, this northwest coast nation, geographical region. They were coming up to Vancouver all the time meeting writers and artists all the time and we were travelling down to Seattle and Astoria, where Matthew bought a house. There was all this movement between Vancouver and the American northwest. They just had this idea of openness and I appreciated that whole idea that borders are there just to be dissolved.

JS: And then it was picked up by JS: And then it was picked up by Coach House?

LR: What happened was that Clear Cut, being a new press, and being an American press, didnít take on distributing the book in Canada, or you know, promoting it, or getting it reviewed, or anything like that at all. So it had a certain profile in Vancouver among people who were already reading me. My friends who were booksellers could order it directly from Clear Cut, but outside of Vancouver, the book had no presence.

That wasnít really satisfying for me because itís such a thoroughly Canadian bookódespite what I say about Cascadiaóand itís so grounded in researching Vancouver site history. Ö Coach House had asked me for a manuscropt of, I guess, poetry, but I didnít have anything happening poetry-wise at that time because I had just made an agreement for The Men with Jay MillAr at BookThug. So I proposed to Alanna Wilcox of Coach House that they might like to do a Canadian edition of The Office for Soft Architecture and that seemed good. Again, I went with them because they had approached me for something but I couldnít give them what they wanted.

JS: How did you end up with JS: How did you end up with Jay MillAr and BookThug?

LR: He asked me for a manuscript. I had sort of heard about what he was doing through the grapevine. I had been sitting on the poems of The Men, feeling very ambivalent about them and so I wasnít seeking a publisher. When Jay was trying to convince me to send him a manuscript he shipped me a big box of BookThug books from Toronto to where I live in France. So one day, shortly after I got an email from him, I got this big box of BookThug books and I opened the box and they were just beautiful. I liked his editorial senseóitís rooted in experimental Canadian poetry but also has a real international reachóand the books felt good in the hand, were beautifully typeset. He seemed like a lovely guy to work with. After seeing his books and corresponding with him a little bit, I got the sense that BookThug would be a good publisher for The Men because I felt I could trust his judgment with that work.

JS: He runs Apollinaireís bookshop, right?

LR: Yeah, itís a one person show. He runs that out of his house, he publishes his own books, he gets no grants from anybody.

JS: I didnít realise that it was just one person.

LR: Yeah, and he writes too. He writes beautifully. Nightwood editions recently published something of his and thereís a new chapbook of his out on Nomados, Meredith Quartermainís Nomados. Yeh, itís just one guy. I donít know where he stores his books, maybe under his dining room table.

JS: I love the motto for Apollinaireís bookshop: selling the books that no one wants to buy. Itís great.

LR: (Laughs.) Yes, isnít it.

JS: And heís got such great books. So what are you doing in France?

LR: Just living here. (Laughs.)

JS: Why did you go to France?

LR: I got married and my husband already lived here. Yíknow, I work freelance so I wasn't tied to any institution. I was still working, writing the horoscope for that design magazine, which made me an all right living. An all right living for a poet. (Laughter.) In other words, I was scraping by. So I could do it just as well from here as I could from Canada. Now Iím no longer writing that, because the magazine folded, so itís a little more complicated because now I have to travel. For example, I just had to live in the United States for almost five months because I had a residency at UC Berkeley. Yeah, so life is kind of complicated now. Thereís a lot of mobility. A lot of plane travel.

JS: Itís far, too.

LR: Especially to the West Coast. And Iím not in Parisóitís a couple of hours by train to Paris.

Jay Smith is an Edmonton-based freelance writer on things political and things poetical.

 

 

 

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