"Ardor is its undermost shaping": An Interview with Lissa Wolsak


Kent Johnson: When writers get interviewed in the Paris
Review, they seem always to get asked: How do you compose--
with a pencil, a pen, or a typing machine?" Is the title of your
new book, Pen Chants, an answer to that question?

Lissa Wolsak: I am partial to those flat, whittled, carpenter's
pencils not least for the thick and thin of it, but use a pen. I often
write 'on the move', interstitially, so a pen is the right tool for me
as it latches onto a notebook.

The title came from another order of impulse altogether, in an
interadiant set of causes/effects. I'm working from a position of
inadvertence, where it is not the pen suggests 'it' so much as 'it'
suggests the pen. Of course I also take from precisely what is
easily present, ex-sistere (to stand out or emerge), but not in this

KJ: To me, the poems in your book seem somehow both deeply
rhapsodic and deftly formal. What is the relationship for you
between inspiration and technique?

LW: They are nested spherics. I am truly interested in what is
disabled by formalism, in inspiration/insight, qui vive, as it
oscillates experientially, anti-yak, and rather than catechism or
techniques per se, I think more in terms of skeletal purpose,
manipulate perceptions by employing an intent practice of
deliberation on: prismoid knowing/not-knowing, exo-eso, urgent
radical withdrawal, detournement, musical phrasing, breath,
rhythm etc. I am ignorant of any but a few literary techniques
because what I am after is unguided, ungovernable,
autocatalytic. Enough constraints are embedded in the everyday
so that provoking them further does not occur to me.

KJ: What is poetry's object for you: Pleasure or truth?

LW: For me the object is invisible, molecular effortlessness/timelessness.
To scratch a surface... to find, to make.. to make motion, depth
of agency, fruit for peace, to resist, circuit-break, to ask ~of
cognition and consciousness more than it seems willing to give,
to add a witness-mark or an aesthetic valence, peri-feral
immediacy, political specular hammer-blows, interthronging
sublime reflection, experiential unconcealing, vernacular
architecture, trans-gypsy, largely refusing rest...to generate ideas
splendidly different every time one looks, a great pleasure I
would not presume to sum up.

KJ: Pen Chants is full of unusual, secret-seeming vocabulary
flavors. For example:


                    inky    violet sugar
    blue rue    chartreuse horehound,

in umbels or heads,      spike-train,
unbranched but entangled,    benth, shield-fern, teasel
erect to sprawling        blister-rust, slink-lily
                     swards of silver-grass


This almost is reminiscent for me of Zukofsky's late work,
another poet who certainly savored the taste of words. Has his poetry
impacted you? What other poets would be part of the "rammed earth" of
this book, if I could quote that wonderful phrase you use?

LW: "A" was the first book of poetry I ever bought and I've
read his superb 80 Flowers a decade or so ago; though I felt
and thought more about Stein, Olson, S. Howe, Beckett, but
especially Celan at the time, so I would say that I am impacted,
but subliminally in aftshadow.

I feel stricken by, and sped along by the staggeringly brilliant
contemporary work being done, Doubled Flowering
amongst them. Douglas Oliver and Alice Notley I met and was reading
intensely during the last half of Pen Chants. Ten pages were written at
their behest for Gare du Nord. I felt very, very inspired by Doug and Alice,
both in their writings and in their persons. The death of Douglas Oliver is an
unspeakable loss to humankind.

Lisa Robertson's work is superb and continues to occupy me.
Moreover, Celan. I see no beginning, no end to the question of
influence, something similar to stepping on a draft. David
Bromige and I spoke often during that period, and I am
enormously, invaluably heartened by him.

Literally, "rammed earth" is both a building material and a
method of constructing a house, alongside other imaginative

Taking simultaneity seriously, what I have hoped is that the
"secret-seeming vocabulary" is a reclamation, a sentient interlude
intriguing or familiar enough, through sound or otherwise, to
etymologically span archaic-modernist-futurist memory, create
space, matter, curiosity, reflection, as often many of these
references possess one or more universal cultural elements
which point, or are ideas, of themselves. I don't subscribe to the
idea that one can speak in middlebrow, instantly accessible to
all. I use the vocabulary that appears.

Generally speaking, I am involved in a project that interests itself
in that which reveals its own character, and why and in those
matters which cannot be forced, to find a depth of mercy,
powers of the whole mouth, what inhabits and misfits. It is a way
for me to conceive hope in that which is not-yet.

KJ: The book's subtitle includes the phrase "12 spirit-like
impermanences." But the book is composed of numerous,
completely interlocked movements-nothing seems discrete.
Why the '12' ?

LW: Yes, it is a long poem, no split. The "12" was for cheek,
stealth, and preposterousness.I think it laughs back at itself, at the
pretense of legitimizing, of naming the unnamable. It is also, by its
withdrawn nature, a defrayal and assault on ownership, its
litmuses, and that of being governed (badly).

KJ: Badly?

LW: Government is a bleeding wave, an inversion of thought too
often devoid of love for its people. Moreover, there is the
horrific incessance of its harm and rubbersheet/force-field
demurral to ethical self-critique and insight. Pursuantly, we are
so attracted by our weapons.

KJ: You are a metalsmith. How could I not ask: Are the two
arts connected for you?

LW: Snake eyes, with inumerable departures. I have no formal
education in either of these fields and learn through
experimenting, looking and reading, doing. Both teach me to
remove mystique, and to really look at what I am looking at.
Both are architectonic, autonomous. I'm intoxicated by fire, light
traveling through color, integrity of materials and making
something where there was nothing. In both, I dead-reckon, and
proceed by listening to mercurial materials. I love the overpowering
silence involved.

KJ: I think the term "propulsive" is an apt one for your poetry,
not that there wouldn't be other terms equally felicitous. Is it
possible to say what more propels the writing onward for you?
What's the ground energy you are most attentive to in the act of
composing? Is it phonemic, lexical, phrasal, or something else? I
know all of these things get intertwined, but do you notice what
is closest to your heart and ear, so to speak?

LW: I am propelled by my inability to say. Ardor is its
undermost shaping, and gustatory emptiness, one upon the other.


Lissa Wolsak's Pen Chants was published by Roof Books in 2000. She is the author of the long poem "The Garcia Family Co-Mercy" (1994) and the poetic-essay "An Heuristic Prolusion" (2000). She also co-edited DEBBIE: AN EPIC, by Lisa Robertson. She works as a metalsmith in Vancouver, British Columbia. A Selected Poems will be published by Station Hill in 2003.  _a defence of being_ , first ana, is due out any minute from SPANNER, and there is another interview, in a document series from The GIG.