Maria Camboni

A Dialogue Between Marina Camboni and Anne Blonstein
From "Of Experimental Poetry: A Dialogue between a Scholar and a Poet"

The following contains selected, edited extracts from an ongoing, critical exchange between Marina Camboni, Professor for American Literature at the University of Macerata, Italy, and Anne Blonstein, part of a long-term project Marina is undertaking with several contemporary poets. As she explains:

        This dialogue is part of a continuing dialogue with some contemporary poets in the experimental tradition who use more than one natural language and explore the potential for poetry of different artistic and scientific codes. Though my involvement with such experimental writers in the Anglo-American tradition as ee cummings, Gertrude Stein and H.D. dates back to my undergraduate days, my interest in more contemporary poets like Kathleen Fraser, Anne Blonstein and Rachel Blau DuPlessis is rooted in my fascination with their hybrid languages and their exploration of the creative and innovative possibilities of language and textuality, as much as in my response to the cosmopolitan, multiple worlds they build and their gendered, ethical and critical perspectives on past and present issues. The idea for this project came to me some ten years ago when talking to Kathleen Fraser about the necessity for creating a critical language for noninitiates and is rooted in the personal and critical dialogue we have had for over 20 years. My readings, as well as my questions to the poets, tend to highlight pathways leading to a better grasp of the individual poet's works that also help the critic to find clues and delineate ways of reading an experimental text. My idea is that there is a lot of work that critics should be doing for ourselves and to guide other readers—very often our students—into a text. One of the first things we certainly need to tell them is that in order to 'enter' the single poem or sequence of them, they, like the surfers of the net, should start to 'navigate' the text, explore its potentialities, or play with it in ways that enhance their co-participation in the creation of its messages or senses. In order to do so, however, they have to move away from the docks in which their critical thinking is harboured. But do we critics have the maps to help them move out of shallow waters?"

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Poetry, science and space

Marina: the blue pearl was the first book of yours that I read. I was taken by at least five things I saw in it. 1. Your manifest connection to Gertrude Stein and H.D. 2. The precision and clearcut outlines of your verses and poems. 3. Your ability to join the concrete and the abstract. 4. Your use of words and your creation of astonishing compounds. 5. Your use of punctuation and space on the page.

        Your connection with Stein made me feel that your style was familiar, somehow. But your poetry was totally different from the massive piling of words in Stein's poetry. The distillation of your lines on the page made me think of the precision of a scientist, of the hardness of a crystal. It reminded me of H.D.'s lines rather than Stein's. Even your "blue pearl" evoked the pearl of great beauty in H.D.'s Trilogy. Yet, your book was completely original, new and worth exploring.

        My first question about this book (but it extends also to your other books) has to do with your experience as a scientist and its influence on your writing. Can you say something about this in relation to the features of your writing that I've mentioned?


Anne: I was a biologist, and more specifically a plant biologist, who specialized in genetics. I also worked for many years as an editor, and indeed writer, of medical texts. So I'm clearly quite familiar with the (western) biological discourse and worldview.

        Layout and spacing—which in the blue pearl is not simply highly deliberate, it is calculated—are very important in my writing and you've had me pondering in what way my scientific background might have played a role here. I'll speculate.

        The acquisition of a scientific Weltanschauung (during my university days 30 years ago, in the biological sciences still highly Cartesian) is not least an education in methodology—the posing of hypotheses and then the conception, design and realization of experiments to test those hypotheses, followed by the presentation and interpretation of results.

        The results section of a scientific paper may be very short on words: the primary means of conveying experimental results is in the form of photographs, drawings, diagrams and graphically: tables and graphs. Having drawn the axes of a graph, all the space on the page, even in the absence of a mark, is potentially endowed with specific meaning. Potential that is realized or materialized, if you like, as soon as one, two, three etc. marks are placed on the page, marks that can be joined (or not) in lines, curves, sets and so on. The power of the frame!

        And how many hours have I spent looking down a microscope at tissue sections, chromosome preparations, trying to characterize and interpret a complex visual 2D field, to extrapolate it spatially and temporally?

        So I do think that both detailed observation combined with the conversion of a blank page into a signifying surface have contributed to a sensitivity to the spatial relationships and interactions of signs/words on a page, to a concern with issues of figure and ground, and, more recently, to an interest in questions of perception—what is and is not (no longer? yet?) seen/noticed on the written page (screen).

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The evolutions of life and language

Marina: Thinking about how to interpret the function of notarikon in your writing, I found at least two answers. I will try to articulate them. My first assumption is that use of notarikon is suited to your enquiring scientific mind. Answering my question about the presence of your scientific training in your poetry, you wrote that you were interested in "the role played by chance in life processes, and the endless generation of diversity and change". These words I find reshaped and framed in the poem (in the butterflies and the burnings) "dietrich bonhoeffer: theology in fragments" where "data nor chance suppress singular characters" (p. 40). In the same collection you write ("angela: a folly of origins", p. 12):

                        why i began to write is
                        always desiring and despairing
                        of a tenacious lucidity.

        These lines sound like your answer to one of my questions. Your poetry, they say, traces a quest process. It is a double drive in the poet that you are: a desire to express yourself and an anxiety to find the words capable of conveying the uniqueness harbouring within you, in your experience and in your visions. All this, however, is not separated from a desire of form, of composition for which you find that the scientific mode of exploration of reality can be extended to the sounding of the generative power of language and its smallest units: letters and sounds. H.D. wrote in Trilogy that words hid other words, that words were little boxes made to hatch butterflies, by which she meant that the words of a language have both a creative and a saving power. I would like to focus on the creative aspect. Pursuing chance you must also have pursued a project of finding out what sense chance could yield, what new openings on reality and transformations of the same were possible, i.e. the potential of language not only to convey known meanings, and thus refer to a pre-ordained world, but also to open up new visions, direct us toward unexplored possibilities that were there all the time, and from these start to create new directions for the world. In this sense I recognize a scientific attitude in your experimentation with words, which must be methodologically akin to that of the geneticist in you.


Anne: I have (at least!) two responses here. Of course, I am far from alone as a writer generating e.g. new vocabularies, and I would identify another context for my verbal experimentation that I'm sure is at least as important as my experiences as a geneticist.

        Based in Basel, I am both embedded in a German-language culture and live just five minutes from the border with France. I read French and German as well as English and translate from German into English. So I'm constantly exposed to the qualities, the possibilities of these languages as they are used in everyday discourse and literature. I see and hear how, and not unimportantly why, German and French users change their languages. It is all too easy to make sweeping generalizations, but the word compounding that German can take is just the most obvious site for new word-ideas, while the homophony of French opens into regions of stunning ambiguity. English can absorb (is this hybridization?) some of these features, but it also has other and particular properties and flexibilities to explore.

        Setting aside the issues of (new) syntax and grammar, you've already noticed that my work with English is often at the very small scale, the level of the letter. I suppose it is curious that both my PhD and post-doc projects were focused on the generation of mutants, i.e. in creating new phenotypes through very small genetic changes. However, when I began to put pressure on words to yield novelty, it was not part of a conscious effort to apply to language what can happen in the genome. Though obviously the parallels were clear. Nevertheless, it was really only some time later that I started seeing that the processes of my transformations all have parallels in genetic material: point mutations, inversions, deletions, insertions, transpositions, replications—all genetic terms to describe alterations in DNA that could apply to what I do.

        I'd also like to note that most of the time, neologisms are not the outcome of any deliberate, systematic "mutagenesis" procedure: pencil in hand, intense concentration on the poem being written—and the words (on a good morning!) appear as I write. Occasionally, when I'm "stuck", I do systematically make changes to words to see what comes out. I'll write down or think a word and then e.g. take one letter and replace it with every other letter in the alphabet to see what emerges. Or (mis)translate words back and forth between languages. But, analogous as these procedures might be to evolutionary processes (or genetic engineering), their outcomes are usually less rewarding than the more subconscious creations.

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The song of syntax

Marina: She, the character in the poems of a syndrome of dreams [the first part of an unpublished manuscript, the read of two mouths], is the writer, who writes "over", "under", "into" (I.16) "an attenuated space". That space is a mirroring surface over which the writer's eye perceives or, better, recognizes a "bodyscape". In the second section of a syndrome of dreams, "inspire us by our desires", desire moves the lines ["another bodily irrevelation" (II.1), "a resonating bodyscape" (II.4)]. It is the loving, desiring body in the poems that actualizes a modern version of the Shulamite, whom we can detect, though hidden. Who is the "he" in these poems? Is it a man that has awakened long-dormant senses? Is it, as in the Song of Solomon, the god/king she turns to that floods the speaking self with a life-giving attention, that transforms her body into a landscaped garden? Or more simply stimulates life in the loving woman? "Love knows", we read, repeatedly. What does love know? "desire dancing with deficiency / cells divide to provide / another version" (II.17). It seems to me that these lines that I quote tell the story of a tension, between the desire of fullness, of completeness that moves the owner of the landscaped body and the love that knows, and the body's moving autonomously in a different direction. Its "irrevelation", one that points to reduction, fragmentation, revealing a different direction.

        There is a particular use of the "you" in the poems of "breaking towards". It is as if the pronoun were a proper name, and a character in these lines that are clearly evocative of the "Song of Songs":

"     you samples unexpected wines
       you savours vaginal expressions" (1.2)

        The you is not the addressee but an actor in the loving drama. But as a reader I remain uncertain: is you another self, a double so to say, or does he refer to the "he", also present in the poems?


Anne: Among the several features that make the Song of Songs (henceforth Song) such a rich, and intriguing, biblical book are two that are relevant to your question. The Song is polyvocal. Although the woman's voice, her desire, are the primary and compelling forces in the Song, the male lover and the daughters of Jerusalem, the chorus, are also speaking characters in this erotic drama. Connected to this is the fact that in the Hebrew, it is not always possible to assign with absolute certainty speechparts to characters. This ambiguity is retained in some translations, suppressed in others.

        In composing a contemporary 'song' that is evidently patterned on the Song, I not only wanted to acknowledge the effect of these two features—polyvocality and ambiguity—while not imitating them directly, I was also concerned to avoid, or at least mitigate, one of the risks, I suppose I would term it, of love poetry, that is the tendency for the voice/words of the lover (who may be the author, or the I, stated or implicit) to engulf the beloved, to deprive him/her of initiative and autonomy within and outside the relationship. (I suppose ideally I think such poetry should be written with four hands.) To a large extent, though, this may be a problem of grammar.

        So, I made two decisions. First to have the lovers "represented" by four pronouns using all the possible persons. My second choice, which you discuss, was grammatically transgressive. The attempt combining the second person singular pronoun (you) with verbs in the third person ("samples" "savours" etc)—albeit, and importantly, not always—was to explore whether it is possible in that way to convey the intimacy between the (implicit) I and the you while simultaneously acknowledging through the verb form you's existence also as an other.

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the butterflies and the burnings

Marina: There is a second aspect of notarikon that I connect to mysticism, as well as to experimental poetry, and to part of modernist writing. For is not the search for revelation a way of reaching epiphany, of unveiling the ultimate sense of things? A way of getting to what cannot be known and seen by our human senses, nor understood by reason only? The poems you devoted to mystics and saints and collected in the book you published in 2009 but wrote between 1995 and 1999 throw their light over all your poetry. Each poem is very different from all the others. It is as different as each saint or martyr or mystic on which it focuses and whose words or life it—in its particular way—condenses. Even the language in the poems varies, in tune with the time and space inhabited by the protagonist. It has been the solitude and silence of Pereta that has given me the possibility to devote my concentrated attention to your poems. This medieval village in Maremma—some believe its tower to be the one where Dante placed Pia de' Tolomei—is my retreat, away from the chaos of crowded Rome. Here I am spending these Christmas holidays, as in a faraway oasis. Here I can be with myself as almost nowhere else. And it is here that, as in a sort of revelation, I found a line that made other lines echo in my mind, a line that I find as beautiful and evocative as Whitman's "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed" and T.S. Eliot's opening lines of The Waste Land.

        Your line reads:

        "daffodils lift their sterile trumpets into the breeze."

It is followed by a line that both contextualizes the daffodils and expands the time and places of their presence, uniting the death-fields of Normandy and wartime to the present time of the poetic voice's "backyard":

        "be it in normandy. or regent's park. or my backyard."

I find in both lines a synthesis of what you write in the first lines of the poem:

        "they left us an anxious generation and stunned.

        in the struggle to erect a fragile place. we have in other words the
        letters. we have in other words a litany to leach.

        later ne plus natura. We have in other words death's repetition." (p. 50)

        The litany "we have in other words", repeated three times, connects language, repetition and death. The whole poem—the eighth in the Bonhoeffer sequence—can be read as a testimony of a time that can be ours, where a heritage of death affects the present. Here you surrealistically equate "the dead as unidentified flying subjects" and "unidentified fleeing others". Here, again, you create a neologism that sums up in contemporary language, the cynical stance of those for whom Bonhoeffer (Christ?) was nothing but an "agitpastor who refuses to abandon his god".

        To conclude, your daffodils stand for the faithlessness, the sterility of a present that nothing has learnt from the past, and is capable only of "death's repetition".

        They remind me also of the daffodils so hated by Lucy, the protagonist of Jamaica Kincaid's novel of the same title. She cannot look at daffodils without being reminded of British colonialism and her compulsory learning of Wordsworth's poem "Daffodils", in a school where she had to learn about a flower as far away from the Caribbean flora as British history was from the history of its colonies. In your association of the unidentified dead with "the unidentified fleeing others", I find a condensation of colonial hegemony, displacement, and death.

        To move now to the mystic side of some modernist writers, two poems in this collection led me directly to Gertrude Stein—whose mysticism is less studied though it is certainly there—and particularly to her plays. In the last line of the dramatic poem "leocadia and raquel: toledo", the character "me" that enters the scene at the end of the poem, concludes it with the words: "(writing) a life", which reminds me of more than one steinian title.

        Reference to Stein is explicit in a preceding poem "gertrude and a gertrude and a gertrude is great / or / the colour of the sky is yellow", where the five Gertrudes in the play interact in a way that evokes Stein's "Four Saints in Three Acts" and other plays in the same line.


Anne: Well, let me begin by thanking you for what you write about the butterflies and the burnings. I know you would like me to say something about influences—Stein, Celan, Klee etc.—but before I do, can I bring up something else: two terms that have cropped up now and again in your commentaries and readings which I would perhaps like to problematize a little. I'll try to be brief!

        The words I have in mind are "mystic(al)" and, to a lesser extent, "spiritual". I would like to know how you read, feel, experience or identify these qualities in my poetry, or indeed other modern or contemporary art, such as Stein's, where you claim there is an understudied mystic content?

        My concerns here are twofold. First do you think this "religious" vocabulary is appropriate to (contemporary) poetry, or is there perhaps a need to develop other critical approaches and terms to address these features or characteristics of a piece of writing? But also, retaining the terminology for the moment, how does the mystical content manifest itself? Is it immanent in the text, sort of placed there by the writer, waiting to be activated by the reading? Is it a perhaps unconscious or unintentional residue of the writer's experience and practice that leaves its traces in the text? To what extent might its presence be independent of the writer's intentions?

        In other words, when a text is read or interpreted as "mystical" whose mystical experience are we talking about?

        It may be worth going back to the genesis of the butterflies and the burnings, what prompted me to write it. After I had completed the 24-poem "island of salt" in early 1995, I was struck by its (unintended) mythological tone and immediately felt a need to engage with women in history, though I wanted to write pieces that are to be read as contemporary poetry not historical accounts. At the same time I had been reading Elaine Scarry and was pondering the issue of the breakdown of language in the body in pain. For a historically grounded project, I knew I needed texts, and found myself one day in the reading room at the university library in Basel leafing through reference books about saints: I had in mind, of course, martyrs, and was maybe also dimly aware of the self-inflicted corporeal pain of certain holy women and men, though my knowledge at the time about the RC church was negligible. What I actually set in motion that afternoon was a five-year, text-based project that exceeded in every imaginable dimension what I was vaguely contemplating as I responded individually to each of the women whose life (and works) I selected.

        Similarly, an engagement with biblical texts need not necessarily imply spiritual concerns. So I am happy here that you have highlighted the ethical intent of the writing. I recognize and acknowledge the bible as a foundational text of western culture, ethics, and law that continues to impact on the ways we think and behave. I'm very uncomfortable abandoning the so-called holy texts to those who profess a religion, however they practise it. The bible is part of my heritage, my (however troubled and troubling) tradition, to which I wish to respond from a particular historical, social and geographical location—another lesson learnt perhaps from some of our less than orthodox foreaunts, to say nothing of many transgressive readers and writers—H.D., Angela Carter, Claude Cahun are the first that come to my mind—of the 20th century.


Marina: I agree with you, perhaps the words "mystic(cal)" and "spiritual" are too heavily connotated. They do not satisfy me. For a long time I refused to use the word "spiritual". Still there is a dimension in your writing that I believe has to do with a search for the absolute, or the presence beyond the visible. For the visible and the knowable is very often what we have been taught to see and to know. I know this experience of the absolute but also of the void in which we find ourselves immersed, which I identify with the desire to be completely oneself and still to recognize that one is part of a larger cosmos, that human beings belong to one another and that there is so much that eludes us. It is this dimension of extension beyond oneself without annihilation of the self that I call mystical. It is the feeling that time is both particular, historical, and absolutely free from history, as is space. I feel we belong to more than one space and more than one time. Linguistic exploration of possibilities, like those opened by notarikon, is a way to get somewhere that—whether we know it or not—was there but was not a real space or a real time or a real meaning or possibility of language or sense until we unveiled, revealed it or got there—which means until we gave it a name or a place in time.