Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Interview with Redell Olsen

Light Glyphs 4: Redell Olsen

It is impossible to discuss the intersections between contemporary poetry and film in Britain without mentioning Redell Olsen. Olsen has continually turned to the extensions and echoes of poetry in the art world in service of broadening and complicating the possibilities of her work. Avant-garde history, feminist theory, modernist poetics, and the temporal and spatial politics of everything therein, all are dissected and redirected in Olsen’s traversals across art, text and visuals.  Her readings have explored site-specific performance and blurring the parameters of academic and artistic presentation; confusing and pushing form to bear the trace of its dialogues and multiplicity. In addition to her poetry, Olsen has edited the influential How2 journal that has explored, showcased and archived experimental writing by women for over three decades (since 1983). She is also Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Royal Holloway. What remains so important and inspiring about Olsen’s multi-disciplinary poetics is its intelligent and unflinching commitment to the tensions that complicate and constitute moving between forms.

I wanted to begin by asking you about your experimentation with narrative in ‘Corrupted by Showgirls’ (in Secure Portable Space, Reality Street Editions, 2004). You seem to transpose filmic jump-cuts into syntax, questioning both language and film in the collapsing and condensing of narrative – or, as Drew Milne phrases it, the poem ‘re-animates the narrative grammar of noir femininity’. What were the main inspirations behind this? At times, I felt as though Abigail Child’s film sequence Is This What You Were Born For (1981-89) was being evoked, especially through the poem’s use of genre and its interrogation of gender –  was this a point of reference for you?

I think that these are interesting ways of describing what I was doing in this particular sequence of poems…In terms of how they were written some were based on notes taken while writing through various Noir films in real time and others in response to existing critical writing on these films – including synopses. I do indeed admire Abigail Child’s films and writing although she wasn’t a direct influence at the time -- some years after I wrote ‘Corrupted by Showgirls’ I wrote an essay about her films (see here).  Joan Retallack’s ‘Memnoir’ which I reviewed when it came out – again after the fact of writing my poem - could also be compared to them in terms of related ideas (“Joan Retallack’s Memnoir,” Poetry Project Newsletter # 201, December/January, 2004-2005)). I was also interested in Cindy Sherman’s early ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (see here). An on a very different tack, Barbara Guest’s work was very instructive for its shaping and refracted sense of lines and she has also written some wonderful prose poems that relate very directly to film. Another influence over ‘Secure Portable Space’ as a whole book is the poet Charles Olson.  

Throughout ‘Corrupted by Showgirls’ you twist language into the cinematographic (via its sense of editing techniques of cuts or montage, in addition to its content) only to veer out and bare its mechanisms –inviting a parallel in the formalist materiality behind the composition of film and of language; no longer simply ‘narrative film’ or ‘poetry’ but the materiality of such constructs at work. Do you feel this to be a poetics interacting with legacies of Language poetry, or some of the Structuralist or formalist work in the London Filmmakers’ Co-Op?

These are all important reference points for this poem. However, I see this as being work that is primarily influenced and in tension with possibilities of Language writing (which was the subject of the Phd that I was writing at the time - Scripto-Visualities: Visual Arts and Contemporary Writing by Women).
There is a great quote by Carla Harryman where she says, “I prefer to distribute narrative rather than to deny it…” (“Toy Boats,” Poets Journal 6, 1986) that was productively on my mind when I was writing. I am also very interested in the film and live performances of Carolee Schneeman who I know was associated with the London Filmmakers’ Co-Op - also the traditions of the Nouveau Roman as it developed in relation to film through writing by Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Did you begin to work in film after writing poetry – or did the two always exist in tandem for you? I feel as though one is always scored through with the other in your work, as though never entirely present as film or poetry in a confined sense.  The poetry often acts like a trace left by the, now absent, visual happening or film (like ‘Era of Heroes’ or the collected works in Film Poems) and therefore the work seems to always play with incomplete-ness? Or what cannot be contained? This is really exciting as it certainly feels closer to the permeable dialogue or ‘hybridized form’ that many other works purport to exercise…but that, unlike your work, instead become ekphrastic or like short-sighted asides in representation.

That is very astute, thank you. My parents are both painters so I grew up with a strong commitment and understanding of the visual - that was the given that I could move out from and choose to return to. I am deeply indebted to my parents for an understanding of process in the making of work. Various contexts have obviously been important since: I studied English Literature for my first degree at the University of Cambridge and J.H. Prynne supervised my dissertations. I also attended Rod Mengham’s lectures that made links between contemporary writing, theory and American poetics. I was interested in the poetry that I read and heard at Cambridge at CCCP events in the early 1990s: a mixture of British, French and American influences. I subsequently studied for a foundation in Art and Design and then a Masters in Fine Art – where I worked mainly with photography, performance and installed texts. Later on I completed an academic PhD at the University of London (with Prof. Robert Hampson)….
This is all a round about way of saying that I work with various forms of text: both image and language and have done for most of my life. The balance changes in relation to the contexts of production, distribution. In terms of the recent film poems that I have made it varies in terms of what comes first. I wrote ‘Bucolic Picnic’ as one draft and then cut the found footage together and wrote more with the knowledge that it would be performed live in relation to that footage. For ‘Sprigs and Spots’ I slowed the film down and then had to cut down the text that I had. I was also very concerned with that film poem that it should also make reference and be considered visually in relation to the page of the book itself. So, the text is mediating a sense of its possibility in the space of film and live performance but also the performance of the work on the page – something that conventional script work even of the experimental kind doesn’t usually tend to do.
      I am actually really interested in the possibilities of ekphrastic writing and have a sequence that I wrote in 2012 called, ‘Performances for Paintings’ that responded to particular paintings with directions for a parallel performance or action that might actually never be fully realised. Their deliberate ‘incompleteness’  (somewhere between documentation and score) was in part triggered by a sense of frustration with some of the limitations of a tradition that often seemed to offer very literal ‘translations’ of paintings - rather than what I wanted to write which were conceptual provocations in dialogue with existing works of art.

Do you think that the notion of ‘interdisciplinary’ or ‘hybridized’ forms are often valued more in theory than in practice or execution? I’m thinking here of the discourse surrounding funding bodies and academia in which the ‘interdisciplinary’ is conceptually worshipped…but its actual existence often seems fairly rare…as though there are polite and accepted forms of ‘interdisciplinary’ practice that do little else than safely confirm a division between mediums: e.g. here are some poems-about or in response to [insert non-specific art project]…whereby poetry or text is reduced to an ornamental or meditative reflection, as opposed to embodying any active interaction.

Yes that is a problem. I suppose that you have to make the work that you are interested in making and hope that the culture around you likes it enough to want to support its development.

What writers or artists do you think are currently doing interesting work actively crossing between film and poetry?

There are a number of very good recent graduates from the MA in Poetic Practice and subsequent practice based PhD programme at Royal Holloway such as Nisha Ramayya and John Sparrow who are making interesting work that crosses film / performance and the digital. I am also interested in the current film and text work being made by my friend, the artist Gillian Wylde who had a show at the Arnolfini in 2016. The live version of Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Drift’ is an impressive collaboration between her and a musician and artist that involves music, poetry and film.

Could you say a little bit about the context or inspiration behind Punk Faun: A Bar Rock Pastel (Subpress, 2012)? The book’s blurb entangles its synopsis with: a commission by Isabelle d’Este; the art book ‘THEY CALLED HER STYRENE’ by Ed Ruscha; a screening of Matthew Barney’s ‘Cremastser’; the installations of Max Neuhaus; a mutation of the pastoral, at once mythic and modern; an experience in a karaoke bar; and the ‘plight of deer on the roads of Europe and North America…would it be fair to say, that in busy disorientation the book finds its (non-locatable) point of departure, ‘in which even the title was against itself’?

These are indeed some of the points of reference and certainly to me very locatable points of departure! I wanted to write a kind of baroque vision (hence the bar rock obviously) through which to think about the contemporary. And yes, everything is in contradiction or against itself: the faun/fawn (a colour, a deer, a gesture of subservience) and the day-glo of punk possibilities set in impossible relation to the Renaissance.
I imagined the whole as a series of texts to be streamed on a wall, partly in reference to Isabella D’Este’s ‘studiolo’ - which is a domestic and secular space for which she commissioned artists to make work on the walls and ceilings of her rooms - and more mundane considerations of public spaces of contemplation such as the arcade, the mall… The book’s starting point is a reimagining of this studiolo as book – the poems as possible texts to be installed that make reference to recent art, contemplation, performance, life, gender, power…

In the use of repetition and rhythm, especially in ‘variants marked points of’ and ‘snares for silence in required voice’, the poetry seems to find a real mischievous enjoyment through introducing formal codes from the pastoral into a realm of avant-garde instability. Does this element of time, moving between an arcane or outmoded form or work (I’m thinking here too of ‘A Newe Booke of Copies’), and a more contemporary poetics, also inform your film work?

That is very interesting, yes – although I don’t see these as arcane or outmoded forms but forms that can be called upon, utilised and brought into dialogue with more contemporary rhythms and sounds – hopefully to make new forms of poetic practice that acknowledge their relationship to a variety of forms and existing traditions. The film work often uses found material from different periods also. I suppose in each I am interested in establishing and expanding on connections and threads that might link apparently disparate or at first glance redundant images and ideas.

How does engaging versions of the historical (whatever that might be…!), or destabilising its narrative, influence your practice?

Certainly in Punk Faun I was interested in engaging with alternative time frames and multiple possibilities of reference and juxtaposition – often in fluid simultaneity. It is a way of working that certainly has implications for the possible destabilisation of the various histories, source materials or forms that it draws on. Hopefully the work begins to stand in relation to these borrowings rather than become one with them. I hope that in juxtaposition new relationships and possible connections are established that might go some way to returning the found, the historical, the past, the overlooked to a having a direct relevance to the contemporary moment of production not to stand in place of this. I am not interested in the work being nostalgically ‘about’ any of these sources - they are materials / forms with which to engage in the contemporary.

Who have been important artists for influencing your approach? As your work spans and draws from film, poetry, academia and the visual arts – is there a particular medium, field or figure that ever takes precedence?

It is true my work - as I do, draws on practices from different genres. Allen Fisher’s work in all its visual and verbal crossing is exciting to me and I am always excited to encounter new work by writers such as Lisa Robertson, Juliana Spahr, Judith Goldman and Jena Osman. Each of them is making (very different) work with reference points that continually step outside conventional frames and all engage with what I feel is a highly constructive and relevant poetics for the contemporary.


Are you working on any new projects? What is currently interesting you?

I have a bookwork in an exhibition that is currently in London (curated by Susan Johanknecht and Finlay Taylor). The book is called ‘Mox Nox’ and amongst other things it borrows from mottoes for sundials as a starting point for some of the writing. It uses images from 19th Century sources detailing Arctic exploration. It also involves a different kind of the filmic than the one that we have mostly been discussing here – in the case of this book a film of photosensitive adhesive paper that has been applied to various parts of the page so that it changes colour temporarily in daylight, so in theory the text should alter as you read it. I suppose that is also an important sense of what film is for me – the almost imperceptible and often porous surface between entities, ideas, images, words – different forms of practice.