Elena Gomez Interviews Jahan Ramazani

By and | 1 February 2015

EG: And, would you say that poetry does that in a way that other forms of writing can’t?

JR: Well, I would say that it does it perhaps more. Bakhtin argues that the novel is the great form for incorporating many different discourses, and I don’t doubt that it does do that, in fact. But I think there’s a way in which poetry, because of its compression, because of the ways it forces those languages together in a kind of miniaturised space, because of its self-consciousness about the sound and the rhythm of language, there’s a degree of self-consciousness of language that exceeds that of most other forms.

EG: I like the idea of exploring how poems engage with another form’s structure in order to open up new possibilities, which you write about in the ‘Law’ section at the beginning of Poetry And Its Others. I’ve been thinking about glitch poetry and bot poetry and those non-definable or internet-specific types of poetry in relation to this, and the repurposing of automated text for poetic functions. Is this something you see as occurring along a similar trajectory to the dialogic potentials of poetry that you’ve set out, or does the changed function of the author within these sorts of texts mean that it is set on a different, perhaps parallel, course?

JR: I would see such practices as parallel – perhaps more extreme, authorially decentered versions of the kind of mixed-genre works I explore. The internet-specific types of poetry you cite are in some ways specific to a digital age, in that they involve some surrender of poetic authority to the algorithm or the computer. They suggest a degree of collaboration between human and machine, some recalibrating of the balance between intentionality and chance. But poetry has always involved a kind of negotiation between authorial creation and imposed limits – rules, conventions, technologies, material factors, etc. The kind of poetry you’re describing is, in my view, an updated version of certain kinds of found poetry, which come out of an aesthetics of collage and proceduralism, much of it indebted to artists like Duchamp and composers like Cage. In found poetry, transcriptive poetry, conceptual poetry, glitch poetry, flarf poetry, docupoetry, and the like, because the otherness of the other genre is so powerfully present – say, a news article or an advertisement, an algorithm or a computer error – the poetry can be seen as placing itself at risk of being absorbed into the other genre. But what strikes me is how often the poetry of the poetry asserts itself even as it seems to be dissolving into these others – into, say, pop song lyrics or a legal brief or the news. The energetic play of poetry, its attention to the weight and sound and materiality of words, its self-consciousness about its relation to the language it repurposes – these and other aesthetic features of poetry paradoxically come to fore when a poem seems closest to surrendering itself to another genre or discourse or mechanism.

EG: How do you see the relationship between transnational poetics and the types of state-sponsored multiculturalism becoming increasingly prevalent, particularly I think in Australia, and given the uneasy relationships between different subjects with their inherited or otherwise colonial or postcolonial nation-states?

JR: I think a transnational poetics can provide a way of opening up these issues. Multiculturalism and postcolonialism are, in some ways, inherently transnational formations. The poetry that comes out of them inevitably involves some process of cross-cultural indigenisation, creolisation, or hybridisation between the cultures of coloniser and colonised, dominant and minority, European and Indigenous, etc. But state-sponsored versions of these formations sometimes involve attempts to stabilise, enclose, and redraw the lines – understandably, of course, when a minority or Indigenous culture has been in danger of being destroyed or effaced. That said, when poetry is closely examined, it often reveals more plurality and heterogeneity, more leakage and contamination, than border-reinforcing ideologies of identity can allow for.

EG: If we think of whether poetry has any say or influence in the world or the politics of the nations we live in, even if it’s on the level of undoing on the level of language, maybe that’s all that it can do? Poetry isn’t magic spells.

JR: Well, it’s closely related to magic spells, in certain ways.

EG: Something you said earlier reminded me of when I was visiting Angor Wat recently, and a friend of mine who lives in Phnom Penh was telling me that the Angkor temples were never a really integral part of Khmer culture until the French colonialists turned up and redefined the temples as an important national/cultural symbol. There was a period where it didn’t fit into the national identity of Khmer people, and it was part of the colonisation of the country that gave the temples a new status.

JR: I think that’s often the case, even though we tend to think of national traditions as stably handed down from one generation to the next. When you look carefully into those traditions, often they are manufactured. Or for example, in Indian culture, Indology is largely a British formation, as a discipline. And I think ethnography has also had this kind of effect. ‘Oh, look at your traditions’, you know, and then they get fetishised and seized upon too. And they’re unfortunately often used in really awful ways by say dictatorships sometimes – the flag, or other symbols. But you know, take Angkor. As you say, it was ignored for many hundreds of years. It took that French ethnographic intervention there to make the temples important as a part of the Cambodian imagination of itself. But again, if you look a little more carefully at Angkor Wat, you have multiple intersecting cultures there: Hinduism, Buddhism, you know. So again that complicates things quite a bit. Cambodia is often in conflict with Thailand, and yet you can find many of the same temple structures and cultures in Thailand. These are all very temporary, very unstable constructs, these national borders. The culture is much more complicated than any substructures we want to build around it.

EG: And it’s only the outside kind of imposing that tries to put any barrier around it, because they don’t exist.

JR: Exactly.

EG: I have one last question: who are you reading at the moment?

JR: Who am I reading at the moment? This is going to sound odd, you know, since we’ve been talking largely about contemporary poetry, and I love reading contemporary poetry and I’m constantly on the hunt for new interesting vibrant wonderful writers, but right now I’ve been rereading, believe it or not, the First World War poets. I’ve been going back to them for some while because many of us are being asked to rethink them for the 100-year anniversary. And here’s one of the things I’ve been finding so exciting about reading them. We often think about them in terms of those questions of the nation and the formation of battle and all the rest. But there’s often a cross-national feeling, what one poet calls ‘cosmopolitan sympathies’, in those poems that I think speaks to our moment. Take, for example, Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’. Going back to a poem like that and rereading it, I found all kinds of powerful ideas about the cosmopolitan. In that poem a rat touches the speaker’s hand, and then he imagines how that rat is going to cross no man’s land and touch a German’s hand. The rat becomes a figure for that cross-national movement, of poetry, of the human imagination and of humanity in a way that speaks to our even more globalised moment a hundred years later. And that poem was written in the trenches nearly a hundred years ago. And it’s partly also because the word ‘rat’ works in (he was someone who spoke only Yiddish before he went to school) both Yiddish and German, and it’s used in the English language and French contexts as well. So the very word ‘rat’ is a signifier that crosses those national boundaries in a way that I think poets are most acutely sensitive to and that, again, speaks to our moment.

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