JS: I’ll have to watch that Herzog film. Kasper Hauser is one of the countless references in The Aesthetics of Resistance that I have had to look up. One of the characters uses the surname as a nome de plume in one of the Comintern’s newspapers.
For some reason I never really thought about the SIEVs as sieves. Of course, so many of these vessels were not seaworthy at all, and the crossing is so perilous, so the designation seems even more sinister. But I guess these kinds of ‘coincidences’ were actually what that project was about, sort of getting to ‘Truth’ through the chancy material of language. I’ve always been interested in something like the ‘deep matter’ of language. Especially since I learned other languages. Like lots of people in Australia I grow up in what felt like a completely monolingual environment, where all other language was repressed (either through colonial programmes of extermination or assimilationist compulsion), so learning another language as a young adult and then living in that language had a profound effect on me. I became really interested in the ways in which language is not transparent, in speechlessness, in the implicit violence and compulsion of communication, the order to communicate in one language or another.1 I suppose there is something a little bit mystic about the desire to work with these little samples of language (the texts from the dictation tests), which were in a sense supposed to be devoid of meaning in and of themselves. People didn’t have to interpret them, they just had to be able to say them. Working with them is like melting down the metal from a sentimental object to create something that will be imbued with the spirit of the original object (whether to venerate it or to disempower a bad valency). For me this overlaps with your image of the placenta as a fleshy memory filter. You offer this as an intuitive image, but I guess it’s one of those things that are now being proven by studies in the mechanisms of epigenetics and intergenerational trauma, how we carry memory deep in the matter of ourselves and things.
I don’t think I was aware of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong when I did this project, but obviously that is a kind of model for what I was doing, taking the source material of a crime and using the text against that historical crime, locking yourself in the text, as Philip says. Obviously, Philip’s project is different for various reasons, but an important one is that her source text deals with her subject matter on the level of content. The content of the dictation texts bears no relation to their function in a regime of racial sorting and violent nationalist composition. Which is probably why I decided to go to the level of the letter, to atomise the texts. As if to say that the content of these texts lies a layer deeper than the word, that if you rearrange them by their letters, you can find references to their social meaning. And so then words like SIEV appear, or noyade (drowning), or SOS, as well as a whole corpus of words that seem more absurd. But I think that with CORNEARS I definitely already had the conviction that this kind of atomizing of source material, these vulgar mystical practices always had to at heart be about getting to a level of Truth. You know, some writers seem to get into these procedures of interlingual punning or reworking source material through ludic procedures, but it can’t just be about the game. The chancy procedure is supposed to get to the bottom of things. Can you say something about what working with source material means for you? I think of you in some way as a documentary poet, in the tradition of someone like Muriel Rukeyser. Does that make sense to you? Do you have reference points in that regard?
- Do you know this essay by the Moroccan writer and academic Abdelfattah Kilito, ‘Dog Words’? I was obsessed with it for a while. In order to find their way back to human settlements, the Bedouin lost in the desert at night barks like a dog. Dogs haunt sites of human inhabitation and respond whereas humans will not. But then the Bedouin reaches the settlement but does not speak the same language, remains an ‘animal’. ↩