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The Poetry Center sat down with our Summer Resident poet, Anne Shaw, and asked her some questions about her writing process, her favorite books, and a surprising question about swimming in sand that you’ll want to know the answer to. Check out the interview, and then be sure to head to her Reading on Thursday, July 25th at 7 p.m. at the Poetry Center, where she’ll read along with poets Karen Rigby and Melissa Buckheit.
Q: One of your current projects involves translating Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy into poetry, focusing specifically on the text Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. How did you become interested in this project? What are some of the joys and pains of the translation process? And does having this Oulipian constraint, like Raymond Queneau said, make you feel like a “rat who constructed a labyrinth from which she plans to escape?”
A: Yes, failure to escape is not an option! I became interested in the project because I knew that Wittgenstein's text deals with the nature of language and its relationship to the external world. As a poet, I knew this was important, but I was intimidated by the text. Wittgenstein's writing, particularly in the Tractatus, is infamous for being abstract; he gives few examples. I decided to translate his abstractions into concrete words and, using a system of substitutions, to allow a poem to emerge. It was a way of understanding the text through poetry. That's probably the way I understand things best.
However, only using basic substitutions did not yield what was to me a statisfying poem. One of the pains of this process has been having to reinvent my method in each section! It's actually one of the most difficult writing tasks I've ever taken on, but it's been amazing to watch the poem take shape. What I love is the way it is both an argument and a dialogue with the original work. The poem creates its own set of meanings, even as Wittgenstein's original sense shines through.
Q: In your project proposal, I also read that in addition to completing this translation project, you also plan on staging a performance of the piece, in which you document yourself reading the poems to the sky. First off, this sounds super cool. Second, how do guerilla theatre and performance complement your writing?
A: I don't normally think of myself as a performer, but I'm interested in the idea of guerrilla poetry and of making poetry into an immersive experience. That's part of the reason that I've expanded my practice to include visual art. About the time I started the Tractatus piece, I was reading an essay about contemporary art and the role of the artist. It claimed that although there will always be an audience for art, that audience will never be the sky, the stones, mad people, or animals. I thought: why not? What if I made an artwork whose audience was those things? I developed the idea of Poems Read to the Sky, a solitary performance of a poem to be witnessed by the stones, the sky. Since Wittgenstin talks about the relationship of language to reality--what he calls "the world"--using this piece seems very appropriate. I intend this to be an extended reading, a kind of durational performance. I may or may not document it using a video camera on a tripod; I haven't decided yet.
Q: In addition to being a writer and a performer, you’re also a sculptor. (Is there anything you can’t do? And if so, please explain). Can you talk more about how your passion for sculpture intersects (or doesn’t) with your passion for poetry?
A: Well, since I am on hiatus from my career as a supermodel and an Olympic athlete...Just kidding. I am currently a graduate student of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. As I said, I'm fairly new to visual art, but I've always been fascinated by materiality, texture, the natural world. I'm interested in the ways that all of these things can intersect with language to create an immersive poetic experience. One of my driving questions is what will happen if text is manifested in physical terms, and how to make that intersection effective. That's a challenge, because text is a time-based medium whereas sculpture is not. The power of sculpture lies in its physicality, in the fact that all the components are simultaneouly present.
For me, the process of becoming a sculptor has been one of learning to think and express my ideas through materials, not just through language. I'm interested in sculpture for its own sake and also in what might constitute a successful combination of sculpture and writing. Beyond this, I find that my obsessions in poetry and those I explore in sculpture tend to be similar. For instance, I'm obsessed with the body, with ideas of breakage and fragmentation, with landscape. But it might be easier to look at some work. You can see it on anneshaw.org to get a more specific idea of what that looks like in my current practice.
Q: I also read that you have a Twitter Poetry Project, in which you write “a long poem or a series of interleaved short poems…with an intent to explore the intrusion of private thought into public space, the language of poetry rendered in real time across the technological and quotidian landscape.” Are you still working on this project? What kind of insights have you formed from it? Like your Wittgenstein project, Twitter also imposes a kind of Oulipian (I love that word) constraint with the “number of characters, time, and the simple rule that entries can be deleted but not revised.” Can you talk more about your interest in constraint-based writing?
A: Sure! The Twitter project was one of my first attempts to take poetic text off the page and insert it into other contexts as a kind of guerrilla artwork. I am still doing the project, though not as actively as I was a few years ago. It is one articulation of my objection to advertising and consumer culture. As Americans, we are used to constant intrusions from advertising and we accept them. I want to see what happens if our daily lives are instead interrupted by a lyric utterance.
To answer your question about the constraint, in experimental writing, the constraint is another manifestation of traditional form. Whereas a sonnet uses form in terms of the page and of linguistic devices, experimental work tends to translate form into the process of writing the poem. In the Twitter project, the constraint is not only in the number of characters, but also in the fact that Twitter lists tweets in reverse order, starting with the most recent, so as a poem it reads in reverse. The new line is constantly at the top. There's also the challenge of creating lines that are connected but can also function as separate tiny poems, and the potential of using the time that elapses between tweets as a kind of white space. For me, poetry is always a process of balancing the left brain with the right, freedom with constraint of some kind, as well as the visual with the auditory. There's always a constraint, but as poets we can do more to play with what that might be.
Q: What are you currently reading? Who are some of your favorite poets?
A: Let's see. I'm reading Rosemarie Waldrop's Reproduction of Profiles, because it deals with Wittgenstein. I'm also reviewing CM Burroughs' beautiful collection, The Vital System. Beyond that, I've been looking at work by Jen Hofer, who often writes about the Southwest. I'm a huge fan of Elizabeth Robinson, particularly Bed of Lists and her newer collection, The Orphan & Its Relations. Her writing breaks open language and allows so many layers of meaning to come out. My favorite work is both lyrical and experimental, and hers is so beautifully both.
Q: And, since you’re here in Tucson for a whole month, would you rather fight a cactus, perform dental surgery on a live javelina, or go swimming in the desert sand? And why?
A: Well, I try to practice nonviolence and I feel like fighting a cactus would be a bad idea anyway. I don't have much experience with cactus-based conflict. Javelina surgery also seems very specialized, and sounds like it could potentially result in harm to animals. I can't support that. But I do love to swim and I'm always cold in Chicago, so I'll take swimming in the sand. I grew up with a yellow lab who loved to swim through the snow. Swimming through the warm sand actually sounds kind of wonderful.