Monday, April 7, 2008

Interview with Christine Hume about Alaskaphrenia

1. What inspired you to create a work like Alaskaphrenia?

I was born in Alaska, but moved within the first six months so I have no recollection of it. For this reason it has always held a mythic space for me. I wasn’t interested in the state per se, just the idea of the place, as it is embedded in our national mythology, as an imaginative retaining space and frontier. I tried to think about the poetic line in the book as a kind of shifting frontier, and the poems themselves as speculating on, among other things, the American promise of renew and self-invention. Our national fantasy of Alaska’s limitless vertiginous vastness and freedom has historically informed the dynamics of individual and collective self-definition. Its fictive emptiness (“In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is,” says Stein) has always been read as an invitation to produce still more fictions, still more possibilities for transformation. If, as Alaska allows us to believe, identity exists as self-invention, one’s identification and explanation of the self might always be in flux—just as Alaska is in flux, existing as a place of multiple possibilities, formed around one’s attention to the messages arriving from “outside” (outside ourselves, but also more literally what Alaskans call the lower 48). So the real state does seem to hold a physical and psychic place for all disgruntled and down-trodden citizens who don’t want to abandon their country all together, but want to remove themselves from it in some part. If America were a brain and its map broken into phrenological assignments, Alaska would be the place of invention, imagination, and love-of-danger-and-the-unknown. That said, the book revisions Alaska as a mental space; it internalizes its paradoxes and stereotypes, and I hope makes a case for the reality of one’s imagined life.

That said, I’m sexually attracted to the cold. I also fear the cold, maybe the two are related. Unfortunately, I’m not kidding. This also last paragraph also answers, in part, your question about the color blue. Blue games! Blue films! Blue balls! Oh yes, and the ocean blue, the bluest blue sky—their indistinguishability and infinitude. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

2. "Comprehension Questions" appears to be a type of reading guide for the reader. By starting your collection off with this poem, is it your intention that the reader keep these questions in their mind and attempt to find answers as they read the rest of the work?

To the later question, no, though I have no objection to this practice. I wanted to create a sense of pre-existing story. The comp questions usually come at the end of a story or passage, and I wanted to plant the idea of a disappeared or invisible or given pre-existing text, which is what the idea of Alaska in itself is (everyone in America has an idea, a feeling for what Alaska is and means), and then go from there. I also wanted to imply a narrative by way of the questions alone. Growing up taking standardized tests, I often found a more interesting narrative and more interesting answers implied in the questions themselves—by skipping the master narrative and moving right into the questions, the sense of uncertainty, of piecing something together via the imagination. I also use a lot of forms in the book that draw from nonpoetic sources, like the guidebook or test, and I wanted to set the tone of the book playing with generic form. I mean the piece to be funny. As imperatives weave themselves thorough the whole book, and I think these questions take on the tone of imperatives, and reorchestrate received advice found in travelogues and psyschology manuals. The shopworm retrofitted to a different purpose and attitude hopefully calls attention to caesura, oppostitions, assumptions, and rhetorcis that they inhapbit or force us to inhabit. The form plays straight-man to the content in this case; in other cases there is a more urgent calling out for help and security. I wanted to use vast peregrinations of inquiry, and non-fiction forms useful for structureing the unknown and stimulating a feeling of uncanniness, and of remembrance and oblivion merging in a place of origins.
Also, getting back to the idea of reverals (comp questions usually coming last, not first—or as Beckett says “first last words”), I think of the site of the book is an optical illusion, a Fata Morgana, where the peaks of the Alaskan Range appear to be floating in midair or an inverted crystal island.

And getting back to the specific poem itself, the poem can be read self-reflexively, as a discussion of reading and writing itself. “What dark authority lurks among the unpruned spruce?” The poem invites a close reading, even as it discredits comprehension in any ultimate sense.

3. How do you feel all of these poems work together as a collection? Would you prefer that the reader read the collection of poems in order, or that they jump around and take in each piece on its own?

Well, I put them in order, and I hope there is a sense of accumulation and a loose sense of movement. One of Pessoa’s alter egos says that the best way to travel is to feel. Building on that, to travel is to follow with your imagination, to transform. Imagination collaborates with perception, and sets a community of moods in dialogue with empirical probabilities; when these conditions are extreme, one often reaches for a guidebook. Of course the authors of guidebooks have often inhabited a place so thoroughly, experienced it so intensely, that they have been forever changed by that place, and could never go back to write the book that they would have needed to read, if such a book could even exist. Instructions, maps, advice, litanies of caveats offer a sense of expectation, which becomes part of the actual experience, not necessarily a master-narrative onto which one’s experience is grafted, but a more fluid interchange and alchemical complication.

4. You appear to integrate different structures into each of your poems. For example, some are written in block text, some in multiple columns and some utilize white space more than others. What do these different structures add to each poem and to your collection as a whole? Is this variance in structure something you envisioned before you started writing Alaskaphrenia, or is it something that developed once the writing began?

Part of the act of writing for me is that each poem must find it’s own form. Form is necessary meaning, not outside meaning or alongside or even in relation to meaning, it IS meaning.

5. In the chapter, On the Horizon, what was the reasons for putting the text at the bottom of the page and why did you space them apart?

Like a landscape painting of a fog-covered coast, the poems are meant to enact horizon. Some of the horizon you can see through the fog, sometimes it’s just a fuzzy shape, connecting and isolating objects you see through it. Fog on ice, each hiding the other.

6. What did you want the reader to get out of your poems?

I want to kick butt! I want the reader to feel a sense of disorientation and recognition in extreme at the same time. I want readers to be involved in a headlong rush of emotion, the kinetic lickety-split of associations, logics, time frames—an accrual of elastic, electric presents/presences AND contemplations in enduring stillness. I want to allow their own freak thoughts to surprise them. I want them to be inspired by their own imaginations. But your question also leans on another one about audience. The question of audience is an impossible one for me, almost no answer seems even momentarily accurate, but the closest I can get is this: I write for a self that foregrounds the books and people I’ve loved most ardently and the aspects of those texts and folks that I’ve been lucky (sometimes unlucky) enough to be haunted by. In doing so I try to let the language-object lead that self into a wiser, heartier acre. I have the sense that language works to assert itself in more and more expansive, inventive ways. If I’m intuitive enough, I can create a place (not a representation of a place) in and of itself, characterized and composed completely with language.

7. How do you feel about your poems being read in our Avant Womens Writers class?

I’d love to hear YOUR answer to this! I’m sure the frame of the class and the context of the other readings, which I’m very happy to be included in, gives you a particular and percolating reading of the book.

8. You use the color of blue a lot to describe things that would not be seen as blue in our world. Other than the fact that Alaska is part of the title, what other reasons do you have for continuing to refer back to blue throughout your work?

To answer this well, I will refer you to James Hillman’s essay on Blue in the first issue of the magazine Sulfur and William Gass’s beautiful philosophical inquiry, On Being Blue. “So blue, the word and the condition, the color and the act, contrive to contain one another, as if the bottle of the genii were its belly, the lamp’s breath the smoke of the wraith.” Blue is a mood and music—the blue lucy is a healing plant. Psychologically, the word appeals to me as a state of suspension, a limbo between black and white, one saturated and insistent. It is the color of sea and sky, yes, and the color of everything that’s empty: blue bottles, bank accounts, and compliments. Examination books, blue bloods—and beards, coats, collars, chips, cheese. Blue stockings, blue laws, blue movies, and the look of the skin when affected by cold, illness, fear, suffocation, the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium.

9. Given that the poems are set to evoke an atmosphere of the beauty of this world and our place in it, how do you feel in touch with nature?

Oh, I love nature. I love to see it speeding through a windshield, and I love to leave it alone.

10. Would you consider this text to be a collection of poems and prose, or would you consider it a new way to structure the ordinary novel or book?

I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but I don’t think I have it in me; I’m not interested in traditional plot and character questions that I associate even with some more innovative novels. I’m fascinated by questions of genre however, and I’m reminded of a test I sometimes give my students about genre and expectations. If you blindfold a person, ask them to taste red and white wine without saying which is which, that person won’t be able to tell the difference. But ultimately, who cares so long as it tastes good, makes you want to keep drinking, fucks you up.

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