Interview by Matthew Walsh
Erín Moure’s latest project, Kapusta, was released by
House of Anansi Press in 2015. It follows the character, E., in what is described as a “play-poem ash, a cabaret,” placing E. in the smallest of places, the bench behind a wood stove in northern Alberta. Innovative, thoughtful, and mesmerizing in its approach to storytelling, the book follows a cast of characters, like Malenka Dotcha, a sock monkey, E., her grandmother, and others, through historical and personal terrain—while incorporating Dean Martin songs, iPhones, and links to YouTube videos that add layers of meaning to the text. I caught up with Moure and asked her about her projects, her bookshelf, and of course, Paul Celan.
How did you come up with the idea for Kapusta?
Well, before and during the process, it was simply writing. I simply wrote, with voices, in the language that the writing came to me, French or English, without translating. The text grew with each writing session into a longer piece; what I had already written taught me where the writing would next go. I worked with the voices, recording them. In a sense, it is a book that takes the material of The Unmemntioable, but from the viewpoint of Alberta rather than Ukraine and Romania.
The title page of Kapusta describes what is to be read as “a play poem ash, a cabaret.” iPhones and iPads are used as a mirror, veil, a piano, among other things. There are links to YouTube videos, and references to Dean Martin and others. How did these elements come together through the writing process? What made you say, “I need to include the YouTube links?” Could it have anything to do with Kapusta being described as a book “beyond the book?”
I included the YouTube links because I can give those visual and aural pointers, instead of just writing footnotes. I felt it necessary because not all my readers, particularly younger ones, would know what the Dean Martin Show was. And there it is, on YouTube. As for using the iPhone front camera as a mirror, everyone does this. And using a piano app on the iPad for a piano: accessible to anyone. We live in a world mediated and extended by those electronic possibilities; there is no need to leave them out of writing.
Do you listen to a lot of music when you sit down to write?
Ah. I actually rarely listen to music, except in the car to avoid claustrophobia. I like ambient noise (right now cars, some industrial machinery a few blocks away, and an air conditioner outside somewhere) as it helps me physically situate myself in the present place and present tense. Electronics remove us too easily from the present; I listen to things that bring me back there.
Does Kapusta connect somehow, thematically or otherwise, with any other of your works? What do you hope readers take away from this story/poem-play ash?
It’s another view of the same terrain as exists in The Unmemntioable: the Holocaust in Western Ukraine and the subsequent ethnic cleansings of a multicultural mixed area of Europe, both by the Allied powers, by nationalist actions, and by Sovietization. With a focus on the Holocaust and the acts to cover it up, but as seen from behind a wood stove in northern Alberta where everyone was safe and sound, if traumatized.
If readers take away anything, I would hope that it be that there is no simple explanation or way to speak the story so that one story doesn’t erase another. But especially, that we are all responsible to act and put our living bodies in the way of genocides.
Readers first meet Elisa Sampedrín in Little Theatres, and then again in O Resplandor and The Unmemntioable. In Kapusta, we have the character E., described as “simply a vowel.” I made the mistake of thinking E. was Elisa while reading! What are some of the differences between E. and Elisa? Will we see Elisa again?
Ah, readers would have to read those three books you mention and form their own opinion of Elisa Sampedrín. I refuse to get involved in her life, or in explaining (for I can’t) why she insists on continually interfering in the work of others. I managed to write Kapusta undetected by Sampedrín, and avoid her. Or maybe she is never very far. Maybe she is the Dean Martin Show or the bad songs!
I have to ask about the sock monkey, Malenka Dotchka. I saw your reading at Green College, on UBC campus, which was wonderful. When you sewed Malenka from winter socks that had already wandered everywhere, did you have the idea to include Malenka Dotchka as a character in Kapusta? How did creating the stuffed animal for the project affect your writing?
Yes, I knew there would be a sock monkey as a character, as the silent chorus, as the witness, as the child and daughter. Wearing the socks and wandering then sewing her was part of my research for the book. I think of her as one of the poems, and of sewing her as writing a poem. It is not the first time I have used thread and fabric in writing a book!
Creating the sock monkey meant a creature existed, one who could not speak. I had to be careful not to speak for her, and to listen to her.
The act of sewing was most condensed as a form of writing at the moment I sewed her face. A few stitches and she was no longer a sock! It brought me back to the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas on the face and on the ethics that arise for any individual subjectivity on facing the face of the other. Malenka Dotchka immediately evokes that philosophy, an the philosophy of hospitality, for any reader who has been exposed to philosophy in connection with contemporary writing here and in Europe, or to my own poetics. Lévinas is very much present, considered and contested in any public contemporary issue involving hospitality, the stranger, the self. Derrida as well wrote extensively on Lévinas on the face. Butler has written work that is steadied by Lévinas. There is work in my 2001 book O Cidadán on the face (that was a book very influenced by D’s work on hospitality). Finally, there is a quote from Lévinas in the text of Kapusta, as well, spoken by Malenka Dotchka. Which kind of sums it up! That quote ends: “The face is uncontainable; it leads you beyond.”
Paul Celan is one of my favourite poets. I find his work so powerful. I noticed that on Malenka’s fez that she has a streetcar ticket with the birthplace of Celan on it. What do you admire about Celan?
I can’t even begin to answer this. Celan’s life and poems haunt me utterly; in thinking about Celan I also think about the work of Pierre Joris and Oana Avasilichioaei and translation and the terrible challenges of translation, and the terrible and amazing intricacies in and between languages that normally we do not notice, for we do not really use language, we just inhabit one of its surfaces. And I think of Ukraine and the hidden histories in so many of us that are part of the anguish and struggle of writing, of translating, of existing as a person in the present tense. Malenka Dotchka is also marked by Paul Celan, and this via public transport!
What I love about your writing is your ability to create a new voice in every collection. I had a professor during my undergrad introduce me to your work. First, Sheep’s Vigil for a Fervent Person, and then O Resplandor. What he liked about your work, and what fascinates me is how surprising you are as a poet. “Each of Moure’s collections are surprising and different,” he said. “You never know what Erín Moure is going to do.” Have you heard that before? Where do you think your work will take you next?
I’ve heard that before. I’m not very good at repeating myself, I guess. Right now, I’m working on a book of poems and texts called The Elements, which deals with my dad and dementia, and the relation between dementia and thinking itself, dementia and translation both of text and world, and how that affects subjectivity. And I’ve just started another play-text–ash-pollen called Martin! We’ll see where I end up, as it’s not so much me going places with writing but that writing takes me places I am not at first able to go. As well, I have been working on four new translations that will appear in the next two years: Chus Pato’s Flesh of Leviathan, already out now from Omnidawn in San Francisco and François Turcot’s My Dinosaur out from BookThug in Toronto this spring; Rosalía de Castro’s New Leaves from Small Stations in Sofia later in 2016; Bulgaria in 2016, and Wilson Bueno’s Paraguayan Sea which will appear from Nightboat Books in the USA in 2017. Those are translations, respectively, from Galician, French, Galician, and Portuñol.
I tend to feel my books come in cycles, rather than individually; this has been noted by critic and poet Shannon Maguire and I am paraphrasing her divisions here: in my more recent work there has been a trilogy on person and citizen, a trilogy of Galician-inflected books, and a Ukrainian diptych… the Ukrainian and the Galician sets overlap a bit, as O Resplandor could belong in either. I should mention here that Shannon Maguire has been working to edit and introduce a big Moure selected poems called Planetary Noise, which will appear from Wesleyan in the USA in 2017.
If I went to your house, who would I find on your bookshelf?
You’d find shelves of books of poetry in particular, in Galician, Spanish, Portuguese, French and English. You’d find philosophy in French and English. And a couple of shelves of books that I read as research for the Ukrainian diptych of The Unmemntioable and Kapusta. You’d find a complete set of every published issue of The Capilano Review, and other translation magazines, and issues of Line and others. You’d find works on medieval poetry as well. You’d find Oana Avasilichioaei’s newest, Limbinal, Caroline Bergvall’s recent Drift, Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, three works that are touchstones for me. Alongside works by Lisa Robertson, Susan Howe, Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Chus Pato, Judith Butler, Carla Harryman, Carlos Lema, Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Rancière. And works of poetry by younger poets publishing books in English, French, Galician, Spanish: Francisco Cortegoso and Emma Villazón, for example. Prose, too: Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky. And a few DVDs: Frederick Wiseman’s La dernière lettre, Victor Erice’s El Espiritu de la Colmena. And a knitted sheep, a finger puppet mailed me years ago by a reader of Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person. Others too. Books comfort me by their presence; they give me courage to resist. They give me a home.
Matthew Walsh’s work has been featured in Arc, The Found Poetry Review, Carousel, Descant, Existere, Matrix, Carte Blanche, The Steel Chisel and as part of the Halifax Commons Poetry Anthology. His short fiction will appear in 11th Dimension Press’s Rock is Not Dead short story anthology. He is currently poetry editor of Plenitude Magazine.