This week and next, we’ll be bringing you a lengthy interview with one of our authors, Laressa Dickey. We’ve elected to publish four separate chapbooks of Laressa’s work this year—two came out in March (A Pictorial History of Wilderness and Companions, Corps of Discovery), and two will follow in September (A Piece of Information About His Invisibility and Mimesis, Synaptic)—in order to offer readers an immersive experience of Laressa’s use of language, fragment, and image.
Here, Laressa has taken our very simple prompts, and given us a ranging, involved set of responses. We hope you’ll enjoy this interview—and come back over the next week or so for the rest.
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Interviewer: I know you’ve lived in several countries–Sweden, Portugal, now Germany. How do you see yourself, as a writer writing in English, within or related to the other languages that surround you? What effect, if any, do you see those other languages’ syntaxes/phonologies/image systems having on your work?
LD: In Sweden and Portugal I was speaking English exclusively with little attempt to learn much of either language, due to time and work constraints. In Germany, I have been actively learning the language since I arrived; in fact, learning German has been one of my main projects. I feel very outside—as a writer writing in English, as a student trying to learn German, as an American in the middle of migration. What I notice in my work is that I am coming back to the sentence and to the phrase as complete units (rather than sources of fragment), and that I am interested in switches of syntax in a new way.
I am more aware now how bored I was with English, how many patterns and habits I had in writing and speaking, how uninventive I was, and how tired I was of hearing people speak. (I mostly mean the rhetoric, or the part of our conversations that are wasted energy due to repetition or lack of presence in the moment), and how useful it is to me to translate ideas through the lens of another language and then re-see it in English. It helps me see possibilities again—and not just for more inventive language poetry, but in the structure of the sentence and in the details of how verbs and subjects agree or don’t, in the placing of a phrase—all that impacts the possible reading of a text. Maybe this is obvious, but I feel like I am rediscovering territory from childhood—the excitement when I first learned to speak and then to read. Oh! This is how this works! Aha!I also became interested in the process of acquisition of new syntax and new vocabulary and in my mind/body’s response to that—the disorientation that comes from total immersion. I mean, I was spending 16 hours a week in an immersion course, and I was exhausted.
I don’t mean to say I am actively translating work to or from any language, but that I am aware of my brain processing words between English and German and that processing comes into my dreams and also into these unconscious moments where I just blurt out something and don’t know how I know what I just said, but it makes sense to the person standing in front of me. I’m interested in those moments and in the potential of them. I feel like my language-learning and writing in English in the midst of being a foreigner is a bit like trying to record a dream or even trying to foretell a dream before I have it. I know learning a language will affect my writing, but it is not clear to me how that is manifesting. I think I will know more in three years.
This point about image systems interests me. I have been fascinated by some new images: there were two men, one playing an accordion and one playing a trumpet, and once in the late afternoon, they slowly walked down my street, the accordion player holding a hat, too, and if you liked the music you could throw some coins down, but they played regardless, and they smiled. A few people opened their windows wide to let in this music—who knows what the tune was, but it was happy-making, some leaned out the ledge of the window of the street. That was me. I threw some coins down and then their music disappeared on down the street with them. That was early in my time in Berlin. Then last week, six months later, I was walking down a different street in a different neighborhood, and there they were, sauntering slowly and playing this beautiful music and offering it to the entire street, the whole city. I burst out in tears. This simple gesture of offering their music, in the face of so much noise, so much disregard and inequality, so much disdain, it did not matter. It was the purest thing piercing the bubble that is Berlin. Now, that’s a moving image for me, something that is evolving, even becoming a trope in my mind. It’s what gives me hope that the world is not as apathetic and callous as I often think.
The other strong image for me is that of a young man who sleeps on a bridge over the Spree. I don’t know if he is a foreigner or German; often he sleeps on a piece of cardboard or newspaper, right on the asphalt, and he puts a paper cup in front of himself and he sleeps. Every morning I cross this bridge, and he has been there a few times, in winter and also now in warmer months. And I found myself asking questions that will probably reveal more about me than him: How did this young man get there (to this place of sleeping on the asphalt of bridges)? Where is he other nights? Does he have family that could help him? Does he have a mother? Whose responsibility is this? What is the solution—to give him money? To offer him a place to take a shower? Some food? Is he far from home?
I have become quite sobered by these images, mostly due to my outsider-status. How can art address and speak to reality? How does it help loneliness, for example? How can poetry do this—through image, through syntax, etc—and to what end? I think that poetry can be inventive and should be inventive, and I am always desirous to be in the tension of invention while reaching to be grounded in what is also felt as true. I am always riding the tension of how far can I go without losing my mother as a reader. (She would say I have already lost her.) How can I use language so as to be in some way recognizable—while still pushing (groaning) toward expansion of the form (and moment)?
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We’ll have the next installment of this interview on Thursday, June 7. In the meantime, did you know MIEL’s open reading period has begun? We’re looking for full collections of prose and poetry, poetry chapbooks, and artists’ monographs. Details here.
Visit us in person at the Manchester Book Market, June 8-9.