JANUARY 3, 2016
I STARTED this column, “Five Questions and Five Answers,” by interviewing the mesmerizing Cassandra Gillig in 2014. I’m back now with the third of a new three-part series. What governs this interview series is the idea of the imagination. People often talk of the imagination as if it is one thing for everyone, a place without context, a specific, singular landscape that we all go to. This kind of talk can make people feel that if they don’t have immediate access to this single place, they can’t engage in imaginative thinking, which disempowers infinite possible new ways of seeing the world. Everyone has their own imaginative landscapes, populated with very particular experiences, and when people open the door and let us into those places, it helps each of us connect with our own. It also helps us see the doors that connect all of our imaginations together. Because imagination is both specific and universal, real and unreal, profane and holy, a place of both rest and unrest, that we all can go to and share with others when we make new things.
I am lucky that I have the opportunity to interview the artists, thinkers, and writers who populate my own imaginative landscape, and to share our short conversations with you.
In this installment, I asked five questions of the sparkling and spectacular literary powerhouse, Corina Copp.
DOROTHEA LASKY: The Green Ray is your first full-length collection. How did you go about making it? A lot of times, poets’ first books are a culmination of shorter pieces that may have originally been published elsewhere or in chapbooks. Is this the case for this book? I ask this because its structure fascinates me, as you have so deftly composed long pieces with section titles and sewn them together to make a never-ending loop of meaning throughout. What books are the source of inspiration for The Green Ray’s structure and why?
CORINA COPP: Thank you! I wanted to express a range of what I’ve been doing for the past five years or so, without many formal redundancies, so that the eye could play around a little when moving from poem to poem — but the original manuscript was a lot of material, indiscriminate … eventually I put aside the poems from recent chapbooks that connected to the concept of the green ray, which is an optical phenomenon — the last line of color visible as the sun sinks below the horizon in the rarest of weather conditions, and generally at sea — defined in the Jules Verne novel Le rayon vert as a conductor of “true feeling;” so it’s romantic and scientific at once (ta-da). The green ray and its aspects, let’s say, have also been influential for a number of other writers and artists, mostly in a male avant-garde tradition, but often in an auspicious way, as if the stripe is a signpost. I had already been writing with all of this in mind — its elusiveness as an object, its surfacing or momentum in text and film and painting, since 2011, so the title had been set in my mind long before the book was written.
And then I composed a third of the manuscript last year, after I was past my deadline. Writing on time that felt “not mine” seemed right for this project — threatening enough for my pathologies around delay and possibility and work and chance. I also wanted to impose a bleakly “pseudograph” structure — defined as a false writing, a fraudulent text — both to match these pathologies and also, simultaneously, to physicalize the book. In graph theory, a pseudograph is a graph that contains loops as well as multiple edges between vertices: an example is a flipped pentagram inside a pentagon, which is an image I wanted to put in the book at one point.
I mean, I know close to nothing about graph theory, mathematics, geometry, or consistent Gaia/world systems, or sugar cube/crystallography structures, even if I want or think my poems do inherently resemble these things. But I did hope that all of the cognitive work I had been doing over the years to link up various sources to events or moments or progress in “my life” might lead to a looped object that contradicts itself in cyclical time. I hoped to create a demonstration of speed or voice or precarity itself that could travel from poem to poem and back, rather than a linear read or a representation of an experienced moment. And because I was using the green ray as a central image, and engaging chance and intuitive logic, I also wanted the manuscript to reflect a wandering, to “reveal itself,” which of course is not the way the publishing world works. At times I felt I was barely touching it — I wanted distance between myself as author and the book, so that when it came time for it [to] be an actual object, I’d be less attached to it.
Oh, and yes, reading did influence the structure — a certain constellation made itself clear — starting with Raymond Roussel, who was influenced deeply by Jules Verne, who wrote Le rayon vert in 1882; and Duchamp, who turned often to Roussel, especially in his fondness for language games. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s short story “The Shore” is tied directly to Roussel’s early, 60-page poem “La Vue,” about a seashore seen through the lens of a penholder — you could draw this to Duchamp’s Étant donnés — and if I remember correctly, Robbe-Grillet wrote that he didn’t believe Roussel was that great of a writer. I can go into this elsewhere, because I think it has to do with ambition versus eloquence, a topic I like.
Éric Rohmer’s Le rayon vert and Tacita Dean’s film, too, were important — Rohmer’s in its adaptation of the Verne, its filmmaking logic — and Dean for moving out of the fictive. Obviously I made a decision to be influenced by the nominal. I don’t know if any of this made it into the book, in the end, though. I wanted to resolve it with the earliest poem, “Pro Magenta” — partly to consider which colors were where in certain poems and how they would relate to the color rays when the sun is setting. The poem “At Last Only a Faint Rim of Gold,” in the middle, is a line from Jules Verne. In content it’s a travelogue, my wandering in Montreal last summer, doing an impression of the woman in the Rohmer film, lost on vacation like any self-mythologizing, already-dead brat seeing only her own trajectory.
The poems themselves are also — if not moreso — influenced by the work of poets Denise Riley, Anna Mendelssohn, Ingeborg Bachmann, definitely, Nathalie Sarraute, Friederike Mayröcker, and Marguerite Duras, writers I am always reading. There’s some John Donne in there as well. Much else. Such a pseudo-male modernist, leaving little clues everywhere (despicable). Some of Mendelssohn’s words, from a drawing in Implacable Art, are hanging from the edges of the text of “Praise Pseudograph.” Driftwood to accompany the walk on the shore, at the end of which is a rock.
You begin The Green Ray with a link from the 2001 film of the same name by Tacita Dean that goes: “So looking for the green ray became about the act of looking itself, about faith and belief in what you see.” Can you tell me why this line and this film is the spiritual home of the book? And are there any other texts, films, or other pieces of art that are the spiritual homes for the book and why?
Dean’s film and experience, Éric Rohmer’s film Le rayon vert, are both “homes” for the book — both attempt to record a “phenomenon,” to search or write toward an object that is ultimately fleeting and elusive — I also think we’re all utilizing the green ray to the same effect, almost as a prop so we can discover something else. The films have differing approaches to seeing the flash/the green ray. Rohmer corrected the color in post-production, editing it in to ensure the romantic ending. Dean filmed the sunset over and over until she caught the green ray on film. Not everyone can see it, when they watch her version, so she concludes with that line, about looking for it becoming about the act of looking. It’s still enigmatic, and I am both wholly skeptical and indulgent, when it comes to the ledge on which reason and belief systems are balanced — I’m swept up by both night and day — but it’s not a question of either/or. I’m reading about this right now, about early psychology and medicine’s connections to the arcane — how curative belief is.
Anyhow, Dean’s line is like the moment in Rohmer’s film when Delphine sees the shop on the beach called “Le rayon vert” — she’s the only one who notices it, which is what matters, that she keep looking. I came to a similar conclusion when I came to the end of writing — not a revelation, because who cares about personal revelations — but a conversion? The idea is, maybe, that I was looking to “see” that “true feeling” — what Verne’s protagonist, Helena Campbell, hopes the green ray can elicit: reading feeling in my own work, asking so much of it. As if I were waiting for someone to tell me to stop writing, instead of having faith in my own contemplative process, that it would continue after we went to print, that my longing to correct a love that felt unreal, that this pursuit, too, in itself, was enough, and that I had had enough of it. I have to say, I was inundated by synchronicities. Both aesthetically and actually. I felt almost channeled and was very tired by it — like how could I possibly articulate this to a reader? And it was all my own making. Then again, my work might be doing a lot that I can’t see? So I scrapped any attempt to elucidate this process and decided to have faith that the poems were already doing the work they need to, whatever that might mean for any individual reader. Tacita Dean’s conclusion, then, naturally accompanied my own conclusion, meaning I knew it would also serve well as an opening, as an epigraph. It’s a carrot, too: obviously we are all looking.
I might also locate the book near Jay DeFeo’s artwork The Rose — especially with the poem “Moderator Cantabile.” Though the title comes from Duras, through a Diabelli sonatina, and concerns itself with self-surveillance in art-making, it felt often in composing like I was infinitely heaping on plaster, actually just enduring my own decision to labor in this accumulative, plotless, extended way. Meditation can be violent, as Avital Ronell has pointed out.
You are also a playwright. I think the intersection of the performing arts and poetry is a very important one, because it resists the notion that poetry speaks only to itself. When you see a performance, you are forced into an important space of what a stage can be. I think that some poetry can forget this, but your poetry celebrates it. I wonder: How do you see your theater background functioning in The Green Ray and how important is the idea of the performing “I” of a poem to you?
A playwright! I don’t know. In reality, it’s a separate background; theater requires money and respect, which both take time to earn. The two forms are intertwined for me otherwise, if one could divorce theater from its professionalized connotations. In The Green Ray, I liked the idea of a roving eye, or “I”: a camera that is interpreting, and adjusting to the light, and so on. To perform that “I” is to project a space onto someone else, to confront or connect or alienate with a suspension of disbelief intact — you know, you’re not having a tantrum in front of your boyfriend; or if you are, in this scenario, he has to give you the credit that you know where it is going and that when it is over, it is not just concluded, but resolved, which is from Stein, that a scene can be resolved and not merely ended, and that’s what makes it “theater” — which is very funny to me. And when humor occurs in my poems, it’s generally indicative of a desire to be performative. Badiou (not to continue to namedrop theorists) has written that theater enacts the very laws of desire, where the subject is linked only to her discourse, but in the end a body must be put forth. I like all of this; and in a poem, I can try and articulate that space for theater and desire in say, ellipses (that, and as if they would recall only the silence between speech in play scripts by Nathalie Sarraute, which I know is not the closest reference for a reader — a girl can dream). So a poem is missing that (particular) body. It can perform one: the performing “I” in a poem is the one that operates as if there’s an audience while at the same time she can reject it, she knows there is not, can reflect an interior space that is or isn’t hers, can self-interrogate “anything.” But that kind of performing “I,” in a poem, is wildly circling anxiety, despair: what’s fixed, what’s open? That’s why I actually like to perform, because I can control the voice; I know which tone is most accurate for each moment. But that doesn’t mean there’s a singular authorial intent on the page. It means that in performance, as in a reading, actually the poem can distinguish itself. And it’s key to remain nonprofessional: I will mess up, I am susceptible to context and all else. Once it is written, the poem dominates me — that’s fine. We are separate. We have to be, because I feel a lot of the pain that weighs on the “I” in my poems, and I want to be able to deliver it.
Color in its purest spiritual form seems very important to you and to this book (The Green Ray, the poem “Pro Magenta,” countless images throughout the book). Color and the visual throb with intensity and sound in everything you write. How do you see color functioning in your poetry and are there any poets who deal with color in interesting ways who have inspired you?
Thank you for saying that. My mom is a painter, so I have distinct memories from childhood of staring into Winsor & Newton ink bottles in the art-supply store — I think I’m still dealing with it. Particularly, viridian — this one. And the language in the description of that ink is most beautiful: “Today they are formulated from a series of soluble dyes in a superior shellac solution.” What?! Color tends to remind me of marketing language, and vice versa. I guess that’s how I tend to use it. There’s Wittgenstein remarking that they are our colors. Color as a shared system of reference, its seal of guarantee that there is an external world. But color can be deceptive, if it’s only nominal — “we” feel safe when a feeling is evidenced by a color-descriptor, and I distrust that. I want color to function in the poem as it does on the surface we’re faced with every day; I want it to operate as light that distracts and redirects our attention instead of attending our emotions — because I know too well I can manipulate that. But there’s the Lisa Robertson line: “Color receives belief in the form of a name.” We need the names in order to see.
Masha Tupitsyn, in Love Dog and elsewhere, is someone I go to on color. She quoted Fanny Howe on green: “Love is the green in green. Does this explain its pain?” She mentions the particular, perfect red in Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, how the film is “filled with forests and the bodies of armored men who bleed through their metal.” Also, your passion for it, Dottie, its therapeutic properties and fullness of spirit — that’s inspiring. Marcel Carné has the watercolorist in Port of Shadows walk into the ocean at night, leaving his palette and brushes and paints behind — a moment of poetic realism that haunts me a little. And there’s Goethe’s spectrum, his inclusion of darkness, his faux-science, based on intuition — I felt an affinity with his perspective when I was writing the book. I kept a picture of his color wheel on my desk. In Rohmer, that “green is the color of hope,” that Delphine can use it to remind herself that she’s okay. Barbara Guest writes “…I / created a planned randomness in which color / behaved like a star.”
The poem that initially propelled me to write about the green ray was “Pro Magenta.” Pro’s etymology is to come, to promise, to profess; and magenta is frequently the ink color used in marketing and advertising industries, where I worked for a long time, to indicate placeholder text. So, often, “TK” comes in magenta, right. Which makes the title, for me, a redundancy, kind of like “& and,” a desire to have faith in a particular object, or in returning. Promises to be here, in color, etc., but a placeholder, etc. It’s intense for me; and coming across the green pencil (le crayon vert) in a Roussel story, which served as a stand-in or really just a linguistic play on the natural phenomenon in order to draw a part in a man’s head, it was too much. A few years later, last summer, a friend’s daughter began drawing a picture for me in green colored pencil while we talked on a balcony — this is when I’m trying to finish the book — she was drawing in circles to mimic this “catastrophe machine” we had just seen at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, so well, full circle.
Okay, a final question. If you could morph into a tiny being at will, first, what shape would you take and why? And then, where would you go and what would you do? Would you want more tiny beings like you or would you like to be alone in your tinyhood? And also, would it scare you or excite you to have this gift of transformation?
This feels like a Rorschach question, as if it will map my cognition for you. So I’ve thought a lot about it, too much. This gift of transformation has been terrifying to me, yes. It’s wild, like Francis Ponge would want to talk about pebbles or soap here — “the foam risen” (talk, who’d want to shape into talk, well yes). Or whatever lives in an opal shell. Then the shell itself seems more accurate. In the end, I’ll say, I’d morph into a shard or sheet of dark lepidolite, which is a variety of mica. I have some somewhere; it’s good for the throat.