In early March, 2022, Green College Resident Member Jane Willsie interviewed the College’s current Poet in Residence, Margaret Christakos, about her work, artistic process and residency so far. The following is a transcript of that conversation. It has been edited for length and clarity.
You are the inaugural Meredith and Peter Quartermain Poet in Residence at Green College. What does it mean to you to be the first poet to take up this residency?
Well, I am in name the first poet in residence, but there have actually been quite a few poets here at Green College before. Just to clarify. But I do think it's actually very important to create spaces within academia for poetry as a named discourse and as a named practice. So, I think it's lovely. I'm very happy and honoured to occupy this post, and very grateful to Meredith and Peter, and the College.
The title of your series, ‘Distance as a Keeping’, seems quite appropriate for a series that you are leading from a distance over Zoom. How has the long-distance nature of your relationship with Green College affected your residency so far?
Well, the context of the pandemic has just been so difficult and also connective because many of us have not had this sort of inflated concept of the global reality of humanity in ways that made a kind of consciousness that's emerging from this beleaguered time.
It's been an interesting process of thinking through: what could we do or how could we do this? We landed on the notion of me maintaining a kind of Instagram archival space and a sort of activating space. So, that's been really, really interesting. I really enjoy it. And I've been, you know, sort of on a daily basis thinking about what it is I'm making and how the studio quality of my own practice can translate to some sort of presence for anyone at the College. Even if no one at the College is directly interacting with it, it's still an interaction with the College and with my concept of producing work that produces some kind of ongoing of sharing practice with all of you there. I mean, you're all very much on my mind. So, I'm having a deep relationship with the College on a daily basis and that's actually been very, very interesting.
Overall, how has your residency been so far? What have been some challenges and what have been some triumphs?
Hmm, triumphs…. You know, I think it's been really interesting. It's been an adaptation. I've done several residencies before and each one has had its own character, and this obviously has been totally different because there's such a sense of not knowing, such a sense of everyone sharing and not knowing and trying to perform address anyway. So, it's actually been really, really productive for me. I've found my way into various kinds of work that I'm not sure would've happened the same way if I had managed to be on campus, in ongoing social relations with everybody there and the space there. So, it has been, actually, fabulously productive. It has also maintained my status of being very solitary and producing art in a kind of abyss, which after two years has also become a productive space.
I don't know what it's going to feel like to be out there, to tell you the truth. I've been nowhere for … I spent four days in Montreal in the fall. Other than that, I've been nowhere for two years. It's going to shift the practice a lot. So, I guess that's in the venue of challenges, but it has made me consider a lot how far I can push processual poetics, which are the poetics that have informed most of my practice for many decades. But having a kind of stage, I suppose, in which to really knit together this conversation between my own practice and the daily-ness or the quotidian experiment or exploration has been really, really helpful and really, really interesting. So, I'm very grateful.
Could you clarify what you mean by processual poetics?
Existing within a concept of being in process, being involved in a movement toward a making, but not necessarily focused on—in any sort of a priori way—what I'm meant to make, or have to make, or must make. Allowing the practice itself to take shape and materialize what it is. My interest is moving towards, and how I'm incorporating other influences and other ways of thinking and other notions of shapeliness.
Can you tell me a bit about your poetry collection, entitled Multitudes? What was the inspiration for it and how did it come about?
It's kind of interesting the way Multitudes ended up being the text that I was able to share in a sort of fulsome way with the College. It is from 2013 and I've published five books since then, all of which are interconnected and also emerged from what goes on in Multitudes, and in interesting ways. Multitudes takes up Whitman's notion of the untranslatability of the self and this notion of liberal democracy as being this, you know, utopian all-inclusive space, when in fact it is really the establishment of boundaries and enclosures that set people's rights and statuses off from each other.
So, it's all irony and it's all contradiction. But I was kind of looking at that through the lens of social media and the way we can project and deliver what seems like a confessional or true inner self to this indirectly, identifiably, ghostly space of the multitudes, how it is we believe in that and how it is we deliver ourselves into that frame of reference so easily and seemingly so naively.
Facebook started in 2007. A lot of the writing for Multitudes, I was kind of performing in 2010, 2011, at the time when I also was able to do a kind of major trip to Greece to find out about my grandmother’s life in her village. So, there's this sense of interacting, I guess, as well [with] the tragic and the epic that comes into Multitudes. This was the era where I just could not stop myself from playing with language and flipping words, taking words, seeing a word as a multitude of alphabet, ideas, and flipping those ideas around in various forms and allowing the kind of inchoate language that emerges when you take the same material and reorder it. You get speech, you get language, you get a speech act, but it's dissolved into the kind of medium that connects us in a very different way. At the end of Multitudes is a whole section called ‘Play,’ which are Facebook posts that produce a document about the travel that I mentioned, and also this sort of ongoing processing of what it means to be in an indirect address with the Other.
So those are some of the pieces. It was really an experimental book that I think allows readers to go into that inchoate space of before-language, or after-language, or language-all-mixed-up, or what that space is, and to really question who we are as subjects of a multitude. Do we recognize all the multitudes we belong to, or constitute and all the ones we don't belong to and don't constitute?
I was really happy to be able to send a bunch of copies out there and to know that it's circulating as a text because I think it also opens itself up to being able to be used as a polyvocal kind of score or script. I hope to do some of that when I'm actually out there.
As you mentioned, Multitudes was written in 2013 and you have published other works since then. How do you think you have changed as a poet since then?
Oh, I just have become more multitudinous, I guess.
I mean, you know, it's a weird life. It's just the weird life of anyone who's intellectually engaged in their world. You just become an amalgam of all the things you're interested in and all the things that awaken you to new possibilities, new pathways of thinking about what it is you're doing and why you're doing it. I mean, with poetry and literature, we have this kind of container that we think of as the book, and the book sort of ends up being something we work, and work, and work really hard towards. And then we package it all up and it's a product, and it's a commodity, and it exists that way. But the linkages and the sort of entanglements between my books are easy to trace and in fact, a lot of what I did in Multitudes as a book—a standalone book of poetry—is very much threaded through what ends up in Her Paraphernalia, which was my book that was published in 2016. It is also very much a document of the Greek trip, and my interest in matrilineage and producing a kind of narrative of self that also involves photography. Probably just as Multitudes came out, [and] then over the next few years, I ended up beginning to be very involved in a photographic practice. That has really entered my work and shifted it back into a more visual framework or a specialized material framework.
The last two books of poetry that I published are playing with dissembling the text in various ways, and letting the text drift out from its semantics and rigid structures, and offering the reader a place to become active in listening and reading across the pages. charger, the book I published with Talon Books in 2020, continues from Multitudes in the sense that I'm inflating and spatializing texts more and more, and it becomes sort of beholden on the reader to figure out how to thread their perception through the text. Books feel like that.
I'm very, very grateful to have been writing for so long such that I actually do have a kind of life that I can recognize in these individual books, but it's all one practice and one book invents, you know, lots of new pathways for the next book.
You said before that you write in an abyss. How do you get into that space? Are there any tangible ways in which you set yourself up to work that leads to that mentality or that opening up of your literal surroundings?
I think I do ritualize and produce a receptive space. That's about deeper listening to all the multiple strands going on in my sense of reality at the moment. So yes, I will say there are, and I don't think that's unusual. I think most people do that. We stage ourselves somehow. Not to say that the process of writing or thinking creatively isn't going on all the time, but there's some other layer of inhabiting the space of listening that I think is really important to poetry, to my poetry.
But I think I was referring mostly to the sense of the abyss of the pandemic, and the abyss of requisite solitude; to be cut off from others as a way of keeping them safe, which is really how it felt to me: an enormous distance from the normal, physical involvement of other bodies in my life.
One of the things I've gotten to do through my ‘Distance as a Keeping’ series is to spend a fair bit of time reading about general relativity, the cosmos and spacetime as a way of interacting with Ralph Kolewe’s book (which we had a beautiful presentation from a couple weeks ago). There's this whole idea of the black hole as this shape, or this materiality, that absorbs everything so that it becomes so small and dense as to become a singularity that cannot reemerge in any way. And I don't actually buy that. I think something's going to happen. It’s going be fairly obvious that something comes out the other side. There's going to be a kind of way that we understand the release of that energy.
I think that that's one of the metaphors I've been holding onto a little bit, the sense that this has been a really difficult time for everyone, and there's something unbearable about it. Then there are these forms of release. Unfortunately, at the moment, the release is a state of utter war in Ukraine, which is horrific. There are various forms of release that occur, I think, at the level of the individual as well. And then we remake, we reformulate what it is we want to know and where we want to go.
Do you see poetry as that type of release in any way or is the poetry the remaking afterwards?
I think, for many poets, poetry is a relationship that's about language, access to language, or a kind of fluidity of thinking through language; being able to translate a kind of desire, or need, or impulse, or thirst towards language. Maybe a lot of artists do experience that release.
But I think that what we're learning is that there really is no release. We have to stay in the awareness that we're living in apocalyptic times and there's a climate crisis that overarches all of what are now obviously our minor crises. There's a much larger crisis that we all are accountable for and that we all have to sort out. I think poetry is just one of the many forms of interacting with that accountability. How do you create a space where people can think together about what it is to be where we are?
As your series this year winds to an end, what can we expect in the final event?
I'm really excited about it because it presents two really dynamic women artists who are really involved in the idea of excess, the liberatory potential of excess.
Sonnet L'Abbé is working with a notion of overwriting Shakespeare in a very trenchant and also determined, active occupation. So, we're going to hear Sonnet talk about that work and also hear some of her music. She's become more involved in songwriting and presenting herself as a singer-songwriter. She's interacted with that lyric sense, not only as a poet, but now as a singer-songwriter, musician and instrumentalist.
Nicole Raziya Fong’s work is interacting with this sort of notion of the matrilineal, the sort of epic sense of a matrilineal narrative that overwrites or displaces patriarchal narratives of tragedies. There's this inner exploration of the psychology of attachment, and this active combustible sensibility of a mostly female or non-binary kind of figure, Luminous, who is a star. The central character of what is essentially a libretto is a star, a cosmological star that is addressing into these cosmic spaces.
It's a really interesting pairing and I'm hoping that we maybe can be on site, at least some of us, and that we can extend those texts into some kind of polyvocal rendering with some of the residents at Green College, so that it can be participatory to some degree. And I'll have more of a chance to talk about polyvocality and situatedness and spatiality and things that have been guiding my interests along the way.
I also really encourage Green College folks to check out the GC Writer in Residence Instagram account. What I've been trying to do is to produce some portals to not only represent my own process, but maybe invite some interaction or set up some ways we might think about space, voice and address. So, if you haven't checked it out, maybe do that and help me compose this thing, because it's definitely got room to become more multivocal.
Interview by Jane Willsie, Department of English Language and Literature, UBC; Green College Work Learn Content Writer, 2022.
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