“You have a strange relationship with your own being”: An Interview with Liz Howard

by Mary Eileen Wennekers

Mary Eileen Wennekers is from the prairies of Alberta. She currently lives and lurks in Toronto, where, as part of the work towards a doctoral dissertation at Western University, she is researching visual perception and subjectivity in the context of modernity, symbolic exchange and the capitalist mode of production. She works as a sessional instructor at OCAD University, and also serves as the Managing Director of Ex Libris, a review of Canadian marginal and marginalized literature that is a part of the Wyrd Arts Initiative. You can read some of her work on the mediation of subjectivity in the open source journal Word Hoard.

Liz Howard was born and raised in rural Northern Ontario. She is currently a poet and cognition research officer in Toronto. She received an Honours BSc with High Distinction specializing in psychological science at the University of Toronto and completed an MFA in creative writing through the University of Guelph. Her first full-length collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent (McClelland & Stewart, 2015) was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry and the Griffin Poetry Prize.

Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent is a wild and joyful ride through the mind, a decolonizing text that doesn’t deny the force of history, instead breathing life into the returning repressed, and therefore showing us a method of facing it full on. After I read it I talked with Howard about all the things it made me think about: history, colonialism, neuroscience, consciousness, causality, and the register of the poetic.

Before we met, I wrote to Howard with some preliminary questions. Most of them, in one way or another, revolved around the same axis: the dialectical relationship between what causes things and what registers as effect.

The way those two are linked is the way we organize, and orchestrate, the meaning of history, and this thread tracks through the text of Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent. This relationship, or the problem it represents, is the big question for the philosophy of perception in general, and for cognitive neuroscience in particular. We see it expressed in the bootstrap problem: the question of how neurosyntactic data is organized into subjective consciousness that is nearly impossible to solve without presupposing some existing organizational structure. But how can this organizational structure exist prior to the basic material—the brain meat—that it’s built out of?

It’s only recently that empirical research into the operations of the brain has explicitly confronted the problem of history through investigations into neuroplasticity.

No existing understanding of cognition really provides an entirely physiological or materialist explanation of the origin of perception without resorting to a non-phenomenal intercession, an advent of a signifier—the “I” in “I think.” So, there’s a difficulty in identifying causality in the relationship between the brain and subjectivity, and, by extension, in the relationship between the material and the metaphysical.

It’s only recently that empirical research into the operations of the brain has explicitly confronted the problem of history through investigations into neuroplasticity. In the hands of philosophers like Catherine Malabou, this has resulted in a radically different way of conceptualizing the temporality of cause. I’m fascinated by the implications of this development in contemporary philosophy, and so when Howard writes of the glyph (the character) that sings—resonates, produces through its oscillation the “slow creep of limbs and neural tube” (“Steinian Aphasia”)—I read the mark of an aporia where a retrograde fold designates the effect in advance of its origin:

that’s the translator

her task to receive

the call the comes

down the barrel

of the future  (“Thinktent”)

In Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, I also encountered a powerfully emancipatory grammar. The text crystallizes how the ditch between the corporeal and the incorporeal is also the structure of the violent hierarchies that characterize both colonialism and patriarchy. More importantly, its dazzle of causal structures presses upon me as a model for a feminist and decolonizing epistemology of both history and the event of perception.

if the cause tumbled out into

the grouping there were new expressions the future

was something extended into the politic that

relegated all daughters to a camp called the sublime

where to potentiate is such a small version of the total

angle whereby your eye acquired sense to subsume

resistance like a trick of violet in cursive some minute (“Sentient: an Oration”)

So, when we met last summer at the Bell Jar Cafe in Toronto’s West End, the weight of the conversation was not inconsiderable. It was also ridiculously fun. The resulting transcript has been edited for clarity.

 

Mary Eileen Wennekers: You’ve got Descartes on the cover of your book.

Liz Howard: Absolutely. The image is taken from his Treatise of Man where he proposes that the pineal gland is the seat of the soul and origin of all thought and motion. I used to think he was the worst because he was responsible for dualism. When I graduated high school and moved to the city to study psychology, I was primarily interested in cognitive neuroscience in a very reductionist way. Dogmatically. I came to believe that the answer to any question could be found in the brain. I thought that science would save me, or be some sort of ultimate redemption. That it would offer the most rigorous way to access truth, and experience taught me otherwise. And that probably has more something to do with me, with my psychology, than it with any promise. Science made no promises to me, but I sort of presupposed it, I guessed, or needed to believe it.

MEW: People generally do. I mean, science is an answer to questions, but I don’t think people generally think much about the speculative nature of any kind of scientific endeavour. Even in applied science, if you know the answer to the question, your experimental design is horrendously flawed. 

LH: And it’s so interesting that in your earlier questions, while you mentioned materialist versions of the mind, you went into bootstrap problem.

MEW: The bootstrap problem is a problem

LH: You need a little homunculus in there that has its own consciousness and is sort of directing, orchestrating the song of consciousness somehow. An issue of the will, the I, and what is the I?

MEW: That question is the engine for a lot of branches of science and a lot of branches of philosophy and also artistic research. It’s one of the big, big things. What is it to—how is a person? How does a person be

LH: I became fascinated by neuropsychological research, which primarily looks at patterns of deficit and sparing due to various direct insults to the brain like loss of tissue, either via surgical removal to mollify seizure disorder, or through damage caused by stroke or head injury. And to learn that you could lose parts of yourself was something that was fascinating and terrifying. But I think what Catherine Malabou writes is so true. There’s this absolutely incredible line in her Ontology of the Accident where she writes of trauma and its explosive or destructive plasticity, “A new person arrives for the second time out of the deep cut in a biography.” After the experience of trauma, you become a different creature that is somehow still yourself. You have a strange relationship with your own being.

MEW: With your own historical being. Which is why I admire how Malabou decomposes the received, ideological, idea about how the brain works now, which is that when you’re younger, the brain is more plastic, and it forms associations, and after a certain age it sort of stops. That age is thought to be around late childhood—based on language acquisition research—and so the idea is that at a certain point the brain stops making new neural connections, stagnates, becomes like a kind of computer, an input/output machine. It follows that for people who sustain brain injuries, whether through psychic or physical trauma, if you’re older, that tissue and therefore that part of your psyche doesn’t regenerate.

If these connections, these forms, are plastic in an ontological sense, then history can act in a way that actually modifies the past in the present.

So Malabou writes about neuroplasticity in relationship to trauma, and her idea is that neuroplasticity continues to be active throughout the life of a person’s brain, and that indeed the very notion of plasticity entails that trauma is in a certain sense productive of being in and of itself. That has some pretty interesting implications for what history is, because if these connections, these forms, are plastic in an ontological sense, then history can act in a way that actually modifies the past in the present. I mean, what if History is not a projection from an arche, but a series of arches that reconfigure their ground?

LH: We know that to be true of memory, specifically episodic autobiographical memories which are recollections of a personally-lived event. Infamously, research on eye witness testimony has shown that memory is malleable, that memory is a constructive or reconstructive process. And every time that a memory trace is activated, the activation context gets re-encoded, reinstated with the original, or changes absolutely the original trace. To know this about consciousness—about one’s conscious experience—is just absolutely terrifying, and kind of exhilarating. In my introspective life, which is sublimated into the writing that I do, it’s all about this sense of being thrown into perpetual uncertainty, or into this space that is in flux. This absolutely paradoxical space. There’s this sense of being multiple.

MEW: Being multiple, or sort of being a revenant of yourself, in a way. Like, you’re haunting your own I.

LH: Yeah, you’re haunting your own self. There’s the spice of that throughout Infinite Citizen, for sure.

MEW: But the thing that you do in the book—I might be wrong, but this is how I experienced the text—is that you kind of take that concept and you enact it in way that exhibits how it can extract a truth about the history of colonialism in Canada. By which I mean to say, if you could think of Canada as an I, that has its conscious narrative, it’s a consciousness that deeply suppresses its traumatic origin. 

LH: Oh certainly, yeah. And I think we’re seeing in mainstream discourse now the irruption of… of the REAL! THE IRRUPTION OF THE REAL! [laughs] The abject real is coming forward and there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance going on. There’s a realization that comes about for me.  All of a sudden it makes sense why one has struggled in life. And it has to do with these really large sociohistorical processes, policies, actions of people who are so disparate from one’s immediate self, in time, and in space. And once you start thinking that way, it kind of makes you crazy, this uncanny collapsing of being. It’s a little crazy making.

MEW: For me also, looking at such unimaginably large historical events and seeing their effects in one person– I totally hear you when you say, “It’s totally crazy making.” Because when you’re a kid and you run smack up into a history that’s bigger than anything than you could ever have agency over, you really start asking yourself where your agency lies. When you turned to science, was that a way of placing agency, maybe, or soliciting it? 

LH: I suppose so.


MEW: In your work the land is really significant and it’s represented in a manner that’s both symbolic and profoundly material at the same time. That strikes me as a means to signify the way that land works, when you’re really in it, when you’re in a rural situation. I mean, in cities, people tend to bracket or forget the land that they are on. They might talk about green roofs but it seems to me that the green roof’s function is that of a palliative for people who are totally disconnected from the land. 

LH: Well, I feel that the city is an entirely anthropomorphized space and all the spatial relations that you have are the result of a consideration of a certain form of human ability: how we move through the world and how commerce happens and how different modes of communication happen. I spent so much of my childhood in absolute wilderness—I don’t mean unspoiled wilderness, there’s a lot of forestry and industry and different sorts of land use and “natural resources”—but to be in a place that is just absolutely wild shapes you entirely in your consciousness. There’s a part of me that always feels like I’m still there, in wilderness. It’s still a part of my reality. So much of my formation of self was done in the forest and at lakes and this comes out in the writing, either implicitly or explicitly. It leaks through.

MEW: Even in the way the text is structured—especially in how the “Hyperboreal” section functions, with the revenant poems, with your decision to include the different possible recombinations of what has come before in the text, and especially when these culminate in the lexical equivalent of a Ring Sample (“Ring Sample: Addendum”). I mean to say, I find in Infinite Citizen a particular modelling of history. The text passes through the notion of the revenant to settle within that of the ring sample, which is a profoundly material and yet synchronic manifestation of the diachronic. In textual terms, I imagine the order of revenant in terms of a palimpsest. The original writing has been scraped away, but its traces remain and appear, subjacent to that which is composed on its own stomping grounds. But a ring sample is very different from a palimpsest. It’s not a matter of hiding, or of vertical layers, and so it schematizes a very different relationship to what has gone before.

LH: In terms of the spatial/temporal structures in the book, I was trying to construct a cognitive ecology that the reader is involved in. The book plays with both lyric and experimental modes and when the reader gets to the end of the book there are these recombinative sonnets, which are like a core sample or like a dendrochronological reading of prior poems, compressed into individual lines. What happens is, it is my hope, that the reader is triggered back to the past while having a new experience of poetry, simultaneously, and this creates a sense of something strange, a disorientation.

MEW: That does happen. That absolutely does happen and I guess that’s why I have this really big question: are you providing a new model of history? I mean, structures are made up, and the general received structure of history is also made up. It’s not ontological, so you can provide new models of it, right? 

LH: My lived experience of deep history is that it is collapsible within the present. And there’s a moment in the poem “North by South” where this sort of happens, where I’m looking outside the window of my mother and stepfather’s house and across the street there’s this huge round stone, called a glacial erratic. The stone was carried by the receding Laurentide ice sheet from its origin perhaps 14,000 years ago. As the ice sheet melted and receded it carved the basins of the Great Lakes and completely mark ed the landscape in Northern Ontario. The landscape is populated with terminal moraines, so as the glacier was retreating it was pulling material along with it, and if there’s a rapid period of melt and then freezing, at the end there’s these deposits. A sand hill is formed, or eskers, which are like snaking land formations, and then there are these huge round weird stones that do not geologically fit in with the geological character of the land, which we call glacial erratics.

This was once an aquatic place, this site where I am writing may have been a site directly under where persons were traversing thousands of years ago.

Glacial erratics are not of the Shield, right, they match the geology of, I don’t know, upstate New York or wherever the ice sheet carried it from. So the stone of the poem has been placed there by this major presence, this being, this ice sheet that dropped it there 14,000 years ago. Then in the poem there’s this experience of the compression of time where I’m looking at this erratic and it has been split into three pieces, because two birch trees had grown up under it, and the force of these birch trees had split this huge—I mean this rock is massive—and these trees broke it, and my mom says to me, “When I was a little girl this rock was in one piece.”

MEW: And that rock has been there for 14,000 years.

LH: Yeah. So the writing comes out of this notion of reading the landscape, and reading everything around me, through a historical lens that is radically collapsed.  I like to sit out on my porch and write, and sometimes I have a sense of, “Right now I’m writing probably somewhere in the former site of Lake Iroquois.” The site of Casa Loma used to be on the shoreline of Lake Iroquois, thousands of years ago, and I’ll think of how this was once an aquatic place, this site where I am writing may have been a site directly under where persons were traversing thousands of years ago.

With what you were talking about in terms of a history or a model of history, Benjamin’s “Angel of History” was very influential for me—looking backwards over one’s shoulder, and seeing things that are piling up, and the angel is always receding—does that sound right?

MEW: It sounds right, I mean, I have a blockage in my mind right now because I always get the Angel of History confused with Hegel’s fucking owl.

LH: Hegel has an owl?

MEW: Hegel has an owl, at the end of everything, it’s “The owl of Minerva only flies at twilight,” he says, or something like that. In other words, knowledge only emerges after it’s too late to have it. I always relate it to something Kafka said, which is that “The messiah will show up when he’s no longer necessary.” I feel like for Benjamin the Angel of History, the prime mover of history, is a little bit different, because he was such a materialist. He never subsumed subject to substance, so History for him isn’t a process where one is going to get resolved into the other. But that’s a difficult stance to take. 

It’s very difficult to hold the material and the symbolic or the ideal in your mind at the same time, but I think that’s what poetry can do. Or really, what poetry as a mode of knowing is. That’s why I think poetry is so important for a culture’s being, because being able to hold those things together in thought is something you can’t really do in scientific discourse and you can’t really do it in philosophic discourse either. Or, if you try someone will get upset with you and call you whatever epithet applies to those they convict of primordial logical fallacy. I think that’s precisely why the bootstrap problem is such a stain on neurocognitive algorithms—because there’s a gap there that you can only approach by thinking poetically, and not in terms of linear cause and effect. It’s that ability to think two things at once, which is the structure of metaphor, which is the engine of poetry, really. So how do you go about doing this? What’s your process of form?

LH:  I used to believe that radical conceptual poetry and like really experimental stuff: that was the only thing that was relevant. I no longer believe that. Or I no longer feel that way. I guess how I write, usually, is I write a big block of text or it might be many pages in longhand in a notebook. I just sit down and it’s almost like automatic writing or like stream of consciousness and I’ll do different sorts of associative things with language.

I would say that simultaneity is something that is core to my approach to things, which is, ‘Everything at one time.’

I’ll insert semantic non-facts, knowledge, things that I’ve learned in the past or that day, I’ll insert some autobiography, some lived-experience stuff in there. Then, in the editing process, I have a corpus, I have a corpse, or several corpses, and I pick: I pick things out of there that seem right to me, that seem to belong together, and then I stitch them up. It’s kind of like making a Frankenstein monster, sort of a revenant kind of creature, and then breathing new life and adding and filling in—trying to fill in some of the gaps. I think that in my book, the pieces called “Standard Time” especially, I’m working paratactically. Parataxis is one of my favourite strategies, and I don’t know if it’s because I truly like it or that I’m lazy [laughs].

MEW: The two are not mutually exclusive.

LH: Or I get bored and I want to leap. I just want to leap between different things. I find someone who does this excellently is Rae Armantrout. During the time I was writing the book I was very influenced by her. She famously writes in very short lines and she’ll quickly jump between different topics or moments of consideration. Often she’ll separate a grouping of lines or stanzas by asterisks, with each asterisk signalling a shift in perception, and it creates this otherworldly sense. For example she’ll purpose a bit of overheard speech, a fact about strange particles from a physics article, and then something that sounds very philosophically introspective, or reflective, and the layering of these things seems so strangely apt after reading.

MEW: That’s a kind of aesthetic and formal rendering of Benjamin’s reckoning of history? 

LH: If you can’t experience everything—you are experiencing everything at one time—but when you’re reading there’s a spatial, a temporal component, so that’s why at the end of the book I have something that’s a refiguring or a restructuring of the earlier poems. I would say that simultaneity is something that is core to my approach to things, which is, “Everything at one time.”

 

Eileen.W.photo


Mary Eileen Wennekers is from the prairies of Alberta. She currently lives and lurks in Toronto, where, as part of the work towards a doctoral dissertation at Western University, she is researching visual perception and subjectivity in the context of modernity, symbolic exchange and the capitalist mode of production. She works as a sessional instructor at OCAD University, and also serves as the Managing Director of Ex Libris, a review of Canadian marginal and marginalized literature that is a part of the Wyrd Arts Initiative. You can read some of her work on the mediation of subjectivity in the open source journal Word Hoard.

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