Oana Avasilichioaei explores the infinite social, political, intimate possibilities of language through poetry, translation, and sound work. Her five poetry collections include We, Beasts (2012, A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry), and feria: a poempark (2008), and she has translated five books of poetry and prose from French and Romanian. Her own work has been translated into French, Spanish, Slovenian, and Portuguese, made into a documentary on poets and orality (Spain 2015), reinvented into video poems (Thierry Collins, 2008, Jessie Altura, 2011 and 2015), and set to music for soprano and violin (Adam Scime, 2015). Her newest collection, Limbinal (Talonbooks 2015) is a hybrid, multi-genre poetic work on notions of borders, and her latest translation (with Ingrid Pam Dick) is of Suzanne Leblanc’s The Thought House of Philippa (BookThug 2015). She lives in Montreal and has given many readings/performances in Canada, USA, Mexico and Europe. Please visit her personal website for more information.
Erín Moure: I just want to start by congratulating you, Oana, on your new book Limbinal, whose covers hold a plethora of texts: visual poems, translations from Paul Celan’s early poems in Romanian, and conversations, all alongside poems that are extended movements, works that are almost orchestral, written in English but also in French and Romanian. For me, the book offers very deep and resonant work amid languages, and with language in the world.
I think the book is really incredible in its textures, density, and resonances, and the way it repeats and takes up key vocables anew. As well, I recently attended two performances of your work from the book, and was astounded by what you are bringing to the performance of poetry. It seems to me that in each performance, you’re creating a new work of literature, aural and alive, from texts that are already riveting works of literature. And although you use a lot of technological supports, your poetic performance isn’t pre-recorded, isn’t like watching a film already made: the aural poem is something that you’re actually enacting and creating on the stage in front of us, with us. So I have some questions, mostly about the relationship between the book and the performance.
Oana Avasilichioaei: Happy to discuss these concerns, Erín, and I am glad you raise the question of the relationship between text and performance.
EM: We’re accustomed to thinking of text as linear, and of poetry as linear but also as layered, acknowledging that it has several layers of meaning, if you will, or meaning-effects, as I always call them. In your case, with the poetry that you’re performing, it’s not simply linear and layered once it’s voiced, but spatialized—it’s occurring in a space that we inhabit during the creation of the work. What are you exploring, in terms of spatializing poetry? What, for you, is the relation between space and volume on the one hand, and the poetic text on the other?
OA: Reading a book is already a multi-sensorial experience: there is a visual aspect, but also a sound aspect, because you read and imagine sounds in your mind even if you are not reading out loud. There is also a physical sensation because you are holding an object (whether book or tablet), so while the meaning of the text might be linear and layered, there is—even with the book—a multi-sensorial embodiment of the reading experience. So my desire to create a dynamic and multi-sensory experience live comes partly out of my experience of the book itself.
Initially, I began feeling dissatisfied with just standing before an audience and being a singular voice, simply reading the published page. It felt as though I wasn’t actually transferring the more embodied sensory experience of the book to readers, to audiences. I was in fact shrinking its volume. So volume and spatialization are really key words to this work.
In preparing the poems for performance, I’m trying to consider the sound, the words and markings on the page as spatial phenomena, and how they interact with and are further spatialized by the presence of my own body on the stage and presence of the technological tools (pedals, machines), which are very mechanical yet become prosthetic extensions of the body. I think of their cables as akin to veins, the concreteness of the machines as gestural presences, so their physicality is very important to the performance, because it creates a more embodied experience than if I was just standing in front of a computer that was playing a pre-recorded text.
The machine-body link helps create a relational space, and within this space the performed poem becomes a kind of “phonotope,” that is, literally, “a place of sound.”
EM: In thinking about my experience of your performances, I would describe the text as aural, because we hear it, as visual because we see text moving, although not always the same text that you are performing with your mouth and vocalizing, but also I see it as visceral because we see you in motion as you are working on the stage. You are an actor or agent, with all these technologies in your possession, which you possess and that possess you. We see you turn and extend your arms to the theramin, we see you making certain motions with the mixing board and other effect pedals; you are lit by the screen, on which there is motion. There is a kind of musculature to the gestures you share with the machines that we in the audience recognize as being both human and prosthetic, and thus new to us. I think about some dance performances too in relation to this—which is partly why I was considering that this poetry is not layered, but invokes a density and articulates a volume that is sculptural. I find the performance of this new poetry to be what I would call an immersive experience, which despite the incredible density of the language is not difficult to enter, because we are already in it. So I’m just wondering if you can respond to these ideas.
OA: I really want to explore what it means to be immersed in language, to explore how you can take something that begins in a point but then shifts and begins to encompass an entire space, so that the source is enlarged and ripples outwards three-dimensionally. The sound-space relation is critical.
EM: 3-D, yes, or 4-D, with time.
OA: Yes, you are right, four dimensions, because time is also a crucial factor. In “THRESHOLDS,” the piece you experienced, I experimented with an undulating, flowing structure, in which the aural fabric, made of words as resonances and sounds as words, is dispersing and coalescing, and thus enabling constant movement in and between the dynamics of the audio and the visual textures, which creates depth.
As such, it was crucial that the visual projection (which was created by collaborator and media artist Jessie Altura) also have depth and motion, in which things can break apart and come together. And the same goes for the sound. Yet because between image and sound, in the piece, there is no perfect synchronicity, because there is an oscillation between moments when the audio and the projection are working in tandem and moments when they are not; there is a space created, an inhabitable space. This is the architecture of the poem as performance.
EM: It definitely does create space for the audience. And time shrinks! The twenty minutes of “THRESHOLDS,” as someone said that night, takes about eight minutes to go past.
I like this idea of dispersing and coalescing, which is part of the whole pulse of the piece. And it’s a surprising pulse because, as you say, sometimes things are synchronous and sometimes they aren’t. That’s why we can really inhabit that kind of space. There is not a breakdown but an opening.
OA: Yes, though there is disjunction as well. Because what you are seeing and hearing are not the same—you, as an immersed being, need to decide what kind of connections or disconnections you will make between these sensory inputs. So the performed poem, or phonotope, demands the audience’s active presence. When you, as part of an audience, feel that you are active in an experience, then it becomes more spatialized, because and to the extent that the experience, the poetry, is being embodied, and not just by me, but by you.
EM: Definitely the language in the poetry and the performative whole of the work seem to require our senses and embodiment, and the result is reverberative. The process leaves the poems open, yet there is still a strong narrative in the poems, a strange narrative, almost like a pirate movie, of borders and boats and relations between people that are strained or relations that are in the process of being lost, in which people find each other but are also in the process of losing each other. That’s what I’ve taken away as a spectator, and as a result, I’m wondering if you have any expectations or any plan for the audience? In your ideal world, what would an audience take away from one of your performances, or from the performance of this poetic work?
OA: I definitely would like that the audience undergo an “experience,” particularly in relation to this poetic work, which circles around notions of borders. I think that a border, rather than being a sort of line that has two sides, is much more complex: it’s a space in constant movement, change, evolution, and, whether it’s geographic or cultural or physical, it keeps evolving over time. A border is in perpetual motion depending on the people, culture, and political forces at work on it. I want to render this concept of border physically, so as to create a space for the public that can then—maybe metaphorically, but also viscerally—re-present these kinds of borders …
EM: And confront them, too … or acknowledge borders!
OA: Yes! That’s why, for instance, in both the visual and audio movements, there are linearities: there are visual lines onscreen and there are aural progressions that are also akin to lines, and these lines break apart and then coalesce with other threads.
EM: The result is that the work creates a sensation of the spectator being immersed in a space, in spatialized language, and borders swirl or move in response to sounds and lexicon.
OA: Exactly. There’s something else that’s crucial for me, in relating to the language per se and to my live vocal rendition of it. I want to play with and examine where it is that language moves into sound and music, and where it is that music moves into language. In “THRESHOLDS,” I experiment with this a bit, but I would like to keep working to push this further and further.
EM: That leads to my next question, which is where will this exploration lead you next?
OA: I aim to experiment further in these phonotopes with ideas of reverberation, disintegration, trace, and transformation. One way is to affect the voice in various ways so that the sound of a word not only reverberates but the sound effects break it down and transform it into something else. In the poem, when you first hear a word, it has a denotational meaning that you can grasp, but the sound of that word then leaves a trace that keeps degrading. In this way, the word is also a musical trace that degrades and keeps changing over time. What you first hear is different than what you hear ten seconds later, which is different than what you hear ten seconds after that.
I’m really interested in this quality of degradation and disintegration, but I don’t think of it as a loss; I want to think of it as a trace that can be transformed into something else. I don’t want to think of it as a remnant, but as allowing something else to emerge.
EM: So it’s a constructive process. This trace, which was once linguistically and semantically full, is something that mutates and becomes constructive of something else. Is that what you’re exploring?
EM: That’s really interesting, as well. Could you talk a bit about aspects of your practice that were early influences on this work that you are doing now? Limbinal is your fifth book, so you’ve been at work for a while. I am wondering about things in your earlier practice that might have influenced your current explorations with sound, language, becoming language, becoming space, and I want to cite two things that I, having known you for a decade, could cite as origins. I remember one of the first times that I heard you give a poetry reading, at a conference in Brandon, Manitoba about ten years ago. It seems to me that your readings were very performative then, and you often performed your poems from memory, and rather long poems, too! I remember thinking then that there was an influence in your practice from the spoken word tradition or scene which has been so strong in Montreal, though your work did also exist on the page in all its complexity; it didn’t require the performance to work as poetry.
OA: Its subject matter was very different than that of spoken word at the time, as well.
EM: Yet it was work that was already a kind of crossing of borders. Essentially, you were there on stage, a decade ago, performing poetry without the substrate of paper, without hanging onto the book, and this reminded me of spoken word. Secondly, I think of your work as a translator, which you’ve been engaged with since the very beginning of your poetry practice, and which this new book, Limbinal, obviously evidences because there is, in it, as well as your own work, a mini-book of work by Paul Celan, translated by you. So I refer to translation here in a very traditional sense. In short, were spoken word performativity and translation in any way starting points for you? Did they help lead to this new work?
OA: Oh, yes, absolutely. An early starting point was definitely when I began to memorize my texts. My intention with that was, among other things, that it made the work more live, more risky and vulnerable—I could forget lines or words and have to improvise in the moment, and the work as such could change as it was performed. But also, I think that speaking the work from memory made me listen more, and that it makes others listen more. I really wanted to become a better listener at the time and doing these new performances now is an even more intense listening experience for me. The stakes of listening are really exponentially expanded because the work, and here I mean “THRESHOLDS” in particular, is a kind of structured improvisation. At different points in the performance, I have different choices open to me in the moment, and the choices I make are based on what I am hearing. For instance, if in a certain part I want the audio texture to be dense and full, I need to listen and add more certain sounds (whether with my mouth, or with one of the tracks or effects) to reach that density. If, on the other hand, another part requires more spaciousness and minimalism (but in the moment is very full and resonant), I need to remove elements or slow them down or silence them.
Translation is definitely another early influence. In transferring a work from one language to another, one necessarily points to, and has the trace and feeling of, at least two spaces, plus an in-between space that exists between the two spaces, all tied to the fact that there’s a change, an evolution in progress, which is still a reverberation of the initial text. Translating has made me think about the act of language itself as reverberatory, evolutionary. And sound work in poetry has made me think differently about translation. For me these are generative approaches that nourish the work and from which I keep learning how to continue exploring the potential space and sound of poetry and the poetry of space and sound.
Erín Moure writes in English and Galician and translates poetry from French, Galician, Spanish, and Portuguese into English by, among others, Nicole Brossard, Chus Pato, Rosalía de Castro, and Fernando Pessoa. Her work has garnered the GG, Pat Lowther, and A.M. Klein Awards; was a three-time Griffin Prize finalist; finalist for the Kobzar Prize; and also has appeared in short films, theatre, and musical compositions and songs. In 2014, her Insecession, a biopoetics, was published alongside her translation from Galician of Pato’s biopoetics Secession (BookThug). In spring 2015, she launched Kapusta (Anansi)—a play-poem-cabaret in French and English, a musical with a marionette mom and sock monkey daughter and many cabbages: an outcry against genocides.