[photo courtesy of Clay Banes of Small Press Distribution]
An Interview with Norma Cole
Robin: You were born in Canada Norma. I understand that you lived in France for a time. What made you leave, and how did you find your way to San Francisco?
Norma: Actually my husband wanted to go back to Toronto, so we did, and eventually split up. The West Coast looked very interesting to me, especially San Francisco, culturally, politically; so we (my son and I) came out here. At that time he was just about to start first grade, and I wanted to be in a place where we would want to stay—for a while, at least. Thirty years later, we’re still here.
Robin: In “A Tonalist Thinking,” Laura Moriarty writes about “a creation of a poetics in a poem” and about wanting “to make explicit the world of writing Norma and I (and Jerry [Estrin] and others) occupied together.” She discusses the absurd beauty of the Central Coast of California and writes,
“about the work of painters whose sense of the light in California I had always admired. I thought they were called Tonalists.”
Moriarty describes how she and her husband Nick Robinson stopped to see you in the hospital (you had had a stroke) and that to her description of “tonalist,” you replied “yes.” She goes on to compare the conception of A Tonalist to the pre-modernist group of painters from around the turn of the century and says that, “the movement was said to be characteristically American.” Laura also links A Tonalist to atonalism or atonality in music such as Schoenberg. Can you talk a bit about what your “yes” meant then and how you see A Tonalist in relation to your own work?
Norma: My “yes” then meant I could muse about something that was not involved with my having a stroke. I was in the hospital, couldn’t talk, walk or use the right side of my body. It was such a relief to see Laura, hear what she was thinking about—and I am always interested in the armatures people think about or towards.
I had been involved with thinking about Schoenberg, listening to his work. Reading about Schoenberg’s “Pierrot lunaire,” and also about the Committee of Mothers of Russian Soldiers, I then wrote a little “song,” a passacaglia to/for both:
I saw shells…
… that were bigger than I was.”
Journalist, Chechnya, 8 March, 1995
Rhythms are precise, the
in front of the sun
Night is scored for
Come in trains to take
Worldstruck, with an instrument
Night, gift and theft
(Contrafact, Potes & Poets Press, 1996).
Possibly it’s an “a tonalist” poem avant la lettre.
Robin: Two other things about a tonalism as an aesthetic practice or framework that interest me: 1) What is your sense of the importance of a group categorization or a named poetics for the work of individual writers and for a body of work? What work does such a label do or what advantages and perhaps disadvantages might adhere to it?
Norma: Because I don’t imagine myself adhering to a label, and can’t quite even imagine myself, I can’t say what works or doesn’t. I link to people, their writing, some dead, some living. Affinities. As Laura would say, and I would concur, a tonalism is about friendship, love, not style or label.
Robin:2) I’m also interested in the link to nation that Laura cites with regard to the Tonalist painters. Some contemporary Bay Area writers are very much interested in subverting or interrogating the category of the nation. For example, while there were anthologies in the 1980s such as In the American Tree that make explicit reference to nation, there are other writers, such as Nathaniel Mackey, whose editing of Hambone articulates a project that might be said to explicitly refuse nation as an organizing category for poetics. As a transplanted Canadian with close ties to both American, Canadian and French poets, what’s your take on all this?
Norma: Affinities. Nationless. Here I’d like to refer to Giorgio Agamben’s quote which I’ve made use of before:
“What the State cannot tolerate in any way, however, is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity, that human beings co-belong without any representable condition of belonging….” (Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, Trans. Michael Hardt )
Robin:While we are on the subject of A Tonalist, Norma, I also want to ask you about your visual art work. You both write and paint. Much of your poetry is attentive to the space of the page, the array of visual elements–words and typographic or diacritical marks (in “Rosetta” in the book Moira or the poem “Spinoza in Her Youth” from the book of the same title, for example). The poems often reference painting and color. What is the relationship of one to the other for you?
Norma: From my earliest years, I always drew and painted, and I always wrote, mostly poetry. And after studying French, started translating poetry. When I began to be in touch with poets, I started to write more, paint less, a question of time. I didn’t lose my interest in painting, I came at it differently, still drawing, sometimes painting, taking photographs, involving my writing with visual work, whether with others (e.g. Jess, Amy Trachtenberg, Ben Watkins) or with myself (e.g. Scout, Collective Memory, etc. and the typographic or diacritical marks you mention). I think about color, space, placement and so on, using diction, space, moves from the visual artists’ palette. The cross-border writing/painting “interferences” or references are paramount. At times, I still begin a work not knowing whether I will draw or write, starting from the same “nowhere.”
Robin: You’ve worked collaboratively with a variety of writers and artists including Michael Palmer, Jess, Amy Trachtenberg and others. What is pleasing and generative about this process?
Norma: You become startlingly aware of your “habits,” your practice. You can then try to change course, follow different tracks, traces. At times, you become one with the other person for the duration of the work; so you become another being, a dyad.
Robin: You were close friends with Robert Duncan and Jess, and also Fran Herndon, the artist whose collages accompanied Jack Spicer’s Golem. At the same time, you’ve maintained friendships with Claude Royet-Journoud and Anne-Marie Albiach, whose work is very different from the San Francisco Renaissance writers. How have you been influenced by these disparate traditions? And what is the relationship, for you, between one’s social community and one’s poetics?
Norma: Although one’s social community is a different map from the poetics map, with overlap, one might take on other experiences, incorporating them into one’s poetics. I am not always aware of influences, but I’m sure they are there.
Robin: How important is community for you now as a writer?
Norma: The community of poets is very important for me. I did not know how important it was until I went to Montreal to live in 1994. My husband, Rob (Kaufman) had gotten a job teaching at McGill University, and we didn’t know how long we would be living there. Much of the chapbook Desire & Its Double (later becoming a section of Spinoza in Her Youth) was written at that time, including the sonnet “Portuguese rose, winter’s rose,” (another “song”-like figure that will be part of my Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988—2008, City Lights). The poem starts,
I want a heart-shaped coffin, said
the song, a guitar shape how it
happens a person comes to the door
and says work makes the space where
we live a contraction of time
not to be seen is to be dead…
I would go, in the afternoons, by myself, to a little repertory cinema near the University. I remember seeing a few times the Wim Wenders film, Lisbon Story, which, with the gorgeous soundtrack by Madredeus, its fado, becomes a part of the fabric of the poem. Another a tonalist move. Or movie.
As it happened, we stayed in Montreal for nine months and moved back to San Francisco.
Robin: You were in the San Francisco Bay Area during the “poetry wars” and after them. What was that time period like for you? How were you involved or not in these contestations?
Norma: I watched some of it from the sidelines. Because I didn’t become involved with “the scene” here or there—I came to San Francisco a little too late for that—I was not really engaged with “contestations.” I was reading, writing, and above all taking care of my son, Jesse. Once I became involved with folks at New College (1980 on), I felt at home.
Robin: You’ve also done a fair amount of translation work from French to English. How do you approach the project of translation?
Norma: With particularity. By that I mean I approach each work differently. Sometimes I come to the work, sometimes it comes to me. When I talked informally about translation at Suzanne Stein’s a few years ago (“Why I Am Not A translator”), and then talked more formally at AWP (“Why I Am Not A Translator, Take 2”), I stated that I was not a translator, that I dealt with translation from the perspective of poetics, as a subset of poetics.
Robin: Can you talk about your recent site-specific gallery installation, Collective Memory, at the California Historical Society in San Francisco, which was part of The Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives fiftieth anniversary and very much about community. Collective Memory opened on December 11, 2004 and ran through April 16, 2005. I loved your “House of Hope, in memoriam Montien Boonma 1953-2000.” This three-dimensional piece consisted of 426 quotations from a variety of writers, artists, philosophers, filmmakers, etc that were printed on something that felt and looked like canvas. Each strip was suspended from above and created a kind of “house” of floating text that visitors could walk through or slip their hands into. It was very moving. Boonma was an artist from Thailand. Did you know him? Could you also talk a bit about his art?
Norma:Boonma died in 2002. I became aware of his work when Laura and Nick brought me the catalogue for his retrospective in New York, which then came to the Asian Museum in San Francisco, where we went to see it. As well as being attracted to the materials he chose to use, I felt his compassion and mindfulness in the sculpture, in the drawings. When Steve Dickison, Director of the Poetry Center at SFSU, invited me to do “an installation,” I wanted to make a book you could walk inside of, a book you could feel, touch. Where the human scale changed. I decided to make a tribute to Boonma, patterning my “House of Hope” somewhat after his. His “strips” were strands of prayer beads made of small variegated herbal medicine balls. Mine were quotes from an assortment of people (poets, philosophers, things I’d read, overheard conversations) from twenty years of keeping notebooks.
The other parts of the installation, both engaged with the nature of memory, the future-past, were “Living Room circa 1950s,” another place one could settle, and “Archive Tableau,” a wall-mounted piece. The living room was defined by two periods of time: one, putting the room together from scratch, from an imagined version; and then seeing what would happen in it, to it, involving myself as “the working poet,” being in that room every day. The living room appeared, it was a place to which many people came for 5 months, and then, in a day we shut it down, it disappeared.
Robin: I want to ask you about two life experiences or circumstances and their relationship to your art. For many years, you were, I think, a single parent, raising your son. What challenges and rewards did this situation provide for you as you sought to produce both visual art and poetry? Then, in 2002, you had a stroke. What impact has that experience had on your work?
Norma:I can only say, about raising a child, having a stroke, teaching, being in a community, having colleagues and friends, that I’m affected by experience, my experience, your experience—my writing is affected by experience at every moment. It will be layered, sutured written experience.
Robin: You also teach as part of the University of San Francisco’s Master of Fine Arts Writing Program. This semester you are teaching a course on Visionary Poetics. How does teaching impact or not your own creative process?
Norma: I like the lively interaction I have with students as well as the effort I put into the class. Any interaction or reading produces energy that will go into the making of my work.
This interview was conducted from January to February 2009 via email.