Write a Poem / Make it Weirder
Donato Mancini interviews Dorothy Trujillo Lusk
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Donato Mancini: The poetry in your most recent book, Ogress Oblige seems related to various vocal forms, literary and non-literary, from schoolyard doggerel, to song, to soap-box rants, to the kind of nonsensical vocalizations made in the throes of rage or pain. Is that why you evoked the noisy figure of the ogress to frame it with?
Dorothy Trujillo Lusk: I initially saw the figure of the ogress as being mean women I didn’t like, but then I decided to take it on again, as some people have taken on ‘nigger’ or as feminists in the sixties took on ‘cunt’. Myself I’d like to take back ‘cunt’ as a term of pejorative rage, I want to make it bad again, to call people [growling] ‘You fuckin’ cunt!’ But ‘ogress’ was originally applied to women I was pissed off at. So in Ogress Oblige I took on myself the expectation of the ogress, what ogresses must do etc. For me it’s the scorned mother figure, the scorned female. In an earlier essay I called it ‘the mother as a site of surplus values’. It’s its own nexus for a lot of goofy shit.
Is the ogress an anti-mother figure?
No, not really, it comes from having people cease to see you as sexually desirable. A really good friend of mine named Sarah Perry, who had her child a bit before me, put on masses of weight when she became pregnant, as did I. Afterwards, she wore this giant t-shirt, this skateboarder’s tie-dye swirl and really held her lane on the sidewalk. She didn’t get out of peoples’ ways just because she was no longer small and cute. She went into this sort of fuck-you raging thing. She’s the ur-ogress in a way, for me. She bestowed that t-shirt upon me for my pregnancy.
I also read Ogress Oblige in terms of wickedly tight knots of tensions — semantic, political, verbal, formal...
My earlier writing from the mid-80s, in Redactive, was a deliberate writing at cross-purposes to how people expect a poem to continue, in terms of received forms of poetry, or in terms of whatever’s current in the theory-mill. What I really enjoy doing is taking a lot of the currently loaded terms and buggering around with them, mis-using them to confound that kind of easy accessibility. Ironically, most of my friends who are involved in art-criticism and high theory are actually quite keen on it. It was meant to confound them as much as everyone else, and to be deliberately not easily teachable. (Marjorie Perloff apparently taught my work in her classes. I wonder how she did that.)
Who else did you read?
There are wonderful Canadian writers that I’ve always been interested in, some people who are actually friends now, like Maxine Gadd. Maxine Gadd and Anselm Hollo were the two biggest influences in terms of writing. And Ed Dorn, you know, who unfortunately went into disfavour due to some coke-addled remark he made about AIDS being retribution for homosexuality. There’s not much of a way to recuperate after that, but his writing was fucking great! My oldest friend Kate Van Dusen, got a copy of Gunslinger and we used to read that out loud, as we read aloud Rhinoceros by Ionesco.
Christian Bök raised an interesting point about influence, in an interview recently published in Brick; he was expressing a frustration that many bpNichol admirers ‘reread him to the point of exhaustion, without finding a way to use such a predecessor as a springboard to something new in the same genre’.
When I was living in Toronto Barry Nichol was still alive – and this applies to others in his circle, like Chris Dewdney and Steve McCaffery – it seemed to me that the audience saw them as being so up there that they wouldn’t bother trying check out what these guys had been reading, what they were referring to. When we got Chris Dewdney’s work we’d go check out the references. But there’s this cultishness where for the audience-guy it’s just [in a male voice] ‘I don’t know what it means, but wow !’ instead of trying to work closely as a responsible reader. You just make it more interesting for yourself by trying various ways of reading, and reading other material. I could hope everybody who reads Charles Olson will read Carl Sauer. Part of the Olsonian project as a reader is to read his library, so why not with these guys? Why not give them the attention?
With the way you chew up bits of Pound etc it seems sometimes that you’re going back and attacking the writers of the past.
I’m not really attacking them, I’m more replicating my own idiosyncratic reading of them, the things I pick up on. Mostly I’m writing around people who have been mean to me. I’m trying to show how maybe I tend to misunderstand things or misconstrue things or tend to foreground certain things.
I think that’s still in vogue.
O fuck yeah! It’s turned into a post-punk slacker ethos.
The work ethic is perhaps now directed more towards making it no work for the reader; writers work very, very hard to make it easy as possible the reader.
Well I’m willing to do that in essays, as mine tend to be anecdotal and yappy, they’re not the most difficult things in the world to read. I think that’s only fair, cos I’m not trying to prove myself smart at the reader’s expense. But with poetry it’s different. I don’t know if it comes out of protestant work-ethic or what it is but I still get pissed off if it seems to me like someone hasn’t put enough effort into their writing. Also true with the ear; the musicality you mentioned. It pisses me off when things thunk when I don’t think the writer’s aware of it, cos they’re not listening to it, cos they’re just looking at the words, and going by syntactic or semantic things. A lot of so-called Language writing sounds like shit. Sound allows writing another dimension.
So are the poems composed slowly?
I used to compose really fast, cos I used to work a lot, but you know I’ve had a kid for the last 12 years. I don’t really have the necessary time for the condition of reverie, that kind of spacing-out into foreground/middleground, that necessary precondition to any creative act. And I’m too fucking exhausted from all the fucking harang that goes on in my household. I’m not blaming my kid, but she’s very high-strung. She’s the product of myself and her father and we both come from a very shallow gene pool in the Ottawa valley of Scotch-Irish Protestants. It’s no wonder that all of our family are stunted with depression and weird hard-wiring. So it’s not a blame thing, it’s just how it plays out. I don’t get it done as much as I used to. I don’t work slowly cos I want to, I have no choice. And I don’t think my recent work’s as complex or as interesting as I would have wanted it to be, cos I haven’t really had the depth of attention, that really close, kind of paranoid-psychotic, state of attention.
Is it important to you that your work be contextualised as ‘radical’ vs other currents in writing?
I don’t give a shit. If there’s some way that a reader can enjoy it, whatever it is, whether it’s reading it aloud and saying ‘Boy, this stuff’s stupid!’ or ‘What the hell’s that supposed to mean?’ That’s one way of enjoying it, although no one wants to be dismissed out of hand.
There are some ways of being dismissed that are desirable.
[laughs] Yeah, there are certain ways that are more ok than others. But I’d be quite striken if the type of work I do became so mannered that it became just a mainstream tendency. It worried me a few years ago when I felt the kind of work I was doing really was it’s own mainstream. I talked to Deanna Ferguson about this, how we’d be in the middle of writing something and we’d come up with something and just say [loud] ‘O fuck!! That’s just the fucking kind of thing I would write!’ You start feeling dead.
A painter friend of mine who loves your work, loves it much to his surprise, because it doesn’t give him what he calls ‘poetry blisters’.
[laughs] Another term I’ve used is ‘first person soporific’ O, that ‘you are a house of bone’ stuff is sort of banal and creepy at the same time, which isn’t a great combination. Other poetry that I guess gives me poetry blisters is the stuff the ‘I’m so sensitive in a better way than you are and I’m going to show that off’ which is an eternal trait of the snobbish lyriciser.
Are you writing primarily as a political act, or out of a politics?
Yes, definitely of a politics, but it’s primarily an act of pleasure. For quite a while within leftist political streams there was a real proscription against anything that was of pleasure, in and of itself. This went into conceptual visual art as well. Just the act of painting wasn’t good enough; you had to come up with a whole apparatus in order to justify it. I think of the much-dismissed Sunday-painter: good for them. That goes for writing bogus poetry as well, it just depends on what you want to do with it. That there can be writing as act of pleasure, and writing as an act of testimony. Kevin said in the mid-eighties, when we were at our most hard-headed, that that kind of writing is never going to be eradicated, nor should it be. I mean, we cannot merely theorize into our field of apprehension the testimony of people who are writing through political horror and rage, regardless of whether or not they’re aware of the language as it’s used. Fuckin’ fine!
I hope this isn’t a bizarre question in an interview of a poet, but why poetry? More so than Redactive, the poems in Ogress Oblige seem to show a hostility to their own medium.
Poetry wasn’t my chosen medium, really. I went to art school, and I was really more interested in art restoration. I wanted to go into art restoration cos I saw this movie when I was a kid called Don’t Look Now, really a kind of stupid film. What was interesting was that this Donald Sutherland character was helping restore palaces in Venice. I found that really fascinating. There was one place in Canada to get that education, Sir Sanford Fleming in Peterborough, but when I was a teenager I’d dropped out of high school and married, but my husband didn’t want to go to Peterborough. He wanted to come to Vancouver to study genetics with David Suzuki, but he ended up going to Victoria to study astrophysics and creative writing with Robin Skelton! [laughs] He didn’t stay, he quit. And he told me I was too much of a bumblefuck to go to University, so he said ‘Why don’t you go to art school, any damn fool can get into art school.’ And so I did, first at Camosun, then Emily Carr. At Camosun they were mostly mentally-ill or incompetent. One guy was going through a marriage break up, the other guy had just got laid for the first time in his life, and the photography guy, while quite competent, which was a blessing, couldn’t teach us anything aesthetically. He’d just say ‘Well, do what you want, just make sure it’s creative.’ [laughs]
So you didn’t write with a vision of it ‘going somewhere’.
No, I didn’t. I felt that it could go somewhere if it played out that way, but I didn’t expect it ever would. Kevin wanted me to submit stuff to magazines, and I thought: no fucking way! But I have the most ridiculous luck as a writer. People solicit my work, and always have done since Lary Timewell Bremner put together a chapbook for me. He sent it all over the place, distributed it wonderfully. Since then people have always asked me for books, or for contributions to magazines.
You stumbled into the role.
I did. But it was because of wonderful friends like Lary Bremner, and Kevin Davies. Really, I do think that people need the support of other writers. I can’t imagine the horror of sending things off to magazines over and over and over again. You read interviews with writers and they say it’s just something you gotta get used to. I’d just about die, wouldn’t you?
You were happier with the final version as it turned out?
It didn’t actually go into the published book. I’m so fucking disorganised I sent out the wrong disc with an earlier version on it, and that’s what got published. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I thought [scared] ‘I think I sent the wrong version off to Dan Farrell at Krupskaya!’ I saw Dan the next day and said ‘Dan, Dan, I think I sent you the wrong version!’ He said ‘No, no, no, you sent the right version, don’t worry’ and Aaron said, ‘Yeah, you sent the right version.’ But Aaron read it later and said ‘You were right.’
You said you wanted to talk about your friend D.M. Fraser?
The thing about Don Fraser is that he was a very fragile person, you know, alcoholic, and whatever diseases of birth he had. I think it was cerebral palsy, but we really didn’t know. He was a wonderful, wonderful guy. He was in the Ph.D. program at UBC. He was one of the few people in Canada who was allowed to bypass the Master’s program and go directly into the Doctorate program, which is quite common in the U.S.. But he dropped out because he fell in love with the quasi working-class guys at Pulp Press. I addressed him directly in the poem Oral Tragedy. [The line: ‘Then last week he relegated his wit’s end to a grubby fifth in the cellar. Not interesting & missing Don to get it’] cos Don would always get my stupid jokes, even though it was beneath the other guys’ radar. To D.M. Fraser, the first poem in Ogress Oblige, has the subtitle ‘Rich in Russia, and owed wot an Etruscan earned’ You see Don wrote this book, Class Warfare, and he said to me [excited whisper] ‘Don’t tell anyone Dorothy, but I’m rich in Russia!’ Somebody translated Class Warfare into Russian, and it was a huge best-seller in Russia. And he said: ‘The only problem is, I’m rich in Russia and you can’t take the currency out, so I’d have to go to Russia. It’s all in roubles.’ I just thought that was so fucking great. He’s dead now, so I can tell that story.
So it was a happy irony after he quit the Ph.D. that his work so successful in Russia and in Canada.
Yeah, but he was too fragile to actually go to Russia. He should have been able to get there, but he didn’t. Our bearded, Stalinist book-seller Bill Hoffer managed to get to Russia. He at least got to go to Russia, and got married and stuff, although he’s dead as well. Anyway – and this is what the Etruscan line refers to – our last public appearance in Canada before going over to Italy was to go to Don’s funeral. Where Kevin and I lived in Italy was one of the main Etruscan areas, Umbria, which is a landlocked, central area of Italy. We lived was about 22km from Assisi. What I really liked over there were all the Etruscan things that survived, and I also really liked that their language wasn’t translatable. There’s something still really mysterious about the Etruscan civilization and language. So I was fiddling around with a lot of Latinate goofiness and this poem, although it was only published a few years ago, it was started when Don died, which was in ‘85, when we went to Italy. I hope that when this film gets made [a film on one of Fraser’s short stories is being made by the film-maker Pat Harrison] people read his books again, cos his books were once in every leftist bathroom in all of British Colombia.
Jacket 18 — August 2002
This material is copyright © Donato Mancini and Dorothy Trujillo Lusk
and Jacket magazine 2002