David Brazil Interviews Marianne Morris
DB: Your text may already communicate all that you wish to express about its soil in biography, but I still have to ask—what brought you to Iran, when were you there and for how long? did you end up learning any Farsi?
MM: I went to Iran for three weeks, in September 2009. The trip was part of a year-long writing scholarship, a project I had envisioned as a means of helping me through a particular stumbling block in the writing process. I just couldn’t see a way out of fetishizing the political other—this was a kind of fallout from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which saw contemporary poetry flooded with piles of foreign bodies. I chose Iran partly because of Bush-Cheney rhetoric that was swelling around the idea of a third world war in 2008, with the aim of going there, being there, breathing there, and trying to understand it as a place separate from the cloud of current affairs rhetoric that I anticipated it would become.
I had initially enrolled for a six-week Persian language course at the University of Tehran, aiming to immerse myself in the city and to get a feel for the workings of Farsi. No reason was given for the failure of my student visa application - the woman on the telephone actually laughed at me when I asked, ‘But how will I be able to attend my course?’ I had been warned that the Embassy could randomly refuse an application, and particularly one of a lone woman. But when I finally did make it to Tehran, three months later, a tour operator told me that almost no foreigners had been permitted to enter the country at that time because the government was anticipating the events that would follow the June election.
Had I been granted entry to Iran during that time, I would have been in Tehran during the June elections and the ‘re-election’ to the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—which was followed by huge demonstrations in support of the opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Foreign media were banned from covering these demonstrations—dozens of protesters were shot and killed by the Basij, thousands of activists were arrested, and there were rumors about torture and rape in jail all over the internet.
So no – no Farsi, sadly! A few little words and phrases. I regret this badly.
DB: What’s the relation between being “cured of memory” & “not [being] capable of forming a future tense either”? How much of politics is a problem in grammar?
MM:I love this question. I have been thinking a lot lately about the correlation between revolution and the future tense, as if material political change depended on the ability to imagine the future, maybe even moreso than working with what’s already there. I think this is an important thing to keep in mind when thinking about Occupy and understanding why it is able to persist, even in the face of brutal crackdowns.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez says that a person only retraces their footsteps when they’re about to die—and I think there’s a certain fatalistic impulse in attending too closely to the past. So the poem that talks about not being capable of ‘forming a future tense’ is a kind of lament about a political subjectivity that isn’t physically engaged, and which I am pretty sure I wrote from the depths of the Iran Democracy Project archives of pre-1980 U.S.-Iranian diplomacy, which as I learned, is where real political engagement goes to die.
DB: In your reading in Berkeley in 2011 you said, “Fuck the ancient Greeks.” Were you thinking of any ancient Greeks in particular? Would you rather root for the Persians? how about the modern Greeks? How about petrol bombs against astunomoi, February 2012?
MM:Oh dear, how rude. I am so not punk. I am actually pretty fond of a number of Ancient Greeks, Plato and Sappho among them. I think maybe it’s just that the Ancient Greek ideal city-state of polis would benefit from a mother. I have been working on a poem for a couple of years now that attempts to address the faulty elitism of polis, the city space which excludes everyone except the male heads of households, but which nonetheless still retains important ideas for contemporary thinking about political engagement (for example, in its conceiving of speaking and acting as equally valuable). And I’m about to contradict myself, but I also get frustrated when I see so much Ancient Greek thought sneaking into modern theory—Jacques Rancière I am looking at you—at least partly because one of Plato’s best ideas in The Phaedrus is that writing is just a little kid who needs its daddy to hold its hand because it is immutable and doesn’t know how to speak to anyone, and the reiteration of Ancient Greek thought in the present time seems like a perfect metaphor for this hand-holding. I have many imaginings about a poetry of live address that can and does know how to speak and who to speak to.
DB: I am really glad to read your response, if only because I am also really preoccupied with thinking through what polis does (or what it can) mean, taking on board (as you observe) the fact that ancient democracies were constituted on the backs of women & slaves. What in other words is the future of a political life that declares that this is not ok? (The bad conscience of our age, still so clearly founded upon exploitation, sneaks back in here.)
“dressed as law / dressed as God—” ; what are the future vestments?
MM:Love and permission.
DB: “literal once more in the foggy protest”—for those of us in the streets or otherwise attempting to engage in praxis where does art stand, in what relation? Or is this a dumb question?
MM:There are no dumb questions. That is a big question. That is all of the questions at once, with bazookas. I can only answer insufficiently. I think I would have to come back to the question of imagining. There’s a phrase from Jürgen Habermas’ Philosophical Discourse on Modernity that I absolutely love: ‘subjectivity liberated from the imperatives of purposive activity’. This is often the spirit in which I make art, and I think that art and protest have something of this in common. All art can be viewed as a form of social resistance because of the demands it exacts on its maker. Artists are usually the ones who are challenging social norms, whether through the statements they make, their structures of earning a living, their relationships with people and with their own work, or more broadly in the way that they see: an artist is someone who pushes on the boundaries of what is acceptable or ‘normal’, and in this sense they push on the boundaries of present tense as well. Protest is a metaphor for this, or they are metaphors for each other. I think that some of the most inspiring art I have seen this year has been on protest signs, which is to say that art can be conceived as a literal form of ammunition: it lends political movements hope, colour, and energy with which they can defend themselves against the grey suck of police violence, corporate collusion, and the creeping feeling that it would be easier to stay at home. The best compliment you can give a writer is to tell them that their work made you want to GET UP AND DO SOMETHING.
DB: “selected omissions publish themselves”—are there emergent now forms of visibility? basically, does the present consist in conditions which lend themselves to things formerly unseen or unseeable, now being seen?
MM:Yes, the present tense of the writing practice is always a re-evaluation of past and (hopefully) a renewing sense of understanding and consolidation. There can never be a sense that any of this is ‘finished’, but there are moments of light along the way. Those are some of what makes the writing process rewarding: an occasional sense that what’s gone before (often seemingly haphazardly) has in some inchoate fashion been an accumulation of knowing. I have been thinking a lot lately about writing as knowing, and in that sense, the present tense act of writing often uncovers or assimilates aspects of the past that did not initially see themselves as belonging together, or knowing how to speak to each other.
DB: “the state of the world on a given day formulated in the press release “—are we amidst a phase change in sociability, in the cosmopolitan, in language, in our experience of time? Do their consolidations have fatally unforeseen consequences?
MM:I want to just say yes, always, because I am not sure where to put a marker on a section of time that would qualify the idea of us being amidst it. But certain aspects of now, most especially the online aspects of now, have changed and are changing our ability to understand the world, not least because the Internet provides a space for the circulation of unofficial but reliable information. If we only read newspapers we would have a pretty messed up view of the world, it’s all partisan, funded, stage-managed. The protests we’ve seen in Russia this year for example have been unprecedented, and this is largely due to the kinds of unofficial information and organisation that the Internet makes possible—if Russians had no means of understanding their political situation other than through state television and heavily mediated radio and print sources, there would be no place to develop that sense of opposition as a collectivity, which is the space that the Internet provides. As for fatally unforeseen consequences, I worry about how such a great deal of our communication, such a very great deal of our self-expression, has been archived through email and social networking by companies. I mean, Google’s motto is ‘don’t be evil’, which is a creepy way to acknowledge how much power ownership of such an archive constitutes.
DB: If dualism was born, do we think it can die?
MM:This is an important question. I think that maybe dualism has means of morphing into something else, but that the division of self-and-other is completely fundamental to subjectivity. I think maybe it only dies in certain experiments that attempt to view the self at a distance, outside of time, maybe the cloud of syntax surrounding the idea of spirit, or in certain perceptions of consciousness, which are usually only visible in brief glimpses and generally impossible to think about as a permanent way of being. Even if consciousness can get away from duality and see the world limitlessly, there is always that snapping back into subject and object. The theoretical notion of difference is sort of appealing to me in this regard, because it says that instead of holding our attention on whatever constitutes a given subject/object, we might be able to look to the things which separate, define, and differentiate them.
DB: Are there techniques to become aware of limit? Can writing have a use of delimiting this edge? (“You can see it—I cannot” said Heidegger to his pupils ...)
MM:‘Techniques to become aware of limit’ should be the title of something. I am wondering whether maybe I want the techniques to become aware of limitlessness, or that I worry that default writing techniques are ones that highlight limit and that the harder thing is to get away from that. I suppose that those things are somewhat equal in being aware of each other. Formal limits are one way of ensuring structure but I don’t think that such constraints have to translate over into conceptual limits, i.e. I think of conceptual limits as barriers to thought, before I can conceive of them as brackets delineating poetic space. I’m not sure that the conceptual and the formal are united in that way. I mean, they have a relationship, but I don’t think that they have to be working together towards the same goal. Form and concept can mock each other, for example. I think that, if writing has any chance of dissolving into a limitless place, then it’s through performance and address—in the breath of reading, and in the community constituted by poetry readings. I had always thought of the one and the many as rigidly separate categories which can interact but remain separate and delimited in their interactions, until I heard Sean Bonney performing ‘Letter on Poetics’ (from his book Happiness), in which he discusses the collectivization of individual subjectivity, and which somehow made me suddenly see the process as alchemical, a becoming, the I dissolving into a many, where the specificity of the I is—not lost—but temporarily transformed into another entity.
DB: “fuck loving what you are”—having decided this, what then?
MM:Oh god. Apocalypso. The disorder of not loving is a permanent revolution, as if you could conceive of your own body at every second as the infinite regeneration of cells into present tense. ‘Loving what you are’ is like having an unhealthy relationship with your own ego. People often talk about each other as having large egos, and meaning that this is a bad thing. But I think that all people do have large egos, and necessarily so, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t know how to put a foot down into the world. Ego, by definition, is large. I think that the Qasida, where that line comes from, is trying to establish a healthy relationship between its subjectivity and its ego—that is, to be able to see where it begins and ends, rather than getting caught up in it. I feel like I go most wrong when I let my ego fling me back and forth, as if I was the pendulum-swing on a metronome, not knowing that I was the pendulum-swing on a metronome. I’d rather be able to sit back and look at the metronome and know the speed at which the pendulum is swinging.
DB: We want to “know not seems,” “strike through the mask,” but what if “seems” seems to be the only route of access to a thing that’s maybe real? Back to use of art & politics of representation, stuck with this tool and no other (apparently) to “access any plurality”—leads to what? Vertigo? Or infinite tact? Or something else?
MM:This is a hard one. It’s very layered. The phrase ‘know not seems’ is from Hamlet. His mother Gertrude is telling him that his grief ‘seems particular’, because he is so cut up about the death of his dad and moping around the castle constantly, ruining everyone’s perpetual day. She’s basically telling him to get over it. He responds, “Seems, madam! Nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’” In other words, he’s defending his grief. He’s saying, I don’t ‘seem’ that way, I’m not just doing the trappings of woe, I am actually cut up about stuff, leave me alone. I wanted to end the poem in this way as a kind of remonstrance or reminder to myself to think about pain that I could understand, and that I could feel. And this was to be a kind of shield against fetishism. I don’t know if it worked, but after I came back from Iran I hit a very low point of depression and illness, which ended up being the beginning of attending to the hurting things that I could reach, i.e. in myself, things that I had not been able to think about previously. And I think that was very much tied up with the fact that the aim of this trip was getting closer to a something, so as to be able to feel it in my own body. The writing is maybe a transcription of this movement. What I mean is that there is no seeming route through to the real. There is only a direct line of feeling. Everything else is...well. Performance. AND BUT WE NEED PERFORMANCE. Because, of course, Hamlet is also an actor...
It seems to me that where I had been going wrong in the poetic construction of my subjectivity before the Iran trip was in perceiving plurality as something that could be ‘accessed’ at all—when really I should have been thinking of it as a becoming—a present participle! A GERUND, no less! So indeed, it’s as you said earlier: ‘politics is a problem in grammar’.