Anne Kawala is a French experimental writer and performer. Her work defies genre on and off the page. Anne Kawala is the author of six books, including F.aire L.a F.eui||e (f.l.f) (2008), De la rose et du renard, leurs couleurs et odeurs (2012), and most recently Au coeur du coeur de l’écrin (2017). This spring Canarium Books published Screwball (the indispensible lack), translated by Kit Schluter. The book includes diagrams, prose, photographs, xeroxed pages from other books, lineated poems and composition by field, and, at the end, a forty-page research notebook composed by the main character in the story. I spoke with Anne at the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam where we talked about her background in visual arts, her latest book, and the (then forthcoming) English translation of Screwball.

Laura Wetherington: You did a masters degree in visual art and now you write books. How did you move from visual training to writing?

Anne Kawala: There are two answers. First, I got my masters degree in presenting dance performance. Just after that, I applied to Le Fresnoy (a movie school) but didn’t get in. My parents helped me by buying a small studio in Paris where I started to write because of a lack of space. I started to really write after I finished my degree and my teachers said, “Well, we knew you were a writer already. “ And I said, “What is your point? You could have told me before and I would have gotten further along more quickly.” But I had to find my way. That led me back to performance practice by another path: reading my own texts — which brought this question of site-specific installation into writing itself, through performed readings. I often write a specific text for a performance and for what I know about the audience, the country, or the theme of the event…. like the text you heard yesterday here in Rotterdam…

Iris Jack…

Yes! And the second answer: I learned how to write from the Internet. My father resold computers and his store was connected to the internet in ’93; so I started to chat with people. I remember I invented fake jobs, like being an agricultural inspector. I think the beginning of the narrative side of my work was from…

Chat rooms!

Yes! At this time I also learned to build personal computers and I learned Word well enough to teach it in my father’s store…and to play with images and texts together on the page. I was a bit sad because visual poets make beautiful images but they don’t say anything and sound poets make very beautiful sounds but we can’t read them. So why is visual poetry not a score for sound poetry? I am starting to combine them.

A thousand times yes. You’re thinking about a visual poem as a score for a sound poem.

Yeah. That’s what it is.

You mentioned these site-specific installations and how, when you’re invited to perform, you write a text specific for the audience or region, and I wonder if you can talk more about how research informs your practice. Either historical or archival research…

Yes, I do research for writing, but for instance, the Iris Jack text that I read yesterday came from the last time I was invited to Amsterdam. In the hotel, just after the reading, all the lights on the second floor were lit, all the rooms were open, but there was nobody anywhere. I was amazed, so I snuck around and found a letter to Iris Jack on a desk. In that hotel each guest got a personalized letter. So I didn’t know Iris Jack, but Iris Jack is real. I tried to find her on the Internet but there are too many Iris Jacks…. I couldn’t check them all. I turned this narrative into poetry and Iris Jack became a character who let me speak about something that happened to me which I didn’t want to say was happening. It’s not in the text, but at the same time…The ghosts are here.

What about Anne de Bretagne? In the first poem in your new book, Au cœur du cœur de l’écrin, you talk about standing in front of her heart reliquary, an object that’s partly historical and partly art. How did that come about?

Maison de la poésie de Nantes under the direction of Magali Brazil commissioned me, among others, to write about the gold reliquary that held Anne de Bretagne’s heart. I didn’t know anything about this object nor Anne de Bretagne. Her name was familiar because I live part time in Nantes where her castle stands. I thought, “If I don’t know who Anne de Bretagne is while her name is still famous in Brittany, what is our history education missing? If that teaching was incomplete, was it because of regional pride?” Rapidly, I started researching and understood the question was more about the place of women in history. The other question involved the box, which reflects both the Medieval and Renaissance time periods. How did two eras mesh in the same object? It was also bizarre to imagine her heart in a box. The more I discovered, the more I wanted to know and that’s how it became this book crossing a large part of medieval history — and continuing until present day in Japan. In Japan right now a young girl might possibly be the next Empress, but it’s not allowed. So the question is: can they legally put her on the throne, or is their line finished? One of my favorite stories took place in Italy during the thirteenth century. The doctor Trotula of Salerna wrote two books about medicine for women like giving birth without pain. Later, those books were reprinted with a man’s name. It was incredible that it was possible to have this knowledge in the thirteenth century and only now do we get to that point again. There are so many things we don’t know about the Middle Ages and how women were powerful, really powerful.

This makes me think of the powerful woman in the book Kit Schluter is currently translating to English, Screwball (the indispensable lack). Is this a theme in your writing?

Of course yes, but I’m very upset with that idea because as women we are ascribed this position of being female, yet when we empower ourselves we just get put back in the female category. In France some years ago, Le Printemps des Poètes, a national celebration of poetry, had the theme “Couleur femme.” I still don’t understand what that means. What is the woman’s color? Pink? Red as our periods? A national event, what a pity. Empowerment is a part of my work to refuse l’assignement. I’m writing from my experience — who doesn’t — but I’m not assignée in the female position. Nobody can summon me to be only this or that. It’s the same question for people of color and the same question for poor people. What if we asked people to speak on behalf of poor poets? If we asked, “What is poor poetry from poor people?” It’s obscene. I’m just tired of that old man, white man, rich man who writes poetry where women are muses. We still hear that kind of poetry which is, like, I don’t know, a certain romantisme rechauffé.

Warmed-over, yeah. It’s like you just microwaved the Romanticism. Well, I love leftover pizza, but I really think I see what you mean. I eat my pizza cold.

Yeah, it’s better.

Can you talk a little more about the Screwball book? For an English speaking audience who will soon be able to read a full collection of your work, what will they encounter?

They will find a story about a hunter-gatherer woman. They will find dreams written into poetry in between narrative parts. At the end there’s a collection of research I gave to the hunter-gatherer woman as if it’s her notebook. The story is in the near future. I met an editor-publisher who said it’s not science-fiction but trans-fiction. Trans as in just after now, something like transportation from now to now plus a few days. I really like this idea. And it reminds me of the post-patriarchal science fiction, so trans-fiction for me is more general and I feel comfortable with that because I want patriarchal society to die but I put a mask on my…

Right—this whole idea of being assigned a woman’s place…

Yes, so the story is about this woman and she has a big, big, big huge car…

Hummer™

Yes. ™. Cha-ching. She puts everything in there: a boy, a baby, and a dog—a female dog — Dzeta. She wants to visit her love; I don’t say son amour or son amoureuse, I want it without gender and French doesn’t permit that, so I put “her love” in the book. Her love is someone who lives in China in Xingping. She wants to go from Qaanaaq in Greenland to Xingping in China. I’ve been to Xingping but not to Qaanaaq –I chose that place because it’s a palindrome. She wants to go to Xingping through the North Pole and she makes a… you can’t hear it…

Reader, her hand is making an arc…

…without going through Russia or taking a boat, but the ice cracks and they start to move on an iceberg. After that you just have to read it.

An English speaking audience will have a sense of who you are as a writer from this book, but what’s missing? I mean, you’ve written many books and if a person only reads this one book, what things should they know about you as a writer that isn’t here?

In Screwball there is visual poetry, sound poetry, narrative, fictions, and the beginning of research with the notebook. In general, I have a lot of different kinds of writing, and this book combines all the elements, but my first book and my most recent one are traditional collections of poems. F.aire L.a F.euille is visual/sound poems collection with an underlying chain-link structure. Au Coeur du Coeur de l’écrin, from Anne de Bretagne’s heart box, has been written in a more classical style — with a recurrent oral pattern. My next book is about pleasure and desire and being here during this festival was very important for me because it’s the first time I made a performance about this question and the feedback was very, very interesting because I think I have to be more explicitly political about this question. One of my favorite ideas is to write fake romantic poems from old men…

…Rechauffée…

…but like a caricature, you know, “This woman was so beautiful in the light déshabillé…” How possible is it to fake a bad patriarchal poem?

I like this. So you’re constantly trying new things and trying to make…

…but I’m also writing many things at the same time, even if I don’t have time. I’m working on poésie critique. Criticism poetry. For one or two years after my degree, I worked as art critic — and traditional art criticism was so boring. Poésie critique is the idea of writing poetry in response to the art piece, from what you feel and not what you have to say about art history. I was pissed off by criticism because you have to justify what you’re feeling with art history and I don’t want to do that, you know?

Yeah, you’re an artist not a critic.

Yes, but I can be a critic because I have the background so I can talk about an art piece. But what I read when I read criticism, art criticism, it’s all the same all the time. Like, if you want to say it’s good, it’s very easy. You just point out some art history and that’s all. The work is good because you can make links between different parts of art history. By doing that, you just start to build a wall in between what you feel and the art piece… So poésie critique is a work-in-progress where I’m writing about theater, contemporary art, books… I don’t want to have to choose one medium…

It’s like a very free art critique.

It’s something like: “Criticism is dead and let’s just do something else.” Aby Warburg’s works and his way of thinking — making connections between different objects — is inspiring for me. We have to renew history, art history. We could start by highlighting women artist’s works. The point is also that art criticism makes money and critics have some power to make artists succeed or fail with their judgments… and I’m really upset with that.

In a recent interview, you said there’s a way to teach poetry or teach creative writing, but this idea of a system of teaching creative writing doesn’t make as much sense to you. You’re teaching in something like a squat now where you get together and discuss writing, but it’s more like a discussion. Did I understand that right?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Two things here. What works for me in fine art schools is that the students come with research, and I give them tools and places to search next, and I can have this external point of view of their work so I can give them feedback and that’s the discussion. I think discussion is the more important part of teaching. John Kinsella said something two days ago like, “It’s poetry when I speak.” I think orality is really important for my poetry and teaching. It’s part of my poetry because it’s happening all the time…. At the same time I think technical tools are very important, but maybe more important is to learn how to build your own tools? So maybe a good school for teaching writing should teach history, philosophy, literature, art, and I can imagine very different things like permaculture, woodworking, computer science, dance and you choose what you want for learning and just for nurturing yourself inside and outside, preparing yourself to think with different paradigms, and make art after that.

So this was your teachers saying, “We knew you were a writer all along,” but you were taking your permaculture classes. Your idea of the perfect creative writing school, would it be the same for a visual arts school, the same kind of process?

Yeah, kind of, but there would be some programming with the tools. There is no perfect place for learning. It’s just a cyclical process. School is just a tool. A big tool. And you have to learn to make your own tool in that big tool for experimenting in real life.

 

Laura Wetherington‘s first book, A Map Predetermined and Chance (Fence Books), was selected by C.S. Giscombe for the National Poetry Series. She has a chapbook just out from Bateau Press, chosen by Arielle Greenberg for the Keel Hybrid Competition. Laura teaches in Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program.


 

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