[I don't know if anyone of you read this interview in which Ron K. asked me some questions about Aase Berg so I am posting some of it here, as it answers more questions I think than what I just did in my previous post.]
Johannes Göransson Interview: Question 1
RK: For those not familiar with Aase Berg's work: why Aase Berg?
JG: In her first two books you get a powerful, cinematic experience (in the second book, Dark Matter, this is really pushed to the limit). It's an experience of what Steven Shaviro, writing about the movies in his brilliant, Deleuzian book *The Cinematic Body*, has called "visual fascination": "Visual fascination is a passive, irresistible compulsion, and not an assertion of the active mastery of the gaze." And elswewhere: "visual fascination as a restless, shattering mobility." It's a poetry that explodes the control, the mastery, that rational gaze that is idealized in much of art (especially poetry); it's the antithesis of the pervasive idea that if our art should provide us with enough distance so that we can somehow approach it logically, an approach which comes out of the naive fallacy that art is part of an illusion we must free ourselves from.
That pervasive insistence on freeing ourselves from the illusions is ultimately based on a utopian idea of a kind of primeval communism, in which we are not alienated and interact honestly. A load of crap. And always xenophobic: the foreign, foreignizing, strange is suspect. Another thing that is great about Berg's work is the way the Swedish language is seemingly constantly breaking down and being reshaped into a kind of foreign language. It is both Swedish and foreign. (What Deleuze and Guattari would call "minor literature.") Strange neologisms and permutations proliferate.
Also, I should say that my cinematic analogy is not arbitrary. Aase started out as a member of the wild and unruly Surrealist Group of Stockholm, and one of the major original influences on Surrealism was Andre Breton and Jacques Vache sneaking in and out of movies, an experience that left Breton "charged." Further, film – especially B-movies, horror movies, zombie flicks - are a big influence on Berg. In her second book, Dark Matter, she is more explicit about this (she addresses her lover as "leatherface" from Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I think more than the violence and hallucination, what she gets from these B-movies is the powerful combination of estranging cheapness and visceral power, confusion and bodily reaction.
It is related to the quote from Dodie Bellamy that I posted on my blog a while back: about the influence on gay pornography on her work. I think it's a similar dynamic of alienation and viscerality. The body is central in both poets, but it's not the body as "the authentic" or "true" but the body as both alienated and visceral. To provide another American point of comparison: We can say that Plath's (and Plath was of course a huge movie buff) speaker in "Lady Lazarus" subjects herself to the gaze of the peanut-crunching crowd, dreaming of destroying the gaze; Aase's poems fulfills the dream (eating men like air), blowing up the gaze, opening the bee box. We are enswarmed.
RK: A few places on line, including Action Books' website, have excerpts from Berg's essay "It's not acceptable to be a fatso" (first published in the journal 90Tal, number 3, 1999). Here she writes that she values the "aggressive, baroque and esoteric" and that she laments that "the fleshy, screamy and overdone...are so taboo in our culture." I remember, also, you using (in an email to me a long way back) the term "fat surrealism." Berg's surrealism seems to me to be the "fat" sort. Care to talk about Berg's particular sort of surrealism and surrealism in general? Where she stands, in this regard, to her contemporaries and predecessors? I wouldn't mind hearing you comparing her "fat" surrealism to Simic's "soft" (Silliman's term), but as you wish.
JG: To begin with, Aase joined the Surrealist Group of Stockholm when she was around 20, and she kind of grew up with that group as her major artistic influence. She was 30 when With Deer was published, so she spent many years engaged in activities with this group before publishing, or even writing, the book. The group is a quite notorious group in Surrealist circles: very extreme, very motivated, very dynamic at times. This isn't Surrealism as a few literary devices- the way someone like Simic has used it (if you ask Simic he'll tell you that he doesn't like Surrealism, though it was an important influence on his work) - and not avant-garde as a literary or artistic or
academic mode, but a group for whom art is not autonomous objects but a process of oppositionality. So Berg's artistic learning took the shape of vandalisms, trances, protest, happenings and the like. It's a really interesting group; not a mere re-creation of Breton's ideas from the 1920s, but also influenced by Situationism, Foucault and contemporary thinking. However, Berg left the group in the mid-90s at the time she started publishing her poems, in part I think because she didn't subscribe to their increasingly militant views.
In Berg's manifestos and essays there's a very interesting emphasis on the body - what Masson called "physical idea of the revolution" or what Bataille called "the bloody farce". There is more focus on the administered body than the unconscious/ego dynamic. In part it's important to view this in the context of the Swedish welfare state, which is a culture based in large part on an obsession with the healthy body. One of the first things the Social Democrats did when they were voted into charge was to make sure everybody got healthy -that everyone knew how to exercise, how to practice healthy sex, how to take virile camping trips etc. How to make them "hard" bodies – not surreal, strange, foreign, leaky, repulsive etc - in other words. But
it should also be seen as part of the obsession of our global capitalism culture - ideal body images, Vogue Magazine articles on the best sexual positions, dieting etc. These two often join in Aase's work: sex ed and tanning beds are on the same page in a lot of ways.
Joyelle and I used the term "soft Surrealism" rather as a response to the macho rationalism of Ron's statements. And this goes back to my earlier statement about the naivete of the anti-alienation ideas. Ron is very much a rationalist. Distrusts the visceral and the confusing. His way of dealing with this is to split the world into hardness and softeness, the serious and the frivolous, the illusory and the true. A very binary, reductive worldview. And I would add, that this is no separate from his pervasive distrust of the foreign, the translated (even the British poetry!). I am in favor of the strange, the stranger, the foreigner, the homosexual, the wimp etc.
RK: Translation's always a difficult, tricky and delicate matter. A piece of any language of any complexity simply can't be "brought across" exactly as it is in the original. Since you've translated other writers as well as later-career Aase Berg can you tell us what was particularly and uniquely difficult about translating "With Deer?" What sorts of tough decisions did you encounter and what sorts of compromises did you have to make? And because of such compromises what hasn't come across in the English as much and/or as well as you'd like?
JG: On translation: A lot of people in the US have problems with translations. They're scared that they're not getting the original. But you're never getting the original. No ultimate reading is available. A lot of folks have trouble with translated poems because they sound strange. Of course they do, they are foreign. This foreigness is key I think, because it reveals the artificiality of all language and literature.
Part of what makes Aase's poetry great is the way she makes the Swedish seems foreign, she "minoritizes" it to use Deleuze and Guattari's terminology. The most obvious example she does this is by doing strange neologisms which make the reader aware of how weird the regular compounds words are: marsvin = guinea pigs = (night)mare pigs; nackrosen = water lily but also nude rose (with all of its fetal associations).
RK: You mentioned "visual fascination" earlier and that the poetry in this book "explodes the control, the mastery, that rational gaze that is idealized in much of Art." The book is certainly an onslaught, being swarmed again and again by Lemurs. But one might say that what keeps it (the book, the experience of it) from being completely blown apart, what allows it to maintain "integrity," is that the heroes of the book (in spite of the relentless assault against their bodies, mostly their bodies, and selves) continue to strive-- "you and I, with your soft wax skin and our love." And the book ends on a upbeat note: "Now it is time for the cutting to slowly start to heal." So, one could say that the onslaught, the persistent horror, is just style, style in abundance, overabundance even, and that the substance or gravity--the real heft--of the book comes from its tiny soft-white core. Or is the end of the book a mistake? A cop-out? Or an author's lie? A fake-illusion? Can it really be the beginning of healing? Your thoughts, please.
JG: I suppose you can read the ending of the book as optimistic. However, in difference to the typically arched poem, I would say there is not a conflict resolved in epiphany. Much of western poetry over the past few hundred years follow that paradigm: the broken becomes whole, or - to reference Joyelle's and my "Manifesto of the Disabled Text" – goes from disabled to "healed". Instead here we have damage after damage after damage. There isn't really progress or even narrative; mostly it' s a matter of addition: this happens and this happens etc. There's not causality.
That very last line, while not ironic, sounds insufficient to me, overwhelmed by the melee that precedes it. There is also no stable core, no sense that "this is reality" or "this is the way the worldworks"; therefore it's hard to say what is optimistic and pessimistic. And if there is no ultimate stability, there can be no healing (which means returning to an original balance). It's also important to note that it's the "logging" (the dismemberment) that is going to heal, suggesting that it may be more about getting ready for another "drubbing" than becoming a "healed" individual.
I don't think it's a sad or depressing book; rather, it's an ecstatic book. It's the ecstasy of dismemberment (of body, text, language). The "characters" tend to be frail but ecstatic. They're also not really characters, they don't have any interiorities. They are not any more important than any other object in the book. The "logging" or "drubbing" space of the poem is not brought beneath the rule of characters with interiorities. It's the space, I suppose, more than the characters that is ecstatic...