Interview With Rusty Morrison
WG: Rusty, I'd like to begin by talking with you a bit about BOOK OF THE GIVEN. Can you say a little bit about the conception of this book, how the idea for it came into being?
RM: I began working with quotes (script) from Bataille in the "scripted" poems of BOOK OF THE GIVEN by writing 'into' his lines of text. This gave me an exhilarating, sometimes frightening sense of vertigo and implosion—I felt my language falling into the text and I often lost my 'balance' in the process. But that lack of balance was what compelled me, even enthralled me. I found that my ideas about sensuality were, in some sense, ravaged and renewed in by writing those poems. The intimacies, the very personal experiences, that I found it necessary to examine as content for the work challenged and changed me. I began the work believing I understood where my thinking diverged from Bataille's. But, as with all serious writing projects, I came away realizing that my previous understanding was simply a threshold for deeper work. In both the scripted and unscripted sections, I wanted to enlarge, to examine, to undermine, to challenge my conceptual relationship to "the other," to "otherness." The poems address a 'you', which I understood to be the lover, but also I felt myself speaking to Bataille, and to the reader. This sense of 'other' continued to confound me, haunt me, and force me to constantly revise the work so that my uneasiness with this material could come forward.
But really, the poems tell this better than any summary explanation I can give now. In the poems, you can find the ways that my relation to the erotic is enlarged and enlivened by my writing 'within' Bataille. I suppose I carry those poems with me into intimacy, or I should say that those poems still carry me into the expanding space that is the erotic. The two texts of his that I used were Eroticism and also The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge.
Also, I was reading Roslyn Diprose's The Corporeality of Generosity: On Giving With Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas, which does not reflect upon Bataille, but does offer a provocative counterpoint. Diprose views the nature of generosity as corporeal, and in so doing disrupts/contravenes the commodity-based notions of 'giving', as practiced in an exchange economy. And, for me, she brought into focus Nietzsche's definition of justice: the creation of identity and difference without debt. In retrospect, I can say that I see her work as influencing much of what you will find in the "unscripted" poems. Because of my appreciation of her work, I chose to quote her in the BOOK OF THE GIVEN's epigraph. I appreciate her reminder to me of Nietzsche's caution (which is included in the epigraph), that in attempting to create justice between self and other, there comes the expectation of equivalence, and one is tempted to assume sameness, which would be like "deliberately and recklessly brush[ing] the dust off the wings of the butterfly that is the moment." It was, at least in part, her text that allowed me to see that my struggle with 'otherness' involved my desire in these poems to avoid forcing an expected "sameness" upon the work, to force an expected interpretation upon the 'you'. I wanted to speak without creating a limited, preconceived frame for the work, but rather to let the possible evolve in the writing itself.
WG: I'm interested in your comments about the influence of Diprose's influence on you while your were writing BOOK OF THE GIVEN? You obviously had a plan in mind when you began working with Bataille's quotes— which I'm assuming did not originally include DiProse. To what extent were you aware of Diprose's influence on your writing of the "Unscripted" portion of the book at the time? Was it something that you purposely left yourself open to at the time? I guess what I'm asking more generally - because your work seems so carefully controlled—is how frequently you find that something you are reading at the time bleeds into a project that is already in progress?
RM: Actually, I didn't have a plan in mind when I began working with Bataille. I tried many variations of a formal process—and I'd intended to use more of Bataille's language in my poems. But I was unable to follow even the rudiments of the idea I'd had at the outset for the 'scripted' poems. As I began to write, the form evolved. But, at some point, it seemed to gel and then I could move deeply into the work. This is also true of the "unscripted" poems. I picked up the text by Diprose because of her chapter on Nietzsche— I am always on the look-out for new discussions of his work. I was stunned by the ways that her book impacted my project with Bataille. I found her work to be essential: without her, I don't think I could have written into Bataille and honored difference in the poems. I initially hadn't any plan to have 'unscripted' poems, but writing them let me bring my sense of Diprose into the project most directly. So, you are correct, there is much "bleed[ing]" between what I'm reading and what I'm writing, much sharing of blood in any project of mine. I am often swept up by spontaneous surprise when I'm reading, which leads to some sudden shift in my work. I love constantly reconstituting, allowing the improbable to change the possible.
WG: Your latest book, AFTER URGENCY, is deeply personal in a different way from BOOK OF THE GIVEN, yet like that book the control that you exhibit in the overall structure and in the almost aphoristic tightness of the individual lines is apparent to even a casual reader. How is it that you are able to maintain the discipline to accomplish this with such an emotional subject?
RM: You are very generous in your assessment of AFTER URGENCY. Thank you. I think the best way to answer your question is to talk about how the project evolved. In the past few years, I've written a great deal about death, and how my experiences in dealing with the deaths of my parents have changed, enlarged, amplified my relationship to the natural world.
I was in the room when my father died. Then a little more than a year later, my mother died and I spent a long time with her body. In both experiences, I had an uncanny sense of being "still alive", while in the presence of a corpse. This sensation amplified my experience of every object in the room, and amplified my sense of the silence that seemed to be the material interface between the living and the dead.
I began to find that same sensation of amplification in nature, and then I worked to cultivate its meaning in poems. I wanted to break through the common order and logic of my language use, to break through the easy language that comes from my culturally inflected beliefs about what death means to me.
A few years ago I started reading Michel Serres. His phrase—that "every form is draped in an infinity of adherences"—began to haunt my writing process. This occurred first when I was writing AFTER URGENCY, and has continued to be an essential impetus for me. Still, when finding my way forward in a poem, I can't forget that an infinity of adherences are present, are draping the ideas that evolve into a formal sentence. I wanted to push my sentences past what I think of as the first layers of attention, the adherence that I am used to. This seemed the right practice to use, to find a way to write toward the shift of perception that my experiences of death seemed to suggest to me. Of course, it is impossible to find, but pressing the sentence farther gave me a sense of the uncanny and that felt true to the form I was endlessly attempting to disclose.
WG: In addition to being a poet, of course, you are one of the founders and publishers of Omnidawn Press. For those unfamiliar with Omnidawn, can you describe its basic mission? Or perhaps asked a different way, why did you feel the need to become a publisher?
RM: My husband Ken Keegan and I began Omnidawn in 2001 because of our conviction that small, independent presses are essential: they disseminate fresh, lively, culturally pertinent and provocative literature. We believe that a society needs many small presses so that widely diverse ideas and points-of-view are easily accessible to everyone. As Italo Calvino tells us "… the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language." Ken had wanted to begin a press for years, but we never had the money or time. But in 2001, we realized that there is never enough time or money to begin a project like this—if we waited until if felt safe and secure, then we'd never do it. We so plunged in, aware of the precarious nature of the business, and we've remained wide-eyed with excitement and fear!
Since 2001, Omnidawn has produced chapbooks and full-length collections in the genres of poetry, poetics, translation, and fabulist fiction. We are currently publishing 3 to 5 chapbooks year, and 10 to 12 full books each year. All of our books are designed to align with the writer's vision for their work. In addition to our print editions, we now offer a twice-a-month web magazine: OmniVerse. In it, we publish reviews and features of writers who are not published by Omnidawn, It's our way to bring attention to other voices and presses.
We took the name Omnidawn—"omni" (in all ways and places) and "dawn" (the first appearance of natural light)—because it is our hope that our books will offer many opportunities to awake to differences that engage the mind and inspire both courage and compassion, as the works participate in the constantly evolving conversation that is literature.