I’m perhaps not the best reader of Nicole Brossard’s new book of poems, White Piano, first published in 2011 in French as Piano Blanc and translated for this 2013 Coach House Books edition by Erin Moure and Robert Majzels. I’m not a translator, I don’t read many poems in translation and I tend to be disappointed by “innovative” poems. (I put “innovative” in quotes, because it isn’t that I don’t like innovation in poetry, but that my sense of the “innovative” style is that “sense” is deliberately, frustratingly elusive.)
But Nicole Brossard is a French-Canadian lesbian feminist, and my poetry-reading soul will always reach out to lesbian-feminist poets. Brossard is also a novelist and essayist who has published more than thirty books since 1965, including These Our Mothers, Lovhers, Mauve Desert and Baroque at Dawn. She co-founded La Barre du Jour and La Nouvelle Barre du Jour, two important literary journals in Quebec. She has won two Governor General’s Awards for poetry, as well as le Prix Athanase-David and the Canada Council’s Molson Prize.
Over the years, I’ve encountered and treasured quotes from Brossard, such as this one: “To write, for a lesbian, is to learn to take down the patriarchal posters in her room. It means learning to live with bare walls for a while. It means learning how not to be afraid of the ghosts which assume the color of the bare wall.” (The Aerial Letter, trans. Marlene Wildeman) I read White Piano with a sense of fear and bare walls. The poems puzzle me. They are like beautiful objects to gaze at (like paintings), and to listen to (like music), and they create an attractive place to stop and think. I’d like to learn more about the poems, so I asked Brossard a few questions.
Ms. Blog: How would you describe the poems in White Piano? How are they “innovative”? Have you always written “innovative” poems, and if not, how did you begin to write them?
Nicole Brossard: Since my third book (1968), my poetry has been transgressive, abstract and sensual at the same time, focused on my fascination for words and the act of writing, the pleasure they give and their impact on us. Lesbian desire and feminist consciousness have changed the rhythm, my breathing in language, and brought new images, a new intertwining of prose and poetry if I think of books like These Our Mothers, Lovhers or Surfaces of Sense. White Piano, which comes 30 years after those three books, seems special to me in the sense that it unfolds in variations and resonance between pronouns and persons. I wanted the book to create a streaming of feelings, stories, places (Venice, Berlin, Ciudad Juarez, L.A.) and virtual meaning that connects with the disorientation it implies to surf both on the old humanist civilization, the feminist-lesbian cultures and the young one of the new technologies which have changed our relation to time, space, “our body, ourselves”.
The Poetry Foundation remarks that your work “explores feminism, desire, and their connection to the structure and flexibility of language.” Believer reviewer Kate Zambreno describes your work as “lyrical descriptions of lesbian desire coupled with a continued meditation on language. Brossard conflates writing with lovemaking […] the poems forming a grammar of desire, like a diagrammed body.” Why have you “coupled” lesbian desire and language? Have you found lesbian poets who have written in a similar vein and inspired you?
Poetry is by itself the result of desire shaping its music and its echo in language. Lesbian desire is a space of sexual attraction but as well an open space for imagination, utopia and the acknowledgement of the other woman as a subject. The magic of that desire is the exploration beyond the usual patterns of roles. Throughout centuries, language, the symbolic and the imaginary have been imprinted by male subjectivity in all fields of life (mainly on genders and sexuality) so it is normal to seek through language a place to question the symbolic, the imaginary, the value of the feminine and the masculine (also in French grammar) but as well a space for a new posture of desire, a vibrant reservoir of positive images of women. In the ’70s and ’80s, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, for example, wrote beautiful love poems and Monique Wittig with Sandy Zeig proposed a brilliant Brouillon Pour Un Dictionnaire des Amantes.
White Piano is full of beautiful lines that I love, such as “exposed to all the winds of harmony, and the void.” I found myself dwelling on certain lines that seemed to tell me how to read the poems, such as these lines:
know how to slow down
or figure out how
the inside of someone can shift
to reign freely in the form of petals
another day streaming
phrases dawn-fresh without error
But I’m not sure where my careful listening to lines will lead me. Do you have a place or thought, other than the beautiful sounds and phrases in the poems, to which you are leading readers?
The French poet René Daumal wrote that: “Prose tells you something, poetry does something to you.” I write with “the emotion of the thought and the thought of emotion.” Both of them need each other to propel language into a new dimension. Poetry is a language that brings you somewhere else. You cannot negotiate or argue with a poem, it takes you or not. If you like it then it will bring you as far as your imagining dreaming being can go or will allow itself to go. Poetry is definitely a place where you have to let go of “straight” meaning. It dismisses the usual, the obvious and the norm. Poetry is made of intuitive certitudes shattering language before reentering in it with the subliminal consequence that meaning is being renewed on the side of life, for short or long term.