Archives, Tactility, Performance, Visuality: An Interview with Jordan Abel / Amaranth Borsuk and Sarah Dowling

Jordan Abel (Nisga’a) is the author of The Place of Scraps, Un/Inhabited, and Injun, which received the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2017. On August 15th, 2018, Sarah Dowling and Amaranth Borsuk spoke with Abel about his new work, his relationships to conceptual writing and the digital humanities, and his visual and performance practices. 

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SD: Jordan, I was wondering if you wanted to start by telling us about your manuscript that you’ve just finished, NISHGA.

I’m working on a book about intergenerational trauma, and the legacy and violence stemming from residential schools, specifically as it’s impacted me, and my father’s and grandparents’ generations. It’s a book that’s very much in response to questions, interviews, and comments on my other work. There were some questions that people have raised about The Place of Scraps and why that book is focused around the materiality of Marius Barbeau’s book Totem Poles, and then there were questions about why I work with public domain western novels in Un/inhabited and Injun. It turns out the answer to both of those questions are interrelated and have a lot to do with my experience of indigeneity, specifically my experience of dispossession from both Nisga’a territory and Nisga’a knowledge and family. So, this book is very much an artistic project that responds to questions that began in my other works that, for whatever reason, need further responses.

SD: Is the new work quite similar stylistically to your prior projects, or are you moving in a new direction, now that you’re drawing from a different kind of archive?

I think there are some stylistic similarities, but I’ve been thinking about this project primarily as a creative non-fiction project, not necessarily a poetry project or a conceptual project. On paper, I think the book draws heavily from The Place of Scraps. Photography plays a huge role, and there’s a lot of things that look like concrete poetry, but I’m not sure if I would describe them that way. I think there’s an artistic trajectory there but it is no longer conceptual, anyway. But it does use found, familial, archival documentation. I have a number of documents written by various people that the book uses as a primary text.

SD: So, it’s still very much archive-based and very visual, but it sounds like a hard turn away from the way you’ve worked previously.

For sure. And I think that’s probably in part because of the kinds of archives that I’m working with in this book. It’s no longer the deeply problematic, settler colonial archive that I felt a need to disrupt or dismantle in some way. It’s now a very personal archive that has shaped my life and my understanding of myself in relation to indigeneity in particular ways. So, there’s a different kind of engagement with that archive.

AB: Would you say that when you’re working with conceptual projects and the kinds of archival materials that you have engaged with previously, it’s a different type of relationship to the materiality of these texts that’s driving you, and that’s why conceptual approaches were useful to you? Or could you say a little bit more about that distinction between your approach to working in these two different types of archives?

I would definitely say it’s a different kind of relationship. Particularly with Barbeau, as I was working through those texts and learning more about how he interacted with Indigenous peoples—particularly how he interacted with the Nisga’a Nation—I definitely felt that disrupting that narrative was of primary importance. That it was a goal in part to intervene, to redirect, and to pull apart in some cases—and that relationship persisted to all those western novels as well. That the relationship was a difficult one to traverse and that it was deeply uneven to begin with.

The main difference for me is when I’m thinking about the familial archive, many of the documents I’m working with there are documents that were really helpful at different moments in my life—in understanding what my family’s relationship to residential schools actually was, how deeply the violence that started in those residential schools has impacted me, and how disconnected familial relationships became because of that violence.

AB: Something Sarah and I were talking about when we met to frame our questions was the status of conceptual writing right now and its somewhat freighted position in contemporary poetry, at least in the United States, where it is often positioned against identitarian or personal work. It sounds like your relationship to conceptualism has something to do with its subversive potentials or its capacity to undermine existing structures. Do you think that conceptualism has a very particular place in contemporary practice—that it’s good for some things, and there are other things it can’t touch or can’t get near?

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, particularly because this is the first book I’m writing that isn’t in some way conceptual or doesn’t have any conceptual mechanics within it. As a result, I’m also thinking about the reasons why I turned toward conceptualism in the first place and have also turned away from it. I think both of those things have to do with the other things that have happened in American conceptualism. I wrote The Place of Scraps and Injun at very similar times; I wrote them within about a year of each other, and this was before a bunch of those controversies fully erupted. Although there were lots of people critiquing [Kenneth] Goldsmith and [Vanessa] Place and those types, [the critiques] hadn’t fully come to fruition yet. So, my interest in writing the books I did was inspired by the kinds of conceptual creativity that were out there.

Likewise, after all that controversy happened, I’ve had to reevaluate my personal relationship with those texts as well as publicly position my work in relation to those texts and against those texts. As a result of doing that, I’ve really come to understand my writing as not so much being purely conceptual or fully invested in that school of conceptualism, but instead very much based in an interest in indigeneity and intergenerational trauma, with conceptualism being a very useful tool in certain circumstances to talk about these positions within indigeneity that are actually really difficult to address. I found my interest in conceptualism has always been very partial, and there are certain aspects of it that I find extremely useful. Like in The Place of Scraps, for example, those moments where I erase Barbeau are not just about erasing Barbeau. They’re also about articulating a kind of Indigenous presence that has been deeply shaped by Barbeau’s anthropological practice and colonialism at large as well. And those articulations become sharpened by using those conceptual tools in a way where, if I were to write about that relationship in some other way, I think it wouldn’t have the same characteristics or might not be as strong.

AB: This makes me think about when we were writing our review: we talked a lot about how the use of conceptualism in your work melds form and content in a way that’s profoundly affecting. So, what you were just saying about using erasure to draw attention to a silencing of Indigenous voices and the shaping of Indigenous voices by colonial structures—the way you go about that conceptually really helps the reader see and understand what you’re doing. It feels like the conceptual structure there is effective in a way that other approaches might not be.

Yeah, absolutely, I would definitely agree with that.

SD: It seems that another thing that conceptual tools allow for, at least in your use of them, is that you’re able to define a particular body of work in order to respond to and analyze it. In The Place of Scraps, that body of work would be Barbeau’s, but then in Un/inhabited and Injun, you’re able to gather together this entire corpus of western novels and respond not only to what they do individually, not only to the western as genre, but to an entire structure of thought that they exemplify. And I think you’re right—it’s very difficult to think of other compositional tools that allow for that kind of discourse analysis, for lack of a better term. But I think your use of conceptual tools is somewhat different than even other writers who use conceptual tools to talk about histories and presents of race and racism. It seems that the way you approach defining a body of work is very specific to you, and probably comes also from your interest in digital humanities, not just from your interest in conceptual writing. In my research, it seems you have not been given many opportunities to speak about your interest in digital humanities and how that interfaces with your creative practice.

Yeah, it hasn’t come up very often—it’s really come up just once. It was earlier this summer, I ended up at the University of Victoria’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute, and I talked briefly there about my relationship to the digital humanities.

I came to the digital humanities in part because I’d already done some work that seemed to line up with some digital humanities work. My second book, Un/inhabited, and particularly the first part of it, repositions all of those search queries, so that artistic project led me to the digital humanities. My interest was in part in trying to figure out what room there was for both artistic or creative intervention in DH, but also what room there was for Indigenous kinds of intervention. Even the ways that I searched through all of those western novels came into question in a DH context because, as soon as I started talking about my artistic projects, there was lots of resources and people to suggest to me that there were other ways of going about creating the texts that I had created—using scripts and algorithms and whatnot to potentially get the computer to compile all the search queries instead of doing them manually. For me, the area that I became the most interested in was computational text analysis and honestly, the more I think about it, the more I think that my interest in digital humanities was very much centered around trying to figure out where my artistic practices lined up with academic practices. It was not so much an interest in figuring out what digital humanities could do or what I wanted it to do, but more an interest in trying to find a point of intersection where my work could exist both academically and creatively. It’s really a fraught relationship, and one that DH has lots there to offer. I don’t know what else it has to offer me though or if I can continue to utilize DH in interesting ways—that relationship is not, at this point in time, really sustainable or even interesting sometimes. The kinds of things that are happening in DH in relation to indigeneity aren’t the things I’m necessarily interested in about indigeneity.

AB: This was something Sarah and I were interested in: the fact that you electively choose to work so painstakingly through your source texts rather than writing algorithms or doing things computationally. In some cases, you talk about “doing your searches manually,” like in Injun, where—at least according to your notes—you’re working with scissors, cutting language out of your printed source texts. We were wondering to what degree being exposed to these texts is important to the process, reading these texts while you’re dismantling them, rather than seeing them filtered through a computational lens, where you don’t actually have to read any of the material that you feed into the database? If you dump all of these texts into a single word document, it sounds like you would be seeing and exposing yourself to quite a bit of their content. Does your practice involve reading a lot of your source material, and is that important to you in terms of the work you’re creating?

The short answer is yes, and I think the way I would describe it is that my artistic practice is heavily invested in a physical and tactile method. The process of going through all of those western novels—that physical process of copying and pasting each book and sentence and then printing out all of those pages and cutting them up—those processes ended up being really important to the shape of those books, Injun in particular. And I would be less interested in doing that work computationally, in part because doing it manually does allow me the time and space to read, but also to think and reconsider and readjust. So much of the writing process in those two books took on a really methodical and mechanical practice. Going through all those texts really took a lot of time and effort and, at the very least, that time allowed me to reflect on and consider how I was working with the text. It’s definitely possible to do that computationally and to allow yourself to have that time, but that physical practice was integral for me in thinking through my own artistic intervention.

SD: That makes a lot of sense. What you’re describing in terms of your books—I know you’re talking specifically about Un/inhabited and Injun, but it seems it could be applied to The Place of Scraps, and maybe even to your most recent manuscript—is that all of them represent different ways of outlining a specific archive, and ways of figuring out one’s relationship to it through these very time-based and embodied processes. It seems this is as true for you as the writer—literally sifting through the text, cutting it apart, erasing it, and recombining it—as it is for us as readers. We develop our relationships to the text through these recursive trajectories that you create in your books, where one often has to go back to the previous section in order to read the current section, or page ahead to a future section in order to fully unpack the poem that’s on the page in front of us. It seems like that fundamentally corporeal relationship with texts and with books is at the heart of what you’re doing as a writer in all kinds of ways. Especially in these projects that are about settler colonialism or intergenerational trauma, of course the language is pointing us to the physical body and the risks that it bears. Even the way we’re asked to hold and page through the book as an object reminds us that our relationship to language is always physical.

Yeah, this is really interesting. Thinking about my most recent project, it’s so fresh that I haven’t totally articulated what it’s doing—and it’s still not fully formed, exactly—but that relationship to the archive absolutely persists. And that positioning of me as the author in relation to the archive does seem more or less to encompass my entire artistic practice, in some ways or another. And the archives that I’ve attended to—be it Marius Barbeau’s work or the western novels or the familial archives—have all been very deeply personal engagements, even though my second and third books, Un/inhabited and Injun, at times might not feel personal. There’s potentially a distance there between the author and the archive that might not be legible or that distance isn’t something that can be talked about easily, but that distance in a lot of ways is the reason why I’m writing this latest project. It articulates my relationship with those archives, and in particular with the western novel archives and Barbeau’s archive, and suggests my interest in those archives has a large part to do with my lack of familial connection to much of my Nisga’a family because of the ways that colonial violence has severed those relationships. So again, positioning myself in relation to the archive is a constant process of reevaluation or rethinking and one that I’m continuing to work through.

AB: It’s funny that you mention it seeming as though the conceptual work doesn’t have this personal element to it because, for us as readers, there are a lot of opportunities to find moments of the personal within, say, The Place of Scraps, which actually contains anecdotes in which you refer to yourself in the third person as “the poet,” references to your parents, and to visiting the Royal Ontario Museum. So, you have put personal material into that book in a way that might not be the most overtly personal by referring to yourself in the third person, but that also seems like a gesture toward the kind of violence done to your Nisga’a heritage, that choice to speak about it in that way. Was there a moment when you moved into the second stage of your conceptual practice working with the westerns where you actively decided not to bring in some of that personal material?

Yes. When I wrote The Place of Scraps, the sections I had the most trouble with were the personal moments. I had a really hard time with those sections where I refer to myself in the third person as “the poet.” I rewrote them a million times in different ways, without always trying to create that distance by referring to myself in third person. And I found it to be overwhelmingly difficult to address some of those issues and to articulate them in a way that got at the core of the thing that I wanted to say, but that I did it in such a way that it still fit with the rest of the text.

When I turned to the western novels, I think my initial interest was in choosing something that wasn’t actually as personal. I didn’t realize how personal it actually was to think through those western novels and to position myself in relation to that discourse and to that particular colonial history and that particular kind of racism. As I reflected on it, I thought about it a lot as a deeply personal choice to look at westerns, particularly because, when I was growing up, the first images of Indigenous peoples and the first Indigenous characters that I ever remember encountering or my first moment thinking about it, was through the western, which I think is deeply problematic. That has shaped the way I’ve approached the world in very particular ways. So, my initial interest in the western, I assumed, was not a personal choice but it ended up being much more complicated than I’d originally imagined.

SD: Along similar lines, when we met to discuss your work one thing that struck us both was your use of the cut-up technique, which is quite a common technique in contemporary poetry, especially poetry that’s regarded as experimental. But it seemed that given that you are talking about these legacies of intergenerational trauma or the practices of settler colonialism writ large, the cut-up actually ties into that history in very specific ways, where precisely what has been happening is families being cut apart, generations being severed from one another. So, in your use of the cut-up, it stops being this neutral, abstract gesture that one can enact upon a text and starts being this very intimate way of doing with one’s hands a kind of response in kind to what has been done to oneself, or to one’s family, or to one’s nation. It seems there’s an alignment between what you’re seeing in the genres that you address in your second and third books, and your physical practice of responding. It seemed to us that it wasn’t just any old poetic technique that could be applied to any old set of texts, but in fact an extremely intimate and extremely personal way of articulating this history.

Yeah, I would say that’s definitely true. I think you’re correct to say there’s a relationship between the severing and the violence that happens to those texts and the severing and violence that happens to Indigenous peoples and families. And I also think, to zoom out for a second, that kind of relationship between the conceptual practice and the mechanisms of colonialism is something I’m really interested in and that also comes up in my other work—the relationship in The Place of Scraps and Marius Barbeau’s attempted erasure of Indigenous peoples and my erasure of his work, lined with the vanishing Indian archetype. I think those are the reasons why I’m interested in conceptual practices in the first place: finding methods of writing that respond structurally to issues or mechanisms of colonialism that I’m interested in thinking about somehow. There’s a couple of cut-ups in The Place of Scraps and I found that that process was a very interesting and cathartic one to engage with. There is something very satisfying about taking a pair of scissors and cutting apart those western novels that I found really rewarding in a purely physical kind of sense. There’s been enormous amounts of violence that have been done to Indigenous peoples, and I think the cut-up at its core is a violent method of writing.

AB: There are these moments in all of your work but especially in Injun and The Place of Scraps where words break down into fragments and they don’t function anymore as full words but more as phonemes or sounds. When Sarah and I were writing about Injun, we were noticing that that happens toward the part of the first section where one of the terms that’s being exposed is the term bloody and then there’s this gradual degradation across the next several pages where there are fragments scattered across the page, part of the text is turned upside down, there’s a mirroring effect that happens vertically, and then the reader actually has to turn the whole book over to continue reading. Would you be willing to say something about what that destructive process means to you in that book, and how you were thinking about that sequence?

There are a couple of things. The first thing is that, because the cut-up process is at the core of that first part of Injun, a lot of the shape that those poems took on had to do with the actual process of cutting things up. There were moments in the process of writing that book where I stopped cutting up whole words and full phrases and I started cutting differently. I would cut across the page or I would cut through words, or I would turn the page upside down and I would cut the page without looking at the things I was cutting. Those sections where the texts kind of break apart represent moments where I was cutting the page without really looking specifically at what I was cutting and without paying attention to the content. It made sense to me to reflect that process on the page. So those sections where the text breaks down are all tied up in that cut-up process.

The second thing is that as I was writing that part, I was interested in thinking about what a turning point looks like in a conceptual project or what that might look like in this project. As I was cutting things up, sometimes I would cut the pages I was working with and let the pieces of paper fall to my desk. That process results in a random pattern of words, not all of which are in the right orientation. I think there was a specific moment where I was cutting something up and some or all of the pieces had becomes inverted somehow, and that was the moment where it made sense for me to try that out on the page. So that practice led to that moment.

I’ve had a few conversations with people about how they feel about reading a book that they have to invert at some point and about what that does to the reading practice, and I’ve definitely had a few interesting responses. There was someone who wrote a piece about Injun for the Canadian magazine, The Walrus, and she describes the process of physically inverting the book and reading upside down to be one that was very uncomfortable for her. I guess she was doing it in public and that freaked her out that other people were watching her read this book upside down, but I kind of love that. I love that moment, I love what it does, and the way I think through it is that it’s a very physical, tactile turning point that you could read a lot into or not read a lot into. As the writer of that moment, I’m not particularly attached to any one meaning that goes along with it, but I think there can be lots. And I know that freaks some people out, that openness, but it’s something that I’m interested in.

SD: On the topic of things that are really physical and tactile, one thing that we had hoped to speak to you about is the way you perform. The first time either of us had ever seen you perform was when you came in 2016 to the Simpson Center for the Humanities, but since then we’ve both seen you perform in other ways. We joked one time about how you have a digital performance style and an analog performance style, where you’ll sometimes play audio loops on a sampler—the first time we saw you, you were even wearing an illuminated mask—but we’ve also seen you do a “straight” poetry reading. I was wondering if you would speak a bit about the performance strategies you’ve developed for your different works, and whether you’d also address the gallery exhibition of your work, because I know that’s another way that your texts come off the page.

The way I’ve been thinking about this recently is that I have a creative book-writing practice, but I also have a separate but sometimes parallel performance practice, and my performance practice is very much informed by the kinds of things that I write. The other way of describing it is that I do problem-based performance where the problem is my work. [Laughs] I describe it that way because it’s unfortunately accurate.

I have to go back to The Place of Scraps to describe how I started thinking about it and where it’s coming from. The Place of Scraps is a very visual book, more so than Un/inhabited and Injun. There are a lot of important moments in that book that don’t easily translate into a straight-up poetry reading, though it’s typical for me to take that book and stand in front of a microphone and read it. I really had to struggle with that project to find a way to re-present that book and those ideas in that book into a performance setting. Likewise, my performances for Un/inhabited and Injun do something similar.

Injun is the one where maybe I could get away with reading the long poem from start to finish, but when I’ve done that, I’ve felt this immense sense of dissatisfaction in how that performance fails to capture the whole of the book or fails to capture the complexity of the book—because that book isn’t just about the long poem. That’s part of it but there are other parts too, and in some ways, the other parts are the parts that I’m more interested in. My relationship to my own artistic practice is to find ways to perform my work that don’t necessarily correspond in a one-to-one way with the text on the page but attempt to capture the feeling or the conceptual practice or a combination of all of those things with the text. That’s the way I’m thinking about my performance.

In terms of my works that have appeared in galleries, I think that’s similar. I guess really my struggle as an artist is to find ways to exist in all the spaces which I’m invited into and to think about the ways my work does or doesn’t fit into all those spaces. Because so much of my work is visual, I think there is a way in which you can include that kind of work in a gallery setting or other visual settings. And maybe it works, but I’m not totally convinced that my writing works outside of a book, and I guess that’s the reason why I’m continually drawn to that medium. I think there are ways in which performance or gallery pieces complement the work, and there’s potentially an interesting dialogue that comes up between those different kinds of mediums.

SD: So, as a closing question, Jordan, and since we’re talking about the visual: I’d be curious to hear about your involvement in the processes of book design and typesetting.

The way that I write changed substantially after I learned InDesign. InDesign—and other layout and publishing software—has been a technological precondition to the way I think about my work and has resulted in me primarily thinking about how to write for the page as opposed to how to write for the line or the sentence as a unit. And as a result, I think my work is very invested in careful attention to the design and the typesetting and wouldn’t really be possible without that software. Also, this is something I’ve had to fight for at times, in terms of publishing it, particularly with The Place of Scraps. It was difficult to convince my publisher at first that the design—in order to work, where it’s printed on one side of the page between the texts and the erasures—was preserved. I think that aspect of my work has been really important and is one that I don’t get to talk about very often or it doesn’t come up that often, but thinking about the page as a unit is at the core of how I think through writing.

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Thank you to Jordan Abel for this gracious interview, and to Woogee Bae for her work in transcribing it. –AB & SD

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This interview accompanies Amaranth Borsuk and Sarah Dowling’s review of Jordan Abel’s Injun.  You can read the review here