CH: Neighbour Procedure is an intriguing title. What connotations were you hoping to elicit when you chose it?
RZ: I’m drawing on a number of connotations. The book examines the concept of the neighbour as a potentially liberating ‘third’ space between friend and enemy –- an acknowledgement of proximity and cohabitation. I use various poetic procedures to enact this examination of the neighbour from multiple perspectives. ‘Neighbour procedure’ is also the name of a set of military procedures used by the Israeli Defence Forces, including using Palestinians as human shields and forcing them to break walls inside their neighbours’ homes, so that the army can move literally through the interior walls from house to house in urban warfare. Through the course of the book, the notion of neighbour as an alternate term ends up falling apart in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because in order to see/embrace the ‘other’ as neighbour one has to acknowledge their existence as a full human being, not 3/5ths of one or even less, as Israelis tend to see Palestinians. So there is also a procedure that the concept goes through in the book, where it reaches its own limits. Like with the title Human Resources, I’m interested in titles that produce surface prosaic meanings as well as multiple other layers. This also reflects what I want the poetry within the book to do.
CH: Is the book really made solely from collaged material? While readers sense that you’re using a wide variety of source texts, you manage to maintain a range of complex feeling throughout. Can you elaborate on your composition process? Why did you choose not to write directly about your own trip to Israel-Palestine?
RZ: The whole book is drawn directly from texts I gathered in my research. Aside from some minor editing and additions, like adding ‘if’ in front of the statements in ‘a priori,’ the three line fragments that can be attributed to ‘me’ in the whole book are ‘no beauty here,’ ‘narrative faltering’ and ‘aware of the risk these phrases.’ Composing the pieces was a difficult process that took several years of intense research, note-taking, sifting and writing/editing. I felt it was important to use the collage method to engender a deliberate distancing effect – so that I wouldn’t get caught up in writing my story, particularly in regards to the trip I took to Israel-Palestine. Even though the trip changed the book a lot, the travel-for-aesthetic-gain trope has become really tired, and my particular travel narrative wasn’t important to what I wanted to ‘say’ in the book. In many ways, I saw my role in this project as more medium than author, and gathering feelings/affects was an important part of the composition process. My voice does appear in the ‘mad affects’ I add to the book as gestures and interruptions that reflect the horrifying and indeed maddening things I witnessed on the trip, which coincided with the war on Gaza in January 2009.
CH: You thank Mark Twain in your acknowledgements but there seems to be no other reference to him in the book. Where does he fit in?
RZ: I actually use Twain as a kind of tour guide in the third section of the book, ‘Innocent Abroad,’ the title of which is a play on Twain’s famous account of his own Holy Land excursion, The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrims Progress, which supposedly ‘sold right along with the Bible’ in most late 19th century American homes, and may still today. One of the trajectories of my research was looking at Western Orientalist views of the Holy Land that are indeed still prevalent in how the west deals with the Middle East today. Part of the reason I didn’t write directly about my trip to Israel-Palestine is because I knew that no matter how long I visited the area, I couldn’t avoid having a skewed perspective of the region based on western acculturation. On top of that, the coincidental timing of my visit actually meant that I became in a real way a thanatourist, one of those ‘death tourists’ who roam the world in search of limit experiences in war zones and sites recently scarred by catastrophe. Twain’s perspective, while palpably and disturbingly racist towards Arabs and Jews, was also a refreshing and funny take on the pilgrim industry among Christians. And I liked that when he was writing the region was simply called Palestine. Palimpstine would perhaps be a better name now.
CH: In the ‘Afterthought’ section at the end of the book, you list some but not all of the sources you use in the book. What prompted you to choose to list your sources (you didn’t do this in Human Resources, for example) and then not list them exhaustively?
RZ: I felt that because of the huge range of research materials I drew on, and the complexity of the material, that it was more important in this book than in Human Resources to list sources. I deliberately choose not to list all the sources, though, because I didn’t want to provide all the answers in the back of the book and limit the reader’s individual experience of the text. I wanted to give a taste that leaves you wanting more. And if I had included all the sources it would have been a dreadfully boring list many pages longer than it already was. I see ‘Afterthought’ more as poetic essay than notes section, a place where I draw some threads across the book. There are other subtler reasons why some sources are named and some have to be discovered (searching for phrases in Google can be infinitely satisfying), but I’ll leave that investigative process to the reader.
CH: The book catalogue description mentions blogger/Language poet Ron Silliman as one of the voices in the book. Where does he appear?
RZ: The poem ‘Talkback’ is partly a response to the weird rhetoric of comments sections that you find on online articles and blogs. I was struck in particular by Silliman’s readers asking him to comment on the war on Gaza as ‘a voice that matters.’ The level of expertise invested in Silliman by his readers in this case seemed a bit excessive – and I found aspects of his post and the comments engendered by it (presumably primarily from poets) intriguing. I was also prompted to write the poem based on comments I came across on other fascinating sites such as Jewlicious.com as well as the constant fractious online patter in response to the news.
CH: Did the conversation in the poem ‘Jews in Space’ really happen between two women at the gym?
RZ: Indeed, the base of that poem is a conversation overheard by my partner Kate in the women’s locker room at a downtown Jewish Community Centre in Toronto. I added material from a newspaper about Israelis buying up plots on the moon, and also included what the first Israeli in space, Ilan Ramon, brought with him on his fateful voyage aboard the Columbia in 2003. Appropriate bits of Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin also appear for flavour.
CH: The catalogue description calls Neighbour Procedure a follow up to your previous collection, Human Resources. Numbers appear in Neighbour Procedure — is this the key link with HR?
RZ: I was recently preparing for a reading from Neighbour Procedure and noticed that the last line of the book, ‘it’s in the DNA’, echoes a reference at the end of HR: ‘These are tough times to be in our roles when ‘noise’ is built into a company’s DNA and our very ideas are but the outgrowth of 783.’ I had no conscious sense of the connection when I put the DNA line in Neighbour Procedure, but indeed it does ring true, as 783 seems to be connected with ‘property’ in Wordcount, one of the online databases I used in HR. I love it when those moments happen, when the text shows it has more knowledge than me. Indeed, Neighbour Procedure picks up on some of the ideas explored in HR concerning the limits of language and thought, and it also uses online engines to make numbers into words –- and it deploys disturbing, slant humour in a Canadian way with a ‘u’ in it!
Seriously, the numbers can be seen as a kind of separate language in HR. While polyvocality and multilingualism are important aspects of HR, Neighbour Procedure confuses tongues even further with the addition of Hebrew and Arabic words and English ‘loan words’ used in modern Hebrew, in an effort to enact the claustrophobic proximity of cultures and histories and powers in Israel-Palestine. The epigraph to Neighbour Procedure, ‘…feel compelled to learn how to say these names?’ is from Judith Butler’s work on what constitutes a grievable body today, and I took it as an important part of my task in doing the book to learn how to get my mouth and mind around certain names.
CH: With the references you make to Lévinas, Buber and Deleuze and Guattari in Neighbour Procedure, are you saying something about the failure of theory in this book?
RZ: I guess it bugs me that Martin Buber, he of I and Thou, and originally in favour of the binational state in Palestine, took Edward Said’s family home in Jerusalem because he could; and that ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called the Palestinian the enemy not the ‘other’ or even neighbour because he could. Or that the Dadaist Janco became the settler-colonialist. And the Israeli army blithely uses concepts from Deleuze and Guattari and the Situationists to perform urban warfare manouevres on occupied bodies. I mean, D&G predicted the nomad war machine would be co-opted by the state, but who knew how literally. Yes, I have been thinking a lot about the failure of post-structuralist thought and the shortcomings of anti-art (and art) practices in the face of current disasters. But we go on anyway.