Jon Paul Fiorentino
Matrix Magazine, 2005
JPF:Masque is an ambitious project — a dense text which is further complicated by its playful dis-linearity. (The dramatis personae appears mid-text). Had you developed a narrative/poetic strategy of interruption before the composition of Masque? Or did the book write the theory?
RZ: Dis-linearity is a given in my work, particularly undermining easy assumptions about narrative and subject structure in a text. I can’t bear the trajectory in most “straight” narrative of rising action, crisis, falling action, dénouement; nor am I attracted to the sameness of the confessional lyric voice. Both structures make me feel claustrophobic as a reader. Masque moves rather in a vertical trajectory than linear, as the reader negotiates the gaps in the polyphonic assemblage of the text. More assemblage than collage as the text attempts to signify beyond the two (or three, in collage) dimensions of the page.
So the theory was already in my head, and in some of my earlier work, but the book, of course, always does its own thing. In terms of process, here I had written a set of third-person narrative prose poems and started setting off collected found fragments against these poems, to disrupt their flow and deepen the set of perspectives on the events described. I love the energy in fragments, how they contain traces of all that came before and after the utterance, embodying the elusive wholeness of narrative, subjectivity, knowledge. I started out with a strict grid of how I’d build the voices and how the text would contract and expand. But, as with most grids, this structure undermined itself and the book reshaped into radiating voices providing commentary on the commentary as they deem it necessary. The diverse register and pitch of the voices create effects like in a musical score, another vertical assemblage.
As the title suggests, Masque’s cross-general qualities extend to the theatrical. When I introduce the book at a reading, I sometimes describe Masque as being like a play where all the characters are trying to talk at the same time. But confining the book to just this one genre would be limiting—it’s not just a play and certainly doesn’t follow traditional play structure. Nor do the characters stick to their assigned identities. That’s why the dramatis personae comes in the middle, not at the beginning. It becomes its own poem when displaced from its expected position in the text, here resembling a kind of epic catalogue. It’s also interesting to notice which characters don’t appear in the dramatis personae—all the folks in the Z-d family as well as that pesky little open parenthetical voice that keeps nattering off to the side. Alas, nothing seems to be as it seems.
JPF: I wonder how it would work on stage. I wonder what signifiers could be utilized on stage to denote the shifting identities. Certainly, it’s not just a play, but perhaps it’s not just a book. How do you think an adaptation for the theatre would work?
RZ: I’ve thought a bit about how it might work in a theatre setting. One thing I wouldn’t want is 26 individual actors playing separate characters. That would defeat the purpose of enacting the multiplicity of identities and “truths” within each of us that I’m trying to get at in the book. I think maybe four or five actors could play all the parts and use masks or cardboard signs (à la Dylan’s Don’t Look Back) to denote the different characters speaking. Or the director could make creative use of Surtitles. That would be good—it could look a little like Jenny Holzer’s amazing conflicting L.E.D. screen printouts in the Guggenheim, New York in the 80s.
I have been involved in two multivocal performances of different sections of the book, and I got a lot of pleasure out of hearing the voices overlap fluidly. No matter how nuanced a reading I give, I can’t mimic the flow of voices to the exact timing I want, so these polyvocal experiences were a real gift. The staging was minimal, but we did play with a false nose and glasses in a couple places and use both a black scarf and the patented “Christakos bookslap”—smacking the book shut—to denote the Censor figure. I’d like to think some more about how to adapt Masque for the stage—it would be an interesting forum.
JPF: The text’s polyvocalic/polyphonic verve is sometimes interrupted by confessional moments–The Daughter or The Whisper or another voice will transmit an unsettling secret in the midst of what seems to be a “larger” cultural discourse. What is the desired effect of such juxtaposition?
RZ: It’s interesting that you seem to privilege a certain discourse as “larger,” here the cultural one. The key intention of this book, for me, is to play with notions of what is public/private and the varying weight and significance given to each. The desired affect is disjuncture and a shifting of perspective on authority. The text asks who has access to the public gaze, whose voices are silenced. By what means, arbitrary or otherwise, is it decided who is in or out of the spotlight. Each fragment spoken by the critic or philosopher is presented out of context, and, when juxtaposed with the ones surrounding it, is forced to account for its claim to authority. In fact, each voice, each “author” in this text goes through same process. When Levinas’ “the face is the evidence that makes evidence possible” is juxtaposed with the child’s traumatic confrontation with her sick father, the whisper’s internalized fears, and the writer’s comment on exile, there’s a lot more going on than just the cultural discourse. So while some voices expose unsettling secrets, others have the space to comment and argue, so that there’s space for a kind of “truth,” to paraphrase Benjamin, that’s “not an exposure that destroys the secret, but a revelation that does justice to it.” I think you might have a sense of what I mean here, having written a book steeped in the materiality of the language of depression but slipping past, above and around the painful materiality of depression’s dailiness. We’re trying to pull a few new tricks out of a tattered bag, no?
At the risk of repeating myself, no one author has full access to the story or gaze in Masque. In fact, the multiple philosophers and critics go unnamed, so it’s up to the reader to figure out who’s who, and to perhaps look at why they care so much to know. But the wife’s voice, or the whisper, are right there in the half-light for you to grasp, next to Nietzsche of Germaine Greer or Bob Fulford. But do you grasp their plaintiveness, or do you turn away because the voice reeks of the hoary confessional, because you’ve been trained to disdain these voices, so often belonging to heretofore silenced women. I wanted to challenge the reader of experimental texts to look at their reading codes and preferences, just as I hope other readers can get something out of a text that “looks” so funny.
Masque delves into the questions around how to act, how to love, how to deal with the irreducible strangeness between self and other, all seemingly private things that have immense impact on the public, are so much larger that it in many ways. “Secrecy magnifies reality,” says George Simmel, and I hope that Masque demonstrates some of the effects of this. I actually see the wife as a quasi-heroic figure in the text. After 38 years of propping her husband up in and behind the spotlight, she finally finds the strength to leave, making good use of the “private” epistolary form in the process, as women writers have always done.
I think that’s the name of the game: “to pull a few new tricks out of a tattered bag.” But to what extent is it essential to practice some of our tried and true tricks, like the utilization of a more lyric voice? What I’m trying to get at is that the “unsilencing” of certain voices in Masque seems to depend, rhetorically, on a more familiar, confessional (not in a pejorative sense) tone. The more familiar locutions in the book are often delivered by The Daughter, The Wife or The Whisper. I think the result is that the reader is drawn to these voices.
RZ: Your use of the term “familiar” is interesting, because the Daughter, Wife, and Whisper do all represent the private “family” voices, as opposed to the public discourses of media and philosophy—though the Daughter speaks at a third-person remove for the most part, and the Whisper stays pretty much internalized until the end. It’s interesting that you think the reader is drawn to these “unsilenced” voices, because, as I said above, I think some readers would have conflicting responses to such open lyric rawness, would feel repelled by it, or feel that they’ve heard it all before with trauma narratives being bled dry in the 80s. Indeed, although the book ends with a plea for “respite from the familiar,” I do feel these confessional voices are crucial to the text, that the dialogic/polylogic tensions they create on each page are key to the experience of the book. I guess I’m trying in my own small way to reinvigorate the discourses around trans-historical trauma and its multi-tentacled hold on memory and reality. And sometimes you just have to tell it like it seems.
JPF: The notion you put forth of “Half image, half veil” is intriguing. Talk to me about the processes of revealing and concealing.
RZ: The phrase comes from one of Paul Celan’s few prose pieces, “Conversation in the Mountains,” which is a fascinating and elliptical portrayal of his relationship to his Jewishness and the condition of being an étranger, both vis-à-vis the other and oneself. That there is a veil between himself and his world, a veil representing the ineffable. The conversation of the title happens between two cousins, who “have no eyes, alas. Or, more exactly: they have, even they have eyes, but with a veil hanging in front of them, no, not in front, behind them, a moveable veil. No sooner does an image enter than it gets caught in the web and a thread starts spinning, spinning itself around the image, a veil-thread; spins itself around the image and begets a child, half image, half veil.” I quote the whole section partly to show how much can be revealed by going to the intertextual sources referenced in a text like Masque, how the reading can be deepened. From my perspective, I read the spinning as a spiral motion à la Brossard, a motion that undoes the linearity of history and narrative. But, I digress. The key point here is how fraught an issue representation is in texts that jostle against the confessional, texts in which some readers pruriently wonder what, if any of it, is autobiographical. The censor voice in Masque is of course a literalization of the revealing/concealing processes in the text. Contrary to how some pages look like Freedom of Information request printouts from afar, when examined up close the censor here often reveals as much as it conceals. Or reveals more, as the reader may wonder why censoring stress is placed on such innocuous words as “daughter” or “Toyota.” The book opens with Muriel Rukeyser’s plea for no more masks next to Claude Cahun’s assertion that she’ll never finish stripping away all her faces. Just as there’s no one clear narrative path through this text, there’s also no clear conception/realization of character. The daughter won’t stick to her lines, keeps morphing into the viewer, the lesbian, the Jew, the writer etc. Benny Z-d is himself unrepresentable, a non-person missing more than just a letter. Yes, his last name resembles the ineffable Jewish G-d, who created the world by contracting his breath. Yes, a similar contraction process happens as you read Masque. But these are just images and veils.
JPF: I wish to follow up on your digression by asking you about Brossard. I had noticed the influence of The Aerial Letter in both Masque, and your first collection, Her Absence, This Wanderer. Would you elaborate on the influence Brossard and other Queer writers have had on your work?
RZ: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the flowering of Canadian/Québecois queer women writers—Mouré, Marlatt, Brossard, Scott, Warland, Marchessault, to name a few—in the 80s profoundly changed the literary landscape in Canada, particularly in terms of experimental writing. Of course I’ve been influenced by all of these writers in some way—by Mouré’s approach to the philosophical and to non-sense; by Scott, Brossard, and Marchessault’s approaches to narrative and the subject; Warland and Marlatt’s approaches to the line, breath and the page; all these writers’ varied approaches to lesbian desire. I feel lucky to have such accomplished literary foremothers (and no, I don’t believe in the anxiety of influence…)
JPF: What are you currently working on?
I’m almost finished a manuscript on writing and subjectivity called Human Resources. In many ways I’ve jumped off from Anne Carson’s question around Paul Celan’s poetry: “What is lost when words are wasted and where is the human store to which such goods are gathered in?” I shift this notion to a very literal place where the subject of the book, a poet, wastes words writing corporate copy (mostly employee communications, hence the title) for pay and turns into a writing machine in the process. This body without organs is (semi) recuperated through ethical confrontations with multiple Others within and without her, while the book machine itself crumbles as it forms. There’s a lot of psychoanalytical and general economy stuff on money and excess (shit, mostly), but basically it’s about writing and survival and the deals we make along the way.