Kaisa Ullsvik Miller
Fence Books, 2008
Interview by M. Perel (via e-mail), August – October 2008
Perel: What or who has been influential on the writing for Unspoiled Air? I could see a discourse on the public self that bears resemblance to strands of Language (L=A…) poetry. It reminded me of Happily by Lyn Hejinian. What was the impetus for this discourse? Where you were in your life that brought you to this particular space of writing?
Miller: Well, I am definitely interested in how language creates meaning and how this relates to personal/communal identity, what you refer to as “a discourse on the public self”. How is identity defined by language, and particularly, how does this keep us from one another, from ourselves? How does disjunctive language break down our commitments to identity? Two of my favorite poets are Juliana Spahr and Harryette Mullen – their ability to explore this idea has certainly been of inspiration to me. When I first encountered Harryette Mullen, I was fascinated by her “projects”. This was definitely a turning point in my writing practice. Once I began to assume projects, I found I could let go of intention. The words would rearrange themselves and when I would complete a piece, I could look at it and still see the strands of my own perception of the world/of my self.
My project was the result of a lot of cut up and massaging of the Daily Om e-mail meditations. The tone of these messages are so publicly directive, yet are suggested as intimate for the individual. “Learn to forgive”/ “Breathe deeply”/ “Act childlike,” etc. etc. The “direction” doesn’t give you anything unless you direct it somewhere. Taking the language itself and reconstructing it offered a far greater meditation for me.
Perel: That makes sense – when you’re looking at anything so abstract for direction, identity, or avoiding folly, you have to make your own connection to the language to take something from the text, like the popularity of the I Ching among Westerners at the outset of the New Age.
Miller: That is a compelling idea…I haven’t studied the I Ching a great deal, but I think you actually could think of the practice of interpreting the I Ching as similar to how we, as individuals (or collectively), interact with language. Even when you apply random methods (as a project) to create a piece of poetry, for example, the thing that brings it to life is the poet’s intuition, the personal interpretation or internal connection to the language itself. Once you begin to become aware of your interpretation of something, when you “deconstruct” your interpretation while deconstructing the language, then you begin to see how your interaction, your social and cultural context and daily experience is skeletal of the language.
I think figuring your “self” out is sort of like analyzing poetry. You have to deconstruct and look at all of the various parts…and for me, most of them are seemingly unrelated beyond their relationship within myself (within the piece) and then when you look at the whole as the composite of all of these parts – that is when you begin to understand “how things work”…how you function or how a poem functions, perhaps. In a greater sense, this idea helps me to remember that people are so complex – you can begin to forgive their inconsistencies and your own.
Perel: And this concept of “project” you found in Mullen reveals a process of interpretation. How can there be purity of advice within such a constructed, even gimmicky presentation of meditative language like the Daily Om? As if “learning to forgive,” for instance, prevents awkwardness or disappointment within a relationship. What I like about your text is that it brings the awkwardness into reflective awareness and uses this “self-help” language as commentary on a social condition. Like in “The Elements” (p. 24) for instance, “the universe is popular these days/ many of us don’t know what this means/ However, it is clear/ that a universe provides for us/ we often have a hard time doing it/ we cannot control matter/ and visions/ cannot provide for our story…”
Miller: I am attracted to awkwardness. I find that wading through life can be quite awkward sometimes. I find it difficult to comment on something without being aware that I am making a commentary – how awkward – a commentary is created and fixed, but your own perspective changes. I think this is indicative of how most language/art falls short in capturing life. I strongly agree with Hejinian’s view that language lacks an ability to capture the scope of human experience. Life changes and grows… but only certain works of art or literature or theory have the ability to change and grow…while remaining fixed (in a book, on a canvas, etc.).
I guess I enjoy trying to find a way to make the syntax more reflective of the semantics. I like when humans and language are not afraid of embracing awkwardness, and this shows some awareness of self…language that is reflective and shows awareness that it is language – capable of misgiving, misleading and mistaking.
Perel: It does seem like you are speaking to/from an unconscious space in daily life that few can perceive or give language to – like a seam or fold in the continuation of the mind and the personality.
Miller: Collective consciousness / the collective unconscious fascinate me. The interesting thing about these words is that no matter how you conceive of them, they refer to a public self that bears down upon the individual self. What is all tangled up in our collective that affects, particularly, our inability to liberate ourselves as individuals or be open to the new? This was a question I carried through the writing – I think the way that our individual selves manifest in the public self indicates that there are some repairs to be made, some in order to be free and be happy.
Perel: Please tell me more about these “repairs,” give me some examples.
Miller: I guess I mean that we’re so disconnected within ourselves that it is difficult to function together. I’m talking about the repairs made within yourself…like when you really begin to have patience and kindness toward yourself so that you can begin to live in a way that is sustainable. The way we treat ourselves is reflected in society and vice versa. I’m pretty sure we all desire kindness and patience, but we barely manage to provide these things for ourselves. And we’re concerned about throwing waste into the environment, but we feed on toxic foods and relationships and negative energy. I think the repairs we make within benefit and direct our collective experience.
Perel: How do you feel about the separation between the private and public realms? Do you see them as basically irreconcilable states of being? Is this work an attempt to create a reconciliation between them?
Miller: I think the public and private realms are undeniably connected, yet “self-help” sometimes encourages more self-absorption. It furthers the disconnect between the public and private realms. In my writing, I like to blur the language between who I am and who “we” is, and I guess maybe it is an attempt to reconcile this separation. However, it is also an attempt to reconcile the separation between the selves within myself. I think that we are always struggling between the “me” who wants to be and the sabotaging ego. That is one journey that I definitely meditated on as I wrote this collection.
Perel: In Unspoiled Air it appears as though the ego and id take turns playing the role of Other, which is somehow linked with how the writer is perceiving another person, the choice between living for another’s expectation, or living up to one’s own, and the disjunct there. Has any particular life experience led you to question your own basic assumptions and start to deconstruct them?
Miller: I actually think in some ways my desire to deconstruct my own assumptions and the id-ego dance is related to my upbringing in the Midwest. I think that many Midwesterners – or many in the environment where I was raised, which was Scandinavian-Lutheran/think Garrison Keillor, struggle with societal expectations, the desire to please other people, make other people feel comfortable, and bear the utmost humility while at the same time wanting to be true to themselves and their own pursuits. I think it can lead to a confused sense of self and a lack of confidence or inability to determine/a need to question your “own basic assumptions,” as you say.
Perel: I meant to ask you further about the influence of the unconscious on your writing. In reading Unspoiled Air, I thought about how information can be taken in and understood on so many levels, but how it is rarely equally understood on all levels. Like, if it is taken in emotionally, the body might not know how to sit with the information. If it is taken in intellectually, there might be space where the emotions can’t connect, or disconnect from an old desire or belief. What do you think of these speculations? Do they resonate with you as a response to the book?
Miller: I think those are very interesting ideas. They speak to the disconnect within the self that I mentioned earlier. However, just as with the public/private realm – I do think that the different internal “levels” are undeniably connected. It is just that we often don’t have the awareness to recognize that unconscious understanding. For example, if you experience something/someone with intense emotion, you may focus on the confusion of emotions and not recognize that your body has a very distinct and telling visceral response…and that is perhaps related to an old desire or belief (as you mention). The blur between these speaks to that awkward complexity of living.
Perel: Well, it seems like you do have refined perceptual tools that enable you to recognize an unconscious relationship or understanding and write about it. Does that stem from a practice you have?
Miller: (Laughing) I don’t have any refined perceptual tools. I just over-analyze everything! I do try to maintain a contemplative practice though it is awfully flexible in format and frequency. I have a tendency to be overly rigid and feel guilty if my practice isn’t perfect, so I write and meditate when I feel the real need within myself and not the need to do something because someone says this is the best or proper way to be disciplined.
Perel: Tell me more about the language relationship between the New Age culture and postmodern poetics (such as that of Spahr and Mullen) as you see it.
Miller: I have heard from people who connect with a sort of New Agey element in this book, but the label makes me a little uncomfortable. I’m definitely influenced by spirituality and humanity though, and I can explore how this is relevant to my relationship and interest in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E type poetics, specifically. The extent to which I see a connection between New Age culture and post-modern poetics is in the way both attempt to innovate language to further connect and enhance the self and society. To me, this innovation makes poetry and art relevant and worthwhile.
I think postmodern poetics challenges and explores societal and political constraints through new construction and interpretation of language. I know both Spahr and Mullen may be informed by language poetics, but both of their work is autobiographical in that it is shaped by their experience, their cultural experiences or interpretation. Both are innovative in the way that they engage gender and race.
When reading Mullen’s poetry, I gain a different insight into racial experience than through than an essay on this subject because the shape and feel, the sound, the signs and syntax of her work all embody the experiences she seeks to convey. Here, life is reflected in a holistic and encompassing way. It is autobiographical and relates to the self, but it is also community building. Perhaps one doesn’t think of Language poetry as being particularly autobiographical but Lyn Hejinian certainly has crossed the exploration of self and community and “living.” Her work is living and reflective of living.
I don’t have the ability to read all the theory I want to, or even all of the poetry I want to, or know as much about postmodern art or research spiritual texts to the extent I desire. I am lost in trying to figure out all of the connections, but I do connect deeply to those that mean something to me and my experience, and then they become a part of me, and get expressed through my work.
The disconnected parts within us can collaborate and shape our way of living and moving forward. I think that if we look for the cohesiveness within seemingly disparate parts that I’ve been talking about – whether in language or in our perceptions – then we can experience reality fully. Through this “collaboration” within, we are able to accept society’s awkward disjunctions, and embrace one another with greater ease.
Kaisa Ullsvik Miller‘s debut collection of poetry, Unspoiled Air, won the 2008 Motherwell Prize (Fence). Some of her other work can be found in Ploughshares (forthcoming), Fence, Bombay Gin, and HUNGER. She lives and makes art in Madison, Wis.
Due to her interdisciplinary approach to artistic practice, M. Perel can be called a performance artist, though often she is cited as a choreographer or poet. She has a BA in Writing and Literature from Naropa University, and is currently working toward her MFA in performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her current projects are Workout Girl and Freedom of Information (freedomofinformation2008.blogspot.com).