Friday, April 8, 2022

Interview | with Linda Ann Strang | 2022

Linda Ann Strang – Star Reverse. Dryad Press, 2022.

Interview @ Exclusive books, Cavendish, 7 April 2022


Hierdie aangrypende en slim debuut aktiveer Julia Kristeva se Black Sun – Depression and Melancholia (1987) en daar is vele toespelings op sterre en sterkonstellate. Van ou kennis (soos die Tarot) en mitologie vind ons in hierdie bundel wat imponeer met die uitsonderlike taalgevoeligheid. Ook die multiverse word ontgin: die idee van verskillende universums wat tegelykertyd bestaan.

1. You have written a compelling volume of poetry. Are you aware that Johann de Lange published a volume Die meeste sterre is lankal dood en Joan Hambidge a volume Nomadiese sterre. Jungian syncronicity this obsession with stars before lockdown?

Thank you. The short answer is that I was not aware, no. I’ll make a point of reading them. 


The collection had a different title, Blood on the Sextant, but I decided to call it Star Reverse in early 2019, when I noticed how I could order a meaningful pattern in the poems. That’s also when I started realising that ‘Nagasaki Deconstructed’ was a poem that could tie all the others together. ‘Nagasaki Deconstructed’ can be seen as an atom-like poem from which all the others concatenate and spin, in a story that is told backwards.


The title was going to be Star Averse, briefly, which is a quotation from one of the poems, but then the idea of Star Reverse occurred to me, by phonic association, a version with more reverberation. From there it all began to fall into place, quite strikingly.


Synchronicity, panpsychism, morphic resonance! They are all intriguing theories but who knows? Stars and planets as images / tropes / symbols / leitmotifs, appear in so many poetic works. Some of my favourites include Ben Okri’s ‘And if you should leave me’, Mxolisi Nyezwa’s ‘Quiet Place’, Thom Gunn’s ‘My Sad Captains’, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s ‘Bop: The North Star’, D.M. Thomas’s ‘Lorca’, and Bruce Smith’s ‘Devotion: Redshift’. Smith’s poem first appeared in Tin House and was later republished in the Pushcart Prize Anthology series. Looking back, I think that his poem has influenced some of my more recent writing, probably subconsciously. 

2. How do you understand the multiverse? Versions of different realities?


You’re referring to the poem ‘Everything’s Real Somewhere, They Say’ from Star Reverse. I can’t remember when I first heard of the ‘Many Worlds Theory,’ with which I associate the multiverse. It was probably through reading speculative fiction. 


The concept is so appealing – imagine every possible course that one’s life could have taken actually occurring in alternative realities. This would be the opposite of the ‘unbearable lightness of being,’ as defined by Milan Kundera. If the multiverse is understood as everything being real somewhere, then no tragedy completely defines one’s life – some other versions of you are happy, albeit in other universes. 


I admit that I understand the concept in literary rather than scientific terms. 

3. I find the reference to Chagall relevant for the understanding of your poems: spirituality and love.


You’re referring to this poem from Star Reverse:


Marc and a New Theory of Moment


Lovers do levitate as depicted by Chagall,

but only after a spectacular accident:

a motorcycle crash, a train off track,

an airplane exploding on impact, perhaps.

After the bad aster comes a circus hush

as the lovers rise above the rest of us.


If you don’t blink you can see them smiling

on a trapeze as trite as a V of geese. 

They gaze enraptured at the flow of moments, 

taste angel food cake, wear long velvet gloves, 

play Chinese checkers, fast and loose, swinging 

on gamely for the sake of love – and, carelessly, 

they swear that until death do them part

they will live in mid-air.


Then the lion tamer loses his head. 

A scream flaps away with the tent.

The lovers fall as we fret. 

The lovers fall. There’s no net.


The spectators forsake all silence – 

and the helicopter doctors come in 

with their coats, and their goats, and their violins.


Chagall often depicts goats and violins in his art, and, for me, those are key images for understanding the collection.


Obviously, such images are open to various cultural interpretations. Although, personally, I associate violins with spirituality; in folklore violins and fiddles have oftentimes been seen as leading people to dance and therefore sin – instruments of the devil. But for me they represent beauty.


Goats, on the other hand, are a powerful symbol that can be interpreted variously too. Historically, in Europe, they’ve represented all things satanic and evil, or in terms of rampant sexuality and fertility (in the morally neutral sense), they’re also associated with Pan, and, in the purely Western sense, they invoke the ancient Greek ‘goat song,’ tragoidia, which is what we now know as tragedy. Certainly, Chagall’s combining images of goats and violins invites the ‘goat song’ and the ‘temptation to sin’ interpretation, simultaneously. If one reads Star Reverse as a coherent narrative work of interconnected poems, it is a tragedy.

4. Tell us something about Chinese Checkers and games as a variation of Halma.


I use the concept of ‘Chinese Checkers’ in ‘Mark and a New Theory of Moment’ as shorthand for – um – any trivial pursuit. I’d never in my life heard of Halma, so thank you for that. I looked it up and there are some poetic possibilities there. To be honest, I don’t like board games, though I enjoyed Snakes and Ladders and Cluedo when I was a child. In 2019, as a concession to family members who do like board games, I bought one called ‘Pandemic’. Unsurprisingly, none of us want to play it anymore. 


But, of course, ‘Chinese checkers’ and similar tropes hint at the ludic thread running through the collection. Many of the poems are playful, flippant, irreverent, in the spirit of French feminism – the Medusa is laughing, as Hélène Cixous might say. 


As I’m sure you noticed, the star names forming each section are in reverse alphabetical order as a reference to the title of the collection. As a defamiliarization technique, I also moved from the most obscure star names at the beginning, to the more familiar ones at the end. The structure itself then generates meaning.


But there is no single view and perspectives vary. The connections between the sections and their titles are meant to be evocative, opening themselves to multiple interpretations; so, they are not necessarily supported by strict linear reasoning. 

My writing engages with feminist theory – mostly, but not exclusively, écriture feminine, as defined by Cixous. Consequently, in Star Reverse, broken patterns are preferred to complete ones; derangement take precedence over organised logic and there’s rupture over continuity. At the same time, playfulness and seriousness continually compete. While in the ordering of the poems there is some conventional thinking, it is a logic that is consciously subverted and disrupted.

5. And you also refer to the Tarot. I have different tarot packs. I consult the Morgan Greer for guidance. Yours?


Of course, one allusion in the polysemic title of the collection is to the star, reversed, as in a tarot reading. In the reversed position the star indicates disillusionment and despair, among other things. There is an astrological meaning too – planetary retrogrades – which is when planets appear to be moving backwards, inviting us to reassess the past.  


There are so many beautiful tarot decks, such as ‘Luna Somnia,’ for example, which, incidentally, is reminiscent of the lovely cover of your Nomadiese Sterre. I have Brigit Esselmont’s Everyday Tarot. I enjoy dabbling in tarot and astrology, I must admit. Conversely, I also love science, even though I deplore the damage caused by some scientists. So, every time I consult the cards, I condemn myself for being superstitious. You could say I’m conflicted. But, in the collection, the swirling together of competing discourses is an intentional feminist device.

6. The only difference between a geode and a nodule is that a geode has a hollow cavity, and a nodule is solid. Please tell us more.


You’re referring to the line: “No geode is bursting / with magnificent God”. I haven’t thought of nodules in terms of being solid as opposed to a cavity. I tend to associate the term with the nodes and internodes on plant stems and, root-wise, with nitrogen fixing. But, yes, in terms of studying rocks, there are nodules, which are lump-like. The word geode is just so much more evocative – Ge, the personification of Earth, and the pun on ‘ode’. Then there’s that wonderful word ‘geodesy’.


Structurally, geodes are nature’s pleasant surprises, and lovely things to use in metaphors, so unremarkable on the outside with all that beauty hidden within. As far as I know, nodules don’t provide an aesthetically pleasing and surprising display of crystals. A geode is a womblike structure, which is relevant to the poem ‘Visions in a Drought’.


Visions in a Drought


My ex-husband and my ex-father 

are engaged to the rain gauge. 


Today I have become a granadilla,

withered, my skin pitted and cracked.


Even the agave has given up. 

There are no mescaline epiphanies


in the Kalahari, no amusing mirages

in the ochre above. No geode is bursting


with magnificent God. The sky tastes of dust.

Paint is peeling all over the desert,  


a bitter pill – my placebo for love. 

Caprivi, strip because everything’s naked,


the sun’s carnal knowledge

in the corps of our bones. 


The terrified stars see their long hair on fire, 

their tresses fall on the earth in ash.


My salt rose is burning. 

My armpits are charred. 


Agave Maria, the poison bush weeps, 

the lions pick up my bones like sticks. 


Forgive them, my lavender snakebite, 

my Cleopatra pitter patter. 


Despite the night ocean, 

gelignite shattering the trachea, tripe,


offal – jackal benedictions,

please give them respite.

7. Betelgeuse, also called Alpha Orionis, second brightest star in the constellation Orion, marking the eastern shoulder of the hunter. Its name is derived from the Arabic word bat al-jawzāʾ, which means “the giant's shoulder.” Betelgeuse is one of the most luminous stars in the night.  This – according to the internet – and you reflect on the importance of stars for astronomers and astrologists. How do we understand this? 


This is Tracy Shaw from her weekly newsletter:

Dear Reader,

My computer was out of action, so I wasn’t able to send out my usual New Moon reflection on Wednesday.  As the New Moon offers us inspiration not only for the day but also for the lunar month, I am sending it out anyway.


The New Moon in Pisces conjunct Jupiter on Wed 2nd offered us a magical reminder that there is an intangible dimension to Life.  A dimension that is as real as the realm of concrete reality.  A dimension that transcends logic and reason, but is accessible to feeling knowing, intuition, imagination and the heart-mind.  A dimension we most often sense when we slow down and become quiet… spend time being in nature… immerse ourselves in poetry or beautiful music… sit and reflect besides water… meditate or any of the many other ways of coming back to our essential self.


When we touch into this timeless, wordless dimension, even for a moment, a peace, a healing, a feeling of wonder, gratitude may arise.  For a moment we sense that all is well, we are not alone and love is present.  The stresses, fears and challenges of our life don’t disappear, but they are not all that there is.


Pisces symbolises the at-oneness at all life.  So, when we touch into these moments, not only we benefit, we become a conduit for peace, healing, wonder and magic to flow into the world.  Likewise, when we hold the suffering of others in our heart, meditation or prayers, we are bringing the power of the inner, intangible realm to bear on outer situations. 


The presence of Jupiter heightens the expansive, positive energy of the New Moon, inviting us to have faith in the Pisces realm and its felt, intuitive realities.  To believe in the power of the heart, prayer and reaching out to others.  To keep hope alive, not hope as an abstract ideal or wishful thinking, but as hope that feeds acts of love, beauty, creativity and generosity… energises visions… fuels life-affirming action without attachment to outcomes.


This beautiful Pisces messages comes at a time of heightened tension on the world stage.  A tension that reflects the intensity of the Mars conjunction to Pluto in Capricorn that has been building over the past weeks, culminating yesterday on the New Moon.  As Mars is powerful in Capricorn and Pluto intensifies the planetary energy it touches, this combination can manifest as brutal aggression or powerful acts of courage in meeting overwhelming odds.  These are the extremes.  Of course, there can be many other variations on the theme. 


Personally, it is a reminder to each of us to look at our own reactivity, unconscious anger, polarising projections and dysfunctional avoidance of confrontation. Venus is also in Capricorn with Mars and Pluto calling with peace, negotiation and accord.  However, she is having to work hard to embody, protect and stand by what she values.  We, too, are called to commit to doing the same in our daily lives.


So, the cosmos is speaking right now to our human capacity to walk with both feet firmly on the ground, while being guided by the truths of the heart and the sacred wondrousness of Life.

Wishing you the gifts of inner peace, healing and compassion for yourself, others and our suffering world, this Pisces Moon month. 

J: I have a chart from her included in Nomadiese sterre.


L: I love it that you used an astrological chart in your work, and I love that you mention Pisces. I am a Pisces. You’re a Virgo, I believe.

To go back a bit, what you say is completely correct, the name Betelgeuse is derived from the Arabic word bat al-jawzā, which means “the giant's shoulder”, but Betelgeuse has been known by many names and there are conflicting accounts. According to The New World Encyclopaedia, for instance, the name Betelgeuse is a corruption of the Arabic yad al-jawzā, which means “hand of Orion”. European mistranslation in Medieval times led people to believe that the star was called ‘the armpit of Orion’. The various interpretations and explanations sounded pleasingly deranged to me, so, I placed some of my more surreal and experimental poems in that section. I confess that I also chose the name because of my fondness for the 1980s movie Beetlejuice, which is how Betelgeuse is commonly pronounced, of course.


It’s interesting that for centuries astronomy and astrology were one discipline and then, during the Enlightenment, the discourses separated, and astrology lost its scientific credibility. That aside, humans seem to have found stars and other night sky phenomena fascinating since the dawn of time. In cities, with all the electric light, we often forget what an overwhelming display the night sky provides. If you gaze at the sky in some remote corner of the Karoo, for instance, you can see what all the fuss is about. In the desert it isn’t difficult to associate the stars with all things distant and divine. I suppose this sounds like the opposite of immanence.


I feel compelled to add that I was influenced by watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos when I was a teenager. That was where I first learned many words from astronomy, such as ‘supernova’ and ‘redshift’. I think Sagan helped to popularize many scientific terms, inviting us into the poetry of astronomy. Incidentally, thinking of Johann de Lange, that’s where I first learned that when we look at the stars, we are looking at the past. Stars are ghosts, then.


8. Aokigahara, also known as the Sea of Trees, is a forest situated beside Mt Fuji in Japan; many people go to commit suicide there. Please comment.


I first became aware of Aokigahara by coincidence when I was reading about Mount Fuji. I feel drawn to Japanese culture because of the long history of women being respected as writers in that country. Women’s history – especially art history, and I mean ‘art’ in the broader sense – is a particular interest of mine – Herstory. You may have noticed that I also allude to The Tale of Genji in this collection, in ‘Seaward’. It can be argued that Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji was the first novel ever written.


That aside, the poem ‘Sea of Trees: Aokigahara’ foreshadows ‘Nagasaki Deconstructed’. The link between the poems suggests that ongoing emotional suffering in Japan may be traced back to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. I think it may have been in Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire that I read about a Japanese man killing himself after being insulted by post-war American occupiers. That stayed with me and indirectly found its way into my writing.


I wrote “Nagasaki Deconstructed” in 2006. Since the pandemic, however, my perceptions have changed and I understand the poem somewhat differently, with the concepts of ‘enveloped’ and ‘non-enveloped’ viruses gaining ascendency in my thinking. All corona viruses are in the ‘enveloped’ category, which gives the poem implications it didn’t have originally. So, meaning is a moving target and interpretation never ends.


9. Please read this riveting poem:


Nagasaki Deconstructed


after Yoko Danno


Mozart in a cherry

blossom, Sagami adorns

her hair with music.


Sei writes butterfly-

netting villanelles.

Flautist of the floating world,


Lady Ise kisses chiaroscuro,

long-necked lovers,

burnt sienna, water,


colour; then the bomb,

quaint as a catfish

hiccoughing an earthquake –


a cancer Chanel, a fell

message. This is how to fold

an envelope into everyone.