Paisley Rekdal’s work is urban, the poetry an explosion of language, the ranging cast of mind in the spirit of Albert Goldbarth or Linda Gregerson. Like these poets her lines are made of long hypotactic sentences, linking image and language on a string of wondrous beads, leaping in and through those long lines like C. K. Williams. Rekdal infuses them with a vibrant grace, a cultured smoothness, a voracious reading. She grew up in Seattle, studied medieval literature in the prestigious University of Toronto program, abandoned those studies to give herself over to writing poetry, carrying through all of it, meanwhile, an abiding interest in nonfiction, and an interest in writing about things you weren’t supposed to write about, like bad sex. She carried also an interest, always, in unclassifiable media. So there’s a fundamental genre-restlessness to Rekdal’s passions, but she doesn’t equate esoteric with experiment. Her memoir, Intimate, is part ekphrasis, part lyric essay, part poetry sequence, part collage as it tells the story of her parents’ mixed-race marriage—her father’s lineage is Norwegian, her mother’s Chinese—by way of Edward Curtis photographs and the story of his Native American guide Alexander Upshaw. She’s written a book on cultural appropriation—the most thoughtful, complicated, lyrical account I’ve read—and even in her collections, such as Six Girls without Pants—she can shift, page by page, poem by poem, from the disjunctive to the Horatian, mixing modes like a chef.
This is partly what makes her latest book, which began life as a hypertext—a website, an experience of poetry, image, video—not only a natural emergence from her oeuvre, but also a daring and serious attempt to move from a work of online art to a book, pushing at the inherited limitations of both. West: A Translation takes its starting point from one of the poems carved into the wooden barracks at Angel Island, the place where immigrants, particularly Chinese immigrants, endured the horror of being stateless, wondering if they’d be allowed entry into new life. Some killed themselves. Some tore poems into the walls that held them. Rekdal has taken one of these, a little elegy for a suicide, and translates each character of it by way of a new poem—or image. It’s as if she’s taken each character and perspective and turned it into a separate study of the railroad, and the collection of these railroads, radiant expansions of their original source, is the book. In the process, Rekdal gives an account of the history of the western part of the United States as a history of the transcontinental railroad—built by poor Chinese immigrants, mostly from Guangdong Province. The book, which began life as a website, was commissioned by the Spike 150 Foundation to “commemorate” the 150th anniversary of the installment of the final spike of the railroad. That happened in Salt Lake City, a city—and in a state—that Rekdal has, a little bit to her own surprise, become rooted in, made home. Rekdal’s life, with its blend of commitments and inheritances and meanderings, seems in many ways to embody well the life of a twenty-first-century western American. Which makes her voice the perfect voice for a moment in which we’re grappling more directly than ever with the fallout, the damage and trauma, left in the wake of that railroad’s completion. The true costs of “westward expansion.” And though the transcontinental railroad’s last spike was driven in in Utah, it’s true end was what it pointed toward, and what its opening up opened up: California. Where an anonymous Chinese migrant wrote this poem on the wall at Angel Island, rendered in Rekdal’s English, and from which she makes her book:
Sorrowful news indeed has passed to me.
On what day will your wrapped body return?
Unable to close your eyes, to whom can you tell your story?
Had you known, you never would have made this journey.
Eternity contains the sorrow of a thousand bitter regrets.
Missing home, you face in vain Home-Facing Terrace,
Your ambitions, unfulfilled, buried under earth.
Yet I know death can’t turn your great heart to ashes.
JESSE NATHAN: You did graduate work in medieval studies. Would you say you have a medieval sensibility in some way? What does that mean, and how does it manifest in your poems? (What does it mean in terms of your genre-blending books like Intimate or West?) What kind of lines or tones or forms does it lead you to in your poetry?
PAISLEY REKDAL: I have been thinking about your question for several weeks now, because I feel that the “medieval” strain in my work is a sensibility I share with and can immediately intuit in other modern and contemporary writers, but haven’t articulated for myself. I think there are two ways that my medieval studies training has influenced me. The first way is that I’m drawn to interdisciplinary work, whether it’s multimodal or digital writing projects or whether it’s writing that crosses different disciplinary lines, which medieval studies as a field forces its scholars to do. There are—relatively speaking—few surviving intact texts from the medieval world, and there was also a very limited literate audience that could have gotten hold of them, so you have to be creative in how you approach both cultural and textual interpretation. You don’t just read the primary sources, you also turn to art that was produced at the same period of time, and theological arguments circulating at the moment, you consider the political climate in question, and maybe also look into whatever martial or public health crises were brewing.
Taking one question and looking at it from myriad positions allows for a kaleidoscopic or fractal understanding of a literary text and how art itself gets created. It’s certainly helped me in works like The Broken Country, where I think not just about a single violent crime committed by a Vietnamese refugee that took place at a grocery store near my house, but how this crime might speak to larger questions of Southeast Asian immigration and assimilation into the American West, the legacy of war, medical and sociological understandings of trauma, the metaphors we use to depict violence, etc. With West, my medieval training probably influenced my desire to research all the different ways the train altered American cultural life. Obviously, that’s an impossible task to accomplish, but one thing really stuck out to me about the railroad’s history as I studied it: how little we know about the daily life, thoughts, and feelings of the workers. We tend to collect the cultural products of the owners of capital, not its producers—especially if the producers of capital aren’t functionally literate in the owners’ language. When you study medieval literature and culture, of course, you are also looking into an absence: you know what the aristocracy believed, and you know what the literate wanted. But those that don’t fit into these categories? That’s an entire world that’s effectively been rendered silent, and I think that question of silence has always haunted me as a writer.
(Side note: This is perhaps the only thing that saddens me about the possible demise of Twitter, because the wealth of information produced by “average” humans about what they eat, read, watch, think, feel, like, and hate about their moment of time is a medievalist’s wet dream.)
But the second way that my medievalist background has influenced me is more intangible. The “medieval sensibility,” as you call it, really speaks to what I was drawn to in medieval literature as a whole, which is its sense of—for lack of a better term—genre-lessness or maybe genre-explosiveness. You would clearly call most medieval poems “poetry,” of course, but what drew me to work like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was the sense of English itself—the language and its prosody—staggering to its feet, trying to figure out its own poetic rhythms as a newly evolving language.
I also love the way that so many medieval texts call back to classical ones, but then alter/pervert/estrange them from their original sources, like you see with Marie de France’s take on Ovid in Le Laustic, or the fact that Gawain actually opens with a call back to the fall of Troy and then becomes a fundamentally foundational narrative about England. There’s a wildness to Middle English poetry that comes—I believe—from the fact that it’s in a liminal place—neither strictly French nor wholly Anglo Saxon, not part of the classical world even as Rome has its political and cultural tentacles throughout Europe. These are poems that are invested in vision—actual religious vision!—as much as myth and art and history, and all of this combines in the most heady ways. These are poems that feel as if they are inventing their own forms, even as they are reinventing inherited subject matters.
It’s funny to think about writing with and against “risk” now, because I think workshops and the publishing industry and social media have all created such powerful, if occasionally obscure, “norms” for what literature is and looks like. When I read something like “The Land of Cokaygne,” I’m actually filled with jealousy. It’s not that these writers didn’t understand limitation or “rules” (that’s actually the point of the humor in “The Land of Cokaygne”), but that there seemed to be a more porous boundary between types of experience and knowledge, thus types of writing and perception. That’s what I aspire to be as a writer: someone who pushes through and beyond accepted genres or forms. I want my conscious to be more permeable. I want to be always at the beginning of things, without knowing what my writing—or my own self in the world—is supposed to become.