Callie Gardner Interviews Francesca Lisette

CG: I’d like to start by talking about sub rosa: The Book of Metaphysics, your recent collection from Boiler House Press. This is a significant collection of work because of the variety of approaches it takes in as well as the ways it folds together questions about art, nature, and spirituality with those of gender, sexuality, and desire. Even to reduce or split the book into these six ‘themes’ seems reductive, because they flow together and because there is a very real metaphysical component behind your understanding of them. How did sub rosa come about, and what do you see as its project?

FL: Thank you for this question!

sub rosa: The Book of Metaphysics has always had this full title, from its very inception. It is written on the title page of the journal it was birthed in, where -many of the poems in the first sequence originated. In March 2011 I was living back with my parents & signing on, having graduated with a Master’s from Sussex, & dwelling in the bleak wasteland of life after graduation in credit-crunched coalition Britain. The protests of the student movement against tuition fees had filled me & an entire generation with a deadly combination of solidarity, fury and awe. I was also in love with a poet and performance artist, and spent most of my dole money on going to see him on the other side of London. It was in this state of tenderness & rage that I found Ariana Reines’ book The Cow for sale in the secret downstairs poetry section of England’s Lane books (which shut down a year later). I chose this book over travel fares for the next week or so, seduced by its weird direct lyric magic unlike anything else I’d encountered. I entered reluctantly at first, but then fell fully in love with it. I now wanted to challenge myself to write a book: a cohesive whole which would fall together. I was determined that the book must have a tripartite structure, & I think that both that idea & the title sprang fully formed from the extraordinary painting on the cover of the journal in which it began: 

Our Lady of the Barren Tree , Petrus Christus, c.1450

Our Lady of the Barren Tree, Petrus Christus, c.1450

The concentric eggs of being represented through: tree/ elder/ language matrix; mother (principle of gender and conception); child/ symbol/ idea – fed directly into the writing of Becoming. At some point I thought I’d write in detail about the depictions of women in religious paintings in the National Gallery, about how we couldn’t have anything other than a sexist culture while this remained the venerated canon which daily processions of schoolchildren toured around. Eventually this morphed into its current incarnation as a sequence on motherhood, pain & gender, which itself was more directly inspired by the tense-bending, evanescent tongue I found in Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva.

The third part of sub rosa was always intended to be a dance/performance piece. Yet it took a very different form from what I originally imagined. I thought very carefully about the progress of the sequences: from highly individualised initiation through sorrow, culminating in ‘Deceit & Habitat’, where the apex of miserable consumerist/ sexual substitution is reached; to an engagement with inheritance and identification (or the lack of it) in Becoming, and then, to a movement out into community. A gradual process of erosion and de-individuation. Originally I had envisioned this final part as a collective dance piece, but it became a personal ritual of transfiguration, a way to mark how my understandings and the project had changed, and to let old forms slip away. Which was always the intention of sub rosa: to find my personal writing voice, my own real concerns.

CG: It's been six years between your last full-length collection Teens and sub rosa. Although there are commonalities in the style, the extraordinary facility with language, and the sense of the possible, sub rosa seems a more sober working with a stronger sense of internal consistency – this is not a criticism of Teens but there seems to be a difference in the poets that informs the two books, although crucially both texts address sensuality and the body (reading ‘Three Strikes’ against ‘The Moon’s Move’, for instance). How do you see the relationship between these books, and how did you move from one to the other?

FL: Yes! There is a distinct difference between these two books. When the publishers of Teens approached me, they were keen to bring together everything I had done. At this point I was already writing sub rosa, and I didn’t want to mix the two projects. I was very clear that everything I was writing that was part of this project was of a distinctly different style.

As I’ve hinted already, I felt that Teens encapsulated a very specific part of my life as a poet. It isn’t an accident that sub rosa begins with a poem written to a poet on the other side of the world with whom I had shared some of that specific, secret life, the intense enthusiastic kinship which germinated the communal poetics and orientation in the world for that small & still close generation. I am more or less entreating him to answer for the world of philosophical, imaginative grandeur we had left behind, which hangs over the frightening banality of life outside it, like a vaporous gateway it seemed impossible to re-enter.

More than a difference in poetic influence, I was gobbling up every form of avant-garde poetry I could get my hands on when I was writing Teens, and it all fused together to create its anti-stylistic, trying-on-everything-for-a-second-but-still-specific style. sub rosa is different because I started to know what I really valued in writing, and I came to learn that I value process and concept more than style alone.

Much of my process with sub rosa was about learning to trust the work. Quite often with certain poems in Teens I lacked the confidence to bring the poems to a point of personal satisfaction. With sub rosa, I only kept something in if I was 100% certain of its veracity, its accomplishment: at times that meant trusting the work’s capacity to speak beyond my understanding, for we shared the same horizons if not the same acuity of vision. (Poetry knows more than its makers do; perhaps there’s little joy in writing it without that precondition.) What could sound like control in this context is really surrender: if a poem couldn’t be brought to fruition I assumed that it didn’t want to be born for eyes other than mine, & let it go.

CG: In many of the poems of sub rosa, it seems that you give that trust to the poem as a way to reflect on ideas for which the language of direct statement is not always sufficient, and one of those is gender. ‘Becoming’ and ‘Transubstantiation’ are the ones I find most affecting in this way, and they feature the interrogation of the category of ‘woman’ in particular – ‘not the true feminine, but the suppression of self that I experience’. How do your poems think about gender, and are there other poets who come into that process for you?

FL: I have, quite literally, contemplated this question for weeks. So thank you for such a bold and complicated question! I guess I should first obviously state that my poetry is inseparable from my thinking process as a feminist and non-binary person. Nonetheless, my poetry was initially nurtured in an environment which was predominantly heterosexual and overwhelmingly white and cis male. I am thrilled to see the way UK poetry has shifted over the last decade, towards a more diverse range of voices and traditions – it is a genuine source of joy and relief. This includes your work with Zarf, Gloria Dawson, Dom Hale, Nisha Ramayya, Caspar Heinemann, Azad Sharma & Kashif Sharma-Patel of The 87 Press, Pratyusha, Momtaza Mehri, and so many more. It creates space for so much and so many, and I’m really heartened by it.

In certain poems from Teens and the first and second sections of sub rosa, there are clear critiques of misogyny, marriage, the disposability of women as love objects and screens for projection of unhealed patriarchal wounds. ‘Casebook’, from Teens, represents the subject speaking back, and this was the first time I felt I’d broken through as a poet to what I really wanted to say. I looked at many photographs of the Surrealist women and made collages and drawings alongside the poetry to better understand the fragmentation and depersonalization experienced by many of the long-suffering Surrealist women artists and muses, such as Unica Zurn, Lee Miller and Leonora Carrington. Throughout ‘Becoming’ I examined archetypes of femininity as the idea of ‘non-binary’ began to properly take hold in the broader conversation about gender, and ‘Transubstantiation’ attempts to capture my new understanding of my own genderfluidity. Then the third section aims to liberate the self from the prison of false projections, dissolving and reconstructing them via the compositional stuff of life itself.

My newer work seems more ethereal and strange and genderless than it has ever been before. Much of this writing seems to emanate from a chorus of voices, moving between individual bodily experiences and group mind.

Women writers and artists have always been my first love, and primary inspiration. Important poets to me on the subject of gender include: Mina Loy, John Wieners, the always-extraordinary Marianne Morris, Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta, Emji Spero, Caspar Heinemann, j/j hastain, Nat Raha, Samantha Walton, CA Conrad, TC Tolbert, Ariana of course, John Wilkinson, Bhanu Kapil, Celia Dropkin, Marosa di Giorgio, Amy Berkowitz, Sara Larsen, ANNE BOYER… oh I could go on and on…

CG: Your poem ‘A Dream of the Cyborg as a Metaphor for the Historical Body Called Language’ appeared in the ‘Trans/queer’ issue of Cordite. This bodily/dream poem echoes the treatment of these concerns in  sub rosa. How did that poem come about, and what role does the ‘dream’ play in your poetics?

FL: ‘A Dream of the Cyborg…’ was written when I was in daily rehearsals for Alexandra Pirici’s performance piece, AGGREGATE. The piece features approximately 90 performers, all of whom are enacting a repertoire of gestures echoing images and sounds from art history, the animal kingdom and popular music. We were rehearsing and performing every day for two or three weeks. This poem sprang fully-formed out of the physical experience of inhabiting these cultural spectres, holographic cyborgian echoes from a future we can only guess at. Partway through the run I shaved my head for the first time & felt like a gender-ambiguous alien cat witch.

I have written from & through the dream state. I wrote some poems which are actually just straight transcriptions of extremely odd dreams I had. I keep a dream diary and also have precognitive dreams which frequently prove alarmingly correct. This leads me to understand dreams as a way for our intuition to speak when we are not listening, both to warn and enchant us. I also often write from a (conscious) altered state, which I reach through meditation, trance, movement, communion.

I’d say that poetry itself is a kind of dream state: a harmonic pattern encoding mystery which makes no logical ‘sense’ but feels utterly real, true, important. In that sense I would say that ‘the dream’ – of a different life, a world liberated from the kyriarchy in which the earth, the sacred and the interconnectedness of all beings are foundational ideas – is central to my poetics. For me poetry is a way to enter that world, whilst inhabiting this one, and in that regard it truly is a practice, which tests language’s powers of mediation, code-switching and capacity to hold contrary densities.

On a related body/ dream note, I am particularly interested in how movement has the capacity to affect what and how we write. Three minutes of dancing or breathing can completely change how you feel, get you into your body, and open up areas of consciousness that are otherwise inaccessible. It is really about having more presence & breaking the cognitive grip over your linguistic faculty. Much of the work in sub rosa – ‘Becoming’ and all of ‘Ecstasy (Dispersal)’ – are written directly from this state of sustained physical engagement.

In an ableist, capitalist world, in which some bodies suffer more than others and emotional trauma is passed down as illness through generation after generation, the body remains a battleground. When the world that is summoned in poetry (& the arts more widely) is brought into our physical experience: is that magic? I believe that for everyone, and especially for those of us in various positions of oppression, these moments of presence or transmission which art facilitates give us the opportunity to change our lives and shape our resistance more effectively. That is why for me, everything I do is both a practice in its own right, and part of a larger system aimed at healing and empowerment.

CG: In a climate where many poets are attached to academic institutions in various capacities, you’re walking a rather different path. What advantages and challenges do you think this presents for a writer? Do you see universities’ involvement in literary cultures as benign, pernicious, or just something you’re not interested in?

FL: I would love to pursue a terminal degree. Due to various circumstances, it hasn’t happened yet, but it’s still my intention to do further study. My non-institutional existence is not as deliberate as it may seem!

There’s a great deal to say on this topic, so I will restrict myself to two points. Firstly, my decade outside of academia has been instrumental in helping me to understand myself primarily as an artist rather than as an intellectual or critic. I often feel that experimental poetry has more in common with the visual arts and music, rather than fiction, and it might well benefit from being taught alongside those instead. I see poetry as occupying a separate genre from mainstream fiction, since they involve vastly different cognitive processes for reader & writer – whereas the ‘novels’ of Kathy Acker, Ann Quin and Beckett have so much to offer contemporary poets and artists.

Secondly, I understand that given this often-restrictive labelling of poetry as ‘imaginative literature’ rather than as sonic, physical, or visual experience, it may struggle to survive outside of academia as the considerably less popular cousin of narrative storytelling. What I’ve witnessed first-hand as a performer and writer, however, strongly challenges that conception. People are fascinated by the strange magic of poetry whenever they encounter it, and are far more open to experimental work than mainstream culture would have us believe. Small press & experimental arts have always thrived in non-institutional settings and DIY scenes.

I also believe that working in academia, being prompted to engage with literary texts in depth and open the invitations of that work to others can really fuel one’s writing. From a funding perspective, I wish there was more financial support for experimental and interdisciplinary poets who aren’t attached to academic institutions, simply because it is very difficult to make work outside of them.

I guess that universities’ involvement in experimental poetry both fosters its continuation, and unnecessarily inhibits its development and ability to reach across social divides. But really the problem is structural, and thus political: rather than blaming universities, we should ask what the hell has happened to public support for boundary-pushing arts and culture, and why it has disappeared. (Those who wonder what I’m talking about should investigate Derek Jarman and Charles Atlas’ work with Channel 4 in the ‘80s, for starters.)

CG: As well as being a poet, you also work as an astrologer. How does your poetic practice tie into your work with Glitter Oracle? Does the process of doing those readings involve any of the same skills and energies as writing poetry, and/or performing?

FL: Definitely, yes! The process of reading a birth chart or a spread of cards is very similar to writing an essay on a work of literature or art you adore – that is, you are showing understanding through extensive engagement and debate. Intuition and counselling skills also play a major part, but essentially with astrology you are decoding a snapshot of a moment in time. (Maybe this also helps to understand why tea-leaves and even entrails have been traditionally consulted as divinatory portals: future & past meet in the unconscious traces of the present). Most fascinating is watching people slowly realise that planets and transits aren’t external energies, and therefore are not something to be feared.

Something I value in both poetry and divination is precision. Both offer uniquely specific vocabularies for conscious experience. As we know, poems are spells which can enable their writers and readers to redistribute and reclaim power in both subtle and profound ways. Mythology, mysticism & astrological terminology permeate my writing from the beginning, because I discovered astrology and tarot at about the same time I started writing the work that would be published in Teens. I’ve been working with crystals and spells and the natural world since early adolescence. I think people often assume I’ve gotten into esoterica in recent years, but the atmosphere’s just been more conducive to coming out of the spiritual closet.

Lastly I would say that poetry, astrology and tarot are all both creative and receptive arts. Many artists have had the experience of ‘channelling’ a piece of work, which arrives more or less fully-formed, although for most this is the exception rather than the rule. I think poets are spirit-workers, whether they are conscious of it or not. We work to attain finely-tuned linguistic antennae, combining the transmissions received with personal intellect, patterning and musicality in order to express something beyond regular comprehension. In that regard, it’s always a collaboration: we do the work and then trust it to transcend us. Art must find its audience, just as intuitive readings work best as conversations. Personally I love making writing and art without knowing where it’s going, art which teaches me how to let go and dance with the uncertainty and opportunity it offers, which is basically a metonym for living with awe.

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FRANCESCA LISETTE is the author of Teens (Mountain, 2012) & sub rosa: The Book of Metaphysics (Boiler House, 2018). Recent work can be found in Chicago Review, MOTE and the anthology SPELLS: 21st Century Occult Poetry. They are teaching a class on astrology, embodiment and writing for creative practitioners – learn more & sign up here.

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.CALLIE GARDNER is a poet and editor from Glasgow. Their book naturally it is not. was published last year by The 87 Press and they edit Zarf poetry magazine and its associated pamphlet press Zarf Editions, which has most recently published work by Pratyusha and Alison Rumfitt.