Hystory, Mythstory: A Conversation with Adeena Karasick

Phantasmagoric wordslinger, feminist ru/apturist extraordinaire, and original riot grrl Adeena Karasick recently sat down (virtually) with us to toast the launch of her new chapbook with Gap Riot Press, Salomé : Woman of Valor, its operatic performance at the 2018 Chutzpah! Festival running March 8-10 in Vancouver, and her newest work coming out with Talonbooks, Checking In.

Gap Riot had the pleasure of publishing the libretto to Salomé as a chapbook last fall (grab your copy in our shop!). No stranger to the magic of mashups, Karasick’s Salomé is coming alive at the Chutzpah! Festival as a multimediatic spectacle including music from Frank London, Karasick’s poetry, projected visual art, and dance.  

A Canadian New York-based poet, performer, cultural theorist, and multimedia performance artist, Karasick is the author of nine books of poetry and has produced numerous videopoems. Her second book of poetry, Mêmewars (Talonbooks, 1994) won the Silver Award for the 1995 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her eighth book of poetry, This Poem (Talonbooks 2012) was named one of the Top Five Poetry Books of 2012 by The Jewish Daily Forward. She is the recipient of a 2016 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Award and the 2016 Voce Donna Italia Award.

She currently teaches Literature and Critical Theory at the Pratt Institute in New York, and is co-founding Artistic Director of KlezKanada Poetry Festival and Retreat. In 2017, the Adeena Karasick Archive was established at Simon Fraser University’s Special Collections.

Adeena will be reading at Gap Riot’s Official Launch Party with bill bissett, Canisia Lubrin, and others on April 12, 7-9pm at The Brandscape in Toronto. 

Kate Siklosi: Why Salomé and why now? How did it come about?

Adeena Karasick: Frank London, the recently knighted, Grammy award winning composer and trumpeter, approached me wanting to do a project together. We both fell in love with the disasterously problematic but crazy beautiful Charles Bryant black & white silent film, Salomé (1921) and thought it would be so great to work with that material in some way.

But — it always bothered me how within Christian mythology, and entrenched in history by Oscar Wilde, Flaubert, Mallarmé, Klimt, Moreau, and Beardsley, Salomé was seen as yet another Jewish temptress / Christian killer — but after a ton of research I realized there isn’t any evidence to substantiate this claim. According to apocrypha and Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities she came from Jewish royalty and there is no evidence that she murdered John the Baptist or even danced for Herod. The only historical reference that Herodias’ daughter’s name was “Salomé” is from Josephus who makes no other claims about her – not that she danced for Herod, not that she demanded John’s head. The other apocryphal reference is that a ‘daughter’ danced for Herod, which caused him to lose his mind and kill John the Baptist. Thus, the conflated Salomé that appears in the Wilde play, Strauss opera, and all subsequent productions, is an amalgamated construct. Fascinated with how, especially at this moment in history, facts are constructed and how stories become “real,” I felt compelled to set the record straight.

According to Jewish History, there were actually three women named Salomé: Salomé, daughter of Herodias and Herod II, (c. AD 14-71), Queen Salomé, her great aunt (65 BCE-10CE), and Salomé Alexandra (139-67 BCE). Her great aunt Salomé I, was the powerful sister and force behind Herod the Great, King of Judea (and 2nd Temple Re-builder). And Salomé Alexandra, Shelomtzion, was the only Jewish regnant queen of the Hasmoneans, reigning from 75 B.C.E. until her death in 67 BCE.  As the daughter of a prominent Pharisaic family, and wife of the Hasmonean king Aristobulus I, she helped liberate his brother, Alexander Jannaeus, from prison, secured Pharisaic support for the continued Hasmonean monarchy, brought the Pharisees to prominence in government, and instituted a golden age which helped lay the foundations for nationwide educational and judicial reform.

I wanted my Salomé, Salomé (of Valor), to carry the weight of both her genetic lineage and the cultural heredity of her name, embodying the legacy and power of the women that came before her.  And so the project was born and has been shaped and reshaped for the good part of 5 years. Earlier this year the full text was published by University of Padova Press in dual edition of Italian and English and I toured solo with it across Italy US, Morocco, and India. And now it is launching as a Spoken Word Opera in Vancouver at the Chutzpah! Festival with live musicians, dancers, and screen projections. The newly established Gap Riot Press published the libretto for it in an exquisite press run – and I am ecstatic and so incredibly grateful to you and Dani Spinosa for your passion, vision, and crucial contribution to feminist thinking, and for having Salomé: Woman of Valor be part of your inaugural season.

KS: How does Salomé compare to your previous work? How is it similar/different?

AK: As the author of nine books invested in issues of ethnicity, gender, and ways to construct meaning, this project has allowed me to integrate all my passions in one work, and into something that I’ve never done before. In it, I weave together the multiple styles of writing that I’ve experimented with over the years – sound poetry, homophonic translations, post-language conceptualism, Kabbalistic and feminist revisionist practices, all syntactically playful, polyphonic, ironic, and rhythmically complex – a fusion of all that I love to do aesthetically while also opening a space of female empowerment.

Though I’ve performed with musicians, dancers, and other artists in Canada, the US, Israel, France, Italy, Morocco, India, I’ve never done anything of this scope – an integration of performance poetry, dance, music, and video exploring the dialectic between narrative and abstraction – so, it’s a quantum leap forward in collaborative artistic development that challenges my conceptual processes of making an artwork.  Also it’s really exciting foregrounding the work as music itself – where the dancers at times are just moving to the rhythm and textures of the language. It’s kinda bare and beautiful. I couldn’t be more excited.

KS: There is a strong trope of “losing one’s head” throughout Salomé, which can be synonymous with losing one’s composure in irrational anger. And, in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed reminds us that the conflation between feminism and irrational anger is a longstanding phenomenon. However, “the reading of feminism as a form of anger,” according to Ahmed, “allows the dismissal of feminist claims, even when the anger is a reasonable response to social injustice.” How do you see the losing/taking of heads working as a place of possible resistance or reclamation in your work? 

AK: Interesting question! In my text, the passion is not so much irrational but relational. And yes, as Ahmed might point out, in some cases anger IS a reasonable response as an act of resistance; however, I prefer to think of anger in terms of the Old Norse etymology angra which is “to vex,” to shake up, trouble, displace. Or also to think of anger from the Greek, (menis) which is derived from the expression “not one” (me hen), which “deprives contending parties of their ‘oneness’ by setting them apart” (Eustathius, “Commentary to The Iliad,” A.8). And that is exactly what I was interested in exploring: setting this story apart from the received narrative, and vexing that narrative while navigating the implications of losing one’s head, both metaphorically and figuratively.

Particularly, I was thinking about how that signifies in terms of head / body separations, which have indeed “vexed” us, as women, for centuries. To that end, I wanted to open up a heady space whereby decapitation is re-negotiated not as a site of fetishized violence and sensationalism, but stands in for a range of dissonance, dissidence, difference. So even though in my version, Salomé does take Iokhanan’s (John the Baptist’s) head, for her, it’s not an artifact, an accessory, a fetish, but is the site of multidisciplinarity, multiplicity, dialogy. Separated, the head foregrounds the thinking body – a site of the absence presence, of lost referents, of apostrophic spectrality. And also, crucially, the separation of the head from the body pays homage to the Kabbalistic notion of the separation of the primordial letters.

But I am getting ahead of myself! ; )

It’s a headerogenous play of not so much “anger” but hunger and resistance.

KS: Salomé is being performed soon at the 2018 Chutzpah! festival as a spoken word opera. What does performing the work using music, text, and dance do to the work itself?

salome1


AK: It allows the viewer to experience language in a potentially more visceral way. Having it both performed and also up on screens in both readable and asemic / vispo-ish manifestations, it asks the audience to re-negotiate language as sparks of light and infinite play; to celebrate its physical materiality and feel it as an infinite, unfolding, communicative “machine,” and a site of elliptic desire.

KS: Does experimental poetry do a better / more nuanced job of telling stories than history, especially when those stories involve female (dis)empowerment? 

salome2

AK: Perhaps not just for stories involving female (dis)empowerment, but in de-colonializing the language, remolding it to new usages, marking a separation from the site of colonial (patriarchal etc) privilege, poetry reminds us how there is never just “one story.” The Salomé performance begins with, “[i]n axes of excess, succulent access / through wracked tracks vexed nexus / Come / into the thickness of hystory, mythstory, mystery, mastery, matrices, come…” By refusing the categories of the colonial center, such experimentation opens itself up for a multiplicity of voices to be heard, asks us to listen in new ways.

So, YES, through strategies of juxtaposition and paradox, a palimpsestic play of codes, voices, genres, a syncretic intermixing of myths, legends, styles, textures, dialects, and lexicons, the text announces itself as a site of otherness, of defamiliarity, and thus opens up a space for questions vs answers. It invites a sense of wonder as it embraces all the conflictual possibilities, erupting as a kind of euphoric, chiasmatic nexus of meaning production, where there can never be just one narrative.

KS:  What can we learn from the love story of Salomé?

AK: Well, though my Salomé is an illicit and tragic love story of Salomé and Iokhanan, it is also a love story of language and meaning. It’s about desire and postponement, about how (between the not-there-yet and always-already) we can never get what we want, and how language, because of its infinite slipperiness, forbids us to say what we mean or mean what we say. Perhaps it teaches us to revel in the jouissance, in the passion of the inter-textural bliss of the now that is always just out of reach, and demonstrates how the relationship between the body-corps and body-text is so very real.

KS:  What do you see the current role of the poet being in larger culture, if they have one?

AK: If we believe that language use is directly connected to how we feel, think, and behave, then through strategies of difference defamiliarization, a celebration of juxtaposition and paradox, the poet opens up a crucial space for re-visioning. Re-presenting the world as a slippery ellipsis of contexts and possibilities, inter-subjective theaters of infinite reframing will lead to transformation and change.

KS:  Tell me about your latest work, Checking In, coming out with Talonbooks.

AK: A compilation of all my passions of the past 30 years, combining theory and pop culture, gender and performance, Checking In is a kinda intertextatic tapestry of homophonic translations (Pound, Olson, Wittgenstein, Cicero); visual poetry, including a re-setting of bp Nichol’s “blues”; “Score for Diacritics,” a satirical mashup of the markers of pronunciation, and a repurposing of Lorum Ipsum (Cicero’s 45 BC treatise on the theory of ethics “de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum”), re-translated as a passionate love poem. And, as the centerpiece to the book, there’s a 40-page piece entitled, “Checking In,” composed of faux Facebook updates.

Post-conceptual, satiric and absurdist, the collection focuses on language and culture, and reads as an exuberant commentary on the timelessness of digital information and our ravenous, insatiable appetite for data and connection, while acknowledging how fraught with myth information can be. Whether it’s “King Ubu dining at Nobu, Gargantua and Pantagruel listening to They Might Be Giants, Immanuel Kant liking No Doubt, Bertold Brecht verfremdunging himself or Uber Allis driving for Lyft, it takes the reader on a satiric tour through the shards and fragments of literary and post-consumerist culture, exposing how, and in what ways, because of technology, we are living in a resonant present, where the past is always with us. And, addressing our political juncture in history, it examines ways that writing “through” history imbues us with new perspectives and asks us to re-think aspects of truth, truth-making, image, and identity.

And in-so-doing, it highlights how data is absurd, and as such, speaks to the way we seek answers, but with answers to questions that have never been asked. We seek fulfillment but enter an unbound, unsettling, uninhibited flow of information where every data point only refers back to itself and the culture of techno-capitalism of the web; performing a kind of nekuia (as Susan Howe invoking Robert Duncan says in Spontaneous Particulars), a rite whereby the dead are made to speak again. Or for Joyce, (in Finnegan’s Wake), “a commodius vicus of recirculation.”

salome3.jpg

For the 2016 Electronic Literary Organization Festival in Victoria, vispo genius visionary Jim Andrews and I created a series of visuals using the text and its referents. He ran a series of 800 or so images through his “db cinema” graphic synthesizer, essentially using those images as paint. The result was a euphorically fragmented, palimpsested, bifurcation of meaning that highlights the construction of memory, meaning production, the materiality of language, and the ever-recombinatory swirling nature of communication – foregrounding how language is always-already intertextatically layered and proprioceptively received. One of them I am using as the cover, a few of them are in the book, and I so look forward to performing with them on a giant screen as I read the work – like interlinguistic fireworks behind me.

salome 4

KS: What female poet should one experience more of?

AK: Victoria Hanna, an Israeli sound artist who uses the text of the sacred 2nd  century Kabbalistic text, Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation, which outlines how the world was created out of letters) as source material. Through her soundwork, she explores the relationship between the creation of the alphabet in the cosmos and the creation of its sounds in the mouth, tongue, teeth, larynx, gut. See below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bl1epz3tSSA

KS:  If you could clone a colony of bill bissetts into a nation, what would their national anthem be?

AK: all is excellent when we ar raging so be awake in the [] desert

becaus nobody owns th earth nobody owns th earth nobody owns th earth

a&b

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