To Experience Myself as Foreign: An Interview with Eva Heisler by Kristina Marie Darling

Eva Heisler Author PhotoEva Heisler is a Maryland-born poet and art critic currently based near Heidelberg, Germany. Her poems have been widely published in journals including Crazyhorse, BOMB, and Poetry Northwest. Honors include The Nation’s “Discovery” Award and the Poetry Society of America’s Emily Dickinson Award. A Fulbright grant brought Heisler to Iceland in 1997 where she lived for nine years, researching art in the Nordic countries with a focus on conceptual and performance-based practices. Heisler’s collection of poems Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic (Kore, 2013) uses Icelandic translations of Dickinson’s poems as a starting point for exploring experiences of failed translation, broken speech, and the impact of language on perception. Her book-length poem Drawing Water (Noctuary, 2013) is an exploratory meditation on the use of line in poetry and the visual arts. I recently had the chance to ask Eva a few questions about her exciting work. 


Kristina Marie Darling:  As someone who’s lived in such diverse places as Iceland, upstate New York, and Heidelberg, Germany, I’d love to hear you speak about the relationship between travel and your creative practice.  What does a new setting, or an unfamiliar locale, make possible within your work?

Eva Heisler:  To travel is to experience myself as foreign. What, in the States, are the comforts and amusements of language become, in a foreign country, the embarrassments of speaking poorly with exaggerated gestures and theatrical facial expressions in order to communicate. I become a stranger to myself.

I had a speech impediment as a child, and my earliest memories are of not being understood.

I outgrew the speech impediment but today, when I speak a foreign language, I often feel like I did when trying to speak as a child. I am aware of my own body, its discomfort, as I struggle to voice a language that is not mine. It is a strange experience because I am flooded, not with specific memories, but with the physical sensations of a child’s frustration at not being understood.

Outside the States, encountering other languages, I become acutely aware of language as embodied, of how the voice is shaped by the body and fine-tuned by cultural habits. Experiencing my voice as foreign and impaired has complicated my understanding of voice in poetry: the voice—as intransigent, as misguided, as noise—is something I tried to explore in Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic. 

Recently I’ve been interested in the work of Yoko Tawada who writes in both Japanese and German. She moved to Germany in her early twenties, and her quirky prose often takes translation as subject. She has spoken of the inclination to “enter into the crevice between sound and language and make countless notes.” I didn’t know Tawada’s work when I was writing Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic, but I identify with the image of hunkering in that crevice between sound and meaning, and many poems in this book are the product of taking notes in that crevice.

KMD:  I truly enjoyed your first book, Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic, and found myself intrigued by your desire to place Dickinson’s life, work, and the mythology surrounding her in a wonderfully unexpected context. Can you tell us more about the origins of the project?  In what ways did the project grow out of your time as a Fulbright scholar in Iceland?  How did the manuscript change shape as you worked?

EH:  In the late 1990s, I became fascinated by four bodies of work by the sculptor Roni Horn. Horn had taken lines from Emily Dickinson and presented them as configurations of aluminum columns and cubes. I was most interested in the series When Dickinson Shut Her Eyes (1993) because entire poems are presented as aluminum columns propped against the wall. Solid black letters extend through the columns, and Dickinson’s lines are fully three-dimensional (not just lines placed on an object). The columns lean against the wall at different angles; some are placed so the lines are seen in reverse; some are placed sideways so the letter-edges form illegible stripes resembling a bar code. To read a given poem requires that one frequently shift position, and I was interested in how Horn was spatializing the experience of reading a Dickinson poem.

As a poet, I was unsettled to find Dickinson’s eccentric lyrics transformed into machined objects. As an art critic and doctoral student in the history of art, I was intrigued because, although text-based work is common in the art world, Horn’s Dickinson-objects are testing both the experience of sculpture and the experience of reading Dickinson. Moving among the columns, turning this way and that in order to read Dickinson’s lines on Horn’s objects, my body mirrors the difficulties of reading Dickinson on the page. Horn’s objects are sensitive to the syntactic eccentricities of Dickinson’s poems at the same time that they are stubbornly three-dimensional.

Horn’s four sets of Dickinson-inspired works were conceived in Iceland, where the artist frequently traveled, and I received a 1997-1998 Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research grant to explore the relationship of Iceland to Horn’s Dickinson-objects. My intention, in going to Iceland, was to focus solely on questions having to do with the role of geology and experiences of “place” in Horn’s work.

In Reykjavik, I encountered a thriving art scene, and I became drawn to the activities of Icelandic artists. I was particularly fascinated by the relationship of Iceland’s literary traditions to the emergence of conceptual art, and by the relationship of the music scene and Icelandic theater traditions to performance-based practices. While it was a dissertation on Horn’s use of Dickinson that motivated the grant to Iceland, it was research on Icelandic art that kept me there for nine years. It took me a long time to write the dissertation on Horn and Dickinson because I was so preoccupied with other research and curatorial projects.

The poems in Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic are not related to my dissertation except that Dickinson appears in both. Certainly my choice of dissertation topic comes out of my own interests as a poet, but I am working with a different set of questions.  In the dissertation, I’m trying to figure out how, and why, characteristics of the Dickinson lyric materialize in sculpture. In my poems, I am struggling with my own relationship to Dickinson.  Dickinson as a force field. Dickinson as an irritation. Dickinson as an inspiration. The poem “Larceny—Legacy—” explores how my relationship to Dickinson has changed over the years. The title sequence “Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic” is an attempt to defamiliarize Dickinson, to turn her lines into foreign bodies by working with Icelandic translations of them.

William Stafford has described the poem as “an emergency of the spirit.” Several emergencies of the spirit, and emergencies of feeling, prompted the journaling that eventually coalesced into the prose poems of Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic. The manuscript’s emergencies were re-worked over several years, but it was only when the emergencies became inquiries (inquiries into voice, vocabulary, romance, culture) that the manuscript began to resist the self-absorption of its lyric “I”. The sequence is often read as autobiographical but really it isn’t; the compression of the prose poem helped me rein in excesses of feeling and tighten my thinking.

KMD: Your second collection, Drawing Water, is very different from your first, making use of typography in a way that I found innovative and exciting.  What prompted this interest in stylistic experimentation as you transitioned from your first book to this newer project?  What works (visual art, poetry, fiction, criticism, etc.) most inspired you to experiment in this way?

EH:  As a poet, line is a persistent problem (and pleasure) for me. Sometimes line is about the breath. Sometimes line tracks the waywardness of a thought. Sometimes line is about marking time, or engaging space. Sometimes the line is predictably “poetic.” In the years leading up to Drawing Water, I had gone through a crisis with my use of line. I began to doubt my line breaks and to mistrust enjambment, and so I turned to the prose poem. It was only when I noticed how frequently I was talking about line when discussing works of art, that I then decided to return to using line in an exploratory meditation on the line.

As an art critic, I often describe how artists use line. I’m always interested in works that test my assumptions about what counts as a drawing. Let me give two examples. The Icelandic conceptual artist Kristján Guðmundsson has made, over the course of his long career, many works that explore the medium of drawing. In one work, Faster and Slower Lines (1976), the artist tried to embody time in his lines by drawing with ink on blotting paper. Each line was drawn for the same length of time, but the lines varied in length and width because the lines that were drawn more slowly resulted in more ink being absorbed by the blotting paper, thus resulting in thicker lines. On one hand, this is a very simple work: it’s just a series of parallel lines. But the work’s material and its execution is a quite interesting exercise in representing the “flow” of time. The artist’s use of line, in other works, might be considered a metaphor for the poetic line. For example, Folded Horizon (1993) consists of a long slender line cut from carbon paper; this so-called horizon line is so long (about 100 meters) that it cannot be stretched horizontally on a wall and must be folded back and forth (like a queue in pubic space). The horizon marks the limit of sight: the shimmer of the horizon line in a painting visualizes the non-visible. The folding of the horizon might serve as metaphor for the way in which lineation in a poem works: the horizon, the point of visibility, of understanding, is constantly shifting, turning back on itself, even as it moves forward.

I am painstaking in my attempts to describe art works; and the more conceptual the work, the more difficult the task. Drawing Water emerged when I experimented with describing the poetic line as if it were line in an art work. I took the same careful language used to describe an artist’s line – whether that be a line that is descriptive, expressive, or conceptual – and used the specific vocabulary of material, technique, and process to evoke a writing practice.

Some of Drawing Water recycles descriptions that were published as a series of art diaries published in the weekly culture magazine of Iceland’s daily newspaper. This diary was translated into Icelandic, and published in Icelandic only over the course of five months. My use of these descriptions was a deliberate act of self-plagiarism, of myself the poet plagiarizing myself as an art critic who was read (and frequently misunderstood) in a language that she herself had difficulty reading.

I continue to be inspired, and challenged, by contemporary art practices. I was recently appointed Visual Editor of Asymptote, an international journal of literature and translation, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with artists who engage with issues of linguistic identity, globalization, and translation.