Lucy Sheerman discusses Book of The Fur with its writer Redell Olsen.
Lucy: I was very excited to open Book of The Fur and dissect it. I love the way that you have spliced together images with text, and the way that different modes of narrative were stitched together and pulled apart. It is a bizarre and crazily ambitious project for a first book-length work but it hangs together really elegantly. Can you tell me a bit about how the project came into being?
Redell: I was interested in trying to experiment with types of writing that might actually be furry. I am interested in the concept of fur on a number of levels: it is the space between skin and the outside and it is also something which occupies an in-between space. It is something that is comforting at the same time as being quite disgusting.
Lucy: I love the way in which language is pulled and tugged around in the book to reveal tensions and rips and flaws. The way language operates as surface, revealing flashes and glimpses of bloodiness and flesh as well as the discarded elements of fat, bone, and eyeball. It seems like a depiction of the way in which words are stitched together during the writing process and how elements are excised or scraped away. Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing Book of The Fur?
Redell: I took lots of source material from old-fashioned books on fur trapping and processing. I amassed a huge amount of material but ultimately I did tend to choose texts relating to parts of the process after the animals had been caught, at the point at which the raw material is changed through a mixture of skill and artifice into apparently glamourous commodities. I was struck by the gruesome processes involved at the same time as being intrigued by the extraordinary vocabulary that completely obliterated the actual history of the origin of the furs. All of which had become lost in the dictionary tables of terminology and the long descriptions of dyeing the furs to make them look as if they had come from more rare and therefore more expensive animals. That is what the last section is about, “for Australian Seal read Rabbit/for Baffin Seal read Rabbit/for Baltic Leopard read Australian Rabbit...”
Lucy: Yes, I enjoyed the romance of names such as ‘Seal Musquash,’ ‘Royal Pastel,’’Bluerette’ and ‘Sapphire.’ They are names that mask the whole process of trapping and slaughtering. It seems to show a reliance on romantic brand names that are completely at odds with the actual animal fur used.
Lucy: Could you say a bit about how the diagrams and pictures work with the text?
Redell: The diagrams and pictures were taken from much of the source material I was using; books on fur trapping I found in the British Library, pamphlets on treating fur, on wild cats, on how to make beaver hats...
Lucy: Obviously you are intending to make the pun on beavers and female anatomy?
Redell: Yes, on not being able to represent directly sexuality because of the ease with which it could be simulated back into a very different type of exploitative text. But I suppose this question of exploitation/recuperation is the very thing that I am trying to address in the work.
Lucy: And is this important in terms of your use of images and diagrams?
Redell: Yes, to the extent that I wanted the pictures and diagrams to work in a way that gave a literal context to the writing at the same time as unsettling that context. Obviously the poem isn’t about beavers, foxes and rabbits. It’s about sexuality and the packaging of it—the fluctuating gap between the natural and the commodified.
Lucy: There is something strange and uncanny about the way these coats and furry objects exist as a result of the slaughter of a living creature. There is the obvious point about the sentimentality associated with animals being killed for their fur, but there is also the sense that this is actually a fetish object. Taking something that for one creature has an ontological function (in being crucial to its very existence) and translating it into another thing that, for another creature, is function defined by form, pure appearance dictated by commodity value and status. How do these issues relate to your writing?
Redell: Well, I suppose that I was interested in this ‘uncanniness’ that you are mentioning in the sense of a fetishization of an object which is also a loss of recognition. I’ve been reading Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror and thinking about how she defines the abject as “a failure to recognise its kin.”(5) To wear fur is not to recognise it as belonging to another living thing. I wanted to relate this gap to the position of women’s practice in language and art which might itself be a state of abjection. I wanted to explore the possible flip-side to this apparently negative position. Kristeva is defining a conceptual position that she describes as a kind of “vortex of summons and repulsion [which] places [the] one haunted by it literally beside [her]self.”(1) I think that using such a range of source material does place you beside oneself. A writing that is already half someone else’s or that quite obviously belongs elsewhere seems to me to offer quite an interesting position from which to begin an investigation, to acknowledge those previous contexts and see where it leads.
Lucy: There is something else too, in this metaphor of furriness and its theft or displacement. The way in which poetry itself involves a process of slaughter or flaying. Something about the directions or meanings of words and phrases that are lost, disrupted or sacrificed in the process of creating a poetic text: the blood on the cutting room floor. The series of little deaths that occur in the text and inevitably make up its meaning.
Redell: Yes, related to that I suppose I was conscious of a number of ghosts haunting the writing of it, especially Meret Oppenheim’s fur covered tea cup. The narrative interventions that punctuate the text are taken from a catalogue describing how she got the inspiration to make that piece. I’m interested in its status as a very ambiguous object that is both a symbol of desire and loss, particularly a loss of functionality.
Lucy: Yes, Oppenheim’s work has an obsessiveness about it that I can feel coming across in Book of the Fur.
Redell: I’m glad about that. I actually use some of the words and phrases from her poetry near the end of the book. A kind of perverse homage that involved the ‘flaying’ of the work from the more obvious modernist clichés that are threatening to engulf it and representing it as snippets of pronoun drama and phrases literally caught from parts of her sentences.
Lucy: I like the way that your text manages to sustain the reader through a range of different approaches or assaults on the idea of furriness, skin, blood, and gore. As a female reader I loved the grotesque kitsch of it: fashion combining with victimisation; the gore involved in putting on war paint; the self-inflicted wounding through ear piercing, hair plucking, waxing, and shaving; the sense of disgust involved in the process of beautification, titivation.
Redell: Yes, I started reading about the history of fur garments and imagining all these parallels between writing and clothing. In my mind there became a connection between the whole history of writing on parchment that used to be the hide of an animal—the skin of something—and the history of fur and representations of female sexuality. Did you know it wasn’t until the twentieth century that people started wearing fur on the outside of their clothes? Until then it had been worn on the inside. Similarly, there is a right and a wrong side for writing on parchment. The wrong side is hairy. I was wondering if women writers might be on the hairy/furry side of writing and what it might be like to try and write a text that acknowledged this furriness.
Lucy: How did this relationship between language and fur, between the metaphorical blank white space and the hairiness of the page of parchment, have a formal impact on the work?
Redell: Sometimes in a quite literal way, as in the section beginning, “kith nomenclature...” which has long lines that run on and on. There I was trying to mimic diagrams of diagonal seams used to join pieces of fur together in finished garments. At other times it has more to do with an overall texture created by the degree to which the source material is assimilated or sticks out, like bristles I suppose!
Lucy: The way in which you think about fur in relation to language and the theft or colonisation of the function and space of the other reminds me a lot of the work of Susan Howe. She is concerned with the devastating impact of European settlers on the American landscape and has explored the emergence of an American text that both reflects and conceals this impact. Are you interested in Susan Howe and some of the other American writers undertaking this kind of investigation?
Redell: Very much so. I am interested in the way Susan Howe uses source texts in her work, allowing the original context to show through, from under the page as it were. Her use of the page as a visual space is extraordinary.
Lucy: I was thinking also of the way in which she reconstitutes a silenced or excised moment or person (such as Mary Rowlandson) in relation to your exploration of the figure of Meret Oppenheim?
Redell: Yes, I hadn’t thought of it in that way but yes, I find that a fascinating aspect of her writing; the way in which she is able to represent these voices and people apparently lost to history without pretending to speak through them in some kind of fictionalised construction.
I also met Joan Retallack last year when she was visiting England and I really enjoyed talking to her about different approaches to the writing process. Similarly, I’m interested in Carla Harryman and Leslie Scalapino because of their use of narrative, narratives which often involve the abject in some way.
Lucy: It seems to me that these are all writers who are very concerned with the ethics of writing and language. The relation between writing and female sexuality is one of the really gripping metaphors of this book. I like the questions it raises about the occurrence of prettiness, glamour and excess in the form and content of the writing. The ethical dimension of an aesthetic of practice is obviously important to you?
Redell: Yes, and I think I’ve come to a better understanding of that through carrying out the project. At first all I knew was that I wanted to write in a way which had the formal qualities of fur. The more research I did into fur handbooks, the PETA website, etc., it became less easy to use the metaphor in a theoretical or abstract way without addressing the materiality of fur and its history. I couldn’t just appropriate it out of its context. There was also a lot in the media at the time. The Guardian ran a headline, ‘COMPASSION IS SO LAST YEAR,’ followed by a description of the fashion industry’s revival of fur on the catwalks. I didn’t want to write the poetic equivalent of that so I had to take on board more than the fluffy abstraction of writing as fur that perhaps I started off with.
Julia Kristeva. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.
Bio: Lucy Sheerman is the editor of rem press in Cambridge, England.