Bio: Maggie O'Sullivan born 20th July, 1951 Lincolnshire, England to Irish Catholic parents. Poet, artist, editor, publisher, she has performed her work and published internationally since the late 1970's and is involved in numerous performance/workshop presentations, courses and residences. Between 1973 and 1988 she worked for BBC-TV, latterly as a researcher and production assistant on arts documentary films, notably the award-winning Arena series. For the last 16 years, has lived on the Pennines outside Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.
Maggie O'Sullivan / Dell Olsen
Writing/Conversation: an interview by mail, November-December 2003
D.O: For the past decade or so you have been living away from London in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, how has this shift from the urban to the rural environment affected your poetics?
M.O’S: Living in place in close relation beside other-than-human sentience has deepened my trust in the provisional, the precarious, in the precisions of the transient – of “what is not yet known, thought, seen, touched but really what is not. And that is” (Eva Hesse)1
… having a feeling of being part of an intimate, boundless, round-me turning of “Non, nothing, everything (Eva Hesse)2 – aware of the sky as an infinite environment of ephemeral vice versa imperatives and winged pathings – particularly at transitional times of great energy such as spring and autumn… and the blizzards, the driving, horizontal rains and the battering winds. And the sonic plunging of water to the earth, into the becks, springs and falls…
…such breaking up and breaking apart within utterances and hearings, de-constructing/re-constituting-as-(being)-heard is embodied in my poetics…
I seem to have moved away from making the large colourful expressionistic assemblages/paintings I did in London (when I was in my thirties) and right up to about the mid-nineties, (when I was in my forties) when I was first here – side by side with my making poetry - towards my work now – where potencies, energy fields, traces of actions/activities move in an open, ongoing dissolving/deformance of the verbal/visual/sculptural into one practice of many heuristic pathings.
D.O.: When I read or hear you talk about your work I am struck by the rich terminology which you employ to reference your poetics. Words and phrases such as “deformance” and “re-constituting-as-(being)-heard” imply a sense of violence and destruction as well as an assembling of raw materials and energies. A “re-constituting-as- (being)-heard” suggests that writing, for you, is bound up with recapturing the fleeting sense of an overheard, or chance encounter which one is never fully able to be part of or reassemble. It seems to me that the place of the page for you is a place of transformation but also of struggle, dissolution and loss. Would you agree with that?
M.O.S: Yes. A place of damage, savagery, pain, silence: also a place of salvage, retrieval and recovery. A place of existence, journeying. A sacred space of undiminishment. Of dream. Of ritual. Of magic. Also a “re-constituting-as-(being)-heard” in the sense that as we hear, we also are heard in an intertwining of potential exchange of hearing-(being)-heard of other-than-(as well as human)-sentience.
D.O.: You have mentioned your need for “other-than-human sentience” in your environment. Animals feature in many of your poems, especially An Incomplete Natural History (1984), From the Handbook of That & Furriery (1986), Unofficial Word (1988), how does this understanding of the “other-than-human” find its way into your poems?
M.O.S: I spend a lot of time in the hearing of birds/hearing birds, and indeed all manner of animals. I feel part of a particular kind of multi-sonic/trans-somatic environment that is filled with other-than-human voicings/breathings /existences - that is always in flux, in-process, unhushed.
I have always felt tremendous empathy with animals. As a child, I was appalled at the casual cruelties and unquestioning hatred and abuse of animals in the world at large. Exploitation and violation of other-than-human beings underpins our society and is embedded at every level in our h/arming hierarchies. I always felt I was no different from other animals. Having lived beside/shared life with animals, I feel this more passionately than ever now. The celebration of the transformative, merciful intelligences and energies of animals is in all my work.
D.O.: I was wondering how this understanding of the “other-than-human sentience” might have impacted in a formal way on your poetics? I was thinking of the way in which it might go hand-in-hand with an opening up of the usual structures of language and communication. A movement towards a feeling for the other that also entails an other form of writing; one that draws on and engages with cycles and energies not defined as human?
M.O.S: New/ancient forms of imaginings without limits that engage with evolving multi and meta-physical breathing/soundings and fluidities - ‘human’ or ‘page’ or ‘dog’ or ‘keyboard’ or ‘waterfall’ - where does one threading run out to begin another?
D.O.: Artists such as Ana Mendieta, and writers such as Cecilia Vicuna would seem to have much in common with your approach to landscape, ritual and indeed performance. How do you see yourself in relation to this tradition of female artists who are working directly with the landscape in relation to their own bodies?
M.O.S.: Much of what I’ve already said above could be said again here – particularly, the drawing upon the earth and the other-than-human – voicing my body/bodying my voicings – Cecilia Vicuna’s powerful practise has been particularly meaningful for me: particularly her commitment to what I call an eco/ethico politics of the earth.
D.O.: “Voicing my body/bodying my voicings” is a very powerful idea, how do you see it in relation to the possibility of an eco/ethico politics?
D.O.: There also seems to be some very interesting connections between Vicuna’s weaving and shaping of natural objects detritus and your own practice of weaving and assemblage on the page, and indeed in performance. I was thinking of your description of the performance of From The Handbook of that & the Furriery in 1983 in which you wove a red net down the central aisle between the seated people and your voice was accompanied by your taped voice, as well as slides. I understand that you wove yourself around the edges of the room, and in effect around all of the audience. Is this weaving in of the audience something that you see as being like Vicuna’s weaving of spaces and territories? Vicuna seems to me to be weaving across spaces in an attempt to problematise and disrupt the comfortable space of the detached spectator? Was this true of your performance?
M.O.S.: Yes. IMPLICATION was at the core of that performance. I mentioned the page as a place. Also, profoundly, its PLACELESSNESS. And what’s going on away from the page – moving through space and time to DISPLACEMENT of the page.
D.O.: There is clearly a strong relationship between live performance and writing in your work which is clearly evident in your readings. I wonder if you could tell me a little about how this relationship shapes your working processes?
M.O.S.: My work has always been body-intensive - writing by hand, redrafting the words by hand – bending, sticking, cutting, shaping marks, shaping sounds into the recorder, pain(t)ing and building – all inscriptions of my body’s breathing. This heuristic trans-forming has become paramount in murmur where I am using the sight/site of the ear/page as a foundational textu(r)al, sonic, visual bodily dimension to move out from.
D.O.: You seem to be describing a kind of synaesthesic practice that is moving towards an interchange of senses: hearing seems to become sight and vice-versa. Do you feel that the relationship between language and each of the senses is also something that you are working to interrogate and transform?
M.O.S: Yes, very much so.
D.O.: I know that the artist Joseph Beuys has been an important influence for you. How do you relate to his concept of the artist as a kind of shamanic figure who is capable of transformation and healing through the process of art making? Is this idea something which has political resonance for you now?
M.O.S: For me, his widened/wide-open concept of total human compassionate creative living – his “social sculpture” - his processual trust in the mysteries and soul imbued in material is transFORMative – melting across all apartheids of genre and specialism.
Yes, it does have resonance for me at ALL possible levels – PER/forming/TRANS/forming within a poetic intuitive process as a first step in opening up possibilities for radical changes in and between consciousnesses.
D.O.: Clearly the late Bob Cobbing was also important to you, in terms of publishing and encouraging your early work? Could you say a little about how he specifically influenced you?
M.O.S.: A good deal of what I feel about Beuys could also, apply to Bob Cobbing – for Bob too, there was simply no division between the engagements of living life and the imaginative processes of working. Bob embraced and celebrated the multi-form with energy and ease.
I met him I think when I was 20 or 21 when I found my way to his Writers Forum Experimental Workshop, then held at the Poetry Society. I knew immediately I’d met a kindred spirit. When I lived in London we worked a lot together on books, and to a lesser extent, in performances. ). His radically inventive creative spirit, generosity and openness was staggering. He was without limits.
I made a small IMPROVIsation as tribute for him which Bill Griffiths put up on his own website http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/llpp/tributes.html at Bob’s death:
D.O.: You are responsible for editing one of the most important anthologies of innovative writing by women (Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women, London: Reality Street Editions, 1996)7 that has emerged in recent years. How did you go about gathering and deciding on this material? What kind of correspondences did you find between the British and the American writers?
M.O.S.: I did a reading tour in the US and Canada in autumn 1993 which exposed me to a lot that was going on there and I went about gathering and deciding the material using the input from that trip as well as drawing upon the work of poets who had inspired my own practice. I drew up initial lists with Ken/Wendy (Ken Edwards, Wendy Mulford of Reality Street Editions). We pretty much agreed on core contributors. I was keen for a large US representation, for younger Canadian poets, whose work I’d encountered in Canada as well as a preference for poets working in multi-media off-the-page performance work. Originally, the book was planned to have twenty contributors with about five pages each, but it was soon obvious that it would have to be upped to thirty to have meaning. Even within the scope of thirty, I had to omit poets whose work was important.
Obviously, I found correspondences between the engagement with formally progressive language practices, the range of visual and linguistic attentions, the engagement with cultural, social and philosophical perspectives, as well as the engagement with long poetic sequences and project-orientated work, embracing inter and multi-media work and performance practises. And also, the fact that a good many of them found themselves excluded from canonical anthologies of women’s poetry.
D.O.: Writing about Out of Everywhere a number of commentators, including Ann Vickery, Marjorie Perloff and Kathleeen Fraser, have commented on the visual nature of many of the pages. Ann Vickery in particular observes that the anthology “maps work that visually challenges reading habits” in its emphasis on “the politics of the page” (Leaving Lines of Gender, Wesleyan UP, 2000, 144)8. She points out that this is very much in contrast to the predominately left margined poetry of, for example, Silliman’s anthology, In The American Tree.9 Was this a feature, or a tension, which you were particularly wanting to foreground when you were putting the anthology together? Do you feel that this attention to the visual potential and possibilities of the page is something that has led to the exclusion of some women writers from canonical anthologies?
M.O.S.: By today’s standards I was late in learning to ‘read’. Before this, I used to paint and draw and copy out writing – using whatever materials were at hand, entranced. I’ve always been intoxicated with writing/drawing/painting – in essence, it all boils down to mark making, exploding the visual, somatic potentials of the page. There has never been a separation for me. So, obviously, I wanted to draw attention to the multivalent physiques of poetic practises by women when editing Out of Everywhere. The general blindness towards actualising the potentials and possibilities within poetic language - of the page as a poetic site, as part of poetic language - has always baffled me. Any poet, irrespective of gender, who visually expands the possibilities of the page is excluded from canonical anthologies – because fabricators of canons don’t want awkwardnesses.
That’s why the work of Jerry Rothenberg and his visionary assemblings have been such a sustaining force in my life.
D.O.: I have been looking over your 1993 collaboration with Bruce Andrews which is extraordinary in its scope. Could you tell me how this collaboration came about and how the process of writing the book worked? Did you exchange pages by mail? Did you work on specific themes or ideas? Procedures?
M.O.S.: I think the idea about doing a collaborative piece was raised when Bruce did a Sub-Voicive reading in London. What we thought we’d do was to read each other’s work and respond to the thematic, lexical and sonic, textural tints in the languages until we each came up with about 3000 handwritten words on tiny pieces of paper. The small pieces of paper was Bruce’s suggestion. We each held back half of these words and sent the remaining half to the other person. So overall we each had 3000 words to work with (this number being composed of 1500 of one’s own input plus 1500 from the other person) – divided these into 15 sections each. So, we organised the work into 30 sections, in three parts A, B and C, with five texts (of 2 pages) from each person for each section. We did it all by mail.
D.O.: Your recent work seems to have exploded the confines of the line and the page in colourful and energetic new directions. How do you account for this shift in your relationship to the shape of the line, the word – and indeed the book? Is this fraught relationship between the verbal and the visual something that emerged suddenly (for example in the rich textual surfaces of red shifts (2001), or do you consider it to always have been an issue in your work?
M.O.S.: murmur has extended my searchings within the sculptural, painterly, textural, sonic and aural in an immersioning of multi-level verbal visual languages.
In “all origins are lonely” I am continuing my multi-level dances and speculations within the sensual, bodily architectural MATTER of poetry/poetics
D.O.: This “immersioning of multi-level verbal visual languages” that you describe implies a process of absorption for the reader as much as the writer in the space of the work?
M.O.S.: Since the beginning of red shifts, I have been constructing my work on the wall. So far, the A4 sized pages of murmur fills one and a half walls of my workroom. When I walk through the doorway of my workroom its energies enfold me. I’d like it to be encountered in such a way, so that the viewer/perceiver/reader could walk up to it and walk along beside it, stretching their body to its uppermost height or stooping to its lowest edge, threading in and out/unravelling its fields of languages, touching it with their eyes and ears and body entering and leaving at any point.
My preoccupation with the poetic work as a multidimensional, kinaesthetic, sentient terrain or environment for the body to enter and move through, is a thread that runs through all my work over the past twenty years – the seeds of these concerns were sown/sewn in my work of the 1980’s – particularly in multi-coloured works such as A Natural History in 3 Incomplete Parts, which I brought out from my own Magenta press in 1985 when I lived in London and which Bob Cobbing and I made together at his place – (we constructed the entire book going from xeroxing my original pages, collating, binding, glueing, trimming the A5 pages, etc. and it took us a 5-day working week – Monday – Friday - to do this – working intensively from 10 til 5 every day and getting to grips with the brand-new binding. machine Bob had just bought!). We’d planned to launch it on the Saturday, so it simply had to be done that week!
D.O.: You recently performed the first section of murmur at Birkbeck College in London and many of the people who saw that performance commented on the way in which you moved among people, quite deliberately laying out pieces of the text all around the room.12 You seemed to draw them into the poem itself...
M.O.S.: The reading on the 6th November was the first public presentation of murmur in its fullest form, to date.
I cradled the seventy-page stack of specially enlarged A3pages on my left arm. I stood and performed each page and then stooped to place it, face-up, on the floor. I stepped forward and did the same again and again for all the seventy pages. I weaved murmur/murmur weaved me over the floor space created by the circle of seated people (many were sitting on the floor) until there were no pages left on my cradling arm. For the ‘purpled madder’ section I used a keening by Kittie Gallagher made in Gweedore, County Donegal, 1952 – her lament, muffling out from the tiny cassette/recorder in my jacket pocket as I moved among the pages around the floor.
This was one verbal installation of the work, specific to that particular physical location, that situation.
D.O.: Which implies that there might be other possibilities for its performance and inhabition in other spaces. Might these places be back in the landscape, or in other site-specific places-beyond the usual confines of what where we expect to find poetry readings and performances?
M.O.S.: Yes, I hope so.
1. Lucy Lippard, Eva Hesse (New York: New York UP, 1976) 165.
how to achieve by not achieving? how to make by not making?
2. Lucy Lippard, Eva Hesse (New York: New York UP, 1976) 165.
I wanted to get to non art, non connotive,
3. Cecilia Vicuna, “Entering”, Unravelling Words & the Weaving of Water, trans. By Eliot Weinberger and Suzanne Jill Levine (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1992) 5.
4. Maggie O’Sullivan, red shifts (Buckfastleigh, Devon: etruscan Books, 2001) np.
5. Maggie O’Sullivan Palace of Reptiles, (Willowdale, Ontario: The Gig, 2003) 65.
6. Cecilia Vicuna, “Precarious”, Unravelling Words & the Weaving of Water, trans. By Eliot Weinberger and Suzanne Jill Levine (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1992).
7. Maggie O’Sullivan, Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK (London: Reality Street Editions, 1996).
8. Ann Vickery, Leaving Lines of Gender (Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 2000) 144.
9. Ron Silliman, In the American Tree (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1986).
10. Madeline Gins, Helen Keller or Arakawa (Santa Fe and New York: Burning Books with East-West Cultural Studies, 1994) 9.
11. Madeline Gins, Helen Keller or Arakawa (Santa Fe and New York: Burning Books with East-West Cultural Studies, 1994) 37.
12. Maggie O’Sullivan, “murmur”, Reading 6th November, 2003. SubVoicive and Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, Birkbeck College, University of London.