In the lead up to the exhibition of Kelly Malone’s poetry Nee Miss / Nemesis, we’ve been asking her loads of questions about her work.
Potroast: Your work seems to focus on communication methods, how important to you is the mode of communication compared to the message?
Kelly Malone: Firstly, let me qualify the word ‘message’. I’m interpreting ‘message’ as that which carries an intended meaning through the act of communication / ‘mode’ of communication. Obviously, I alter this mode of communication and use codes (languages) other than written English. Thus, the very act of using other codes puts emphasis on the ‘act’ of communication.
Meaning is forever at variance between the reader / viewer / audience and the text / medium communicating. The message is arbitrary to the initial communication because the meaning one takes from any form of communication is always at variance to what one is trying to convey. What becomes important to me, then, is the act of communication – communication as it is in flux – in transaction. I am engaged in this exchange. My work is focussed on a third party, what comes between the communication and the message, or the Saussurean semiotics of the sign and signifier. Or more specifically Peirce’s triad – the interpretant – that which comes / negotiates a relationship between the signifier and the signified. It is this variable of the interpretant – which is also cultural – that I am engaged with, this in between space.
PT: How does a poem begin to form for you?
KM: My poems take shape – begin to emerge – often from hearing a word, or a collection of words, that have a particular resonance. For example, I’ve just been looking at the word, ‘forsaken’. I’m hearing ‘foreskin’ ‘sake’ (including the Japanese wine, sake), lament, force, for, ors, ask. You can hear how the word starts to ‘play’ and slide for me in terms of the signifier. More rifting comes: ‘an abandoned foreskin. Saturated asking. A sake lament. A force for goodness sake’. I also feel at liberty to use neologisms; here ‘saking’ could play as an engaging gerund, participial, or used as an intensive.
I heard Louis CK recount ‘How He Hates Cell Phones’ on Conan via YouTube. He is praised for his emotional honesty and assessment of technology, yet underlying all this is his comment, ‘I cried like a bitch.’ Usually misogyny conveyed in language is overlooked in popular culture. For me, personally, the value of what he was sharing was lost when he chose to align his deep emotional experience with the denigration of women and their emotions. So the word ‘foreskin’ combined with hearing the phrase ‘I cried like a bitch’ culminated in a poem:
I ask for ors for / I want to oar a way / and row in a lament / a man says / he cried like a bitch / but couldn’t he just cry?
or if he has to cry like some ‘thing’ / how about an abandoned foreskin?
no use crying over spilt milk for goodness sake – / the wine is warm /
saturated in forsaken
PT: What kinds of processes do you use to bring the poem to a ‘complete’ form?
KM: I hope my poems never are ‘completely’ formed. I use and present their form / content in such a way that there can still be flux / slippage in language. I am always editing – in fact I love editing. It helps too to know a piece will be published, or available to an audience, this brings me to rework it more – to keep pushing out the boundaries on something. Editing / re-visioning of my work is a quiet performance that goes on behind the scenes… yet I try to present my work so it is not a final product – but it is still in potential – even when it’s ‘set’ on the page.
PT: How do you feel about the page as a primary mode of conveying your poetry? What are its strengths and downfalls in relation to your work?
KM: The page has infinite possibilities these days really and the reader is becoming quite versatile. There are so many platforms now in which text can appear. The definition of a page is full of potential. In addition to this, I enjoy the simplicity of the page and the immediacy of written language. The page can be a storehouse for work that might later come off the page, or a way of presenting a work. I see the page as a vehicle, a means to no end – not an end to a means. I think though, while I do take my work off the page through sound and visual presentations, my work has a lot of potential off the page, as Makyla Curtis has shown in her approach to my work. In this respect, the page has been a storehouse for potential poetic manoeuvres.
PT: Breath and sound are important elements in your work. How do you attempt to convey these on the page?
KM: I draw attention to breath and sound through the usual poetic techniques on the page such as line breaks, layout and so on. However, I also use other forms of language / code in order to draw attention to this sound and breath, for instance Morse code and on from this, Pure Data programming (for sound). The latter is a programme Drew McMillan helped me with some time ago. I’m also keen on semaphores and use of other illustrative codes to convey sound (and visuals).
Breath itself underpins all our language, as it underpins our very consciousness i.e. I’m not sure if I will still be able to use language (as we know it) when I’m dead. Yet, contrary to this, Denise Riley uses a good line in her poem ‘Death Makes Dead Metaphor revive’, Language, the spirit of the dead, which is quite a factual statement for many reasons i.e. how we continue on reading texts by those who are no longer alive. In the late 19th / early 20th Century there was a group of people who claimed to use Morse code to communicate with the dead, and such messages were known as spiritual telegrams!
(If you’re interested in Kelly’s pure data work, take a look at her work at Filling Station http://www.fillingstation.ca/archive/contributor/kelly-malone-896)
Through using breath as code (the LIVE aspect of language) I allude to Charles Olson’s manifesto for open verse. Yet, by my bringing breath into code I still restrict ‘language’ in some way. Such restriction shows how separating ourselves from the embodiment of language can be simultaneously a disembodied experience. Our breath is always with us – but our language is now. Thus ‘we’ are outside language, but not outside our breath (there still seems to be no conclusive evidence on the afterlife). I also like breathing the Morse code for OM (aum) for these reasons. Aside from the written pun I write alongside the Morse for this word: Just a dash or two away from Realisation (- – – – -), the breathing of OM in Morse draws together Morse code and the ideophone ‘aum’. Obviously, the breath is used through the practice of chanting ‘aum’ itself and the sanskrit meaning of aum to be as all that which embodies the universe. Thus using Morse through breath is a way of showing how we both embody and disembody language. Additionally, my use of breath in code brings focus to why language is so important to culture. For instance the meaning of tihei mauri ora illustrates what I am trying to allude to – how tihei mauri ora embodies both breath and language; the breath of life and the right to speak.
PT: How important is performance for your work?
KM: Immensely – I hope that my work is constantly performing – even when on the page. I shape and play with the page in a performative way, line breaks, word choice, and so on so that the meaning is in a state of flux – becoming and performing.
PT: I have heard you talk about landscape and the natural environment influencing your work; however common phraseology and images relating to the natural world don’t often make it into the presentation versions of your work. In what ways does your environment influence your choice of language? Does your environment influence you in other ways?
KM: I think of environment as atmosphere. My poem, ‘brilliant mistake missing me’ I’ve read in different countries yet when I read it I have experienced an embodiment of the charge I felt when drawing on the environment / atmosphere for this work. Even though I never mention the location, it is all about the atmosphere / energy for me in that particular environment.
PT: Tell us about how “Miss me/ Surgical Miss” came about, and how “Nemesis” followed.
KM: The infinity of the signifier is particular resonant in the word ‘miss’. I’d been teaching at high school and called ‘Miss’ for some years before I did my Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Auckland. Surgical Miss was the title of the collection that came out of this time. Following this I printed a chapbook and a friend said the phrase ‘miss me’. You see, I’m like a magpie for language. I liked how this played on the Mister Men and Little Miss series of children’s books. Later, I realised ‘I Miss Me’ is an anagram of ‘mimesis’. ‘Nee Miss’ is a way of breaking away from ‘Miss’ and the anagram in this instance is ‘nemesis’. The pun in Nee Miss with the word ‘nee’ used to indicate a woman’s maiden name and ‘Miss’ as a title for unmarried women, creates redundancy. Also, of course, ‘miss’ as an implied deficit reflects how a woman’s status is seen in terms of lack.