RHINO Associate Editor Virginia Bell interviewed poet and actor Abby Paige, winner of the 2011 Founders’ Prize for “The Undefended Border” in late June, 2011.
VB: One of the things I love about your poem “The Undefended Border” is its deft use of bilingualism. The poem is written primarily in English, but interrupted by words, phrases, sentences and stanzas in French (or Quebecois?). Why did you decide to write the poem bilingually? What is the process like? How do you go about inventing a hybrid tongue?
AP: I learned to speak Spanish when I was younger, and when I moved to Quebec a few years ago, I started to learn French. I’ve learned so much about language from those experiences. When you’re learning a new language, before you gain fluency, your personality is lost for a while. You lose subtext. Part of becoming fluent is discovering your personality in the new language, and I didn’t have a personality in French. I still don’t, really. But at the time it got me thinking about poetic voice. I was reading a bunch of Quebec poets (A.M. Klein and Erin Mouré especially come to mind) who mix both of Canada’s official languages in their work, and asking myself, does one’s poetic voice always need to be the same? Can poets take on personas, and if so, how different can those personas sound from one another? I was also working on a play, and so I suppose that also contributed to my thinking about creating voices.
So the poem began from that idea: I wanted to create something where many voices were speaking. But as tends to happen, that idea became less important as I revised. In the earlier drafts there were three or four other sections where I tried to create something like a chorus. There were lots of voices but, while I had fun creating that much cacophony, it wasn’t very rewarding to read. So it got scaled back, and the bilingualism became more important.
I think “inventing a hybrid tongue” comes very naturally to a bilingual speaker — and even to someone who’s not fluently bilingual but who’s trying to straddle that territory between languages. Not because your command of the languages is imperfect, but because the difference between the two starts to seem more fluid as your brain learns to listen to both at the same time.
VB: For me, this poem weaves together beautifully personal history and regional history. I come away with the idea that geographic borders, temporal borders, and the borders of individual identity are much more messy, challenging and dynamic than our maps and national labels allow.
In the process, the poem uses a lot of “white space”—often mid line and mid sentence. For example, there’s significant white space after “My eye wanders,” after the word “la frontière” and in the following line:
“there turns into here. With every crossing I become”
Why did you use so much strategic white space in the poem? What does the “white space” represent?
AP: I’m really glad that’s the idea you came away with! Those are boundaries I’m definitely interested in erasing — or smudging, anyway. I’m really impatient with borders, or at least with our reverence toward them, so I wanted to avoid line or stanza breaks to keep phrases connected. So that was how it became a prose poem, and one of the things that I found really attractive about the form is that it made it possible to use white space a bit more assertively, to really draw attention to the places where there are breaks, where as sometimes the eye can just glide over line breaks.
So I have this impatience with borders, but on the other hand, while they are softer and less defined than we act like they are, they do exist. We can tell one place from another. That’s why we feel homesick, isn’t it? Because somehow “here” and “there” do exist. So I wanted some way to represent that in the poem, too, that there is a pause or a silence between two places, or two times, as between thoughts. It’s not a line so much as a space of transition, which is what I think a border really is: a space for connection rather than separation. A zone where things happen — hesitation or realization or apology. I suppose in acting it would be everything that happens that isn’t in the dialogue.
VB: As I read it, the poem is also an appropriation of forms we associate with historical archive: the linear chronicle with cursory entries but little narrative. In your radical use of this form, however, you imply narrative(s) and explore causality and you infuse events with mystery and emotion. Was this a conscious strategy on your part? How did you arrive at the form of the poem?
AP: I didn’t consciously intend to comment on the historical archive as a form, but I suppose some kind of comment is implicit, because I wanted the piece to feel documentary or in some sense bureaucratic. I could make it all sound very intentional in retrospect, but I think it’s more a product of my interest in genealogy and history and those interests being influences.
Mostly I was imagining a collaboration between me and my great-grandparents. What if the three of us wrote a poem together? They immigrated from Quebec to Vermont in the 1910s, and I immigrated back in the opposite direction about one-hundred years later. I was imagining how their crossings and their thoughts about the border might have been similar to and different
from mine. Also, when I first started working on the poem I was doing interviews for my solo show “Piecework: When We Were French,” and I was thinking a lot about how people structure their own life story when they’re asked to tell it, what’s omitted, what’s implied. I’m very interested in how much we discover through speaking, or telling our own stories.
VB: Would you mind sharing with us some of the personal and family history that informs the poem?
AP: Well, the poem is autobiographical; I’m right there in the third section, speaking my terrible French. And as I’ve said already, it also imagines the immigration experiences of my great-grandparents, and how those compared to my own immigration experience.
Probably like a lot of descendants of immigrants to the US, I was raised with a certain sense of displacement, a sense that the ancestral home is somewhere else. But that sense is different for Franco-Americans, especially in New England, because our ancestral home is so close. I’ve lived forty minutes from the border for most of my life; it’s very close, and when you cross it, things look mostly the same. Also, in Vermont and other places in Northern New England, there are towns that literally straddle the border, where the town is half in one country and half in the other, and those towns right now are driving Janet Napolitano and the Department of Homeland Security completely bananas, because they defy this fiction that they’re trying to impose that the two places are separate, when they’re not. They’re completely intertwined. So, it’s both as a Vermonter and as a Franco-American that I feel this skepticism toward the border. I feel that I have more in common with the Quebecoises than I have with Californians.
And yet, of course there are clear differences between Quebec and New England, language probably being the most significant, but there are major differences between Canadian and U.S. culture, too, and there the language difference doesn’t exist. I’m fortunate to be able to live between these cultures. It’s very fertile territory. Also, this is probably a bit of a tangent, but while my immigration experience is atypical (I’m less then 100 miles from home in my new country), I feel really fortunate to have experienced life as an immigrant at this particular historical moment when immigration is such a hot topic in both the U.S. and Canada. I can hear how much of the discussion is really about race, because as a white North American, the rhetoric isn’t directed at me, even though I’m an immigrant. So much of the North American ethos — on both sides of the border — is so ahistorical; we all act like we’ve always been here. But this is really a place with a short history. You only have to go back ten or so generations, and no Europeans were here. Only a hundred years ago, most of my family was French-speaking, and now I’m struggling to learn French.
VB: Does your work as an actor and performer draw on a similar history? Could you describe your solo show “Piecework: When We Were French”?
AP: It hasn’t always, but recently is does very much. My solo show was commissioned for a festival in Burlington, Vermont a couple of summers ago that commemorated that 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s arrival on Lake Champlain. My piece was supposed to honor the influence of French-Canadians in the area. The area was originally part of New France, so that influence has been substantial.
The chance to develop the show came after my first year in Quebec, and I was sorting out my identity as an American and a Franco- American and an immigrant. I decided to base the show on interviews with Franco-Americans, and for me that process was an opportunity to talk with other people about how their heritage has influenced them, or not influenced them, what they’ve lost or preserved of French-Canada culture. And as I’ve said, a big part of it was just listening to how people express themselves, how we tell our own stories or try to represent the stories of our lives. And also what happens when we’re given the opportunity, even by a stranger for a couple of hours, to reflect on our lives. I wonder, if people had the opportunity to do that more often, how it would change how we think about the past.
VB: Are you writing other poems that arise from the liminal cultural world along the Canada/U.S. border? Or that arise from other sorts of liminal worlds? How would you describe your collaborative epistolary project with Leah Souffrant?
AP: “The Undefended Border” is the title poem of a collection of poems (unpublished) that looks at how the borders between places and people shift and sometimes disappear. Once I had sort of settled on an order for that manuscript, I decided to move on to other themes, but whenever I sit down to write, I always end up looking at that kind of thing. I guess it’s always going to be one of the themes I circle around as a writer. I’m always interested in the third point of view — or the fourth or fifth, for that matter. Dichotomies are so seductive, and I’m always trying to see what gets lost when we give in to that seduction. You start to see that most dichotomies are false. They’re conveniences, but convenience always has a price. In Quebec the dominant dichotomy is between francophones and anglophones, and those two words are used in a way that obscures that there is enormous overlap between those two groups and also that there are lots of lots of other languages floating around that people feel allegiance to. In the U.S., we talk about black and white as race categories as though those are discrete groups, which masks a much more complex ethnic landscape and a long history of interracial couplings.
My more recent poems are also about borders in a way, but not political borders. It’s early days with these poems, so I don’t really know how to talk about them yet, but they’re sort of devotional poems — skeptically devotional — looking at whether the body and the soul are separate. When I was younger I always saw my body as a container — almost literally, like Tupperware — for my soul. But now I think it’s more complicated. If there is something about us that is spiritual, I think it’s deeply dependent on the physical.
The project with Leah is an ongoing experiment, and I think it also has a lot to do with voice. We’re developing this poem together, but we don’t revise one other. Sometimes our voices are very different, and at other times it’s hard to tell who’s speaking. So it’s also a study in friendship or love, how two people who know each other communicate. So maybe that’s about borders in a way, too.
I’m also doing reading right now for a new play that will be about mental illness and eugenics. I want to look at how both mental illness and poverty runs in families, what’s hereditary and what’s passed on through other means, and who defines what’s normal and what’s sick. I’m really interested in how, during the eugenics movement, wealthy people were trying to regulate poor people’s behavior. I mean, the movement was much more complex than that, but I’m interested in that part of it. To me that has something to do with borders, too — who has the power to pronounce certain things out of bounds. It’s sort of how I feel about the U.S./Canada border. Who gets to decide that that line means something? And why do I have to believe them?
Read more about Abby Paige at http://abbypaige.com/