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On Writing, with Johanna Skibsrud

Johanna

Poet, short fiction writer, and novelist Johanna Skibsrud's timely and fascinating new collection The Description of the World (Wolsak & Wynn) delves into the documentarian's dilemma: in witnessing and describing something, are we not at the same time shaping that very thing through language and perspective? 

The Giller winner draws on images of atomic warfare and questions around nuclear fallout, inspired by artist Jean Tinguely’s Study for an End of the World, but also brings a more personal approach later in the collection, with poems that draw on her experience becoming a parent and its impact on her writing life. The two themes come together in ideas around renewal, birth, endings, and creating. 

The Description of the World is another wise and captivating book from acclaimed writer, and we're pleased to welcome Johanna to Open Book today to speak about it. She tells us about experiencing Tinguely's work next to the iconic Nevada Test Site, why her daughter's birth made her realize the book she thought was finished was still being written, and the impressive and inspiring reading list from the time she spent working on The Description of the World.

Open Book:

The Description of the World feels timely, exploring nuclear and atomic imagery and anxiety around warfare. In what ways were you influenced by current conversations around these issues while writing?

Johanna Skibsrud:

I’m definitely interested in what’s happening now—in developing technologies and our increasingly abstracted approach to war (Peter W. Singer’s Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century was a big influence for a while on just about everything I was thinking and writing about)—but I’m also interested in how our contemporary attitudes towards conflict and defence are directly influenced by our complex history, and in how different ways of articulating that history create very different possible futures. For me, with this book, thinking about nuclear and atomic warfare was a way to address the limitations and possibilities of the human imagination and its relationship to actual and potential material form. I was inspired, in particular, by the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely’s kinetic artwork, “Study for the End of the World, No.2” (1962), which self-destructed in Lake Jean, Nevada, a stone’s throw from the (then active) Nevada Test site. My husband, John Melillo, and I visited Lake Jean in 2012, and afterward we wrote a short, surreal photo-essay, entitled “A Short Tour of the End of the World,” for Lightning Records. We end the essay by asking: “What history after history is here? We go in search for signs.” I think, in a way, I am always asking this question. Writing is a way of asking it. A way of searching for signs.

OB:

The collection delves into the idea that the very act of description, through language, also shapes what is being described. Do you find the formative effect of description and language to be inevitable, or can we describe without influencing?

JS:

The word “description” is interesting to me precisely because it suggests both a replica or imitation of what already exists (the word comes from the Latin, descriptionem: representation, description, copy) and the creative agency of figuration. I think that language always operates within, or as, this paradox. It is gestural and imitative—always falling sideways or short of whatever it hopes to name—and at the same time is powerfully inventive, capable of influencing everything it touches, and of creating whole new realities. Plato believed that poetry was dangerous because it was merely imitative, rather than interested (like philosophy) in revealing things in their true form. One poem in the collection takes up this idea, imagining the return of a poet who’s been exiled from Plato’s Republic, and—in returning—reintroduces complexity, multiplicity and uncertainty into everybody’s lives. I believe that it’s precisely this capacity of poetry’s—to express complexity, multiplicity and uncertainty—that affords it such a powerful access to truth. Poetry is not concerned with what “is” so much as what might, or could be. It is a way of opening within language and thought a realm of possibility rather than of rote description or rhetoric. It’s prophetic: a way of suturing the connection between the past and the future, the imaginary and the real.

OB:

You draw on the birth of your daughter as inspiration for some of the poems in this collection. How did you approach these particular pieces, and in what ways has becoming a parent influenced your writing life?  

JS:

I thought I had completed the manuscript in early 2014, and in that earlier incarnation of the project the final section was titled after Jean Tinguely’s self-destroying “Study for the End of the World.” Then, on July 1, 2014 I gave birth to my daughter, Olive, and realized that the project wasn’t finished at all. I wrote a series of poems pretty quickly in the first few weeks after Olive was born and a few of those poems are what now make up the final section of the book. I wanted to think, with these poems, about how totally perplexing it is to be a human, to have a body, to be—or at least to feel—alone in the world. Because as amazed and delighted as I was by every moment of Olive’s life, I was also terrified by how vulnerable both of us had just become. It was important to me to end the book with poems that explored some of these feelings and ideas because I saw the poems—and the experience of being a new mother—to be a continuation of the problems I’d set out to explore at the beginning of the book: “what are the limits to appearance and perception? What are our responsibilities as witnesses to (and creators of) realities of which we have only partial knowledge and control? To what extent are these realities given, and to what extent do we create them?” 

In terms of how my writing has been influenced by being a parent, I would say that the biggest thing is also the least surprising: I have a lot less time. I know it affects me in other ways, too, though. My fiction editor, Nicole Winstanley, recently asked me if I thought maybe it had affected the new collection of stories I’m working on. She said that she’d heard from other writers that writing with young children in the house had made them more interested—as I guess I am with this new collection—in plot and structure, and in telling simpler, more straight-forward stories. 

OB:

Where did you do most of the writing for this book? Can you tell us a little bit about what a typical writing day consisted of for you during this project?

JS:

The first poems in the collection were written in January 2010 during a three-week stay at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Everyday I would go for a long walk, and I would write the most incredible poems. Really! But I wrote them in my head and, each time, when I got back to the house—no matter how convinced I was that this time I’d be able to write them down—they changed form, or disappeared. I still managed to write a lot during that time, though, and the poems I did write formed the basis of this collection—even though, in the end, only three or four of them actually made it into the book. After that, the poems came more slowly and sporadically. I was working on a lot of different projects over the years that followed and the collection was like a shadow book to all of those—it allowed me to work away slowly on thoughts or ideas or images that haunted the rest of my work, but didn’t belong to it. I’d started talking to Paul Vermeersch way back in 2009 about possibly working together on a collection, and I was slowly gathering things, moving toward that goal. Paul was an incredible editor for the book. He helped me to understand how I could begin to shape the material I’d gathered into something that felt whole.

OB:

What is your reading life like while working on a long project like this? Do you avoid or seek out anything in particular, and what were you reading while working on The Description of the World

JS:

The book began while I was a PhD student at the University of Montreal, reading toward my comprehensive exams, so—especially at the beginning of the project—I had an incredibly rich reading life. I had two exam lists: Modern and Contemporary American Poetry and Critical Theory and Poetics. I remember I read the collected poems of Robert Lowell cover to cover in a single day while staying at the Bishop house (something that strikes me as absolutely pathological now). I was also devouring very quickly books like Derrida’s Of Grammatology and Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts (subtitles from the Fundamental Concepts inspired titles for one of the sections of this book). After I’d written my exams, I began work on my dissertation, which I wrote on Wallace Stevens, so I’m certain that Stevens is also very present in these poems—as well as little bits of everything else that I managed to get my hands on in the course of the five or six years that it took to write this book. Here’s a few highlights I can recall, in no particular order: the poetry of Paul Celan, Muriel Rukeyser, Alice Notley, Mahmoud Darwish, Paul Vermeersch, Susan Paddon, Jessica Moore, Annie Guthrie, Sam Ace, John Melillo, Fred Moten, and Robert Creeley; Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, Luce Irigaray’s Sharing the World, Oisin Curran’s Mopus, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays, Mallarmé’s Divagations, Rebecca Silver Slayter’s In the Land of Birdfishes, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Derek Walcott’s Omeros, Miguel de Cervante’s Don Quixote, Maylis de Kerangal’s Birth of  a Bridge, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Éduard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, Maurice Blanchot’s The Book to Come.

OB:

What will you be working on next?

JS:

A book of short stories and a novel. I also have a critical project I’m slowly transforming, and the very beginnings of a new poetry collection.

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Johanna Skibsrud was born in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, in 1980. She received her BA in English from the University of Toronto, and her MA in English and Creative Writing from Concordia University in Montreal. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Montreal in 2012 with a dissertation on the poetry of Wallace Stevens. In the same year she was awarded a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant in order to complete her postdoctoral book project, The Poetic Imperative: A Speculative Aesthetics. Johanna is also the author of two novels – Quartet for the End of time (2014), and the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning novel,The Sentimentalists – a book of short fiction, This Will Be Difficult to Explain, and Other Stories, and two collections of poetry, I Do Not Think that I Could Love a Human Being and Late Nights With Wild Cowboys. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arizona. She and her family (husband, John – a musician and professor of poetry – and daughter, Olive) divide their time between Tucson and St. Joseph du Moine, Cape Breton.

Related reading

The Description of the World

The Description of the World was the original title for Marco Polo’s writings about his travels, but in describing the world, Polo also helped to create it. In this collection, Skibsrud asks: is our world really what it appears to be? How do we shape it through language? And if language can create our world, can it also transform or destroy it?

A sense of vastness permeates the poems. Vistas and open fields are created rather than described. In these spaces, Skibsrud confronts us with the question of our own annihilation: atomic warfare, nuclear fallout and apocalyptic imagery inspired by French artist Jean Tinguely’s Study for an End of the World.

In turn, Skibsrud also addresses the subject of birth and renewal. In a final sequence of poems inspired by the birth of her daughter, we arrive at an understanding of ourselves in relation not only to the world we are born to, but to our role in a world we are still, and always, in the process of creating.

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