Terms of Exchange: Caroline Bergvall Interviewed by Greg Nissan

The writer on using Chaucer’s Middle English to channel transgressive figures, rethink gender, and experience the pleasures of language.

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Caroline Bergvall’s latest book, Alisoun Sings (Nightboat Books), is the last in a trilogy based on medieval sources. In her signature palimpsest of contemporary and Middle English, Bergvall turns Alisoun (that much-debated pilgrim from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) into a composite for centuries of women, artists, and activists speaking truth to power. In this book as well as in her many performance pieces, Bergvall’s polyvocal and translingual compositions act as a material history of English. Whether riffing on activist clothing, xenophobic fearmongering, or the writing of revolutionaries like Emma Goldman and Audre Lorde, Bergvall’s Alisoun embodies the migratory spirit of language. A few days after she read from the book at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City, we met in a crowded cafe in Chelsea to talk about Alisoun.

—Greg Nissan 


Greg Nissan That was the first time you were reading from the published book?    

Caroline Bergvall Right. I saw it a few hours before the reading. So it’s very, very fresh.

GNThis book explodes one of Chaucer’s tales—“The Wife of Bath’s Tale”—but uses Alisoun’s voice. When did that voice first catch on for you? I know you began this project ten years ago. What were some of the troubles with setting it down and picking it up again?

CB There’s a treacherous aspect to going back to a voice. I started developing it just after Meddle English. It was my fifth shorter Chaucer tale and came out in a tiny edition with Belladonna* called Alyson Singes, a totally different spelling and everything. I was never able to continue the voice—I tried on and off for years. I wasn’t happy with it. It was unclear to me why. It’s the toughest project I’ve ever written. But that voice is nearly the bully; it pushes and pushes me on. We’re in a time where we are asking questions about social living in the face of political and capitalist devastation, environmental catastrophes, intense processes of migration that can only increase. I think that begs the question: How do we speak in such a way that we can be bothered to be listening as well? What is it that justifies the poetic and the literary form?

GN I love that, as it seems to capture Alisoun’s double agency, where she is both listening to many other voices—channeling transgressive figures throughout centuries, many women—and speaking up at the same time. Were there moments where you felt particularly bullied or pushed back into the voice? I think of what you wrote about the day of Trump’s inauguration: “No peripheral point in this rounded world.”

CBYes, that line I recorded at the Global Women’s March. Shared anger that unlocked desperate optimism and major translocal connections. And then the whole Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter—initially how both movements had taken very bullied and undervalued identities to protect and collectivize them. I was wondering how to take up new positions within feminism, transnationalism, queer postwar traditions that had got devalued and needed re-injection. One of the necessities of collective movements is that you have to, not simplify, but become really, really clear. Through that clarity you can accumulate and bring in more people with dispersed experiences or dispersed messages. That’s how I was balancing the reality of the Alisoun voice as a collectivist voice, yet made up of individual and individualist moments, practitioners, poets, writers, both old and new. I was not making a claim for her as a collective, but she is made of so many explicit bits and voices, that such a voicing is a claim of a memory structure that belongs to many, for lack of better word.

GN Virtuosity and collective speaking are often, I think foolishly— 

CB Separated. I agree. 

GN On that note, there was something almost delightfully embarrassing about hearing you perform at the Poetry Project. Every connection that can be made, every pun, you always go there. You said, “There’s an excess of reference in order to free things up.” 

CB This idea of not being scared of the banal pun, that we allow the familiar, is central to Alisoun as a medieval Chaucerian character. She is not well-educated. She will, in a very open way, make use of what she has to have, and she’s often been ridiculed for lack of knowledge. But that lack of knowledge is socially organized. It gives me permission to just go straight in and make the bad jokes. The complication of the book’s spelling and all that can actually be made more familiar by the notion of the cliché or the familiar phrase. That’s balancing, I think.

The tradition that Chaucer works in is also based on humor. Tales would be read out and people would recognize characters and laugh at the monk and laugh at the greedy priest or the taxman. It was always important to me that this voice can be spoken. I can speak it, anybody can speak it; you just need to do a little bit of work on how you might want to pronounce it. But it will always be pronounceable, therefore performable. I’m not going to ask people to sit and think for an hour; I’m going to entertain them. There’s something about the value of entertainment in the voice. I do it in all my Chaucer work. You might get lost narratively, but you can follow through.

Cbergvall Portrait

Photo of Caroline Bergvall by Thierry Bal.

GN Last night when I was reading “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” I started to drift off. I thought, maybe I should read it out loud. And it all clicked into place—those foreign textual markers and spellings become familiar in the voice.

I’ve always been amazed by your voice as a performer. While Alisoun is a collage, it’s not about jump cuts. It’s a voice, it grounds, it centers, even if the text is this decentralized network.

CB Exactly like you said, Middle English, at least Chaucer’s Southern English Middle English, is easily pronounceable by all of us. It’s a language which is within time but outside of time. So I work it like a type of weird trans-futurity. It’s also meant to remind us constantly of the depth and thickness of the language we are speaking right now. 

GN The Meddle English tales you performed very differently. Drift as well. 

CB Oh, yeah. 

GN Archaeology is a metaphor you’ve used to generate ideas about your own work—excavating languages, or tracing the history of a letter. While there is some sense of the subterranean here—the languages that are under our language—Alisoun isn’t as much about a dig. It seems to have more upward propulsion than Drift.

CBIt’s more like pulling into different types of potholes and trying to make my way back up, carrying all this mud. It’s made up of elements that are still quite narrative. Get rid of the mud, keep that little object, keep that little story. I felt a type of speechlessness in the times that I’m in. It had become very important to me that Alisoun’s productive, distinct, but also angered voice would come through, but that it was also positive so that there’s pleasure. Articulating pleasure at the richness of language, at the richness of our differences, we can again trust that as a point of resistance. That’s why it’s very fleshy and material and at times ugly and unfinished, because that’s what she’s looking for—to value that pleasure and richness in the same way that she offers in the prologue. Did you reread her prologue in the original? It’s so long!

GN It’s so long, and she’s chastised. The prior interrupts and says, “enough already.”

CB Exactly, “enough already,” but still she has something to say—that’s the unbeaten human spirit that we find at different historical moments. 

GN You intone a number of figures in this book. Were there any figures you felt unable to vocalize?

CB We have this notion at the moment regarding differential subjectivity that one can’t talk of another’s experience. It’s good that’s coming through; you have to be able to examine and explore your own context. Alisoun does it, although she sort of explodes everywhere. When it comes to very different experiences to her own, they’re not identified with. Instead she allows for and enables influence. Those influences are extremely varied, from all sorts of cultural backgrounds. The only way I could in fact make it work is to trace influence or people that have taken risks—Angela Davis, Monique Wittig, Glenn Ligon, or Nancy Spero. 

Alisoun does it throughout as dialogue eruptions with names or alluded names in the text or in the notes. But overall, she is a shaker and speaks and admires her many friends and comrades in the fight. If we start to dissociate from influence and its richness, simply because we don’t share similar experiences, then we are losing the possibility of being in conversation with difference. How do I quote? Why do I quote? Whom do I quote? She says at some point, “to reflect on other’s pain,” by recognizing influence and recognizing difficulties and obstacles and what we can learn from it.

GN That reminds me one of my favorite lines, “to forget the pain but not its origin.”

CB That’s Etel Adnan—a beautiful quote!

GN It’s so interesting that your practice of citation can make that line, wherever it appears, feel like the crux of Alisoun’s voice. It’s like a pilgrimage to other voices to earn that citation, rather than just deploy it.

CB That’s a wonderful way of putting it. To earn citation because of a type of thoughtfulness one has to show even as one’s taking on, or being allowed to take on, that quote. One stretches oneself toward others, and it is a tightrope so long as one seeks identification instead of soul-searching. It leads back to one’s own expectations and breaks them open too. The Canterbury Tales were in themselves so many tales. From Italy, from France. There’s a very healthy circulation of stories and memory, and all that is so much at work in medieval literature.

GN Your language play often centers on expanding the notion of gender and our experience of it. “Girls within girls, yet beyond girls or boys.” That play (like “vemselves, hemselves”) seems to correspond to contemporary attempts to find more capacious pronouns and descriptors for gender in common speech. How does returning to medieval sources shape your sense of that linguistic transformation in the present?  

CB You know, I write “everybody’s born in 3-D but pruned in 2-D.” And “experience shows” is a Chaucerian line that Alisoun uses. Experience grounds her knowledge in the world; that’s why she’s been strong. One aspect of the work is rethinking gendering as an imprisoning mechanism, then riffing off toward liberatory forms. The mixing of a pronoun is also a Middle English thing because pronouns had different spellings. That allows for a mixing of the spelling and allows for a mixing of the genders, in a pronominal way, and then the imagination of gender. In the medieval, metamorphosis through the Ovidian influence was very strong. I have this Ovid section where she describes the world in relation to inter-species, inter-form, therefore inter-gender if you like. Gender becomes just one of the many things that we are stuck with. What are the imaginations or world-making devices we can all use? We’ve got this binary sun-moon world, so how do we within that and through that set up new variations?

GN It’s interesting to think about how much the project of renaming has to do with play and error: not error of the body but error in the transmission of language.

CB Ah, yes, renaming is always motivated, always a stake. The gendered reading of bodies is always limiting. Yet she has a very female voice in the sense of the female experience, and an aging female body as well. Her pleasure is not adolescent pleasure, and she seeks her knowledge through female bodily experience. That was a really interesting thing for me: how to do that in such a way that it still confuses and enriches the question around gender and sexual pleasure, rather than imprisons it back into identity.

GN There’s a technique I associate with your writing: including various points on the journey of translation in the text. Lines repeat themselves—one in a more contemporary English, one in a more transitory state or Middle English. The work of the middle ground has so often been scrubbed from literary cultures, and it seems that the middle ground is precisely where you work. Is that just a natural result of adaptation as a practice, or is it something you do intentionally?

CB That’s right. I have it a bit in Drift as well, with “The Seafarer,” using a process of translation as a way to reinvent or recreate the final word so that by explicating different spellings, different words for the same words, or through homophonic translation, there’s historical depth. It opens up the semantic field. It’s a way of writing.

In Alisoun you find it also in the pronouns, with “het, hem, em,” which allows us to rethink what is actually being said: Is it a pronoun? Is it a verb? That kind of play on the pronoun is similarly translated. Rather than having a translator go from A to B, it becomes an AB-type thing. Translation doesn’t have a resting point neither here nor there. But it spans that stretch. It comes across so many interactions. There’s no final mastery in translation because it’s taken over by the performative one way or another.

GN Mastery also takes on another valence in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” There’s a note in my version: mastery in Alisoun’s context specifically means between spouses. So extrapolating to translation, rejecting mastery might mean rejecting a unidirectional flow of power. How does that function in your performance work, like Ragadawn? 

CB Ragadawn is an outdoor celebration of the dawn based on medieval troubadour dawn songs that were often about the separation of lovers. I invited British composer Gavin Bryars, whose work with voice I really love, to write my center love song, my Canso. We brought in the wonderful Peyee Chen to sing his piece, and I perform alongside her.

But importantly it’s also about minoritarian languages today. I recorded poets translating the refrain of my work. They are either speaking an old European language that is under threat or a new language under threat, the latter by virtue of its lack of acceptance in the contemporary context.

GN  What would be an example?

CBPunjabi in the southeast of England. It’s spoken in a very settled community, which has really been part of regenerating the region. It is the second most spoken language in the UK, yet it remains very much a community language, whereas in fact Indian Pakistani communities are leading the renewal of British culture. In order for me to get that language, so I’m not a tourist, or performing a sort of sonic voyeurism to the language, I literally invite people, poets mostly, to come in, and I record them translating just one phrase. That phrase is so simple and it’s so moving; it just opens up so many conversations about experience. It is “Passengers we are, passages we are.” The minimal operation of translating that phrase is always preemptive of longer conversations—we share food, we start to talk.

GN So your practice of translation is not about resituating one work in a different national context. Instead, you take a phrase as a kind of bridge to another language?

CB It’s a very performative take on translation. That’s something many of us now share regarding translation: you make it explicit; you show the joints. It doesn’t get that veneer that it used to have. It doesn’t just enter national culture by way of the text. On the contrary, it sets up other terms of exchange. There can’t be any Irish in this work, for example, if I haven’t involved Irish poets. Translation here is always needing an encounter. Similarly, I consider Alisoun Sings to be translative in spirit.

Greg Nissan is the author of The City Is Lush With / Obstructed Views (DoubleCross Press). His writing has appeared in BOMB, Boston Review, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, and Frieze. He’s currently translating Ann Cotten’s Banned! An epic poem from the German.

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