Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Gregoire Pam Dick

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Gregoire Pam Dick

Austrian poet Georg Trakl made a quite an impact in his short life. He died at just 27 years old, in 1914, but before his death he contributed significantly to the expressionist school, even attracting the attention of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, who at times supported Trakl financially. Both talent and tragedy ran in Trakl's family — his sister, Grete, was a piano prodigy who died at 26 from a gunshot wound that has been described by differing sources as either a suicide, a murder or an accident.

From the fertile ground of the Trakls' intriguing lives, Gregoire Pam Dick has crafted a surreal and vibrant book that defies genre categorization. Part prose-poem, part novella, Metaphysical Licks (BookThug) riffs on George Trakl's work and transforms early 20th century Grete into the character Greta. With appearances by Wittgenstein, Kafka and Nietzsche, Metaphysical Licks explores the urban, the sexual and the philosophical with wit and fearless creativity.

Today Pam speaks to Open Book about what drew her to the Trakls, how literary form can be a wrestling partner and the most essential fuel for writing.

Open Book:

Tell us about Metaphysical Licks and how it came to be.

Gregoire Pam Dick:

Metaphysical Licks is an intensely sonic, hybrid prose-poem/novella riffing on the lives and works of early 20th century Austrian poet Georg Trakl and his sister, Grete, a musician. It transposes Georg's Grete (fellow addict and suicide) to current-day Greta, gives her Wittgenstein and Kafka as other brothers, and betroths her (unhappily) to Nietzsche. Crossing New York City with Vienna and Berlin, it composes dissonance from urban moments, narrative fragments, musical references, and philosophical reflections. It mixes high and low, sorrow and humour, artifice and confession. The restless, inventive, androgynous, sexually loose (and intermittently incestuous) persona of Greta expresses itself in part through the surreal, haunted imagery of Trakl's poems — bastardized with some punk and genderqueer stylings. It’s a rebellious, extreme, questioning book in which subjectivity keeps changing its sounds.

I first learned of Georg from working on Wittgenstein, who indirectly funded him, nearly met him, and was struck (if also baffled) by his work. I responded strongly to Trakl’s writing and began to read about him, thus finding out about Grete. I decided to give her a present-day voice and make her an unprofessional philosopher, which led to my book’s notebook sections (though on one reading, the entire novella is a notebook/book of notes — in various senses of note). As the writing progressed, the book’s forms diversified to include a fairy tale, a fractured libretto, a gloss on the Fall in Genesis, a recast Thebes trilogy, etc. Meanwhile, the characters allowed me to engage not only with Georg’s writing but with that of Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Kafka, etc. — while doing it in a bold, playful way. (It’s intertextual work which I call incest poetics — making out and off with sibling texts.) Throughout, I focused on sound.


What attracted you to Georg and Grete (Trakl) as subjects? What significance did they have to you before you began the book?


I was drawn to the intensity, obsessiveness and expressive power of Georg’s writing, to its haunting, disturbing quality, and to its musicality, its sonic impact. The narrowness and repetitiveness of his imagery intrigued me, as did its extremity. I found the mood of his work stunning.

When I learned that Grete was a musician and read about both their lives, I became even more compelled. Their wild creativity, their passionate relationship, their addictions and other challenges moved me. And I wanted to focus on Grete, to try to imagine myself into a version of her. But I began the book very soon after first reading Georg. Before that, I was only faintly aware of him and not at all of her. However, I did have an ongoing interest in this period of Austrian culture: its philosophy and other literature, its music, art and design, its sense of spiritual, cultural and political crisis.


You blend elements of prose and poetry here. Do you see the two as separate categories, or fluid? What are your feelings about genre divisions of this kind?


I came to poetry from writing experimental fiction with short, numbered sections, philosophical reflections, fragmented narratives, intertextuality and a focus on rhythmic and multivalent aspects of language. So the move into prose poetry and hybrids of fiction, philosophy and poetry was natural. I like writing that rebels against or plays with distinctions, renders them fluid. That said, I do think prose and poetry’s different forms, grammars and music create different modes of thought, feeling, being. And the movement between them can spark wild new modes. I find that freedom inspiring, intoxicating. So all my work is impure in this way. I see distinctions as exciting wrestling partners.


Tell us a little bit about your writing space and process. Do you have a particular time of day, food or drink, or ritual that helps you get into writing mode?


I write in the morning and in the late afternoon/early evening. In the morning, I’ll do it in my studio apartment; later, I might go to a café. Either way, I am drinking coffee. Paul Erdos says a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems. I am a Mädchen for turning coffee into prose-poems.


What were you reading while working on this collection, and what's next on your to-read list?


Beyond books on the Trakls, I was rereading Wittgenstein’s early work and Nietzsche, as well as German Romantics who experimented with the form of the poetic novel. I wrote the book over several years, so I was also exploring other areas: Ingeborg Bachmann, Georg Büchner, Hölderlin, Robert Walser and Wedekind were in heavy rotation. Now I am reading or rereading Tsvetaeva, Michaux, Plotinus, Augustine, Simone Weil, various Polish poets, and Kafka, for a constellation of projects I’m pursuing. (They always come in clusters.) In terms of contemporaries, I recently read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which is extraordinary.


What are you working on now?


I’m working on several books that experiment with mixing prose, poetry and philosophy in new ways and with different ratios. One manuscript incorporates more drawing, as well as writing on (early Sienese) painting, which is something I’ve done before and love to do. Metaphysical Licks was a very musical book; now I’m looking more at visual aspects. And rationing my sound- and wordplay, letting silence factor in.

Gregoire Pam Dick (aka Mina Pam Dick, Jake Pam Dick et al.) is the author of Delinquent (Futurepoem, 2009). Her writing has appeared in BOMB, frieze, The Brooklyn Rail, Aufgabe, EOAGH, Fence, Matrix, Open Letter, Poetry Is Dead, and elsewhere, and has been featured in Postmodern Culture; it is included in the anthologies The Sonnets (ed. S. Cohen and P. Legault, Telephone, 2012) and Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, (ed. TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson, Nightboat, 2013). Her philosophical work has appeared in a collection published by the International Wittgenstein Symposium. Also an artist and translator, Dick lives in New York City, where she is currently doing work that makes out and off with Büchner, Wedekind, Walser, and Michaux.

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