Interview with Ella Longpre

By Paul Adams, Contributing Editor

Awst is glad to feature author, Ella Longpre, and we'd like our readers to know a little more about her. We sat down to get her thoughts on reading and writing, blurring genres, obscenity, and works in translation.

As usual, we'll start off with an easy one. What are you reading right now? 

I just finished Willa Cather's My Ántonia. So now I'm reading Samuel Delany's Tales of Nevèrÿon, and Postcolonial Melancholia by Paul Gilroy.

Why do you think Willa Cather still speaks to us? 

This book in particular left me in tears—My Ántonia is this Bildungsroman in which nothing much happens to a boy beyond the gradual education that it’s impossible to go home again. I was left for days with the image of the shadows of two children playing in the grass, burned into my thoughts. 

Interesting. So can you tell us a little about Delany's work?

Samuel Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon, if you’re unfamiliar, is a four-volume fantasy series – but it makes me hopeful for our own future. Delany uses the narrative space of fantasy to examine issues of representation, semiotics, mythology, modes of storytelling—and creates fictional cultures and cultural practices that are beautiful and terrifying. Which can give us courage to reimagine the future of our own community.

And Gilroy?

Gilroy’s Postcolonial Melancholia was recommended to me by a beloved teacher. I’ve just started it, so I can’t speak about it with any authority—but I did write this sentence in my notebook: “…Taking not the idea of ‘race’ but the power of racisms more seriously means accepting that there may be a degree of tension between the professional obligations to recover and to remain faithful to the past and the moral and political imperative to act against the injustices of racial hierarchy as we encounter them today.” 

You have a lot of variety in your reading list. Your own work also crosses genres; do you think of yourself as a poet, a fiction writer, an author, or an artist more generally? Are these distinctions growing less important?

They used to be very important to me. Writing a poem is a very distinct act from writing memoir or fiction, for me, and I used to move through phases of these different kinds of writing‑to the point that I would be very conscious of what kind of week or month I was moving through. But now I try to inhabit genre more intuitively, so that I'm less rigid and maybe more surprised later.

Have you written anything lately that reflects that intuitive shift or thwarts any conventional genre?

Most recently, I finished a long work called How to Keep You Alive, which I'm not sure what to call—my thesis adviser and I discussed this, actually, and couldn't decide whether it was a novel, prose poems, or creative nonfiction. So I'm calling it a book of common prayer, about the real ways in which we ruin, and what unseen processes are happening when we fall apart, and what happens to language when we do.  

Are there common braids running through everything you write, or themes you find yourself constantly revisiting?

I don't envision a theme for my writing, but I usually end up writing about loss, something that's been lost. I'm getting fatigued by it, actually, and try to write things that are more fun, or angry, or obscene. But it works better for me when obscenity is a backdrop for loss. God, I hate that.

Obscenity is an interesting concept. When Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was asked to define obscenity, he wrote that he "could never succeed in intelligibly doing so" but "knew it when [he] saw it"; can you give us that intelligible definition of obscenity, at least as it relates to your work?

Obscenity isn’t just, “you know it when you see it”— it’s also, “you know it when you say it.” Obscenity, to me, is almost sacred. It’s a powerful tool that is often all the powerless have, or it’s what the powerful deem the words of the powerless to be.

If those are themes you're aware of when writing, is there any motif, image, word, or idea that you find popping up or creeping into your work without your intent?  

In terms of ideas that pop up unconsciously, I'm surprised to find that children come up in my writing often, or the idea of childhood. Children are something I actively avoid, in life and in writing. So of course nostalgia around childhood comes up all the time.

Is there anything you've been working on or struggling with for a long time? Something you frequently revisit?

I'm actually revising a translation, from years ago, that became a disaster—I tried to translate the first chapter of Zola's Germinal and it ended up becoming a poem about Lorca on a beach. That took a year to write, and a few years later, I keep coming back to it.

In an essay you wrote for TRACT/TRACE, you quote the poet Anne Carson, who translated Sappho with many of the famously infuriating lacunae filled in with her own speculations and others left as "[ ]". It's a genuine masterpiece, but perhaps very far from the original.  Is it possible to translate something across such a gulf in time and culture? Can there ever be perfect translations?

I actually used If not, Winter, a little, in my thesis. I was thinking of how disaster can appear in texts in different forms (in this case, in the form of time). Translations can be a disaster, in that way. I love reading works in translation because it’s an intriguing process and there are translators who do it beautifully—for instance, Ann Smock, Lydia Davis, Jen Hofer. But it feels strange to imagine that there could be a definitive or accurate translation of any work. Because, then, you’re leaving out part of the process, where the translation actually occurs. And it’s there where translation can become a colonial or a subversive act, or a gesture of respect. Because there is the issue of representation, and what responsibilities you have to the original author and text.

What are those responsibilities?

Translation can be something you approach with an amount of respect or even awe for the original text and writer—or, you can acknowledge the inherent failure in translation and try to embody that, such as in Christian Hawkey's Ventrakl. In this translation of Georg Trakl’s poetry, Hawkey abandons a “true” translation from the German and instead opts for other methods of translation—for instance, soaking a poem in a jar of water and fishing out soggy scraps of paper.

Are there similar responsibilities when directly quoting, manipulating, or appropriating other texts? I'm thinking of the elegy Heather Christle created for Neil Armstrong by erasing portions of the moon-landing transcript, for example; what opportunities and obligations does that create for authors?

I feel like I can only speak about my own personal obligation as an author; I’ve been saying “you” where I mean “I.” I will say that I try to keep in mind that appropriation can be a decision made out of violence, ignorance, reverence, or, again, subversion. Am I manipulating the words of someone I already have the privilege of speaking over? In the case of Heather’s erasures—they are just gorgeous. As an elegy, it’s formally beautiful, because, when grieving, where do the words come from? As images, they are stunning.

Some of your work has involved that kind of play with texts, like your created dialogues between artists (Elliot Smith and Edna St. Vincent Millay or Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson); can you explain what you find so appealing about 'the dialogue' as a form? Is this a new genre, or are there underappreciated classics of the dialogue? 

Oh yes—Manuel Puig was a huge influence. Camus's one-sided dialogue in The Fall. And Beckett seems to be always speaking to someone else in an empty room. The dialogues usually begin as an internal conflict, or a really heated imaginary argument with a friend—or when I come across texts that speak to each other, like the Smith and Millay "essay." I wrote that one morning, reading Millay while listening to Elliot Smith; I realized that they sounded like two lovers on the way out of a relationship with their teeth bared a little.

You've also written that reading is itself a sort of dialogue, a collaborative effort between readers and writers. How much work should readers have to do to meet their authors? Is there a unique pleasure in trying to read something very opaque or demanding?

I think of reading as an archaeological activity. Uncovering something that's been dormant for some period of time. But also because reading began, for me, as something you did on the floor in the hallway when a movie was on, or in a park after lugging a backpack of books on your bike. Reading can be physically arduous, even while it's an unprecedented pleasure.

What literary strategies do you use in your own writing to help readers with challenging or unfamiliar territory?

I usually write for readers who are willing to do a certain amount of work. Sometimes I try to write pieces of cake or something very pleasurable and beautiful and it doesn't really work—writing that feels right for me usually feels like doing math. But I do try to make some kind of offering or gift for the reader, because the acts of writing and of reading are really one continuous activity that requires both reader and writer as collaborators. And also because it's still an amazing honor for me when anyone reads my work.

Well, we're all big admirers of yours, and sure your readership will continue expanding. You've been pursuing your MFA?

I just finished my MFA at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, where I've worked with some of the smartest and most thoughtful writers and mentors.

 What’s next for you? 

For now, I am being trained to teach poetry workshops in a prison here in Denver; this is something I would like to do more of in the future, working with under-served populations and writers. These programs are so necessary, and need good people.

That sounds great! The Austin area has a program called the Freehand Arts Project where we work with students in the Travis County Correctional System. I'm hoping to get my first class this summer.

I'll have to look up the Freehand Arts Project—I'm trying to find as many models of these programs as I can, maybe to compile information, so that it’s easier to start them in other locations. There are more and more every year, but compared to the number of prisons and correctional facilities, there aren't that many.  

I had to go through a lot of paperwork and waiting, and still have two mandatory and one optional training sessions to come. Have you started teaching yet? 

I've done on-site training with the Department of Justice—I have one more training/tour to do, and then I can start.

That sounds great, and I hope more people will consider getting involved with programs like these. They can be a great way for authors and teachers to have a life that is about literature, but that also reaches out to people who haven't had the same opportunities. There are a lot of stories going untold. Before we go, do you have any final thoughts, thank-yous, shout-outs, or words of wisdom?

I have no wisdom! My only hope is to speak less, listen more.

Paul Adams is an author and MFA student at Texas State University.