On Excavation: An Interview with Ellen Dillon

This interview first appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of Firmament. The interview was conducted by Sublunary Editions associate editor, Vik Shirley.

You have worked quite extensively with song lyrics, Sonnets for Malkmus (Sad Press), in which you combined the lyrics of Stephen Malkmus with the form and process of Rilke. In Excavate: Poems After Pasolini (Oystercatcher) you combined the lyrics of Wilco and The Fall with Pasolini’s films and poems. Please could you tell us a bit about your relationship with these bands / lyrics and how this way of working came about, crossing the streams, mixing high culture with contemporary musical culture in such an experimental way?

My first poems were written in a workshop I did in Cork with Leanne O’Sullivan, in the winter of 2013. I was messing around with different ways of working, having prided myself on being more reader than writer up to that point, and song lyrics woven into other texts and textures was one of the techniques that made its way into what I think of as my own writing.

That started in earnest with the Malkmus book. I’d been writing small, domestic poems (most of which ended up in my forthcoming pamphlet Achatina, achatina!) for a few years, and many of those poems had a sneaky line or two from a favourite song in them. In April 2017, I was thinking a lot about Malkmus and his preternatural skill at incorporating guitar lines freighted with human feeling into his songs, and especially into his songs with Silver Jews. It always grieved me that he was dismissed as an irony-poisoned slacker when it should be clear to anyone with ears that, while his words shied away from direct expression, his guitar parts oozed the ineffable. It occurred to me that song lyrics fulfilled (or at least waved in the direction of) a similar function in some of my poems. It being April, I decided to give NaPoWriMo a go, as I’d fallen into the trap of agonizing and whittling away at my small poems until there was nothing left. As a teenager, I’d been bewildered by, and obsessed with, Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, so I started rereading some of those poems. I read about how Rilke had composed the poems in a burst of inspiration, completing the first 26 sonnets in three days, and the second 29 in the following three weeks. I set myself the task of replicating this output over the month of April 2017, having each poem take the form of an acrostic to Malkmus in palindrome in the first section, and Stephen Malkmus in the second. There was a fairly rigorous chronological and alphabetic system for choosing the seed-lines from Pavement lyrics for section one, but I’ve unfortunately forgotten the detail of it. The second section shuffled lines from the poems of section one into “Malkmus” verses, and used the lyrics of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, following the same forgotten principle, for the “Stephen” verses. The use of lyrics and procedures gave my writing a weird freedom it hadn’t had before. The seed lines had a lot of influence on the subject matter and syntax of the poems they ended up in, but an unexpected amount of thinking and feeling that I recognize as personal to me snuck in along the way. I’ve noticed a similar dynamic in the Morsel May Sleep poems, especially the prose poems in the “Versions” section.

Around the same time, I started excavating bits of aborted translations from Pasolini’s Le Ceneri di Gramsci that I’d been fiddling around with since my MA thesis on his work in the late ’90s, long before I’d ever thought of myself as a poet. I had got so bogged down in the endless prepositions that clogged up the chains of phrasal verbs the poet’s movements through the city turned into in English that I was tempted just to dump the whole mess. What stopped me was the odd line or moment that emerged, shining, from the scrap heap. Lines like “It cries / whatever is changing / even to make itself better” had been singing in my head for nearly 20 years, like a transplanted guitar line. I started hacking away at the undergrowth of prepositions and definite and indefinite articles, and more of those moments bobbed clear. I used some of that grammatical culling in “Malkmus” too, to make space for things to resonate. Since I was going over and back between those two projects for a lot of 2017 and 2018, the idea of using song lyrics slipped from one into the other. I approached the choice of song lines for the Pasolini project with the opposite of whimsy, initially, picking songs with a thematic link to the poem. This put Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags” into conversation with “The Ashes of Gramsci”, and they chimed in ways I really hadn’t been expecting. In a sense, the choice of songs to pair with poems was embarrassingly literal-minded (e.g. Workland/Spiderland/Finest Worksong), but they threw up juxtapositions that were startling or unexpectedly sweet, in places. The only exception was the two lament poems, which put lines from “The Excavator’s Lament”, my favourite of all Pasolini’s poems, together with lyrics from The Fall’s “Grotesque (after the Gram)”. It felt like they shared a dynamic of restless movement through changing urban landscapes, and when I started cutting back and forth between the poem and the Mark E. Smith lyrics, there were moments it was hard to see where one ended and another began.

There has been a lot of splicing in these projects, how do you work? Do you handwrite, work straight onto laptop, use cut-up technique?

I work entirely unsystematically. I have no flair for layout whatsoever, being entirely spatially challenged, and I never have any sense of what things are going to look like when they’re finished. That wasn’t really an issue in the Malkmus poems, as they didn’t require as much cutting and fiddling about as the Pasolini ones. With Excavate, I started with huge lumps of translation, whole sections from the long poems “The Ashes of Gramsci”, “Land of Work”, and “The Excavator’s Lament”, and the entire lyrics of whatever songs I was pairing them with. Then I worked through these, cutting out lumpy bits and making note of any echoes and resonances between the poems and lyrics, moving things around to bring those resonances into relief. The opening poem, “Rage & Love”, started as a visual poem, using voiceover and stills from Pasolini’s short collage documentary film, La Rabbia. The visual format didn’t really work for the page, so I wrote “image descriptions” to intersperse with my transcriptions from Pasolini’s voice-over. That one was fun to do, and assuaged some of the guilt I’d been feeling at how he would react to having his poems (wo)manhandled in this way. I’d forgotten how much collage and appropriation there is in his own work, and the glorious liberties he takes with source texts in his films. I was always inspired by the significant role his technical ineptitude played in his filmmaking, with extremely short takes, audible coaching of actors, and dubbing in post-production used to work around his shortcomings. It felt like I was using similar work-arounds in this project to compensate for my own shortcomings as a translator/poet.

A couple of years ago you put out Heave digital chapbook with Smithereens Press, which started as erasure poems from the shooting script of Terrance Malick’s Days of Heaven, again working closely with another art form. It seems that you look outside of poetry, or even if not actively looking, other art forms seem to have just as big an impact on you. Would you agree with this? And typically, do you court inspiration or does it come find you?

This is true, to a large extent. I’m still not sure how inspiration works, or what role it plays in my own work, but it’s definitely true that all my own thinking and writing comes out of engagement with other art, whether that’s music, film, or writing. It has never happened that I’ve been struck by a bolt of inspiration that’s sent me off on an encounter with another artwork. Things occur while I’m reading or watching or listening, and I scribble illegible notes to self. Some of those notes prove persistent, and I end up being drawn back to the particular work and doing something with it. For Heave, I rewatched Days of Heaven after Sam Shepard died, and was utterly bewitched by it. I’d first watched it in the early 2000s, while taking a sickie from my terrible call center job, and watching it again brought back the unutterable tedium of that time. I found a copy of the shooting script online and was struck by the real poetry in its description of the characters and set-ups. The most amazing part was the idea that the actual film, as it exists, was not even hinted at in that script. Linda Manz’s voiceover is where the film really comes alive, and of course that was added in post-production, so the shooting script is this wonderful, odd thing that’s really only the sketchiest gesture towards what the film itself would turn out to be. I’m just thinking, now, that the way Malik went about doing the voice-over, having Linda Manz watch the cuts of the film and free associate over it in character, and then cutting and keeping the bits he liked best, resonates with my own way of working. I get obsessed with something and ramble on, and end up cutting and splicing and dumping and keeping bits of whatever emerges. This was definitely the case for Heave, where I started with some pretty severe and abstract erasure poems, then wrote back into those erasures, filling them with things that were more rhythmic and personal, teeming with bits and pieces of family life and lore. Writing about my ways of working, now, makes it sound infinitely more coherent than it ever was at the time. I just get stuck into something, and see what I can make of it. I’m never convinced that I can actually make anything, so I’m always surprised and enchanted when something emerges from these processes that feel very like what Fanny Howe describes as “bewilderment”.

In Morsel May Sleep you work with Mallarmé’s grammar exercises. I wondered if you could speak a little about Mallarmé, how you see him, his significance to you and how this project came into being.

Mallarmé is one of my enduring obsessions. I was snapped out of a semi-coma during a second year French poetry survey lecture, at UCD in the mid-’90s, by the line “aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore” from the “Sonnet en -yx”, and I spent the rest of that academic year squirreled away in the library, skipping lectures and reading every scrap of Mallarmé I could lay my hands on. As with all the permanent fixtures in my pantheon of obsessions, I’ll often go ages, years even, without thinking about him. Then, he’ll pop up in some unexpected context and I’ll burrow back into the Poésies or Divagations.

This book started with a gift from Peter Manson, whose poetry and translations have become as central to my thinking and writing as Mallarmé’s. As I was finishing up my PhD thesis (on abstraction in contemporary poetry, focusing on the work of Peter Gizzi and Peter Manson) he sent me a copy of Thèmes anglais pour toutes les grammaires, a textbook that Mallarmé had designed to use English proverbs as the basis for translation exercises to teach points of English grammar to his students. I’d just gone back to secondary school teaching after a two-year break, English and French at a school five minutes from home, and my head was a ferment of poems and kids, lesson plans and footnotes, English and French. Once things started to settle in the outside world, I needed to write this chaos. A few false starts with personal essays went nowhere, and I took to leafing through Mallarmé’s Thèmes, looking for leads for an essay on attention or pedagogy. The book is a series of lessons, with each grammar point anchored in a sequence of idiosyncratic proverbs that Mallarmé has translated into French for the student to translate back into English. Along with staples like “Jack of all trades, master of none” are unfamiliar oddities like “The nightingale and the cuckoo sing both in one mouth”, dispatches from an alien dialect that Mallarmé seems to have crafted by himself to hang his lessons from. The English proverbs are riddled with typos and misspellings, compounded by slippages in meaning between the English and French versions of the “same” proverb. The thought of roomfuls of teens sweating over these translations in search of the hidden secrets of English grammar filled me with the rueful tiredness that often overwhelms me when I think too hard about teaching and its frequently absent twin, learning. Mallarmé’s proverbs seemed to have inadvertently trapped this essence of the teaching experience between their imperfectly overlapping layers.

The book is made up of three sections. Could you talk about the process of each section? How do they differ?

Though I love all things Oulipo and am in awe of writers who manage to squeeze out meaningful, feelingful work while bound by tight constraints, that way of writing has never worked for me. A closer model comes from Jasper Johns’ note-to-self: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” The opening section, “Remakes”, takes its title from Paul Valéry’s introduction to Thèmes Anglais, which refers to an unknown English teacher wasting his life on “research, regrets, and remakes”. This struck a nerve, but I decided to own it! The proverbs turned out to be an addictive trove of found language, and I spent months mining them for the short poemlets that make up the first part of each “Remake”. I followed my ear in this section, ending up with little poems that emphasised the sound patterning in the chosen sequences of proverbs, and especially in Mallarmé’s French renderings of them. Once I’d made the found poems, the first “something else” was the afterthoughts. These set out whatever thoughts bobbed to the surface when re-reading the found poems, and for this reason took entirely different forms in English and French. I had no set themes in mind, but the English ones often ended up back in the classroom, thinking about the mystery of attention and how it’s made, shared and sustained in that space. In French, things took a more domestic turn while lingering on the slipperiness of language itself.

I had planned to keep going in this manner through the entirety of Mallarmé’s hundred lessons, but towards the end of the “Nouns” section it felt like the process was in danger of running out of energy. So, I returned to the initial poemlets for a second time and started “Versions”. Here, the “something else” took the form of “writing into” the ones from the “Articles” sections. Again, I had no thoughts of content, just an idea of vaguely rectangular prose poems with the outline of the initial poemlets remaining visible, like a cake within a cake. I was watching endless reruns of the Great British Bake-Off around this time.

When it came to the “Nouns” poems, this rectangular shape didn’t fit. Their chains of weird, animal-obsessed noun phrases needed something to thread them together in a shape more like a candle melting. These two final poems really took on a momentum of their own, knitting themselves out of animals and leftover thoughts about learning and language, following their own internal logics of melting and singeing. They felt like the right kind of shape and song to end on.

What seems to be different in Morsel May Sleep to your other books is that you are working with your own words. You are personally more present in this chapbook, using your own words, your own thoughts, rather than those of others. You seem, in some way, to be working in more of a, to use a casual musical term, “jamming” capacity with Mallarmé, and then jamming with yourself. Or if not jamming, at least collaborating in some way. Would you agree? How did it feel to have more of yourself present in this one?

That is definitely true. Some of this kind of “writing into” found language was initially trialled in Heave, but it’s much more sustained in the middle section of Morsel. Jamming is a very good analogy, as they all riff off the associations given by the found language, but wander off in directions that end up being very personal. As usual, I didn’t have set ideas of what I was going to write about, but the domestic and somewhat agricultural subject matter of the proverbs lent themselves to thinking about living and working in the middle of nowhere, as I do. Something that struck me afterwards was that the most personal parts are in the French “Versions”. Re-reading those, I see very clear references to people and relationships that are still occluded, to some extent, in the English “Versions”. I have a horror of confessional writing, and have never written a single explicitly personal poem or essay. Partly, it’s to do with a mistrust of the narrativising instinct that comes with those genres. Even answering these questions, I find myself straightening up stray threads to make things read coherently, whereas, to my mind, the really interesting work is the messy tangle of threads behind the tapestry. What I like about these poems, and it was entirely unintentional, is that they do reveal glimpses of my life, relationships, and feelings, but in among the mess and tangle of words that is their natural habitat.

This book is in both French and English. From what I understand, there are points where the French poems are more straight translations of the English and points where they are completely different poems. Could you talk about your relationship with the French language, how the language feels different to you than English and how this has affected the book?

I think of it as sort of a Venn diagram of two books. The central overlap is the found language from Mallarmé’s chosen proverbs and his own French translations of them. From that point, the book branches out into different shapes in each language. There are quite a few concerns passed back and forth between them: school, family, birds and animals, boats and water, language itself, but they each follow the sounds and associations of their own language. By the third section, “Melt Song” and “Chanson roussie” are entirely different poems with little in the way of overlap, as far as I can spot anyway.

My relationship with French pre-dates my ability to speak it, really. As an excruciatingly awkward and pretentious teen, Rimbaud and Baudelaire were my mainstays along with Rilke. I used to take Les fleurs du mal out of my local library in Charleville so often that the librarian joked about letting me keep it. I was thrilled that the town of my teenage misery shared a name with Rimbaud’s hometown, and I bought a small, grey, paperback selection of his poems in parallel translation that I carried around everywhere. I am literally dying for my 14-year-old self, typing this. My daughter is this age now, and finding everything about being alive in the world absolutely agonizing, and I vividly remember feeling that too. It’s just the worst age. Hiding out in the gap between two languages, only one of which I spoke, was a refuge. I was good at French at school, and wanted to study it at university. Due to a cock-up in my college applications, I ended up taking a gap year. I spent it au pairing in France, for the family of a niece of François Mitterand, in a very rural part of the Charente. It was just one of those lucky accidents, being entirely immersed in French at 17, with a brain still plastic enough to pick up the language really quickly. In a couple of months, I went from gruesome school French to near fluency. After that, the language was just part of me. I still switch over and back between English and French in my head, and dream in both languages. Writing in French isn’t as instinctive as English, but it seems to tap into a stream of thinking about family and relationships that I find it hard to access in English. Beckett (who I am absolutely NOT comparing myself to) explained his decision to write in French as “le besoin d’être mal armé”, a “need to be badly armed” that contains a nod to Mallarmé. I feel this too, or at least that writing in French gives a different set of arms. Maces or lances. I used to fret about being unidiomatic or lapsing into translationese, but now I just commit to it, and if something pops into my head in French, I write it in French.

This book was fun to write, in that the French side really didn’t feel like it was written by me. Even reading back over it now, I’m taken aback at some of the things that bobbed to the surface. Writing in a second language provides its own kind of constraint, and while I was fretting over verb forms and agreements, subject matter was organising itself beneath the surface. I’d like to do more of that kind of writing, but I’ll need to wait for the right source text to ambush me again.

The presence of the classroom is interesting. Do you know other poets who have incorporated the classroom into their work so heavily? What does the classroom mean to you?

I’m not sure whether anyone else has as much classroom in their poems. Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies, and Dreams is a real inspiration, but that’s a poet in the classroom while mine is kind of the reverse. I’m obsessed with dynamics of attention, as someone who has always really struggled to regulate my own, and I’m fascinated by how attention makes and sustains itself in teaching settings. I’m reading Yves Citton’s work on gestures and “ecologies of attention” at the moment, and am fascinated by its implications for teaching and learning. So much of what passes for pedagogy focuses on subject content, and especially strategies and techniques, and it seems to me that these are the least important aspects of learning. The real stuff happens in hard-to-pin-down interactions, and it seems like the important work is teasing out points of connection and creating an atmosphere in which students can follow those links wherever they take them. It can be hard to make space for this kind of work amidst the constraints of schools under neoliberalism, but that’s where things happen. So I think about it a lot. I hated every second of secondary school, and if you’d told my teenage self that I’d end up teaching French and English in a school seven miles from where I grew up, I’d just have lost the will to live. But it really brings me joy. It definitely feels cut from the same cloth as my writing—working around limitations and striving to spark and regulate attention. My teenage self would definitely approve of the writing side of what I do now, with all its multilingual notions. It seems like I need one in order to be able to do the other, at least for now. Unlike poor Mallarmé, who so longed to escape the torture of teaching.

Your PhD studies were on abstraction in contemporary poetry. How has that informed your writing to date? What is your relationship with the abstract?

The writing that I do now, especially Morsel May Sleep, grew out of my PhD for sure. I spent four years immersed in the work of Peter Gizzi and Peter Manson, and it completely recalibrated my sense of what poetry is and can do. My supervisor in DCU, Michael Hinds, was brilliant from the point of view of getting me to write. Right from the start, he encouraged me to give papers at conferences and write for publication. I never really know anything until I’ve written it down, so writing papers became a way of feeling my way through ideas that I couldn’t work out in my head. I’m dodging around the issue of “abstraction”, as it’s a little bit mortifying to admit that, two years after finishing a PhD on the subject, I’m still not sure that I understand what it is or how it works. For me, it’s inseparable from the experience of feeling my way through something that’s too close to be discerned. It’s all the stuff of thinking and feeling, out at the edge of where language can go. I’ve always loved Fanny Howe, and I’ve been reading her Night Philosophy during lockdown. Her description of bewilderment comes very close to this sense that I have of abstraction as groping my way through a disorienting world. In Night Philosophy she says “I wonder if consciousness is outside our brains and bodies, if we are enclosed in a cocoon of mental zeal”, and this captures, more closely than anything else I’ve ever read, what the world feels like to me. Feeling is the operative word, always. It’s a haptic experience of feeling your way through the threads of the world and its thinking, making and unmaking and remaking sense as you go.

You are from and based in Limerick, Ireland. How has location and where you are from fed into your work?

Up until recently, I’d have struggled to find any connection to Limerick in my work. Two of the great contemporary experimental poets, Catherine Walsh and Billy Mills, live close to here, but I’ve mostly met them in Cork at SoundEye, Trevor Joyce’s legendary annual poetry festival that, sadly, ended in 2017 after 20 years. I wouldn’t have felt that my writing had any particular attachment to place. However, my most recent project, Butter Intervention, is totally rooted in the creameries and dairy farms of my home area of south County Limerick. My dad was a creamery manager when I was growing up, and worked in a series of small co-operative creameries that were gradually absorbed into ever-larger dairy conglomerates. The towns and villages around here are filled with the husks of the creameries, pumping stations and condenseries that constituted the fabric of a thriving rural industry 100 years ago, with active and militant workers’ movements. This seems unfathomable from the perspective of the deeply conservative rural communities and commuter towns that fill this space now. Butter Intervention uses documentary poetry, interspersed with prose inserts from the point of view of butter, to explore how dairy shaped the culture and society of this part of Ireland. On the one hand, this book probably couldn’t have been written by anybody else. On the other, I’m not sure that anyone in their right mind would want to read it. I’m learning an incredible amount about choices and priorities made at the birth of the Irish state, and how they served to promote the kind of insular rural culture I found so suffocating, growing up. It’s quite an education.