The Spring 2014 issue of BOMB features an interview with poet, painter, and essayist Etel Adnan, whose book of lyric vignettes, In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country was published by City Lights in 2005. She spoke with the poet and essayist Lisa Robertson in Paris. What follows is a small portion of that conversation with Adnan, who Robertson describes as “… a philosopher. And she is a painter. In her world, each of these activities gives its images and its movements to the others—whatever an image is.”
LR : So I have two questions. One is about the relationship between the image in poetry and the image in painting, and the other one, which might not be related to the first, is about women’s images. In an interview with Steve McQueen in The Guardian about his film Twelve Years a Slave, he said, “Some images have never been seen before. I needed to see them.” It resonated for me in relationship to your work. You are making images that have not been seen. Some of that might have to do with the fact that you are making women’s images. Do you feel that?
EA : Until now at least, a woman’s life, her psyche . . . we don’t like the word essence anymore. As women, of course, we are different from each other as people, but we are also different from men. Or we have been up until now. So we have our own images. We’ve had little girls’ lives, so we carry that. When I grew up in Beirut, there weren’t many sports for boys or girls, but certainly girls were aware of being little girls, of being in. This idea of the outside and the inside works very strongly in women’s lives. In fact, women are rooted somewhere, they are stronger physically. Women are containers—the baby is in their belly; making love is receiving. This container contains hearts and stomachs. Images are, in one way, what we receive, but they are also the tools with which we think. To make images, you think with them, somehow. You mentioned Baudelaire. For Baudelaire, images work not like shapes, but like ideas made visible. He was particularly interested in the encounter between what we call the inner world and the outer world. And poetry deals magnificently with that. It is one of the major definitions of poetry. It addresses that relationship between what we call the subject and the object, which melt in what we call consciousness. Sometimes we transcribe this state of mind into words and call it a poem or a text. The same is true for the other arts. Writing is a very mysterious activity. When you write, you say things that would not have occurred to your mind otherwise. I don’t know if the fact that we don’t use paper and ink anymore affects writing. On a computer it’s a new situation.
LR : Do you write on a computer?
EA : My poetry is not long. I write in little paragraphs and they pile up, so I do it by hand. But I am more and more obligated to answer letters or emails, so then I use a computer. But to go back to what an image is—
LR : That’s my real question. (laughter)
EA : For example, I look at this table in front of me. Somebody over there, however, may look at it and not see it. Seeing is an activity; it is not passive.
LR : The last sentence I read before I got off the metro on my way here was, “Behind an image there’s the image.”
EA : There are layers of images—that’s what I meant, very simply. There is thickness. Vision is multidimensional and simultaneous. You can think, see, see beyond: you can do all these things at the same time. Your psyche, your brain catches up. Some people today say that an image is not necessarily a clear figuration of something; it could be like a blurred abstract drawing, like a sliding door.
LR : An event in perceiving.
EA : Yes, an event. It is a speed that you catch. Images are not still. They are moving things. They come, they go, they disappear, they approach, they recede, and they are not even visual—ultimately they are pure feeling. They’re like something that calls you through a fog or a cloud.