Figure a Motion: MAI in Conversation with Jazmine Linklater

by: & Vahni Capildeo , October 5, 2020

© Guillemot Press

Published by Guillemot Press, Figure a Motion by Jazmine Linklater is an exhilarating set of poems. The title begins the tilting which the reader or hearer will experience. Throughout the multiple forms of poetry and many forms of address, there is a sense of body and space being in cahoots, tussling and tangoing with language—language always fine in itself, and also never enough for the hypnotic or mucky realities of hereness and otherness. There are real and botanically toxic flowers in real, bordered gardens, with gaps on the page for murderously scrabbled earth. There is side-eye as to the translatability of ancient goddesses, even as Atargatis and Inanna climb, with fierce generosity, out of their contradictory, paired and doubled text boxes.

On behalf of MAI, Vahni Capildeo met with Jazmine Linklater to discuss her book and her inspirations.

MAI: Jazmine, I love the riddling nature of the title you chose. It matches the cover design—glimpses of artworks. Is the phrase ‘figure a motion’ an invitation, and is ‘figure’ a verb? How would you ‘figure’ a motion? ‘Figure’: try to make sense of what is in movement? ‘Figure’: assume there is a motion …agree to enter an active, participatory space? ‘Figure’: improvise a motion, like a physical artist responding to a word? And what if ‘figure’ is a noun and the title is elliptical? Figure a Motion: the ‘figure’, the figure of speech, the exhibit in the museum, the body in view or in story, is alive. Tell me about the development of your work towards its current form and title?

JL: Yes! I love that you’ve teased out so many of the title’s nuances. Figure’s operation as invitation—to fathom something out—whilst also playing through multiple other modulations, is important to me. Figure is form but it’s also intangible, the dissolution of plasticity into action—a wisp of thought, a passing proximity. Figure denotes change—transmutation from the concrete to the ephemeral. Lisa Robertson glosses this in Nilling, writing about Eric Auerbach’s essay ‘Figura’: ‘the figural shape is already social, already part of a willed production of meaning… Interpretive incompletion is the figure’s access to potential change’. This opening towards imaginative possibility, by asking the reader to enter actively, in collaboration, interests me. Motion, too—motioning can be beckoning, requesting. We also have the figure of speech ‘to table a motion’: to begin a consideration towards a happening. The undulation of vowel sounds in Figure a Motion gestures to the nonlinearity of communication: the aural slippage of a motion/emotion might indicate convergence—holding things besides, even in incongruity. None of these poems would have been written without many other people and bodies of work in dialogue. So it’s about relation—figure, motion, emotion—and entrance by way of reciprocity.

I started these poems in response to an exhibition at Castlefield Gallery in Manchester of new works by artists Ruth Barker and Hannah Leighton-Boyce, including sculpture, installation, performance, photography. You can find some of my thoughts about it in MAP (here). But what’s stayed with me is this idea of the social—the necessity of conversation that spills over spatial or temporal borders/boundaries. That we brush up against multitudes from our embodied presence. The tension of form and movement, of occupying a somewhat fixed position in the world whilst deviating from it: breaking out through a rooted unruliness that is potential for expansion.

My writing has always drawn on other artists’ work. I danced well into my early twenties and think a lot about the choreography of Akram Khan and Pina Bausch. Writing Figure a Motion, I often returned to Mira Schendel’s letraset pieces and paper sculptures, and the animal masks that Birgit Jürgenssen photographed herself wearing in the 70s. Visual art is central to my entrance into thinking, and I’ve always found the gallery to be a space of opportunity—which I know won’t be the case for a lot of people. It might resemble how recent translations of Sappho focus on the text’s fragmentation, whereas earlier translations wrote right into those absences by imagining what might have been said. Now, we have this focus on what’s missing represented by brackets and blank space on the page. This opening out from one writer’s imagination to an area of shared possible imaginings—that’s what the gallery can offer too.

MAI: You welcome us into the gallery with the first poem, ‘Installation’. This text also makes it clear that you are not a curator, nor is the reader a spectator. As you say, there’s a lively sharing. The first line of ‘Installation’ tells us ‘Her body resists definition’. Similarly, the cyclical art of Figure a Motion resists the definition of ‘collection’ or the linearity of ‘sequence’. For example, the recurrence of weird energy through the ‘Pulse Pulse’ poems feels circulatory. The concrete poem formed of concentric circles is a labyrinthine heart, human and cyborgian. What are some of the ways in, or through? Have you somehow uninstalled received notions of a feminist, ekphrastic collection?

JL: I do think about the structure as circular—maybe a temple or standing stone circle—and as you weave towards the centre the energy intensifies, so these pulses start happening at intervals. In the centre is maybe a pool, maybe a pebble dropped in that gives rise to the ripples of tighter concentric circles. But the text of this poem is firmly sited in the gallery, navigating the relations between viewer, objects, gallery assistants, absent artists. An implicit hierarchy of position remains, like the triangulation of speaker, addressee, reader. Then the text moves out again, between pillars and into different settings that arise between those pillars. There are poems in the gallery, but there are also poems outside, in rooms, in the sea, out of space entirely—in mythic time and memory. So the places between are openings or portals.

Through them, I imagine voices sprung from the many mythologies of goddesses we’ve inherited: echoing and joining with other voices, rather than colonising and occupying. Not giving voice to the absent but voicing a meeting of absence and presence. This may be why I’m interested in ekphrasis, too: navigating around not speaking for or speaking over. A lot of thinking around ekphrasis still is conceptualised as a hierarchised binary, which is explicitly gendered. The unbalanced power dynamic of male/female is drawn into text/image and justified by time/space. The male text either overpowers and speaks for the inert female image or is benevolent enough to bestow upon her the great gift of voice: without him she would remain a mute beauty. But writing, and conceptualising, in such a manner is a choice.

Art can be the catalyst or amplifier of linguistic movements that were latent in your experience or thinking anyway. As Denise Riley says, all speech and writing is parsing what’s already been carried to you on the underbelly of language. For me, the gallery enables that parsing—a way through the white noise to focus on what does arise. Sort of meditative. Sort of sacred. But the gallery is often problematic. Consider the whole dynamic at play in it: how is the gallery there, where’s the funding coming from? Who’s tending the space, who’s making the curatorial decisions? Who’s kept out of these places, for which of multitudes of possible reasons? It’s crucial not to lose sight of those issues while conversing with the bodies the gallery presents, be they artworks, other people, the bodies of knowledge you’ve brought with you or those the artworks open onto.

The writing is not about describing the artwork. Artworks are events, and poems are events. Sometimes they trigger each other. I dislike the definition of ekphrasis as a verbal representation of a visual representation. That bypasses the most basic character of viewing anything, text or otherwise, via our embodiment. And it needlessly discounts nonrepresentational art. Ekphrasis must be understood as coming back to, or through, the body.

My ‘Pulse Pulse’ poems move off from the artwork’s visual cues to travel through those kinetic exchanges where sound wells up, in the inner ear, as it were. They offer an attempt at encounter, through an attempt at translating that relation between human and object. This is about an experience in itself, not the creation of a coherent visual. I think a lot about Nathan Walker’s work, especially Condensations—the scraps of language superimposed on top of each other tracing sections of maps. Some of these poems completely depart the literary and move into the visual. However, in Nathan’s performances, language morphs again around the aural into the sculptural—convergences manifest through the body. The text is like a map of, then for, an experience. In my practice, ekphrasis is about movement, into and away from and back around again, not about the static and stratified description of objects.

MAI: We’ve spoken about movements between people, things, place and text. Here’s a question about genealogies. I pick up on the legacy of women’s writing, and ‘writing back’, in your use of familiar elements—earth, sea, salt. How do you situate yourself with regard to tradition, legacy, and sexual politics?

JL: I’m interested in the use of some of the elements you mention as liberatory, such as earth in ‘Little Nothing’. I’ve loved Ana Mendieta’s work for a long time, especially her earth-body performances in Siluetas. She doesn’t capitulate to overarching sexist tropes of woman/land but takes what is most meaningful to her from those comparisons. As for the sea, it is fascinating. It’s often, finally, punitive. In The Little Mermaid, the mermaids’ fate is to dissolve into foam. The sirens of the ancient world were said to throw themselves into the sea to their deaths should someone succeed in hearing their song and escaping. Atargatis was turned into a fish-woman, a kuliltu, for copulating with a human. Sappho too, Ovid decided, threw herself from a cliff because of her unrequited love for a man. Ideas of betrayal and treachery are carried through all these stories. That’s about interpellation, expectation, societal control. If you’re meant to be a mermaid or a god, then to become or birth a human is punishable. Such ideas furnish stifling modes of conservative thought in the present around gender and sexual orientation, as seen in proliferating transphobic rhetoric in the media. There’s a linear narrativising of history: this happened, and so, therefore. But the past wasn’t unidirectional, or it isn’t in the present; I don’t think any of us experience time in that way.

More tangible, to my mind, is the way things don’t fit—thoughts, experiences; it’s all contradictory, jarring. So today I might say, ok, I can be a woman, but that depends on so much: what’s happened (to me) lately, how I’m figuring that word and which implications are at the forefront of my attention. Tomorrow, maybe not. Who can say? Biological essentialism is especially suspect in portrayals of myths and goddesses. An example might be when menstruation’s lunar relation is used as a symbol of womanhood, evidence of femaleness. But properly, the relation here is about menstruation and the moon. How can we apply the category of ‘woman’ without reinscribing binarised hierarchies that dangerously obstruct other, more pressing conversations around health care? Around how different bodies have different requirements that aren’t being met—and for which people are being discriminated against in the millions around the world? If you want to be biological about it, ok: some bodies menstruate, others don’t, let’s talk about that. Pluralise and specify, like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick implored us to. I hope that’s possible whilst holding onto the category of ‘woman’, by holding it open, perhaps.

The figures of Inanna/Ishtar, Atargatis, Sappho, the Little Mermaid, Blubeard’s young wife, Lot’s unnamed wife, exist as changeability, as revision, as palimpsest. Although, under capitalism, these figures can be changed into commodity. The goddess is fetishised, excess is sold as sensuality, in a hypercleansed, hyperfeminised aesthetic. Distilled into the pseudo-liberatory symbolism of sensitivity and self-care. The remix and dilution of New Age ideologies, which themselves are neocolonial and corporatised. My poetry tries to hold these incongruences, forces, and focuses in similar tension to their manifestations in the world, sometimes cynically, sometimes more earnestly. What are the historical conditions of these stories and figures for us? How can that open onto our bodily experience now, right now, in the poem, in our sexuality and our pain?

MAI: You marvellously achieve just such explorations in your performances, which have a distinctive quality, kinetic as well as vocal. They have an immediate effect, via the literal changing of angle of parts and whole as your speaking self undergoes a visible series of adjustments and repositionings…which of course is a change of angle for the audience, too. Can you say something about this?

JL: There’s a performance happening every time you read a poem on a page, even if you’re reading silently. It invokes incantation and ritual, a poem’s utterability. Physical performance is hugely important to my practice, maybe more even as a reader than as a writer. I first encountered in performance a lot of the work that recently moved me the most. Elizabeth Jane Burnett’s Swims gets under your skin. It’s the body, rhythm and breath that make sense of everything, in relation to surroundings and circumstance, in movement and change. And I think of Bhanu Kapil drinking a milk-urine solution on YouTube, Amy McCauley beating a drum box with reams of paper spilling off the stage reading her Oedipa, Nat Raha’s splintering sound layers spooled through the loop pedal, the letters of Clare Pollard’s Ovid’s Heroines strewn about the space, Nia Davies lip-smackingly finger-lickingly eating blackberries with her face pushed up against the mic. Performances that make now right now—not updating myths or histories to chime with a given literary or linguistic moment or context, but out of them making something happen in front of you, for you, that you are implicated in.

Collage is important to me for similar reasons. I think the myth of the original voice is a trap. Sometimes when I’ve been circling around an idea, unable to pin it down, I then encounter it brilliantly articulated elsewhere. The best way to honour that serendipity is explicitly: to include this artist’s line or image and credit them. Sometimes, of course, you can’t be sure what you’re borrowing. But the poem can be roomy enough to try on different voices and positions, and explore connections: sound, sense and otherwise. In immediacy, through inhabitation, turning into and away from you, I, we, she; moving about rather than being about.

MAI: Wow, that is a beautiful re-visioning of collage as homage that is a strand of an originary creative process which knows better than to claim primary ‘originality’, yet does not disavow its animation by one embodied, responsive imagination. Having inhabited Figure a Motion for the last while, what’s next?

JL: I’m looking forward to giving some online readings this autumn. It will be interesting to perform this work in somewhat flattened digital space and see how the poems’ buoyancy might translate there. But I’m not back to writing poetry yet. This summer I’ve enjoyed writing collaboratively as No Matter, with Nell Osborne and Hilary White, as our live performance programming had to stop early in the year. We’ve written on Manchester’s privatisation of public space, and the historical violences of transient capital and corporatisation. That’s published here in MAP as part of Helen Charman’s TENANCY project. This year I joined the editorial board of Broken Sleep Books, which is a real pleasure. Reading the poetry and fiction shortlists has been intense—it’s exciting to work with such an attentive, impassioned and fiery group, and we have some fantastic work on the way. But at the centre of my attention right now is finishing up the part-time Master’s degree I’ve been doing for the past couple of years. My dissertation is on ekphrasis: its emotionality, its relationality.

I had hoped to get back to dance, to bring a movement practice directly into the writing—or vice versa—somehow. Of course, along with so many things this year, that hasn’t been possible, so I’m looking forward to finding different ways to incorporate movement. Can kinetic translation break ekphrasis out of the gallery’s reach? Might the poem respond to its own movement, write its own dance? These are the questions I feel having written Figure a Motion opens.


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