KC: Understandably, Enter the Raccoon caught my attention with its premise of a love affair between woman and raccoon. Interspecies sex and romance is a Can-Lit institution, or at least my university survey courses suggested as much—I’m thinking Marian Engel’s Bear and the equine sex scene in Rudy Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear. But your book is not so distinctly Canadian in its content, alluding to a Santiago childhood among many other geographic references. Are Canadians fooling themselves to imagine literary bestiality belonging to us in particular? Is interspecies love an international phenomenon after all?
BH: More than Marian Engel or Rudy Weibe, it is Gwendolyn MacEwen that resonates with me However, I wasn’t referring myself to any one existing text, nor to other people’s representations of animals as objects of desire, or extensions of themselves and of others, when I first came upon Raccoon. Rather, it was the stuff that drives all artistic creation, a strange mix of the marvellous, the experiential, the real/visible and the sensed/invisible.
Animals have entered my poetry before. In fact, I wanted my first book to be centred on the image of a large cat, a menacing cat, like a tiger, or a panther. I am not in any way unique, because the preoccupation with animals as love objects is universal, especially animals that have human qualities, or are part human. I once had a dream, where I found myself in the Prado Museum, not as a spectator, but as part of one of those huge paintings which Rubens painted, where allegories to this or that biblical scene always featured large women. In my dream I was one of them, only that instead of being a woman I was a huge cat. The poem that came out of that oneiric experience is called “Rubens’ Cat,” and forms part of my first full-length collection The Wardrobe Mistress.
As a Canadian I am part of a fairly specific imagination, one that for me is exemplified by the fauna that plays hide-and-seek in the landscapes of the northern plains. There is magic there, concealed by the elegance of a landscape that is without obstructions, which extends itself infinitely into the horizon, so that one sees the curvature of the earth. All manner of animals live there. Juxtaposing, opposing this placid landscape is the environment of my childhood, spent on the foothills of the Andes, where the mountains rise above like immense and menacing towers.
Raccoon is distinctly Canadian. There are no raccoons in South America. From the moment I saw them, on the roof outside my bedroom when I was a teenager, I was captivated, at once seduced and frightened.
KC: Why the raccoon, which is (as you write) more cat than dog or bear? What does the animal symbolize to you? (For me, I can’t let go of a recipe I once read in which a raccoon must be soaked in a vinegar solution for 24-48 hours before cooking in order to edible.)
BH: There is something unsettling, but also sensuous about cats. We can get close to that disquiet through our interactions with smaller versions of cats, pet cats. Not so with raccoons. Raccoons are wild, despite incredible adaptability. Notwithstanding their beauty, their “cuteness,” raccoons retain a kind of quality that makes them scary, repulsive, even.
I didn’t choose Raccoon. Raccoon made himself available to me. He came in a vision. I had been feeling constrained by the kind of verse writing I had developed. I was sitting at my keyboard one day and I turned my gaze towards a chair I often used for reading, and there he was. Earlier that morning I had been reading a review of a film in the New York Times, titled Cobra. Free-associating, I thought back to a book I had read many years earlier, a novella by the late Cuban writer Severo Sarduy, also titled Cobra. There is something hallucinatory and transformative about the main character in Cobra, a man-woman, of changing physiognomy. I understood that raccoon could be a companion I could play with, an object I could transform and that could transform me. In other words, I could construct for myself an ideal lover. Writing Raccoon became writing itself, a kind of personal revolution.
KC: I also placed Enter the Racoon on a spectrum of contemporary books concerned with sex and bondage. From “The Loneliness of the Fashionista”: “I have a problem with the way bondage is generally represented. Nothing is more disappointing than going into a sex shop and being faced with the banality of all that leather and metal.” Where do you place your book in relation to other literary representations of bondage? How is your representation different? More beautiful, even?
BH: Raccoon, as a character, as a means of anchoring the theme of sex, allowed me, for the first time, to explore freely the darker, more frightening aspects of love. I had never really considered the notion of bondage until I began living with this being, capable of “taking it” without dying, without disappearing. I could play with this animal/man as though it/he were a sex toy.
Somehow this allowed me to look at the notion of bondage differently, not so much as the literal universe of equipment we’ve come to associate with this kind of pleasure, but as a mental, more abstract set of “tools.” It is about the mind, after all, this possibility of being subjected or subjecting the other. One need not enact bondage literally and physically. One can do it with one’s mind.
If one considers sex to be largely the work of the mind, therefore, it makes sense that the objects we conceive to facilitate pleasure can be tasteful of appearance, made more prettily, more aesthetically beautiful. It’s like anything else, including clothes, which to me are the closest expression of sex.
KC: Your narrative has two parts, with the raccoon romance being enacted in alternating sections in italics, interspersed with seeming disparate prose poems. How do the two parts relate to one another? Is there a key to understanding the book structurally?
BH: The form was very difficult to arrive at, because the voice that made itself heard was a prose voice, not a verse voice. I wanted to use my thinking, try my hand a conceiving concepts, as in essay writing. I needed to express a more literal “aboutness,” to explore ideas and concepts that didn’t lend themselves to verse writing. But this solution did not lend itself to fully expressing Raccoon. I needed to allow for transformation to occur. And so, the “divertimento” that follows each of the little essays became the means of expressing Raccoon as more fully-fleshed, more complete. This became my solution for exploring and building the surreal.
KC: These poems are haunted by the ghost of Amy Winehouse, who is evoked at the beginning and near the end of the book. What is her role in this love affair?
BH: I learned about Amy Winehouse from my daughter Veronica. Winehouse had just come out with Back to Black, a haunting set of hymns to love. From the moment I heard her voice I understood her as a kind of sister, a kind of alter ego, an expression of what I could have been when I was her age, had I been more daring, more willing to let go of all that tied me down (studying, translating, being a “good” person). What captivated me was the fearlessness with which Amy Winehouse explored love. She was dangerously courageous, a new Rimbaud. She was like a flame that burned bright, but could not last, a true poète maudit[e]. I still mourn her passing.
KC: I think my favourite line in the book appears near the start: “I first encountered Raccoon while straightening the needle of the sewing machine, the one named after my grandmother, that super-songstress who first stitched the heart on the keys of her grand piano.” Mechanization is a theme that plays out through the book, from Racoon’s prosthetic digits to mechanical heart, to even the atmosphere, sound and sight. “Raccoon has grown weary of his form.” Is there any reverence for nature here? Need there be?
BH: I have always been interested in the relationship between people and machines. Machines are an integral part of our day-to-day lives. We are natural beings, and machines necessarily acquire the humanity we endow them with. In the end, the aspects of the mechanical which horrify me are the same ones that horrify me in people. There is no doubt for me that machines are extensions of ourselves.
The line you quote, and it flatters me so, the one you deem your favourite, contains all those elements that are my writing: sewing is akin to creation for me, because it is about the making of the things I like. The sewing machine is equivalent to my voice, and my grandmother, Ibolya Resinger, who I am most like in temperament, was a pianist. A weird association, where sewing is writing, writer is sewing machine (“Singer” was a universally known brand, and forms part of my grandmother’s [and by extension, my] surname), etc.
Reverence to nature is everywhere in these poems. But nature is only one aspect of reality. I am interested in exploring reality without limits, surreality. Hence, the insistence on these other aspects of my life.
KC: You write, “Could the solution rest in not achieving closeness, but in exploring the distance between, through the objects that the mind establishes as tools for rapprochement?” The space between, the middle space, is one your text is much preoccupied with, which is rare, actually, in media so hooked on polarity, extremes. Do you yourself view this kind of exploration as a solution? And to what?
BH: What a great question! You are right: I am interested in the space between. I like to explore what is not clear, I guess, what is ambiguous, what is like life itself, unknowable. Mystery, magic, the Marvellous, these are all aspects of reality as found between. They are not absolute. In a way, being in between, not at one end or the other, is like being in love, something one would like to prolong, not “resolve.” It’s strange, because consummation is the ultimate aim, yet exploring and building pleasure involves the space between.
KC: How does your work as a translator influence your own poetry? Can one be an effective translator without being a poet?
BH: I wrote poetry when I was a teenager, as most poets do. And I published a little chapbook when I was in my early twenties. Then, I stopped writing so that the early part of my so-called “career” was devoted to translating the principal poets of Latin American surrealism. I owe those writers a great debt. In fact, I can safely say that translation was my literary education.
Translating for me was formational, but it was also constraining, because I felt like I could never write poetry as great as the poetry I was translating. It’s strange, because translation means placing one’s voice at the service of another’s voice. It is a humbling process. But in the process one learns to write better literature. One becomes more literate, as it were, because there is no deeper reading of a text than a translation. The poets I’ve translated have influenced my work immensely, especially the Peruvian César Moro and the Chilean Jorge Cáceres, both surrealists. In Moro I found the closest expression to mine of erotic love. Yet I feel that my poetry is very different from that of the writers I’ve translated. I am very clear about the fact that getting to know their work so closely has allowed me to liberate myself of their voice and to find my own.
As to the second part of your question, although it is not necessary to be a poet to translate poetry, it is necessary to have a poetic sensibility.
KC: Who are your influences as a writer? What do you most like to read?
BH: Aside from the above-mentioned poets, the greatest influences on my work have been Arthur Rimbaud, my stepfather Ludwig Zeller, Olga Orozco, Robert Desnos, Vicente Huidobro, César Vallejo, André Breton, of the Beats, mostly William Burroughs, and the Spanish Classics, especially Quevedo and Cervantes. For fun and insight I like reading the fiction of Jim Harrison and Matt Cohen, the poetry of bp Nichol. And I always read a lot of non-fiction: essays and critical writing, though not theory. I also read a lot on fashion, art and design.
KC: What are you reading right now?
BH: I am reading a lot from the Classics now, including Ovid (The Fasti and The Metamorphosis), and a fabulous thing called Sir Gawain and the Green Night. I am reading a new publication centered on an exhibition exploring the junction between Prada and Schiaparelli and re-reading The Great Gatsby.
Beatriz Hausner’s poetry books include: The Wardrobe Mistress (2003), Towards the Ideal Man Poems (2003), The Stitched Heart (2004), The Archival Stone (2005), Sew Him Up (2010) and Enter the Raccoon (2012). La costurera y el muñeco vivo, the Spanish translation of her selected poetry will be launched at the Guadalajara Book Fair in November 2012.
She is a prolific translator of many works of literature. She works as an editor for the Canadian journal Open Letter, as well as the series SomeoneWater and the online journal The International Literary Quarterly. Hausner is also one of the publishers of Quattro Books, and she works as a public librarian in Toronto.
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