Lisa Samuels and multiplicity

Hello poets and readers,

In an interview with transnational poet Lisa Samuels, she suggests that at the heart of her poetry and her process is a multiplicity of reference and background. When asked by interviewer Jack Ross, in the first issue of the revamped Poetry New Zealand Yearbook, which writers inspire her she answers in terms of categories, and says that she is as likely to be inspired by, “patterns, sounds, place histories, images, philosophy, statistics for a country’s fabric imports, dictionaries, encyclopedias, poetry, experimental drama, strange comics, physics hypotheses, theory, and manifestos,” as writers (41).

One of the foci of her writing is ‘imaginative unknowing’ (46) with the use of fragmented language part of an attempt to make a true representation of our fragmented experience. This point is exemplified by her idea that ‘everything represents’ what she calls the ‘dispersed inexplicable’. An example of that fragmented experience is well worth quoting in full; it forms an inspiring vision and is not unlike a prose poem:

For example, when I am driving across the Harbour Bridge, I am simultaneously walking at the bottom of the ocean water and remembering my body in some other position in a truck and composing fragments of music in the sound part of my mind and thinking about how humans are related to the buildings I can see and wondering how on earth we can evade ideas of possession and thinking about what events have happened that can be traced in the atomic substrates that perfuse this whole geophysical area and feeling my nose’s dryness and blinking my eyes and pondering the number of eyeblinks we’ll have in our lives, etc. (43)

All of these ‘dispersals’ are realities of experience, she insists.

As well as multiplicity, sound is an important feature in Samuels’ writing. She says, “sound is meaning,” and sounds “perform meaning rather than report on it afterwards” (44). You can’t know the effect of language in terms of its meaning until you try out its possible combinations, she reckons, with the obvious implication that one should experiment with sound, and experiment she does in the poems featured in this issue of Poetry New Zealand Yearbook. She adds that language is our most important tool for conveying meaning, but also for challenging it. She describes her writing as “machinery for imagining” (44), and imagination challenges cultural norms (43).

Asked what advice she would give aspiring writers, Samuels outlines a program of study which recalls Philip Gross’ term ‘free-search’ from a previous blog. She describes “the infinity of poetry’s potential” (47) in a list too large to reproduce here, but it includes approaches, techniques, histories, manifestoes, canons, repressed works, topical obsessions and how different cultures deal with them, permissions for and experiments with poetry. Her second piece of advice is to learn to write in as many styles as possible, being patient with oneself because each style might require as much effort as a new language. Thirdly, she advocates freedom, doing what you want and writing as freely and often as possible. She offers this final piece of advice more emphatically than the other two, “since poetry should be free” (48).


Jack Ross, ‘An Interview with Lisa Samuels’, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2014, Massey University Press, 41-48

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