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Thousand Times Broken: A Conversation with Translator Gillian Conoley [Part II]

The writer Henri Michaux had two great missions in life: to explore the darkest parts of human consciousness, and record what he found in those explorations in the clearest possible way. That’s according to Gillian Conoley, who recently published the first English translations of three of Michaux’s books. Thousand Times Broken is a collection of three works by Michaux which he wrote while experimenting with mescalin, a drug he believed would help him explore “a state in which one part of the brain remains unillusioned and lucid during vision, fantasy, or hallucination.” Conoley joined Peter Biello (of the Burlington Writers Workshop) on behalf of Three Percent to talk about Thousand Times Broken, a collection of three books published by City Lights. This is Part II of the interview; you can catch up and read Part I here.

PB: Let’s move on to Watchtowers on Targets. This book was a collaboration between Michaux and Chilean abstract surrealist Roberto Matta. Tell us about their relationship and the product that came from it.

GC: Matta was apparently the visual artist who Michaux felt the closest affinity with as a visual artist himself. And he was very drawn to the level of movement and a kind of frenetic activity that could sometimes be in Matta’s work. The two of them decided that they would do this collaboration and the first two-thirds of the book are Michaux responding to Matta’s etching. For the last third of the book, Matta would respond to Michaux. And they began and it’s unknown as to who created the title Watchtowers on Targets, but what’s steady throughout the entire book is the sense of a human eye and a watchtower that has sprouted from it. And on the watchtower there’s an observation post, and in the observation post there’s an observer who’s looking back at the human eye. So the whole question of subject-object and perspective—who is looking at what and what is looking and what is seeing—all of that is called into question. And in Matta’s drawings you see different interpretations of what I’ve described, though they’re not ever really . . . you see it but it’s not a direct representation of a tower, for example, but pretty close when you look at the drawings.

Michaux’s writing went unrevised and unedited, which is interesting. And it’s a really wild book and it’s really fast and it’s unusual within Michaux’s oeuvre because we don’t have the narrative links you usually see in Michaux. Characters pop out of nowhere, begin to speak, and disappear. There’s a plot at the beginning—a crime is committed—but that quickly vanishes. Toward the end of that book, he’s got the postcards, and that’s the only epistolary writing that Michaux did.

PB: You mentioned the plotless aspects of this. This was for me, at least, the least accessible of the three.

*GC:*Yes. [Laughs]

PB: I mean they’re all challenging to read, but this one is especially challenging.

GC: Yeah, it’s pretty wild. Michaux makes demands on his readers. He wasn’t afraid to do that. I think it goes all the way back to his relationship to language. It makes sense that he would be seeking some other mode of expression. The French always looked down upon the Flemish, on Belgian people. The French language is seen as more beautiful, more expressive than Flemish. Walloon is a dialect of the peasant. He’s got a complicated relationship with the language he’s writing in. He doesn’t like it. It’s like the language of someone who disapproves of his very nationality, so there’s that sort of tension. And yet he goes ahead and uses it.

PB: The third book, the first one you translated, is Four Hundred Men on the Cross. In this one, we’re really seeing Michaux struggle on the page with the inadequacy of language. He’s twisting the poems into the shape of the cross, so the words seem to crouch in the bottom left-hand corner of the page. The medium essentially becomes the message, in a sense, when the shape of the arrangement of the words becomes the message as much as the words themselves.

GC: The place that he puts you in—you can’t say you’re a reader, you can’t say you’re a viewer. You’re caught in some place in between. He achieved that. He puts you in some completely different realm than you’ve been in before, where it’s unclear whether or not you’re reading or seeing. And it’s unclear as to whether he’s writing or drawing. [Laughs] So that’s what’s really interesting. Just to be able to be in that completely different world.

PB: Finally, you’re a poet. Did translating this book change the way you write poetry?

GC: Translating is wonderful, and this is the first thing I’ve ever translated. You get to escape your own consciousness and enter someone else’s. And especially with a book like this, when consciousness is the subject matter, that was an intriguing aspect of it. But in terms of my own poetry, I had been writing long poems anyway, but I wrote a really long one that seemed to be able to expand because I had translated a poem that had done that, so it’s almost like learning to play a piece of music. You know? And then being able to do it in your own work, because you learned to play that music that someone else wrote.

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Gillian Conoley is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Peace , The Plot Genie , Profane Halo , Lovers In The Used World , and Tall Stranger , a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Conoley earned a BA in journalism at Southern Methodist State University and an MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is founder and editor of the long-standing journal Volt.

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