Interview #5 Ellen Hinsey
Facing the Illegal Age: poetry and truth-telling
Ellen Hinsey, interviewed by Mariah Whelan
Mariah Whelan: I wanted to begin by asking you about two themes that seem important in your writing. A number of your previous books (particularly The White Fire of Time (2001) and Update on the Descent (2009) are deeply interested in the capacity of the human animal for violence and by extension, atrocity. At the same time, they are invested in the possibility of affirmation and renewal. Your writing, however, often avoids providing any easy recourse to renewal as a consolation for suffering. I think this is at least partly achieved by form, particularly the mixing of lyric, anti-lyric, reportage and prose modes. Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between violence and atrocity but also renewal and affirmation in your poems?
Ellen Hinsey: First of all, I want to thank bath magg for inviting me to dialogue about these issues. Regarding your first question, which is crucial to my work, it is my experience that as we journey through time we are constant witnesses to acts of cruelty and violence, and yet we know this is not the whole story—there is also the ongoing potential for affirmation. It is an enduring source of sadness that human beings cannot lay aside their lowliness, their capacity for acts of final violence, and maintain what is best and highest in their nature. That we cannot, for once and for all, transcend our propensity to be the destructor. Despite all our supposed sophistication, we know this is unlikely to ever be the case. And yet—including during this period of pandemic for example—with no obligation or reason other than that there also exists a spirit of goodness, unexpected things still happen. This tragic paradox was well-known by the Greeks, who called this impossibility of the human condition, “the human thing.”
MW: Staying with your creative work for a moment, your poems, particularly in The Illegal Age (Arc Publications), are interested in ongoing dialogues about violence, ethics, morality and the idea of the civil state.
EH: To expand on what we were just discussing, I think one feels that our civic life over the last half decade—perhaps decade—has undergone a trauma. Even over the last four years we have seen how quickly civility can be eroded. This is evident everywhere—across Europe and in the United States. We have seen that the critical tools of democracy such as patience, pluralism and an ability to listen have broken down. But that is not all. We have witnessed a hardening of the heart—with calls for violence and a disregard for the “other,”—one might even say human life itself. There were times recently when it was almost as if you could sense this downward acceleration from one day to the next, that something was pushing us towards the risk of our own destruction. Yeats’s lines came to mind: “We had fed the heart on fantasies/The heart’s grown brutal from the fare/More substance in our enmities/Than in our love.” But we must also always remember this did not arise spontaneously; such things are actively promoted by actors who think they stand to gain something from division and hatred. In certain cases, this has failed—but one should not take this to mean that we can let down our guard. I do not believe in the theory of “populism,” rather that what we have been experiencing is instrumentalized fear and greed.
MW: The Illegal Age and its constituent poems also seem to function as a form of dialogue, a conversation with the world the poems encounter. What do you think poetry can bring to our engagement with the world that other literary forms can’t?
EH: Perhaps another way to formulate this might be: given what we are facing, what tools do we have at our disposal, poetic or other? First, and foremost, I think we need to reaffirm the power of foundational things such as critical intelligence, discernment and compassion—and that old fashioned principle, forbearance. And it turns out these old things can be powerful indeed. As regards what is specific to poetry, the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once said that poetry was an “accelerator of consciousness.” What this means is a bit mysterious, yet at the same time we know it is true. Personally, I think this is because poetry is inherently the opposite of rhetoric; by the nature of its art it rejects, or can reject, the world of received ideas. In part, this is because a key motor of poetry is pure observation—since time immemorial poets have sought to interrogate the world anew, from a unique angle. Whether this means observing the natural world or the realms of power, poetry is first and foremost phenomenological. It seeks to see freely, originally, clearly. On the other side, all unfree societies strive to limit how we think—whether this is carried out by the soft means of propaganda, so all pervasive now, or by paralyzing terror. We have to remember Simone Weil called society “The Great Beast.” This is precisely why poetry so often falls afoul of tyrants. Tyrants understand that poets who practice such a freethinking art are dangerous: they are unpredictable and might just call out terrible or inadmissible acts.
MW: The Illegal Age was published in 2018 and the year prior, you published your book of essays Mastering the Past: Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe and the Rise of Illiberalism. How do these two projects sit together? I’m thinking about how the two published books relate to each other but also about their processes of composition. Mastering the Past, for example, isn’t a conventional scholarly study but rather essays that function of portraits of political events. Historical and geographical similarities and differences create patterns of repetition and variation that are integral to the book’s meaning and would be quite at home in a poem. How do you manage the relationship between your ‘creative’ and ‘critical’ work?
EH: The German anti-war artist Kathe Kollwitz once wrote “Ich will wirken in dieser Zeit” (“I want to work in these times”), which is to say, her time. My books, whether they are poetry, essay writing, dialogues, translations or reports from the field are all part of an attempt to come to terms with the times in which I am living. This may sound old fashioned, but I feel I am responsible to leave an account.
My recent essay book Mastering the Past was written in parallel with the poetry collection The Illegal Age. It is a series of eyewitness reports on the rise of illiberalism in Central and Eastern Europe. It principally spans the last decade, reflecting my field research from Russia, Poland, Hungary, former East Germany and the Baltics, as events there began to point to a devolution of democracy. I should stress, however, that I believe that the old concepts of East and West are now wholly inadequate, as we see that the democratic challenges that we once associated with more fragile societies can and do afflict us all. The book actually begins with an account of the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia both of which I had the chance to witness. Mastering the Past started as a study of the reconstruction of Europe and ended as an account of the struggle for its undoing. But the story isn’t over yet. The poems in The Illegal Age, which I’ll speak about a bit later, became a seismograph of these experiences. They address the past, but also dangers on the horizon.
MW: Moving back to your poems again now, I wanted to ask if you could tell us about the very initial stages of writing your books. In many of your collections, the macro-level form (the way its different sections and generic textures hang together to create meaning) seems as integral as the individual poems. Do you start with a single poem or piece of text or do you start with the organising structure?
EH: This is a very hard question. The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s once said we are not entirely masters of the word, rather words have a life of their own. Similarly, it is not entirely up to us how our books come into being. Art involves a mysterious state of practiced receptivity; it abhors the will. And so for me, all poems, and collections of poems, involve lots of waiting and trial and error—then, after maybe two, three, or even four years, the core themes I am struggling with begin to suggest a framework. I try to not limit or shut down this process too fast or too early. The word struggle is important here, because I have experienced each of my books as a grappling with questions I needed to solve for myself. The White Fire of Time was written after the murder of a family member; it was an uncertain pilgrimage towards a reaffirmation of the spirit. The book was originally titled Vita Contemplativa, and the poems are very baroque, lyrical and deeply intertwined with the natural world. When I was working on it, however, I had already conceived of it as part of a diptych. This time period overlapped with the end of the wars in former Yugoslavia, which, at the time, were seen as either the end of the Cold War, or the start of a new period of nationalism and violence. In hindsight we now see they were both. In 2001-2002 I was present at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague and I listened to witness testimonies about the atrocities that had occurred during the Balkan conflicts. Update on the Descent was an exploration of this experience, a vita activa, a reckoning with our “murderous illogic” under conditions of civil war and instrumentalized hatred.
The witness sessions in the Hague were among the most difficult experiences of my life, and certainly have great bearing on the gulf we discussed at the beginning of this dialogue between the human capacity to inflict evil on others, and the possibility of justice and affirmation. As a poet I was afraid of aestheticizing this experience; I was very concerned I would betray what had been said and done. It took a number of years to discover the anti-lyrical forms of prose, philosophical notebook and aphorism that the book contains.
MW: Was this true for The Illegal Age?
EH: As I mentioned, The Illegal Age was written during the period when democratic regression was building. During that time, around 2009, I had begun thinking about the risk of a “lawless age”—an illegal age. It seemed to me that we had moved definitively from Auden’s post-war “Age of Anxiety” into a new, dangerous period, and that the contours of our new reality were beginning to take shape. But was it really possible to write poems about judicial destruction? The book opens with a quote from Hannah Arendt “The first essential step on the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man.” This doesn’t sound very poetic! But in fact, I believe that over the last decade—in many places where previously this had not been the case—people have intimately experienced the dismantling of rule of law. They found out that democracy wasn’t something “out there” but something as close as breathing—along with the anxiety, anger and grief that are provoked by attacks on constitutional safeguards. I think this is why Arendt chose the phrase “the juridical person in man”: that we contain within us a self capable of an intimate response to such destruction. That we sense personal danger as we know that this can set the stage for greater violence. But could these themes translate into poetry? In the end, the poems in The Illegal Age demanded a hearing, and over time appeared like urgent lines traced by a seismograph.
MW: I’d like to next talk to you about the relationship between translation and your other forms of writing. You’ve previously said how important it is for you to ‘live in another language’ because doing has allowed you to feel ‘at home’ in homelessness. It seems to me that this speaks to what a poem is in terms of its balance of intimate engagement with the world but also a sense of being out-of-kilter with it. How has translation had an impact on your poem writing?
EH: As we have been talking about, poets—and artists more generally—by their dubious profession of being freethinkers, oft times find themselves as outsiders. Existential homelessness is something that everyone feels to a greater or lesser extent, but artists perhaps feel this more acutely, as they deprive themselves of certain assurances. Artists often seek shelter in insight—art can be a sort of home in the world. What Novalis once wrote about philosophy is also true for poetry: “Philosophy is really a homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere.” And it isn’t only homelessness that informs poetry, but the fact that poets are always listening along the edges, along the seams of the world.
With translation, if you are translating a work that is meaningful to you, it too can be a homecoming, an intimate form of dialogue. You enter the mind of another writer and what is perplexing, even at times incredible, is that you sometimes find that the worlds you inhabit—which should be foreign—feel like home ground. We make a lot of the idea of national boundaries, but I am more of the mind that life functions along the lines of “elective affinities.” We gravitate towards things with which we can experience resonance. Each language and culture has its own conventions; at any given moment there are many unwritten rules. Translation opens up encounters that can save our lives.
MW: Finally, one of the things we’ve discussed in emails is the idea that during these strange times bath magg and the poems within it might be creating a new language for what’s on the other side of current socio-political events. What language do you think we might be making and what kind of world might that be?
EH: I think we have been circling around this question throughout our dialogue. On the one hand, we have the knowledge that over the course of history, not much changes. We know there have been tyrannies since the start of civic life. On the other hand, things do change, or at least their form can mutate. As a planet we have never been before where we are currently. It seems, for once and for all, we may have lost control of the technologies that have brought us here. Edmund Husserl wrote about this at the brink of the Second World War in his prescient The Crisis of the European Sciences, in which he warned that the dissolution of the bond between philosophy and ethics and the hard sciences would lead us to barbarism. As we face the pandemic and this new era, it is clear that we need both the “new” science of facts and figures, as well as the “old science” of ethics and reflection.
The “new” on the horizon may in fact entail us looking at our current moment broadly, taking in a longer sweep of time, looking at what has come before, as well as what shadowy signs are appearing on the horizon. Each day we are simultaneously sold visions of high-tech utopias and dystopias. But who came up with these visons, and to what end? We are currently preparing the terrain for very sophisticated surveillance states. We saw in the last century that the human capacity for repression and destruction can be magnified, there can be changes in scale. This is why I think we need to firmly reject dystopic scenarios. We need to take on the great challenge of finding our way back to civil societies, directly dealing with problems of planetary health, equality and justice. I believe dystopias are, at their root, a lack of courage—a fantasy that something greater than us is creating our end, which therefore absolves us of responsibility. That’s why we need to salvage some of the powerful, stoic, old tools at our disposal: intellectual rigor, truth-telling and, especially important to the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, fortitude. The future is indeed looking bleak and there is every chance that we will fail. But if we are intelligent enough to engineer an inhumane darkness, then we should also be intelligent enough to find a way back to renewal. Or at least I hope so.