an Arc debut interview
Excavating Henry James (and oil industry lingo) in Inuvik
Lesley Battler’s poem Idylls of Inuvik precedes this interview, in which she answers five questions posed by Arc editor Anita Lahey.
Anita Lahey: Were you reading Henry James while in Inuvik? You have at least brought him, or his voice, there via your poem. I’m curious as to how this happened.
Lesley Battler: I did end up reading Henry James in Inuvik, and I actually found him there. I spent a lot of time in the Café Gallery and one day I spotted a copy of James’s Transatlantic Sketches wedged among a stack of community newspapers, GNWT (Government of the Northwest Territories) bulletins and tourist guide books. I am currently working with found texts and was delighted by this cache. So I scooped it all up, tossed in a corporate report and came up with “Idylls of Inuvik.” In this poem I really wanted to address the layers of colonialism imposed on the north; government, industry and most of all, European culture. The reason I was so excited at finding Transatlantic Sketches is because, to me, Henry James has always been a Euro-centric, highbrow writer, full of import. His long sentences, polished language and lyrical descriptions embedded with cultural value judgments are the antithesis of the Canadian north. I felt I could co-opt him to make my own point, which is to linguistically show the colonialism imposed on this little town. And yes, throughout the process of assembling the poem, I did feel as if I were channeling his voice, somehow incorporating his tone into a critique of that very tone.
AL: Can you talk a bit about your strategy to mix Goethe, Carmen, and other laden cultural symbols into the sights and sounds of Inuvik? Is it even right of me to call this a strategy?
LB: “Idylls” is part of an extended work entitled “Endangered Hydrocarbons.” All of the poems in this project are derived from texts generated in a multinational oil company. I splice items such as wellbooks, mudlogs, geological prognoses etc., with a variety of found material. Goethe, Carmen, et al., are all figures or cultural references found in Transatlantic Sketches. I left them in my text as part of my commentary on colonialism. I do this to show there is no cultural high ground, artistic wilderness or religious sanctuary that can’t be exploited.
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