Interviews, Recent

Interview // “Color is a Way of Entry”: A Conversation with Christine Herzer

by Shriram Sivaramakrishnan | Associate Editor

Christine Herzer’s Orange is, among other things, a mapping of personal, intimate space. Think of bats, the way they construct a space using sonar. Herzer does the same with words. She throws a word, then another, and another; throws them at the space, and from their hollowness, through their hollowness, she constructs her space, her cocoon of intimacy. Orange is an exquisite attempt at shape-shifting, play-making, and world-building, but above all, it is a poet’s desire for languaging. And this was reflected in the way she responded to my questions via email. I am grateful for that.

Orange, Ugly Duckling Presse, 24pp, July 2018


Shriram Sivaramakrishnan (SS): I would like to begin our conversation with an excerpt, if that is even the right word, from the bio on your website: “Writing is at the heart of her artistic practice: writing as a physical act (handmade, irregular) and a way of producing meaning; how the gesture of writing, its materiality (color, for example) and the choice of surface (a window; paper; the floor) make visible spaces of otherness and engage viewers on a personal and somatic level; writing as a catalyst.”

I can’t help but find a lens, a way of looking at/into your work, Orange, in this artistic statement. It’s such an interesting choice for the title. Orange can refer to the color (materiality), or the fruit (texture, surface). And if your role as a poet is to, as you say in the bio, ‘make visible spaces of otherness,’ do you think you have succeeded in it, insofar as this book is concerned? And if yes, how did you manifest this intent?

Christine Herzer (CH): I began writing Orange in 2010. It is part of a full-length manuscript, as yet unpublished. In 2012, I was awarded an artist residency at La Cité des Arts in Paris. For the first time, my work as an artist took center stage. The writing of Orange had been ‘en cours’ or ongoing, and I began testing its language in space; on the wall, on the floor. For example, I wrote excerpts on masking-tape and taped it on the wall.

. . . “succeeded”? . . .

I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean by that. Orange has a life on its own now.

You might be gesturing toward my artistic practice, how the practices of poetry and art overlap, expand, and play off each other.

I work as a poet and as an artist.

My focus moves between poetry, drawing (I write drawings), spatial intervention (most often in situ), process experiments, and research. I work with language (in its many shapes/contexts, e.g., words, the news; visible/invisible; etc.) and towards finding language capable of holding paradox, of holding everything (like a painting, like a house).

Christine Herzer, Studio, Paris, August 2022. Image: Lorraine Hellwig

I’m always thinking about mise en scène: arranging (letters, words . . . ), interspacing (the space between letters and words . . . ), and ways of inhabiting language so that text/words can come alive.  

My work places the reader inside of an open experience, an open text inside of which he/she/they are free to make choices and are offered multiple ways/opportunities to connect with the text (visually/textually/physically/energetically). Lyn Hejinian’s essay “The Rejection of Closure” has been foundational to my thinking.

SS: I like the way you deconstructed my question. I think you sort of demonstrated what you meant by “inhabiting language so that text/words can come alive,” because you did place yourself inside my question, and then parsed it into its constituent parts. Thank you. 

Regarding my habitual way of entering a work of poetry . . . I am always looking for vantage points when reading. In this case, I first read the work. Then, read “about” the work, a task that included scourging the internet. So, yes. I did think about your artistic practice, and about how poetry and drawing piggyback on each other.

Your point about language “holding everything (like a painting, like a house),” reminds me of Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility,” in which she calls poetry a “fairer House than Prose.” But the poet who I immediately thought about, on first reading Orange, and then on reading your response to the first question, was Renee Gladman. Gladman is also interested in exploring language as, among other things, a spatial event. 

That being said, I am intrigued by the way you are looking at the work, as “an open text inside of which he/she/they are free to make choices and are offered multiple ways/opportunities to connect with the text.” My take on that statement is that the work, even though it is a single poem, offers me a kind of liberty to engage with it non-linearly, while its visual arrangement (on the page) afforded my gaze a horizontal motion, as though to read is to be aware of the horizon. But what does “openness” mean to you? Or rather, what kind of “opportunities to connect” do you think your work offers to the reader?

CH: I opened To After That after reading your email.

A phrase I had underlined: 

“–the problem of the person in time and space –”

More Renee Gladman (from Juice, I believe): 

“she carries the body as though it were the book.” 

The line made me think of the ‘body-page’ in Orange.

Language connects. 

Last year, I asked a bookseller to recommend books for me based on the word “invisible.” I asked because the word “invisible” had been pronounced by the French writer Gaëlle Obiégly during a visit to my studio. “Invisible” is not exactly surprising language in the context of art, but the word touched me. I wasn’t able to name/explain the touching, but I noticed how something in me relaxed, fell into place. The connection was physical, immediate.

The bookseller whom I didn’t know handed me five books. Kae Tempest’s On Connection was one of them. I had never heard of Tempest before. I began listening to their music while reading their book. “Salt Coast” is one of my favorite songs of 2022. The body is a big connector.

The title of a book, the title page, a certain kind of font or handwriting, can provoke a physical, emotional, intellectual, or for lack of a better word, ‘mystery’-connection. Color is a way of entry. Sometimes connection does not happen.

SS: I had to re-read Orange just to savor the line: “Color is a way of entry.” In my mind, this line will forever be connected with another line, “Love colors everything.” Taken together, I find in them a valuable adage to keep: that love provides us a way to enter/liaise with everything. 

I was actually listening to Kae Tempest last month. I like their “People’s Faces,” not just the song but also the title. Something about apostrophizing a collective noun such as people and turning it into a possessive case. I remember writing about it elsewhere.

I am intrigued by the way you delineate your responses, enjambing lines. My favorite moment in your previous response is the line “Language connects.” There is a large-heartedness in the statement’s rhetorical brilliance. In Orange, the language—your language—connects both literally and figuratively. For instance, when the fridge is brought back into the room, it is placed near the wall behind the speaker. A couple of lines later, when the speaker says: “the fridge had my back,” it is the language-utterance, idiomatic in its phrasing, that reveals the connection between the speaker and the fridge. Speaking of which, let’s talk about the fridge.

I must start with two statements. (1) Poets often (contain) fridge experiences. (2) Poets are containers. I love the way “fridge” functions both as a noun and a verb. The implication here seems to suggest that fridges contain. I am tempted to read in “fridge” a metaphor that escapes the effect of time. I mean, a fridge is not just a container but a delay-er, of the effect of time: it delays the rotting of things placed inside. In a sense, language/art does that. Among other things, I am thinking of Keats’s Urn.

Does it mean the speaker is placing the fears inside the fridge so as to preserve them? If yes, I wonder why?

CH: If I were a fridge, I’d probably feel a little offended and saddened by the job description: “to delay the rotting of things placed inside. Because it feels small/reductive and unappreciative. 

To your question: Poets . . . I mean, it’s hard to explain their behaviors. It feels important not to explain what happens on the page. Maybe the fears have power. Maybe the fears are the poet’s superpower? I don’t know about you, but I kind of love how the speaker behaves. There is something very precise about her. It was fun to write and spend time with her. She is unafraid of the unknown in herself.

In the context of Orange, the speaker, a poet, is renting the services of a professional lover. The “why” is never explained, but we get glimpses into the dynamics of the relationship and how language is used by both parties, as if in a play; a play in process . . .

Play and performance are not about preserving. Spending, holding/containing, and staying (delaying movement) were the gestures I was interested in exploring.

It is the lover who places the poet’s fears in the fridge. The poet’s eyes remain closed. We see/read things through the poet’s eyes. James Baldwin has described the role of the artist as exactly the same as the role of the lover: “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” 

I’m reading Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan’s Faith, Hope and Carnage. The book contains fridge-experiences (in my opinion). I’m very moved by it. This line feels deeply Orange to me: “I need to look after my inner world as best as I can.”

SS: Faith, Hope and Carnage has been on my to-read list for some time now. I do believe that fears are a poet’s superpower. I am looking at this statement through the lens of a question that the lover raises: “What do you think happens to the fears when they receive warmth?”

The speaker responds by saying that, among other things, the lover does not understand what the speaker is feeling inside her body, and that, whatever this feeling is, “it has nothing to do with fear.” This is followed by a question: “Do you remember a time when you showed compassion toward yourself?” I wonder if the feeling experienced by the speaker falls on the spectrum of compassion. Maybe, it is simply, as the John Ashbery epigraph suggests, “a jewel like a pearl.” To me, this is such a poignant moment in the book, this turn from fear, towards a “feeling” that can shine.

All of this brings me to my last question: I love the way the poem seamlessly transitions into the epigraphs. For instance, the last complete sentence of the poem, “Your fears need a lot of orange,” is immediately followed by what seems like an epigraph, “orange / interest in formlessness and space-making,” followed by what is definitely an epigraph (by James Schuyler). I use the word “epigraph,” but many of these read like micro-blurbs, a kind of detours from the fridge-section, sojourns into meaning-making and the unconscious.

How do you see the role of epigraphs in Orange? In what ways do you think they, for want of a better word, complete/complement the main narrative?

CH: I wanted the epigraphs to function like outdoor benches: inviting & affording a different point of view on the whole of Orange.

Christine Herzer lives and works in Paris. Recent publications include Revue COCKPIT (France), Asphalte Magazine (the Film issue) and Tupelo Quarterly. She has work forthcoming in Fence SteamingInstagram is her only form of social media. Christine pursues a double practice of visual and written work and has been awarded artist residencies at Centre des Récollets and La Cité internationale des Arts in Paris. Studio visits by appointment.

Shriram Sivaramakrishnan graduated from Boise State University’s MFA program in 2022. His recent works have appeared in DIAGRAM, Threadcount, among others. Shriram tweets at @shriiram.