Norm Sacuta: And even with traditions of fiction in the past, from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, you have examples of more interesting postmodern sensibilities, I think, than have come out in contemporary culture.
Margaret Atwood: Sterne, yes, it’s all there. It’s like fashion, I think. If you follow fashion at all. If you do fashion speeded up – you remember those time-lapse films of flowers opening that you used to get in school? if you do it with fashion you can see the skirt shrink, the sleeves become important, the shoulders balloon, and they become bigger and bigger and bigger and then they disappear; and then the bustle become important, it gets bigger and then it shrinks; and then the skirts raise, and then the ankles become important. You can go through all of these combinations, but essentially what you have is the human body. That’s what you’re stuck with. This or that can be bigger or smaller, and this of that can be emphasized, or this or that colour can become important, but really you’ve only got so many colours. You can call them different things – taupe or mauve or whatever – but essentially it’s a limited palette. It’s what we can see. You can’t do infrared or ultraviolet unless you use certain kinds of lighting. You can’t put those colours into clothing because nobody can see them.
So what do we have with poetry, or literature in general? We have the human psyche, lord love it, and we have language. And you can arrange those elements as you may, but you’re still going to have the human psyche and language, in different combinations, with this or that emphasized. There was a period when we went in for fear and literature was Gothicized, and then we had fleeing maidens. Then fleeing maidens got overdone and Jane Austen did maidens not fleeing. Instead they stirred their tea and thought, “All those fleeing maidens are really silly.” So things develop to their utmost, and then somebody else does something else. There’s no progress in art.
Sacuta: There’s reflection and reaction.
Atwood: There’s change. There’s reflection and exploration, reaction, change. Movement here and there, but you can’t say that a Picasso is necessarily better than a Neolothic cave painting. We can say this is a good Picasso or a bad Picasso, but we can’t say Picasso-ness – this thing that he does – is in essence better art than the cave painting. It isn’t. So a certain amount of snobbery gets into these things. People saying this and that is cutting edge. Well it usually mean they are using a razor that was in use 150 years ago and people have forgotten about it. “Sound poetry” was very cutting edge when it began, this wave of it, but what was it really? Chanting. And chanting is very old.
- Norm Sacuta interviewing Margaret Atwood, from Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation, Ed. Tim Bowling, 2002.