The Language of Alisoun: In Conversation with Caroline Bergvall

“The pleasure that people feel about that character, the Wife of Bath,

is that voice, that just marches through with the knowledge and the inventiveness

that she has at her disposal.”—Caroline Bergvall


On October 16, 2019, Caroline Bergvall celebrated her now-launched Alisoun Sings at the NYU Department of Social & Cultural Analysis, hosted by The Colloquium for Unpopular Culture. After a brilliant introduction from S.S. Sandhu, she read from the work, “a ghost” before its official publication date, and presented some of her films, a rare treat in the States. In conversation with Nightboat’s own Stephen Motika, Bergvall expands on her project, and its predecessors, Englishness, and feminisms.


S.S. Sandhu: What drew me to your work was on a linguistic level. They are very saucy. They are very slippery, and deeply, deeply impure, not just theoretically impure. And the words themselves on any given line, in any given sentence, feel like hungry ghosts, feel like brave migrants, feel like clubbers in heat, which also reminds me of the worlds that you straddle.

The fierce joy in Alisoun Sings really shines through, at a time of multiple enclosures, of different forms of economic, social utopian political privatizations, especially your last three works, including Meddle English, Drift—which is linked from “The Seafarer” to contemporary geopolitics especially around the Mediterranean Sea, the politics of migration. Your work represents something different, something free, unbounded, loose, hungry, questing, voyaging, and it is really a delight that you’ve been able to come and talk about some of your work, and also to be in conversation with Stephen Motika.

Caroline Bergvall: Fugitiveness is also an aspect of the work that interests me. In making work, there’s this fugitiveness of identities, of cultural belongings, of cultural forms of belonging. You can also consider some of this imposed and prohibitive, but other aspects are perhaps much more fugitive, and that’s something that I try to look at and trace.

Alisoun, it has its starting point in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, so mid-14th century Britain’s Middle English language and spelling. He’s known also, with his printer, to have stabilized English spelling, which is why he is considered the founder of a particular type of English and English-ness in relation to literature. What interests me particularly about him is his social forms, the fact that he was a translator, that he very openly took on a great number of characters from all sorts of circulating, ambient literatures, and that he also had a very flexible and rich language. For me, coming all these hundred years later, to be looking at his character of the Wife of Bath is just a wonderful challenge and pleasure by way of language, the way of the possibilities that Middle English might do for me as a writer, a non-British, non-English writer at the other end of the English language, just when it is being spun into all sorts of new realities.

Stephen Motika: Chaucer comes and it overturns, it upturns, it totally changes your practice. Now, 13 years later, we have this work which engages historical material in a different way and also demanded you transform a certain way you were working. I’m wondering if you can talk about the stuff that we’ve never actually talked about, the sort of intellectual and creative connection coming from this work. 

CB: There was a dual thing that happened. Chaucer allowed me narrative. Because I was someone who was not developing full narratives necessarily, I was working structurally or systemically in different ways, so suddenly the idea of telling a story and how I would want to tell that story in a way that made sense to my practice was really one of the leading motives. But then actually, to look at pre-print culture allowed me to value my performance. I had already been doing a lot of sound-based performance, a lot of work with musicians, but this gave so much more permission. 

And the final thing is the multilingualism. I had a joke about Chaucer, and in fact, David Wallace sort of picked up on this, this idea that the English of Chaucer was my perfect English. As a French Norweigan, I am Chaucer. What I speak all the time is Chaucer’s English, with all its accents and different ways of speaking it. That was also very liberating, to immediately put that question of languages in translation. And here I am one of the speakers and practitioners of those forms, and where the question of the migrancy of English is also tied to post-imperial realities. 

It is rich with so many strands that justify, that give me permission, that have become such an important way of being able to think about, not only transhistorically, one’s contemporaneity, but always remembering genealogically some of the deep, deep tracks that are emerging into that contemporaneity. In the times we are in—they are depressing and they are dark and we lose systemic ways of thinking about them—that is one way to think about what is happening, to give it trans-historical dimension. There is something also extremely fertile and nearly optimistic about this kind of acknowledgment of the depth of history, the way we occupy it.

SM: Drift is a very multimodal book, in itself and in the making. It’s comprised of the seafaring texts and then your drawings, and maps and notations, and then there’s an essay in there, the “Log.” So the different parts of the practice are delineated, so your experience is segmented in a sense. Move to Alisoun where the questions of authorship get very tricky. You’re almost subsumed into Alisoun.

CB: This is a book where it is told and narrated and organized by the voice of Alisoun. And the voice of Alisoun is made up of a great number of voices. She’s in dialogue with a great number of people and the whole question of the way she navigates the world to try to understand her identity is as sort of feminist, gendered entity. That became a task in itself, to have a voice that was as strong as that voice and could carry it through the distance of the book.

SM: The amazing thing about Alisoun is that as we go farther into it, the poet, the writer, is reflecting on so much swirling around, so there’s this brilliant thinking about powerful women philosophers and thinkers. There’s a really interesting way you bring in social change over the last century, and contemporize it and force it. There’s such a velocity.

CB: She was an impatient, urban woman in Chaucer’s time, and she’s super impatient now. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed. And on the contrary, it really felt that that was ideal for now, that you have an impatient voice, and that voice, therefore, is very much fed by all the voices that are circulating at the moment, setting up new collective ways of being, speaking up more publicly, and trying to find other roots together, other ways of thinking about social change. That’s why it felt relevant to let that voice be carried by so many other voices. And sometimes the voices are not pursued necessarily, but they’re really there, they coexist, they become part of her. At one point even, she insults me.

I was really overwhelmed by the force this figure demands. It’s really interesting for a writer who is not a narrative writer, not a playwright, to be that inhabited by a character, by a figure. It’s very interesting for the writing practice. And because I don’t imagine her as one but as multiple, I always had to find ways to extricate myself from that multiple, and find ways of locating myself.+ 



CAROLINE BERGVALL is an award-winning poet and sound artist whose interdisciplinary and international projects alternate between books, printed matter, collaborative performances, site-specific installations and soundworks. Her publications include Drift (2017), Meddle English: New and Selected Texts, and the DVD Ghost Pieces: Five Language-Based Installations (2010). Recent commissions include Documenta 14 (Kassel), Palais de Tokyo (Paris), The Jewish Museum (Munich), The Serpentine Gallery and Tate Modern (London), MoMA (New York). Her touring work Ragadawn (2016-2020) is an outdoor sunrise performance for spoken voice, soprano and a dawn chorus of voices in multiple minoritarian languages (with vocal work by British composer Gavin Bryars).

S.S. SANDHU is the author of Night Haunts: A Journey Through The London Night (winner of 2008 DH Lawrence International Prize For Travel Writing). He makes radio documentaries for the BBC, runs the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University, and is a film critic (he was named Critic of the Year at the British Press Awards in 2005). He is Associate Professor of English and Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU.

STEPHEN MOTIKA is the Director & Publisher of Nightboat Books.