I interviewed Canadian poet Dennis Cooley shortly before the release of his 13th collection of poetry, Seeing Red (Turnstone Press). This interview took place in person in April 2003.
You’re a founding editor of Turnstone Press. Can you talk a little about how you got involved in the creation of this press?
Turnstone started here in the mid-70s. Robert Enright was the most important figure, really, in getting that press started and in its operations for several years. We were the three official founding editors—contrary to a story that’s taken on such proportions that everyone now believes it, Arnason was not a founding editor of Turnstone Press—he didn’t even join until about five or six years later. It started mainly because of Enright’s passion—he wanted to do an anthology of Manitoba poets, but the then-chair of the Manitoba Arts Council, Ken Hughes, said: “Well, maybe that’s a little premature; why don’t you publish a bunch of books and then do an anthology?” So on the basis of his urging and his hint that MAC might put up the money to help support some titles, some of us thought there might be some value in starting a press. It went through various kinds of configurations but it ended up being Turnstone through a desperate need suddenly to have a name (a name we thought was available wasn’t available).
The very first book published by Turnstone was In the Gutting Shed by W. D. Valgardson, which originally had some kind of maudlin title, Purple Lilies or something like that. For the first several years we had that press, writers would sometimes bring in kind of “tough” poems and then want sweetly sentimental titles, and we managed to bully almost every one of them out of it. That one had some unbelievably melodramatic and sickly-sweet title that became In the Gutting Shed. It sold like crazy, because he sold it—he was a mad seller of books, he would go out to Gimli in the summer and set up tables and just sell books. So he was this fierce promoter, but also the people in Gimli are fierce book-buyers, so it was a good match, he sold hundreds and hundreds of that book and others. That was the very first one. One of the first was Patrick Friesen’s the lands i am.
How did you get your start as a writer?
It was a combination of things: I had written a dissertation on a poet, Robert Duncan, and was teaching poetry, studying poetry in classes, writing about it, and had been editing Turnstone for a couple of years. So the combination just sort of came together of the interest and the opportunity and the skill. It was also a very heady time, the mid- to late-70s; people were just doing things all the time. Many of the things that have become institutions in Manitoba were started then—within a matter of a couple of years the Manitoba Writers’ Guild started, and Turnstone started, Border Crossings was then Arts Manitoba and ran out of that office right there [pointing at the office across the hall from his own office in St. John's College]—Turnstone was in that office too, though they weren’t in there at the very same time. Dorothy Livesay was next door with CV2, Arnason was over here with Journal of Canadian Fiction for, well, I don’t know how long he had it when he came here, but for several years, so it was just a wild and heady time.
Did you write at all before then?
Oh a little bit, but not really. I didn’t have the sense of myself as a writer. When I was in public school I had a teacher who was very influential and I liked writing and that probably had a lot to do with it ultimately, but when I was in high school or university I certainly didn’t think of myself as a writer.
Most, if not all, of your collections are organized around a theme, concept, or semi-narrative, though you delight in diverting yourself from this loose “topic.” What is it that you find attractive about these conceptual threads, and why do you indulge yourself in digressing to such a great degree in the published work?
For me, it’s a way of generating texts. It gives me a site to research, to see what the possibilities are; there’s a kind of focus in thinking about a terrain, saying, “what can be done in this area.” I find it really generative, and because it works so well for me I always recommend it to others. Find a site, and then play off it to see what the possibilities of it might be. If you write a balloon poem, well, maybe you’re interested in doing a series, and maybe this extends into a notion of flying things, or rubber things, or symbols of innocence, or whatever—you often find all sorts of things by accident.
I got into the Dracula poems because I was writing a series of fairy tale poems, some of which became Goldfinger, and as I was reading and working there I thought, okay, well, what else might I write? and I thought of Dracula and how he was sort of a fantasy figure, and I wrote a Dracula poem, which I don’t think is in the collection now because I willfully pulled it, because there’s just so much stuff to draw from. So I wrote that and I found myself writing a bunch of Dracula pieces, they just went on and on and on, I started about 1989 I think. [Cooley put a few of these poems out in 1992 as the chapbook burglar of blood.]
You’re known for constantly working on your manuscript up until the last minute. When do you decide to begin the editing process with the publisher, and when do you decide that enough is enough and that’s the book?
When you run out of time! When the publisher says, “Okay, that’s it, we’re taking the manuscript.” I bring it to the publisher when I think it’s quite well-developed, but I never have the sense that something’s finished—there it is—and I can’t change anything or shouldn’t change anything.
How heavily did you edit Bloody Jack for the University of Alberta Press reissue?
There are hundreds of little changes and a batch of new things, and I pulled a couple pages, and I rearranged some things.
Was there something you felt was lacking in the original text that you wanted to add or bring to the fore, or was there another reason for the extensive changes?
One of the main reasons was because of the opportunity; when you get a second edition you can do that, and it’s rare that one gets such a chance, especially with poetry, given the sales there are—poetry almost never reappears. But it also was the nature of the book in the first place—Bloody Jack perhaps even more so than some of the books I do—there is no obvious boundary to it, it is plastic and omnivorous, I could swallow things and throw them up or out. In the meantime over the years I had kept a bunch of notes, I had a huge pile of notes for “cunning linguist”—I must have had about 80 pages of notes for that poem.
I read somewhere that it was over 800 pages at one point.
That’s a legend, it was never that big! There were some things that I was working on back in the 1980s, that I had been developing but that didn’t appear—why I can’t remember, probably because it was too late—and I slipped some of those things in. Near the end I began leaning more towards cinematic entries and I slipped some of that in.
Bloody Jack contains a number of meta-fictional pieces—a review of the book, an angry letter concerning the book, characters interacting with the author—are these examples of you consciously drawing attention to your re/writing of history or some other, less political, move?
I can’t decide how you read the book, nor should or can my sense of it determine or decide what people do with it—though certainly the book has those possibilities, I hope. In my view the book has a lot to do with power, a sense of “who gets to do what to whom,” to use that phrase that Atwood keeps using when she talks about politics—I think it’s a little insufficient, but certainly that’s a good part of this. Also the authority of the reader, the authority of the critic, the authority of the author, what sense of jurisdiction may be there.
You see these sorts of things happening internally in the text, they may be about law or criminality, transgression, propriety and impropriety. In all kinds of ways the book addresses that, but also the constructed-ness of it, the verbal options which seem trivial to people who work up notions of large and fixed truths, but which probably have a whole lot to do with power itself. What are the options? What forms of language do you have so that you might understand things? What is it to apprehend the world in a certain way?
What about this bad review of the book, contained within Bloody Jack?
That’s certainly a pretty unfriendly review, isn’t it? Well, there it is! There’s a text in there, L. A. Wynne-Smith writes his criticism. There’s the interview, think what you will. Why would you assume I wrote it?
Well, to what extent then does it matter to you how involved the reader gets in thinking about such things, and engaging in the text in this manner—is it important to you whether or not the reader does the crossword puzzle in the book, or plays the sheet music on their piano?
Well, that’s up to them. Often, if some of those things appeal to the person, it may be because they enjoy this departure from the discourse. It’s hard to think of those things as ruptures, because the book doesn’t have much continuity to begin with, but certainly they are departures from what you might expect to find in a literary text, a voice speaking in a sort of non-literary discourse, saying: “What is this?” I would hope that readers would respond with some sort of surprise or delight, or maybe puzzlement. The danger of course in doing this is that you might make people mad, and people do get mad.
Why is that? Do they just want something easier, something that makes more sense?
Well, yeah, or maybe they just want the illusion, I think that’s a powerful appeal to readers—you want the illusory world, and when that illusion is broken often you feel disappointed and angry about it, like something has been taken away from you, I think that this is not an uncommon feeling, and also I think a not surprising response. It’s understandable, I think, that readers might be angry or disappointed.
Seeing Red is a collection of poems based on Dracula—what is it about that attracted you to contribute to the Dracula mythology, and what do you feel your book adds to the in many ways saturated field of Dracula literature?
I have no idea. I’m not a student of this, I don’t read such things generally, not because I am offended or bored by them but because there are just so many things to read that I haven’t gotten around to reading. I don’t know what’s out there really, I could make some guesses—my guy is whimsical and self-mocking, sometimes frightening, sometimes tender—I kind of like my figure of Dracula, who in some ways resembles my figure of Krafchenko, I think. This figure is especially bawdy, even more so than the Krafchenko figure.
Why do you think Dracula is such an enduring figure, enjoying immense popularity over so many years?
A part of it is that the figure has gotten to be safe, in some ways. The figure has become domesticated—if you show up on cereal boxes, you’re not a very frightening figure. Also, there is a distance from the character, historically and personally. In a way it’s much tougher to write about things that are closer to you and more personal. When I write a text that is very personal—if I write a poem about my mother, I’m not going to screw around with it much, there is a sense of a kind of loyalty to a certain moment or figure, a certain narrative, whereas Dracula is kind of public property, to which almost no one has any sort of ties to “the” story or “the” figure.
Have you thought of getting more involved in the musical aspect of poetry? You seem very interested in orality—when you are writing, how much do you think in terms of how the words will sound when read aloud?
I am strongly guided by the sounds of things, it is an enormous force for me when I write—so much so that sometimes I think that I probably get too caught up in it, I rhyme like crazy, for example, and begin words off their sounds to a great extent. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that musicians are often very interested in what I do, and quite a few of my pieces have been set by musicians, so there is something there that I guess catches their ears. I have planned for many years to do a musical version of Bloody Jack and still hope to do it over the next few years. But also, visually, I use the page—I have always thought of the page as a space in which you put ink.