I’m a proud member of the BookThug Nation: people who’ve published with BookThug. These are the fine folks, Jay MillAr and Jenny Sampirisi, who published my first book, Ex Machina. They are also fine writers themselves. Back in 2005, I published an interview with my future publisher (little did I know), which I thought I would reproduce below as a “thank you” and in the interest of adding more content to this site.
Jay MillAr Interview
Published in filling Station 36 (Spring 2006): 37-41.
Ball: At the back of Mycological Studies you explain the process at work in the book – could you elaborate on this process in more specific terms, with a focus on how you cultivated the text “Unidentified Species” from other sections of the book?
MillAr: The first two sections of the book, “False Morels” and “Entries: A Field Journal (Fruiting Bodies)” were written using the notion of ‘daily practice’ – following a thread of thinking which took a few months to complete. While this was going on I stumbled on the idea of the 26 fungal threads, which are small, lyrical poems that I approached typographically from a visual point of view. What would fungal thread poems look like physically? Some of them, I’ll admit, even I find difficult to ‘read,’ which I find mysterious, since the poems would be completely readable had they been written in traditional-looking lines. By writing them down the page (sometimes up) there’s a level of adjustment that has to take place as a reader. And even I was looking at them at one point, trying to figure out how they could be read – how would I read them to an audience – should the letters be sounded out from left to right and so on, and then suddenly it dawned on me that these poems could, in a way ‘read through’ the book as I had already written it. Or that they could read through any text, actually. So, from left to right, though the fungal threads, I read through the first two sections, and highlighted the words that began with those letters. I had to read through the text a few times, which is why the first highlighted word doesn’t begin with a ‘d’ but with a ‘v.’ Once I was all done I gathered together the ‘infected’ words to create “Unidentified Species.”
Ball: When you began to group the ‘infected words’ what was your principle of organization in creating these groupings?
MillAr: By using the pages that I had as a field. I basically listed all of the words, one word per line, down a page. I think I may have centred them at the time. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing to be honest. I just had a list of words. But something that I was also doing with the fungal threads was using them to read through The Complete Book of Mushrooms, in much the same way that I was reading through the texts I had already written. That’s how the second season of fungal threads was composed. Only for each thread, once a word was used for a letter, it was used for all instances of that letter for that thread, so suddenly there was this notion of repetition happening. There’s also a third season of fungal threads, which wasn’t included in the book because of space issues, but in this sequence you can see a kind of end result regarding my thoughts about language growing out of language, as modeled on fungal behaviour, in which I inserted space and other letters between the letters in the lines of the second season fungal threads. An example: the first line is ‘data soft’ and this became ‘date as often.’ Some of the results were totally surprising and somewhat insane, if not unreadable by normal standards. The sequence was published in a little edition by BookThug and Coach House Books, which is now totally obscure, and I doubt I could manage to get it published again anywhere, for various reasons. They are sort of like free floating spores now, out there, doing something. But to get back to “Unidentified Species” – I now had these notions of language growing out of language and of repetition – so I started to use that on the words that had been infected. I spread out the letters in each word and began to fill them in with other words that began with those letters that were of my own choosing, words that seemed mysterious to me, or appropriate to my mind at the time, sometimes simple words, and that set of words would be used for each instance of that letter for a page. You can see the relationship between the texts: the first bolded word in the earlier text is ‘vice’ and the first four words in “Unidentified Species” are ‘Vents Inside Creased Evening.’ Once the page was finished I had to choose a new set of words. And when I was finished, I decided to make it a long prose-like sequence, and got rid of the line breaks.
Ball: To what extent in general (and in “Unidentified Species” in particular) did you intervene in crafting the text? How much of the book is organized according to chance and pre-determined rules, without further intervention, and how much of the book’s creation lied in developing and editing raw materials derived from aleatory practices?
MillAr: Well, I had a basic biological model in my head, which my head interpreted. A lot. Biological models to me feel much more organic and loose than say a mathematical model. Which might be a pretty naive way of looking at it, but it was almost as though something greater than myself was at work on the book without losing the fact that I was writing it. It reminds me a little of the difference between LSD and magic mushrooms – both are derived from fungus and both will get you out there, but LSD always makes you lose your sense of self, while you never lose who you are after having ingested mushrooms. (Not that I’ve ever done these sorts of things – I’m really quoting literature I’ve read.) Ideas like evolution and biology don’t seem to me so cut and dry as a mathematical formula, although I’m sure that really abstract mathematics is very organic. There must be a mathematical formula out there that ‘explains’ evolution. I’m sure that there’s a finite explanation for fungal biology. But I’m not so much interested in finitude as I’m interested in how things relate to one another, which is to me a sort of attempt to go beyond finitude. These relationships occur in the natural world, as we perceive it: Nature as outside of Humanity, such as the relationship between a certain species and another, but, even more interesting are the relationships between out there and humanity, in this case language and mycology, which is, when you think about it, exactly the same thing. It is as though the ideas of mycology infected my thinking about how to write, and as a result of that I created the texts found in Mycological Studies by Jay MillAr.
Ball: It’s interesting how the “Unidentified Species” section in general achieves a state of motion, an almost narrative drive, through the repetitions. It’s possible to read the text in various ways, particularly in the first half, as the ‘story’ of language development, from an original, pre-linguistic, life-in-death state, to a more vibrant but also more tenuous existence – flowering like fungi out of these still, dead forms into lush and brighter forms that begin to suffer an entropic slowing as the text progresses (of course, there are other readings). Do you see similar movements throughout this text? How surprised were you by the directions the poems took, overall?
MillAr: The entire poem, the composition of it, the end result of it, the effect it has on people when I read it (I once had the opportunity to read it at an outdoor venue after dark in the middle of summer – people told me they got lost in it, that they lost themselves in it) is a terrific mystery to me. It’s as though it has a life of its own, and in that sense perhaps it really is a kind of aleatory writing. In so many ways I did not write that poem. But I also know that I made decisions while writing it, and writing is about making decisions, so in that sense I did write it. I remember sitting at the computer for a long time trying to think of another mysterious word that began with the letter ‘a.’ Knowing I did that reminds me that I did make decisions, that I really was writing, and in that sense, as a piece of aleatory writing, I suppose that “Unidentified Species” is a failure. But only in those terms.
Ball: One aspect of mycological studies is identifying species in order to avoid death by toxic ingestion. In what way does the uncategorized (unidentified), be they mushrooms or poems, pose a threat?
MillAr: It has to do with reader expectations I suppose. There’s a lot of writing I do that I look at and think: who the fuck would enjoy that? Quite a lot of Mycological Studies gave me that feeling. A vague literary uneasiness. Sometimes I’m surprised the book was actually published. But at the time I was lost in the ecstasy of participating in writing it, so like anyone would, I just went with it. Maybe it suggests that there shouldn’t be just one way to read; the same way there shouldn’t be just one way to write. The reason that I titled “Unidentified Species” as I did was not only because it related to the overall theme of the book, but also because I wasn’t entirely sure what the hell it was. But I knew it had something to do with poetry.
Ball: How did you settle on using boldface to denote the ‘infected’ words? what do you feel the boldface does to alter the reading of the poems, that italics or some other formatting?
MillAr: Italics seemed too precious. Another font would have been too confusing. With the boldface the words just sort of there, without really denoting anything in particular except to cause the reader to ask: what are these words doing in boldface? A subtle invitation to question, perhaps.
Ball: You mentioned that the first two sections of the book were “written using the notion of ‘daily practice’” – could you expound on this concept? Do you often find yourself deciding on an approach to writing prior to deciding on content to explore?
MillAr: I was thinking of it in terms of ‘spreading’ or accumulation, the way a fungal thread spreads through whatever the host is – and relating this to a particular writing project. The first two poems of the book are in this sense long poems, that are long because my focus on them occurred over a long period of time. It is a theme I’ve returned to since working on Mycological Studies – in the small blue and in ESP : accumulation sonnets, for instance, and even my more recent “Lack Lyrics.” It’s not the first time that I had used a technique like that, but it was the first time that I had a real ‘idea’ about it in terms of relating it to, well, anything. I think that since then Brian Kim Stefans has written an essay about this kind of writing that he calls ‘creep poetry,’ not because it is creepy, but because it creeps along, absorbing thought, etc. I like the space that projects like this allow, as though you were working out something rather than working on it (which is what it is like to work on a poem, something I enjoy doing as well, but I think it is quite different). In Mycological Studies it gave me enough time to actually think about what I was doing and to develop variations that appear elsewhere in the book, and elsewhere all together too.
Ball: At some points in “Unidentified Species” you seem to break out of the set rules, to a slight degree – for example, when you have two letters in the infected words that are the same, (dd or ss) you pick two different words (“death defies” instead of “death death”) and also shift from “green” to “golden” before the page is precisely finished (though this is probably due to typographical differences between your ms and the page proofs) – I am wondering, not so much why you might do this, but if there was any point where you had to restrain yourself from breaking your pre-set rules (temptation rearing its head?) or if there were any points in the writing where you changed the rules from what you had set out originally in order to create/accommodate a development in the text?
MillAr: There is a large degree of human error in the composition of “Unidentified Species.” It isn’t so much that I fucked up or anything like that – more that as I was developing the piece I may have changed my mind about how I was going about it. My reason for the variation on repeated letters was that I didn’t feel like having the same word repeat, I wanted to mix it up to allow for what might be thought of as genetic variance. With regard to the rules, I had an entirely different idea at first – I was going to write grammatical sentences using the letters gathered, but soon realized how insane that was and decided to see what would happen under different constraints. And likely things got messed up as I was changing the rules to suit the creature I was looking for. It reminds me a lot of how we think of the sciences in general as an objective craft, designing experiments in order to see what the results may be – when in fact I think that much of the time experiments are designed and carried out with a particular end result in mind, meaning that the end result is not an objective truth, but more likely a human desire, like anything else.
Ball: You made the decision in the book not to provide a detailed description of the processes at work n the text, though you do provide an overview – was this a move intended to preserve the “mysterious” nature of the process in some ways? In what ways does a detailed knowledge of “how” the poet wrote the text colour a reader’s response?
MillAr: There are a number of books out there that like to use constraint-based writing as their mode of creation – in fact, it is somewhat of a common practice these days, it seems to me. A few examples of them might be CMYK by Michael Coffey, which just came out from Obooks, or American Standard/Canada Dry by Stephen Cain, which just came out from Coach House Books. Both of these books have detailed descriptions of the methods used to write their contents, and yes, they are interesting to read in relation to the texts they describe, but I’m not so sure that it really helps the reading of the books, and in fact focuses the readers in one direction. I think, though I’m not positive, that it usually isn’t so much the author’s idea to include such notes but the publisher’s – if you were publishing some bizarre, dense, non-self-referential book, you’d want to ‘dumb it down’ as much as possible in order to intrigue a readership outside the ten people who are familiar with what the poet is up to. All poetry is constraint-based writing in one form or another (it is the nature of poetry itself) so why explain the constraint? Usually it isn’t so interesting as we imagine and often boils down to describing how one writes a sonnet or a sestina. We should already know that there is one, and as readers of poetry we should be able to tune into that as part of our reading. At the same time, though, I like the idea of an author’s note, but I’d rather it be used or composed as part of the text itself. It should have the effect of the text itself, which is to allow the reader to imagine the possibilities of the text, where it’s coming from, where it might lead.
Ball: Is there a political dimension for you in the use of aleatory practices or non-standard grammatical constructions? Do you feel this is a text where your authority over the text is suspect, or do you, as the one “making the rules,” gain a greater control over the text, albeit a different control than we might conventionally ascribe to a scribe?
MillAr: This is in reference to “Unidentified Species,” right? I don’t think of my work in terms of politics – I’m not a political person, although that might be taken as a political statement in itself. I wasn’t thinking of the text in terms of it being an aleatory practice – in fact, far from it. I had been reading some of the work of Jackson Mac Low at the time, as well as other writers interested in such ‘egoless’ practices, and it was interesting to me that the higher the degree of control the rules had over the ‘author’s ego’ the less ‘enjoyable’ the resulting text was to read. Which is perhaps the wrong word – because it isn’t less enjoyable, just ‘different,’ which tends to be interpreted as ‘less enjoyable’ by the standards of reading we have learned to make judgments against. Like I said above, all poetry is constraint based in one way or another, in it language has always been subject to human thought and to the decisions of the author and reflects the result of authority no matter what. It’s all about control. Mac Low’s work, no matter what he or anyone else has ever said about it, is another form of ‘confessional’ writing to me, and says a lot about the author, it just usually lacks an ‘I.’ “Unidentified Species” is a confessional poem.
Ball: It’s interesting how repetition itself creates meaning in the book as a whole – both in the way the words themselves repeat in and across sections, and in consonance and assonance created and reinforced through the patterning of words blossoming from their initial letters. It might be said that these repetitions are rhizomatic in nature, in the sense that they constitute localized eruptions across the text, manifestations of an underlying structure. When you were conceiving the book and establishing rules and systems to direct your writing, to what degree did you expect this effect would occur? In what ways were you surprised and/or disappointed by the resulting text?
MillAr: I had no expectations. The book developed as naturally as the writing of it did. I was completely surprised at the results, and in fact, at one point re-wrote the entire book into more traditional looking/sounding poems because I felt no one would publish it as I originally wrote it (I am thankful that I was proven wrong on this). I think I said it best in the preface: “that which is beneath the letters or located ideologically between them as literal conceptualization, should faithfully connect one piece of the whole to all others in a particular order forever unknown to the reader.” And by reader I also mean writer.
Ball: After Mycological Studies, a text in which (in some ways) you seem to be working to remove yourself from the work – allowing the text itself to “speak” at various points – what led you to engage in a more direct, authorial way with landscape and the kinds of things often referred to as ‘natural’ – insects, fungi, forest, lakes – things you dealt with much differently and from a greater remove in Mycological Studies than in the following book, False Maps for Other Creatures?
MillAr: It wasn’t a conscious decision in either case, really. I was just following my nose and the books contain the results. What leads me to writing about things in different ways is my belief that the poem or the book one is working on doesn’t necessarily have to be the same as the one before. I think what you’re asking about though is the position of the writer of texts in my work, and I’d say that as a whole that position is always shifting – even in Mycological Studies, which, yes, overall is a structured book, I’d say that you get both ends of the spectrum in terms of authority – textual and authorial. False Maps, I think, is similar, though perhaps you’re right in saying that there is a more obvious author in that book, which is likely the result of wanting to look more closely at things in nature and write about them, rather than using natural constructs or concepts as means to approach a textual field. I suppose it has something to do with specificity.
Ball: As a poet you seem influenced by nature and landscape and yet you don’t produce the kinds of poems commonly associated with these interests – your work is much more self-reflexive and does not seem to make as many assumptions about landscape and ‘natural’ phenomena as the work of more conventional artists. What do you see as the dangers inherent in landscape writing, and what tactics do you find useful in avoiding the pitfall of repeating traditional platitudes? What other writers do you admire in their approach to similar material?
MillAr: I think perhaps the greatest danger in writing ‘landscape’ is the separation between language and what that language is being used to describe. Like all language is good for is to make separations: between humanity and environment, between language and the things it attempts to relate. As humans we have a habit of separating everything, like this flower and that mineral – the result of taxonomy. Despite this, however, I suspect that the most important things for us to witness are not differences – the separation of each thing from everything – but the relationships between them. Or the relationship between one environment and another. If language can be used to explore these relationships, even the relationship between language and the world it attempts to relate, this is something, indeed. Writers that I admire are, oh, I don’t know, early Christopher Dewdney – say the material collected in Predators of the Adoration (the later stuff I can get along without). Someone more contemporary I quite admire is Peter Cully – his book Hammertown I like to read as a kind of nature poetics, though it might not be considered as such to others. Ken Belford is another poet whose work takes a serious eco-poetic stance.
Ball: Most of the poems follow, if not rigid structures, then a definite form (couplets, stanzas of regular length, similar syllabic constructions) – what is the appeal to you of more structured verse forms over a more freewheeling verse?
MillAr: I like structure. When I approach writing with a more rigid form it distances me from the language enough to really work with it. It allows for a kind of sculpting you don’t really get to experience when writing something more narrative.
Ball: Is it fair to say that False Maps connects to Mycological Studies in terms of John Cage’s idea that it is the things you find when you fail to find what you are looking for (i.e. mushrooms) which are of a greater significance? Does it follow that a poem is a ‘false map’ in that the process of reading is valued in-itself, as opposed to a traditional notion of a poem ‘leading’ the reader to epiphany?
MillAr: Yes, and there is also the notion that reading all maps, texts, or ‘representational’ material requires a kind of faith in one’s ability to recognize that what you’re looking at is not what you are standing in. A map, or a poem about a landscape, is not the environment you are standing in while reading it.
Ball: The poem “Author Photos” engages with the poet’s role as a figure in the landscape in a rather overt fashion – is the poet always in the landscape? Is there an element of contamination involved – the poet as pollution?
MillAr: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Japanese landscape painting – or the idea of them anyway (I don’t actually collect them or anything). There’s always a human figure in them but you have to really look for it – (or maybe Bruegel seasonal paintings) – the landscape really holds the human element – overwhelms it – there isn’t the kind of split between man and nature that was developed in Western culture. I’d say the poet is always in the landscape. I’m not sure about poet as pollution though – environment has just as much effect on those in it as those in it have an effect on the environment. It isn’t as though a poet or a person can drop out of nowhere and start contaminating. Everything is part of the same continuum, and has been for quite some time.