A Haiku and an Interview: Jonathan Ball in Toronto Review of Books

John Wisniewski was kind enough to interview me recently, which reminded me of a haiku of mine that is also online in the same publication. (Best interview title ever? Well, I’ve had some good ones….) He had to edit for space, so I am posting the complete interview below in case you are interested.

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Could you tell us about your earliest poems and other writings — were they experimental in nature?

My earliest writings were poems that resulted from failed transcriptions of song lyrics. I used to write out songs I had taped from friends who had gone into the city recently, since where I grew up there was no radio station that played modern music and no music stores. Anyway, when I became able to purchase CDs through the mail and look up lyrics online, I noticed a host of deviations between what I thought they were singing and what they were really singing — probably because I listened to mostly grunge and heavy metal and it’s harder to make out the vocals in those genres due to the singers having a tendency to mumble or scream. In every instance, I preferred my misheard deviations to the original lyrics. After discovering this, I began to write my own lyrics and poems.

Now, reflecting upon these early “writings,” it’s stunning how close this accidental composition was to experimental processes of copying, reframing, corrupting, or remixing texts — even though the stuff I was writing had very little experimentation to it, ultimately. However, after discovering Radiohead and Nirvana, I quickly began working with fragmentary and surrealistic images. Then I discovered Salman Rushdie and Stephen King around the same time, and became interested in architectural book forms and aggressive, assaultive imagery.

Ex Machina explores man’s relationship with machines — could you tell us about this?

The title effectively summarizes my core idea: that once one removes ‘God’ (Deus) from the cosmic picture, one ends up in a universe without a guarantor of humanity’s place near the top of some hierarchy of being. At that point, it’s easy to see yourself as an evolutionary step towards the rise of technology. Related to this is the idea that technology actually alters humanity in some essential way, now that we have no guarantor of any sort of permanence/essence, so that the category of the human begins to break down, even during what we might otherwise view as ‘normal’ uses of technology.

Since these are well-worn science-fiction themes, I grafted them onto what is probably my real interest: the way that artworks like Ex Machina might be considered a species of technology, and also something that we exist simply to create and service. I’m interested in the cultural anxiety produced by postmodern ideas — so, the modernist vaulting of art into something that might take the place of religion, which develops into a postmodernist devaluing of both art and religion for their metanarrative force, is something I’m transmuting as a nightmarish situation of conceptual violence.

The Politics of Knives explores words and violence. Is there violence in words?

In his book Violence, Slavoj Žižek wonders “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?” and notes that “there is something violent in the very symbolization of a thing, which equals its mortification … When we name gold ‘gold,’ we violently extract a metal from its natural texture, investing into it our dreams of wealth, power, spiritual purity, and so on, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the immediate reality of gold.”

Žižek’s connection of language to violence, and of symbolization as a form of death, is hardly original — however, what I find interesting is how language and narrative both get viewed as having a violent potential in postmodern thought, and yet the abandonment of language and narrative is seen as creating what is possibly a more nightmarish situation than their maintenance. So you end up with all of these attempts in experimental art to undermine narrative and the communicative qualities of language (which are seen as having negative political implications), alongside an acknowledgement of the impossibility of this, and sometimes even the undesirability of this. That space of anxiety is the space I want to occupy — and possibly escape, but without retreating towards some sort of conservative position.

Whom are some authors and artists that influence you — do you like the work of Artaud? 

I used a quotation from Artaud’s letters as the epigraph for my book Clockfire — “… the pool of energies which constitute Myths, which man no longer embodies, is embodied by the theatre’ —although I find Artaud’s actual theatre less interesting than his ideas about the theatre. What Artaud missed, and what I try to suggest with Clockfire, is that a true theatre of cruelty would present the audience with horrors on the Lovecraftian scale, pushing forth a cosmic or conceptual horror rather than confining itself to the artistic and social situation.

My influences range widely, and depend on the project, since I read and research in relation to specific projects — so, for example, with Clockfire the major influences were Artaud, Lovecraft, Italo Calvino, and Yoko Ono.

Probably the largest luminaries in my artistic life have been (in no order) Guy Maddin, George Toles, Solomon Nagler, Dennis Cooley, Robert Kroetsch, Christian Bök, Natalee Caple, Derek Beaulieu, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Maurice Mierau, Robert Majzels, and Suzette Mayr. David Bergen made some very powerful comments to me early in my writing career although he doesn’t remember it (I’ve re-met him since).

In a more general and less personal sense (i.e., people I don’t know), my largest influences (again, in no order) would include a host of musicians, and the aforementioned Lovecraft, King, and Rushdie, alongside David Lynch, Franz Kafka, Lisa Robertson, Shirley Jackson, Tony Burgess, and the Freud/Lacan/Žižek trinity. I just wrote a book on John Paizs, which should be coming out probably in January 2014, so he looms large as well.

I consider myself a horror author, and I think of myself as a novelist. So my longer list of influences would no doubt surprise someone who doesn’t think of me that way, since people generally consider me an experimental poet.

Could you tell us about writing Clockfire — are these glimpses or sketches of possible stageplays?

It would be more accurate to call them glimpses or sketches if impossible stageplays — one requires the destruction of the sun, another requires you to burn down the theatre with the audience inside, and so forth. I have always been ambivalent about the theatre. I love the theatre in theory, but I always feel disappointed when I see actual plays.

Writing Clockfire required me to think about what kind of theatre we might produce if we weren’t shackled by morality, mortality, and physics. Also, I’m interested in books that make demands on the reader and require reader engagement, and with Clockfire readers are ultimately responsible for “staging” the plays in the theatres of their imagination. This pulls the book closer to Fluxus art and its scripts for “happenings” than conventional poetry, which is why I decided to write in a prose-poem form, although I remained attentive to the language and its rhythms.

This desire for reader engagement is also why I released the book under a Creative Commons license, which allows and encourages “remixes.” My other two books have been released under the same license. Gary Barwin did a great series where he reversed a number of the plays, so that instead of unfolding into horror (as mine often do) they progress toward states of grace.

Your writing requires the reader to actually create, in that he can use your images to build on his own. Do you find this to be true, that your writing challenges the reader?

I would like to think that I challenge the reader, in a way that is engaging rather than frustrating. I pay a lot of attention to how I think the writing is possible to receive, and try to both anticipate and subvert or upset reader expectations. For me, what’s exciting in literature is the way that it disturbs your ideas of what a book is or should be.

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