Ariel Gordon kindly interviewed me for Prairie Books NOW and has posted a copy of the finished article on her site. As a “bonus,” I’ve posted the full interview below.
What would you like readers to know about The Politics of Knives?
That it’s not just a collection of nine long poems, but that they bleed across one another and have strange, sometimes hidden, sometimes clearer connection. That it’s not typical poetry: it’s more of an amalgamation of poetry, prose, fiction, and essay. That it’s secretly a book about film, just as Ex Machina was a book about books, and Clockfire was a book about theatre. The next poetry book I plan will be about visual art and tentatively titled The National Gallery. Then maybe I’m done with poetry, after that tetralogy of sorts. I feel almost done. We’ll see.
You say that The Politics of Knives is “secretly a book about film.” What do you mean by that, precisely?
At its core, The Politics of Knives is about how narrative requires and produces violence. Since film (by which I also mean video) is modern culture’s main method of recording and producing narratives, in various ways the book centres itself around film techniques and technologies. Sometimes obviously, as in the poem where K. (of Kafka’s The Castle) becomes a camera, or the poem about Hitchcock’s film Psycho, or the poem where a character records an elaborate suicide. Sometimes, though, in hidden ways, as in “That Most Terrible of Dogs,” which moves as if like a steadicam shot towards the very edge of the realm of Hades, or in “The Politics of Knives,” where black bars censor “sensitive” text as if in a government-censored document or a “cleaned-up” pornographic film.
What was your goal for this book? Do you think you met it?
My goal is always just to finish the book! So I definitely met that goal.
I spend a long time considering ideas and projects before I commit to them. I’ll spend years taking notes and thinking about a possible project while engaged in something else. When actually writing the book, by the time that happens, I’ve committed to a set of ideas and a core concept. My goal from that point on is just to develop the concept and trust the ideas. So by the time I actually start serious work on something, it has just become about the daily grind of getting the thing closer to being finished. When people usually ask a question like this, they mean artistic goals. But my artistic goals are achieved before I begin writing. My artistic goals are always to come up with a good idea for a book, one worth spending years to write, one I don’t see other people writing. Then I just try not to ruin the ideas, and finish the book.
My goals are all technical, then, by the time I actually begin writing in earnest. One of my goals while writing this book was to craft an invocation of the muse, but a modern and anti-Romantic one, to announce in some ways my “epic” subjects (violence, narrative, assassination, death, war). Once I settle on a goal like that, certain things fall into place. Invocations appear at an epic’s beginning, so I knew I’d have to put that poem first. It seemed that the manifesto in some ways was a type of modern, atheistic invocation, so I brought that idea to bear on the poem. I came up with the title “The Process Proposed” to suggest both that the poem triptych was an introduction of sorts, outlining the process I proposed to use throughout the book, but also to suggest that the process itself was a sentient force proposing a perverse marriage.
And so forth . . . when you talk about “goals” this is a difficult question to answer because my goal is just to execute the book. However, “executing the book,” for me, is a complicated process of varied, multi-level goals that involves a lot of decisions and technical experiments and, as in this case, can take years and require the help of outside readers and editors to help me gain or regain perspective, and so on.
I’ve heard you say in public that you’re bored with poetry. Or is it that you’re bored with your poetry? I can’t remember. Explain both/either statement, keeping in mind that you’ve published a book of poetry each of the last three years.
I probably said both. I’m bored with most poetry, maybe because I read so much, since I inherited that Winnipeg Free Press poetry review column from you. So much poetry is the same. You can just swap the poet’s names and swap the place names and swap a few other nouns. The song remains the same. They all have the same emotions. It’s funny to me that poets believe their emotions are unique and personal and then write a poem with the exact same emotional landscape as another poet, even some of the same imagery. My joke is that I don’t write poems about my feelings because as a straight, white male, aged 18-45, my experience is adequately represented in the culture.
I’m bored with my own poetry in the sense that early in my poetry career I became very good at writing those emotional poems (though I didn’t become excellent, as others are, since it wasn’t exciting for me). Now that I’ve abandoned that mode and tried to play with more experimental, cross-genre work, I find what most excites me is crossing genres to the point where I am almost entrenched in another genre. The prose-poem-plays of Clockfire would be the most obvious example, but in The Politics of Knives you can see a sequence like “He Paints the Room Red” as crossing over into fiction, and in fact that “poem” began life as a short story. A lot of the non-book poems I write are technical exercises, so even when they work out well, they seem somewhat mechanical to me, and I don’t write or publish that many as a result. The work in the books does not come from those exercises, they are more like practice for these books, the stuff that for me has real life and energy.
If you look at the books, The Politics of Knives is the one that seems the most like poetry, yet it works almost like an experimental novel, which may have been authored by the character inside of “He Paints the Room Red.” I could argue that Ex Machina is an experimental science fiction novel, and in fact it’s taught as such in a course in Calgary. Clockfire clearly shares more with Calvino’s Invisible Cities than it shares with other poetry. So I feel that my “poetry poetry” is some of my least successful work, whereas I’m proudest of these so-called “poetry” books, which I see as sort of an experimental, poeticized fiction. I’m happy to publish them as poetry because I think that’s the audience most likely to engage with them. In any case, I think of these books as “books” rather than poetry, which leads into your next question.
You’ve stated elsewhere that you’re uninterested in collections of poems. Why is that? Isn’t it enough that poems work at the unit of the poem? Why does the unit of the book take precedence for you?
I should clarify that I’m still interested in reading collections of poems, although it annoys me sometimes that they haven’t been presented in some more creative manner. They all seem to have the same structure, 3-4 sections of roughly equal length, etc. — it works for some books, like your Hump, but that’s an example of a book where I think it does have that sense of unity due to the subject of pregnancy, and there’s a clear pre-/during/post- structure that falls naturally into three parts. In most other cases it seems like the poet just opened up some “poetry book template” that came pre-loaded with the word processor and filled in the blank areas with so-called “epiphanies.”
I think that with the advance of new technologies, we need to ask a question we should have asked a hundred or more years ago, which is, What constitutes a book? For me, the book is a unit of composition and a conceptual object. It’s not a physical container for text (e.g., the codex) and so it’s not just a place to put poems. A poem working at the unit of the poem is important, of course, but books aren’t poems.
The assumption that once you have 80 pages of excellent poetry you should slap on a title and call it a book seems insane to me. That’s just 80 pages of excellent poetry. Great for the poet, but once s/he has that there are literally 80 different things that those pages demand. Do they demand to be in a book? Possibly. Maybe there is a book lurking there somewhere. But most of the time instead of a “book” we get a bunch of pages of poetry, however good. I might still love reading it, but there’s a difference to me. The book is a unit of composition and once the pages sit between covers, along a spine, or even as a single file in my eReader, the context of presentation alters the meaning of each work. It opens up vistas of possible play that don’t get developed, because the poet isn’t truly engaged with and attentive to the medium s/he has (by default, and therefore accidentally) chosen.
The unit of the book takes precedence for me because I prefer books to single poems. There’s no necessary reason why it should take precedence otherwise: it’s a preference. Besides, all those poems have so many ways to get out into the world, why pick the most culturally invisible mode (the book) as your default choice? Of course, it’s my own bad luck that I’ve selected this mode as my unit of composition, but others don’t need to suffer this fate.
Has writing screenplays and poems helped you write fiction, as I understand was your original plan?
Yes and no. It certainly took more time. It may have been smarter to just write fiction, as practice for fiction, which seemed idiotic to me at the time even though it seems commonsensical now, and to most people. However, I feel this odd tactic worked. Instead of just becoming better at producing the kind of fiction I see around me, I began to look at fiction from the perspective of both a poet and a screenwriter, and I think I’m producing more visceral, innovative, and interesting work than I would have otherwise — but I’ll never know. At minimum, I’ve published three books of poetry and sold a short film to The Comedy Network, so if I fail as a fictioneer I’ll still have those accomplishments to build upon.
How do you approach performance? Has your approach changed as you’ve toured your books?
I hate performing, so I just try to be as brief and engaging as possible and as the audience seems to desire. I don’t like to take myself too seriously, even when writing about serious subjects. The reader can read the book herself or himself. The only reason for anyone to go to the event is to engage with the author. So I try to engage, and be a personality, not a blur with a monotone. That said, my best reading was the Toronto Clockfire launch, which I couldn’t attend. Instead I sent an actor to play me all night (Aleksander Rzeszowski). He gave a reading and signed books and stayed in character as “Jonathan Ball” for the entire evening and by all accounts it was the best reading I ever gave.
How does teaching literature help/hinder your writing?
It helps to see how students read, what they respond to — I’ve found that, on the whole, they respond well to unusual texts. They are fine with complex concepts, strange writing methods — as long as they find something visceral and engaging in the work. I continually use strange, demanding texts alongside more canonical, conservative ones, but they rarely fail to engage if the text attempts to engage them. They rate the texts higher than they rate me! Which is certainly not common wisdom in publishing, where something strange gets viewed as a tough sell. It’s an easier sell to students, who find the uncommon exciting.
Then again, they are a self-selecting group, in the sense that they signed up to take an Intro English course. Major publishers have primarily targeted non-readers for decades, people who only buy books by celebrities at Christmas, or only buy the nonsense that everybody’s talking about for no good reason, so it wouldn’t make sense to a major publisher to actually wonder what readers read, but I do. However, it takes time to teach, and because I teach on contracts it takes a lot of time for very little money, so it’s a hindrance in that respect. On a basic level, studying literature helps you understand literature, so I feel that as my analytical skill increases, I become better at analyzing my own work and thus more efficient in writing and editing, so I hope that helps “make up” for the time I spend marking when I could be writing.
Tell me your theories about time management.
My goal is to be as creative as possible in the work, and to achieve that I need to mechanize my life as much as possible outside of the work. I’m always in the process of developing and refining routines, and trying to follow them (the hardest part), with the goal of getting menial tasks done as quickly and thoughtlessly as possible and freeing my mind and time up for being creative with the work.
I literally have index cards lying around with numbered routines written out on them, to complete regular tasks without getting distracted or obsessive, which are both far too easy for me to do and which waste tons of my time. The point of this is to keep myself focused as much as I can. If I don’t, not only do I waste time unproductively, but I even waste it productively (which is still a sort of waste). In the past, I’ve had the problem of jumping from project to project. That’s created a situation where I have so much half-finished or first-drafted stuff that I am now mostly just rewriting and finishing things, and doing very little “new” writing (although I did a lot for The Politics of Knives recently).
I see books as the main things I do, so I try to force myself to focus on them before I move on to the obligations. I try to force 500 words on a book project out of myself every day, if not more. 250 minimum, although I fall off the wagon from time to time. I suspect this simple thing is the reason I’m relatively productive compared to other writers. A lot of writers waste time waiting for inspiration or trying to boil their tea or find the perfect writing song or hat or some other bullshit.
People sometimes tell me that it’s not possible to have rigorous habits and schedules and be creative and original. As if should you drink the same tea every day you can’t come up with a truly impressive line of poetry. In fact, slavish adherence to habits frees you to focus your creativity elsewhere. I don’t waste creative thinking on making the perfect iTunes playlist, one that the character in my story might listen to, or one that suits the mood of the piece. I just listen to the same 500 metal songs on random for a decade. When I suck it’s when I am too lazy or stupid or stressed and I ignore the routines and habits I’ve set up. That’s when I produce lousy work or nothing at all or start procrastinating or freak out about everything left undone and the pile of papers messing up the shelf over there. These routines and habits aren’t random, they’re designed to reduce the energy that goes elsewhere and focus me on the work, against my slothful instincts or anxieties.
A lot of my writer friends say that walking can be writing, or reading can be writing, or some other thing, as long as you’re working on the book in your mind, or doing an interview like this to promote the book, you’re still writing. That’s absolute horseshit. Look up writing in the dictionary. Taking long, thoughtful walks or pondering a character’s motivations over tea isn’t writing. Maybe such things are important, but they are of secondary or tertiary importance. They are to be done in spare time. Only putting words on a page and revising those words is writing.
Where will you be as a writer in ten years? (I’m sure you have a plan…)
I’m trying to be better at having plans. I have a list of things I want to do, and in ten years I just want to have checked off as many things as possible. Here’s the rundown of what I’m doing “next” (it always changes, depending on circumstance — my novel keeps getting pushed back because another book is accepted, or grant awarded, or whatever). Let’s say (generously!!!) that 10 years = 10 projects.
• Revamping my website (www.jonathanball.com) to fill it with resources for writers and students
• An academic monograph on a Canadian filmmaker/film called John Paizs’ Crime Wave
• A short story collection called The Lightning of Possible Storms
• A debut novel called The Crow Murders, a literary horror
• A book of literary criticism called In the World of the Dead
• An academic study called The Book to Come
• A graphic novel called The Eye Collector, an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Der Sandmann”
• A poetry book called The National Gallery
• A comic book series called Dirk Dirkson vs. The Demons from Mars, a horror comedy
• Syndicating my “Haiku Horoscopes” column
If I could do all that I’d be impressed with myself. Cross your fingers!