Gary Barwin, “Shopping for Deer”

Poem + Interview

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, multimedia artist, and the author of 20 books of poetry and fiction as well as books for kids. His most recent books are the short fiction collection, I, Dr Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457 (Anvil) and the poetry collections, Moon Baboon Canoe (Mansfield), and The Wild and Unfathomable Always (Xexoxial). Yiddish for Pirates, a novel, will appear in April 2016 from Random House Canada and a new poetry collection in 2017 from Wolsak & Wynn. A PhD in music, Barwin was 2014-2015 Writer-in-Residence at Western University and the Toronto Public Library Young Voices eWrite-in-residence in 2013. He has taught creative writing at a number of colleges and universities and currently at Mohawk College. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario. GaryBarwin.com

Shopping for Deer

I went shopping for deer

there were no deer

the shopping cart became the deer

I brought it home

climbed inside

and turned off the lights

the seasons changed

I lived on earth

sometimes the bright sun shone

I became old

when I die, I will remember the deer

I will remember its wheels and antlers

I will remember its flesh and lightning

its womb of silver bones

from The Porcupinity of the Stars

( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

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Interview

Let’s start with this poem in its broad strokes — in a review earlier I said that “Barwin’s poetry expresses a near-religious faith in poetry’s transcendence, its ability to forge meaning rather than simply convert meaning into money.” You said that you disagree with this, or at least don’t fully agree — I’d like you to comment on my comment, but let’s get there through the poem.
 
I feel that when it comes to forging meaning, “it’s complicated.” It’s not that I don’t believe that poetry or “the poetry experience” can’t construct meaning — and a meaning that is somewhat sometimes able to elude being co-opted by capital — but I believe it’s a question of what kind of meaning and where it is located. For me, the issue is connected to my interest in non-realistic forms of representation, of moving outside of the consensual forms of reality (including grammatical reality), those that are sold to us by mainstream culture and master discourse. In this poem, I think I could make an argument for the shopping cart as an image that resonates with this. By not consenting to a normative notion of reality and representation, or at least by problematizing it, I think the poem attempts to open up the implicit assumptions about the reality we are “sold.”
 
It’s also true that I am intrigued by poetry’s ability to create an aura of meaning, a husk of numinosity, resonant meaning-ripples moving out from the signifier and/or signifying empty or ambiguous centre. To get all Basho about this: “plop” = centre, “water-sound” = ripples. The writer and reader are somehow involved in the concepts of water, leap, and frog. But the relationships are destabilized, not quite what they seem. I do think it “begs” these questions.
 
This puts me in mind of a favourite few lines of Wordsworth’s from when I was an adolescent (and yes, I had friends…really…)
 

Oh! grant me Heaven a heart at ease
That I may never cease to find
Even in appearances like these
Enough to nourish and to stir my mind.

          — “A whirl-blast from behind the hill”

I think about how the “appearances,” in addition to the “natural” world and human culture, are also the process and results of signification, of metaphorization. Of enlanguaging.
 
Here’s how I like to look at “Shopping for Deer”: the first stanza forges a metaphor (shopping cart as deer) but the real metaphor, the one that gets overlooked (by people who read the poem as about homelessness, or hunting, which are the two common ways I see it interpreted) is this: the shopping-cart deer fusion is the vehicle in a metaphor where the tenor is metaphor itself. The poem then becomes an extended metaphor for how central metaphor is to our lives and our understanding of our lives, and of course is our only way to somehow comprehend death.
 
I do really like how you look at it — the tenor being the metaphor. The message is the medium.
This chimes with what I’ve said above about consensual ways of conceiving of the world, I think. We see the world metaphorically. Is it that perception is a metaphor for itself or that our world is always metaphor for itself?
 
I also see the deer/shopping cart metaphor as engaging with an exploration of the relation of the technological or human-made and the construction of nature and the natural. What ideas are embedded in the concept of the pastoral and how does it relate to the modern world? In this sense, the poem explores ecopoetic concerns. I think that the poem asks if shopping can be considered as hunting and gathering. Are shoppers (i.e. the modern person) both hunter-gatherers and consumers of the spoils of hunter-gatherers?
 
And as for death, I hear it is inevitable, but I’m waiting until it’s all over before I make my final determination. To click on that ultimate shopping cart and “check out.” But I think the fact that we have the possibility of metaphor, the possibility of both engaging in and feeling a kind of poiesis is how we can try to, if not understand, then at least reckon with our world of life and death and the experiences in between.  To have it to “both nourish and stir our mind.”
  
Can you explain a bit about how you came to write this poem? I understand it was inspired by an image by Banksy?
 
First of all, as I walked about the city (Hamilton, Ontario), I kept discovering deer. Deer in the woods. Deer on the road and on the lawn bowling field, deer in the park, late at night as I walked through the mist with my dog. And I’d find shopping carts nestled in alleyways, nuzzling telephone poles. Shopping carts tipped into rivers. Carts that had strayed far from their grocery store.

I had been thinking about how we respond both emotionally and intellectually to human-made materials versus those of the “natural” world. How the modern pastoral might include a toaster, a TV, sheep and a cellphone. And perhaps beyond the pastoral, how an ecopoetics would include wire clothes hangers, a gas giant, an echidna, and tractors. I’d been following the blog Next Nature whose philosophy states that, “Where technology and nature are traditionally seen as opposed, they now appear to merge or even trade places,” and considering the notion of biomimicry and how we populate our image banks and metaphor hordes with a kind of conceptual pareidolia or technological/nature synaesthesia. In other words, we tend to biomorphize. On the Next Nature blog, I came across this image by Bansky which was a resonant conflation of shopping cart with prey.
 
The conflation of shopping cart with prey seemed apt. Of course there is the visual rhyme: the rectangular box-form and four wheels of the cart resembles the torso and legs of the imagined prey. (It also conjures for me a gurney and a coffin in a procession.) The carts often seem to roam and graze across the urban grasslands. But, unlike Banksy, I was interested in the cart/prey image in the “developed” world. We are hunter-gathers as we prowl the city for product, pulled by the tracks and scents of our commodity prey, picking and choosing, both hunting and gathering. And there is the implicit movement of capital, of commodification, of marketplace in the transaction. The shopping cart is the “check-out” symbol on websites.
 
And what does the image of the deer mean in our culture? I’m thinking back to the heads of deer on medieval castle walls, on the modern hunter’s wall. The deer carried on a stick back from the hunt, or on the roof of an SUV. The deer as spoil. The ballads about the aristocracy’s control of deer. As a symbol of wealth and power. I think of, for example, a song that I love, “Geordie” where the eponymous geordie “stole sixteen of the King’s wild deer,” — the “wild” deer “belong” to the king — and so the geordie is sentenced to death for hunting them.
 
But there’s also deer-headed people in cave drawings who I think are shamanic. And so the deer is a portal, a gateway between worlds. As I said, between the human and the non-human (whether animal, commodity, object) but also between the worlds of life and death, the immanent and the transcendent, the phenomenal and the noumenal, the material and the spiritual. But as I see the glinting silver of the shopping cart, its strange yet familiar shape, I see these dualities in the image of the shopping cart also. I feel that it’s not me doing the Shklovskian ostranenie but the world is making me strange to myself.
 
I assume you wrote the poem operating with the image more surrealistically, without trying to develop it metaphorically. Can you respond to my reading here by way of explaining how you see yourself working in poetry to forge or even resist meaning?
 
So, in terms of your question about the actual writing of the poem, it’s true I don’t begin with an explicit concept of what an image or trope means, but rather feel its heft and location in multidimensional meaningspace, culturespace, or languagespace. That is, how it feels to me as material — what it suggests in terms of development as an image, what might go with it, or where it might go formally. “Meaning” per se isn’t something that I consider except, as you suggested, to resist it colonizing the poem with big-booted obviousness.

Putting my ear to the verbal track usually means that there will be some “meaning” coming down the line in some form, though I won’t know what it is until it arrives. My usual line is that “the writing knows more than I do.” This means that I try to trust the language to take shape and self-organize, the way interstellar dust gradually forms planets, comets, and other space objects. I feel like I am tapping into language and culture this way and the result will be much more complex, subtle, and interesting than if I tried to impose my likely more monolithic and simplistic ideas and meanings.

Of course, it some way it necessarily will reflect the shape of my looking, the way I see or am able to conceive of language and culture as I work with the material until I’ve shaped it into—or discovered within it—a satisfying aesthetic shape. (By the way, I do hope you are enjoying the ongoing unfolding and salmagundi braiding of my mixed and mashed metaphors. Perhaps they’re reflective of the heterophony of my thinking on this. Or just lazy bloody noise.)

Your earlier draft of the ending stanza read this way:

When I die, I will remember the deer.
I will remember its wheels and antlers.
I will remember its silver bones that are
a womb for flesh and lightning.

Then, you moved to this:

When I die, I will remember the deer.
I will remember its wheels and antlers.
I will remember its womb of silver bones.

Can you talk about how you (1) moved from one draft to the other, and then how you (2) combined elements of both drafts to produce your “final” version (the one in your book The Porcupinity of the Stars, which is reproduced above)?

I can’t quite remember the process, but looking at these various drafts, I can see how the last two lines of the original draft are more pedantic or at least less energetic (“its silver bones that are” is a much more passive construction). Also, “[i]ts silver bones” isn’t as interesting or surprising (for a shopping cart) whereas a “womb of silver bones” is much more so, both imagistically and sonorously.

The image relates the part of the cart meant for carrying to a womb, which brings in lots of interesting associations: the cart as a female body, as a mother figure, as (re)productive, as a source of birth. But yet this fecund place is metallic (silver) — maybe that glitter is magical or alchemical or symbolic — or maybe fruitless?

Likewise “bones.” Is that a fetal image or one of death? What is a “womb of bones”? It doesn’t sound good, quite like a death image, although of course we grow bones inside the womb and they’re not the dry rattling Wasteland bones of T.S. Eliot. I have a line in the same book describing fetuses as “soft-fisted swimmers.” What if they were silver-fisted?

I wonder how this “womb of silver bones” relates to shopping? To cultural icons? The poem refers to getting old and aging with is, of course, related to birth and the life cycle. Also, the w of womb and wheels plays nicely and there is an interplay with the o of womb and of bones, and those m’s in remember.

As you note, in the final draft, I put back the “flesh and lightning” which I liked for its contrast of images (this is also present in the womb and the silver bones line). All the way through the poem, there’s a contrast between the organic and the non-organic and how they relate. And also, between some kind of energy — “light” or “lightning” or life-force — and the corporeal (whether embodied in a deer or shopping cart) so I can imagine why I added the line back in.

I can also see why I chose to end with the “womb of silver bones” line — that’s a stronger image and one that ultimately embodies the energies of the poem. It also has a better rhythm and sound for ending the poem, I think.

Your earlier versions of the poem contained normative capitalization and punctuation, as the ending drafts show, and I’m wondering why you moved away from this?

There are two reasons. One is that in putting poems together in a book, I want to standardize how I handle punctuation and capitalization so that when there is a deviation it is meaningful, either in terms of semantic or musical notation. In this book, I opted for no capitalization (except for the first person “I”) and to reduce the use of punctuation wherever possible. Part of this is an impulse toward minimalism and concision: I try to use only the signs that are absolutely necessary and include nothing extraneous or non-essential. Part of the decision also stems from the thought that I am signaling that this is specialized linguistic space. It’s not expository text but a particular kind of textual music.

I also like the idea of the contrast between the energy of the poems (their “meaning” or their images) and the fact that they are made from such unpresupposing and plain materials. Even the choice of a very simple and inconspicuous unselfconscious typeface is part of that.

When you are making changes in editing like this, what are the typical things you are trying to do? In other words, what are your usual editing goals, other than the vague “improve the poem”?

As I mentioned, I do try to eliminate anything extraneous, to compress and compact. I try to remove any weak spots, any dips in energy, any “filler” or merely functional text. I look for opportunities to tweak the poem in order to create the most energy. This doesn’t mean that the poem is necessarily a blur of high-intensity gesticulation. Sometimes it means that it is a quiet yet steady flow, or perhaps, better, an ebb and flow. I look for places that I haven’t considered, places that aren’t doing anything particular and see if I can make something of them. I also see if by changing the order of lines or images, or by eliminating or modifying words, phrases, or images, or by reorganizing the shape or size of stanzas, and linebreaks, I can generate more textual electricity at whatever is the appropriate wattage for the particular poem.

When I teach, I tell my students to “trust the writing, it knows more than you.” I try to be guided by this. I really believe that by trying not to get in the way or impose one’s own expectations or desires, but rather by listening carefully, by looking for opportunities and possibilities and then by tinkering, tweaking, buffing and shining to attempt to bring out the innate music of the poem (whether punky, brash, luminous or shimmery), the inherent “genius” of the language and culture will make the text far richer than if you relied on your own conscious desires for it.

Connect

What do you think of Gary’s poem? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook, or send me an e-mail — and if you haven’t already, join my mailing list and keep in touch.

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The Porcupinity of the Stars

( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

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“Serial Killers” by Kathryn Mockler

A poem + an interview

Kathryn Mockler is the author of the poetry books The Purpose Pitch (Mansfield Press, “a stuart ross book,” Spring 2015), The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books, 2012), and Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011). Her writing has been published in The Butter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Found Press, Geist, and This Magazine. Currently, she is the Toronto editor of Joyland: a hub for short fiction and the publisher of the online literary and arts journal The Rusty Toque.

“Serial Killers” is from The Saddest Place on Earth ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

Kathryn’s other books are available here:

The Purpose Pitch ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

Onion Man ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

Serial Killers

Humanity is stopped in its tracks when everyone is sterilized to eliminate the human race. Basically it’s mass suicide.

Wow that’s a good idea.

They’ve decided to let the plants and animals take over to see if they fare any better.

So in this scenario getting pregnant is the worst thing you could do for mankind.

Yes, it’s worse than serial killers.

This sounds romantic. This sounds too good to be true.

Interview

I read your poem “Serial Killers” not long after reading Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM ), in which he outlines the philosophical history of pessimism and the idea that consciousness is an evolutionary mistake and humans should march into self-extinction. I then watched the first season of True Detective ( Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM ) and recognized wholesale borrowings from Ligotti there, when Rust is going on about the same ideas.

By the time I read “Serial Killers” the idea wasn’t so weird, but when I teach the poem students are shocked by the extreme oddness of the idea. I’m wondering, first of all: how did you come to grasp this concept and write this poem?

First of all, this concept is basically my world view which is the reason I enjoyed the first season of True Detective and Ligotti (which you had recommended to me a while back). I’m not one of those people that think life is good and we should be grateful to have been born.

I think life is pretty much a horror show and no one gets out unscathed. There are moments I enjoy in life and there are things and people I like and love of course especially my husband and my sister and mother—I’m not dead in inside (completely!), but on the whole if someone (or my parents) had given me a choice to live or not exist then my choice would have been, no thanks, I’ll pass on life.

The first line of the poem Serial Killers is screenplay idea that I’m developing. Jason Camlot edited The Saddest Place on Earth and he sent me about 10 or 15 suggested titles and just said go and write a bunch of poems from these titles. He gave me one week to do this, and Serial Killers was one of the titles.

That week I wrote about 15 poems. Of course a bunch were terrible and didn’t make it into the collection, but having the title prompts and time limit put the right kind of pressure on me and I was able to write a lot. In my searching for poems and ideas, I started flipping through my notebooks and pulled out the tag line for a screenplay that I was working on: “Humanity is stopped in its tracks when everyone is sterilized to eliminate the human race.”

I thought this line kind of fit nicely with the theme of the book, so I just used it as the starting point for the poem and just went from there.

But essentially the poem is literal and describes the way I actually feel about the world and humanity.

This poem, like many of yours, can be read either as a monologue or a dialogue. How did you hit on this structure and why did you find it appropriate for this poem?

Many of the poems in The Saddest Place on Earth and my recent book The Purpose Pitch have a dialogue or monologue structure. I don’t try to do it, but it just comes out that way.

You know, I’ve never written a play, but I think I might be a frustrated playwright because almost all my stories, poems, and even my screenplays are more like plays than anything else.

The poem resembles poetry less than it resembles a movie story pitch meeting. In fact, I sometimes use this poem in screenwriting classes to show how you can start developing a story by teasing out the implications of a basic premise (since a premise is not a story). You teach at a film school — how do you find film influencing your poetic writing?

Although I started writing poetry first as a creative writer, the majority of my adult writing life has been as a screenwriter. I went to UBC and my thesis was a feature film which was optioned and went through a long development process but didn’t end up getting made. In 2005, I went to the Canadian Film Centre where I had a couple of short films made.

I started writing poetry again in 2008 after becoming really frustrated with the film world. Having to rely on funding to create something really bothered me, so I went back to writing poetry where I didn’t need a grant or millions of dollars to write what I wanted. But I really identified as a screenwriter and had a lot of trouble when people called me a poet.

I still don’t really think of myself as poet even though I write poetry. I turned to poetry for creative freedom. Although I absolutely love reading poetry and I’m passionate about publishing it, I’m not much interested in the concerns of poets—especially all the infighting. I’m not interested in rules or any kind of poetic purity. I write what I want and I call it a poem if I feel like it.

Partly my attitude towards poetry is a reaction to the structure of film writing and the reliance on other people and money. If you’re a screenwriter and you’re not directing the film you’re writing, you don’t have creative control and that is something I wanted again and poetry gave it to me.

It’s not surprising, given my background, that the poem would resemble a pitch meeting because I had spent so many years pitching scripts and ideas to other writers, directors, producers, and agents.

Image is at the heart of both genres and that’s what makes them not so different from each other. Film writing is really visual story telling and there’s a lot of poetry in film writing because of that. Harmony Korine’s films scripts, for example, read like poems.

The big difference between the genres of course is that filmmaking and screenwriting require collaboration. I teach in a creative writing program, and one thing I really try to help my students develop in my screenwriting classes is their ability to give and receive feedback and to work with others.

I tell them that if you want to be an asshole be a poet because poets don’t need to rely on anyone, but if you want to work in film, you need to learn how to work with others. Not that there aren’t asshole directors and screenwriters, but, wow, it really sure helps a lot when you’re starting out to not be an asshole.

The ending line often shocks and startles readers. Did you have alternate endings for this poem, in earlier drafts? How did you hit on that ending line?

To be honest, I can’t really recall how I came to this ending. Endings are usually instinctual for me. But in dialogue poems, I think I’m conscious of trying to say something unexpected to avoid the poem from getting repetitive or boring.

I guess having a speaker say that the extinction of the human race is romantic is something that one might not expect at the end of a poem.

What do you think of Kathryn’s poem? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook, or send me an e-mail — and if you haven’t already, join my mailing list and keep in touch.

Support this site, Kathryn Mockler, and her publishers by buying Kathryn’s book through these affiliate links:

“Serial Killers” is from The Saddest Place on Earth ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

The Purpose Pitch ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

Onion Man ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

Interview with Armand Garnet Ruffo

On Norval Morrisseau and where biography and poetry intersect

Armand Garnet Ruffo draws on his Ojibway heritage for his writing. In 2014, his creative biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird appeared with Douglas & McIntyre. In 2015, The Thunderbird Poems, poems based on the paintings of the artist, was published by Harbour Publishing. He currently lives in Kingston and teaches at Queen’s University.

Photo credit: Pearl Pirie

Your two most recent books, the biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird and the poetry collection The Thunderbird Poems, both come out of your research into and engagement with Norval Morrisseau’s life and work. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to Morrisseau and his artwork, and why you found yourself responding to his work in these different ways?

I have to say at the outset that from the very first time I saw Norval Morrisseau’s work at Robertson Gallery in Ottawa in 1982, I was mesmerized by it. Of course I had seen his work in magazines prior but I’ll never forget the first time I actually saw his paintings. Of course I wanted one! So I guess I have always been drawn to Norval’s work.

And it goes without saying that Norval Morrisseau’s best work is magnificent and a truly singular achievement. I mean he created his own style of art! And for someone of Ojibway heritage like myself, it is a profound statement about cultural survival, and beyond to rebirth.

That said, what got me onto Norval’s trail so to speak was an invitation by the National Gallery of Canada to write something for the Norval Morrisseau “Shaman-Artist” retrospective catalogue, and one thing led to another until I had the two books. I have to say though that at first I was hesitant. Like many people, I had heard a lot about him, but I really didn’t know very much. Right from the beginning, then, I knew that if I took on the project I would have to learn a great deal, everything from visual art history, aesthetic theory, Ojibway material culture, the Ojibway oral storytelling tradition, about the Ojibway “Manitous,” and I knew it would be daunting. Not to mention that I would have to learn the details of his life!

So while I was thinking about all of this, I guess you can say I had a kind of epiphany, where I suddenly realized that his life was indelibly connected to what had happened to Aboriginal people in Canada during the first half of the 20th century. (He was born in 1932 or thereabouts.) Sure he was unique because of his artistic gift, and he had an extraordinary life, but what happened to him, the abuse, the poverty, the displacement, the stereotyping, was conversely not unique to him.

Furthermore, the NGC ended up giving me carte blanche as to how I wanted to approach the subject, which also opened a door for me, and which I found both intriguing and challenging. And so, after the NGC’s catalogue came out, I continued to work on the project, and I ended up with the two books. I’m still not sure how that happened, but the poetry came naturally, if not always easily, and in the end there were simply too many poems to include in the one book.

There is connection between the two books other than just the subject matter, because I included a few of the more lyrical pieces in the biography and a few of the longer prose poem pieces in the poetry collection. I like the idea that they are connected in more ways than one to each other.

What went into your decision to blur the borders between poetry and criticism, as you do (for example) when you preface the poems in The Thunderbird Poems with notes about Morrisseau’s life and art and sometimes respond to or comment on the paintings themselves?

I did that for practical purposes, because I figured that some of my readers would know little about Norval’s life and probably even less about Ojibway culture. I wrote the poems first and then went back and added the prose, but once I started doing it, I realized that it was exactly what the poems needed; to my mind, the “commentary,” or criticism as you call it, adds a kind of gravitas to the book.

I was also interested in adding another form to the book, something that would mirror the poetry. Form and genre is something that has always interested me.

What are some of the challenges of writing about a real person, either in biography or in poetry, where you need to respect them and their families but also maintain a certain distance and perhaps be critical?

That’s a tough one, isn’t it? First, I can say that I adhered to the facts of Norval’s life as I understood them. In other words, I never tried to make anything up. If I have him riding the taxi-boat from Cochenour to McKenzie Island, rest assured he took the taxi-boat! As for personal things that might be controversial, like sexual abuse, I tried not to leave anything out but at the same time I did not want to sensationalize things either.

I think that’s one of the reasons the poetry happened. I found that I could handle things in the poems that would have been difficult in the prose. I found I could say things through implication in the poetry that I would have had to spell out in prose at the risk of sounding sensational. To my mind, then, I think the two books compliment each other in that together they serve to bring all the disparate facts and events to light.

I suppose you could say they echo each other to provide a kind of dimensionality to Norval; together they plumb straight down into his life and art.

Morrisseau’s work is well-regarded and its importance is established. How might you have approached the books differently if he was relatively unknown? What benefits or difficulties does his already-existing reputation provide?

Certainly it would have been a very different book, because Norval’s fame is part and parcel of who he was; for example, the money that came with the fame allowed him to do things that most artists can only dream about. Think about it, he never had to worry about his material life. He constantly had a following of groupies, apprentices, and acolytes, whatever you want to call them, who basically worshipped the ground he walked on. No unknown artist could possibly have had the life that he led, sold out shows, everyone constantly after him, wanting to represent him, wanting to be his friend.

The most difficult thing I encountered as a biographer was that there were people who knew Norval, but, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t talk to me. Norval was a very complex person, and likewise his relationships were very complex. On that note, I was lucky — though Norval probably wouldn’t call it that — because despite his fame, mine is the first full-length book about him, and so I didn’t have to compete for the story.

Conversely there were many people who were eager to talk about him. It’s also interesting to note that while Norval has this huge reputation, few people actually know the full story of his life. People could tell me about a small portion of his life, some aspect of it, such as the “Red Lake Years,” for example, but not much else. So it was left up to me to piece all these disparate facts together.

And, yet, there are still many, many untold stories about him, and I suspect there will be other books, though probably none using the narrative and poetic techniques I’ve employed. In fact, I know a scholar who is currently writing an academic book about him.

Outside of the fact that they are generally regarded as his masterpieces, what made the paintings of “Man Changing Into Thunderbird” so important to you, so that you titled both books around them and so on?

To put it in a nutshell I think the theme of transformation is central to Norval Morrisseau’s life. As I say in the book, he was always the thunderbird man changing into someone else. For example, he had this ability to walk away from people, his family, friends… objects, his art, personal possessions… whatever, and simply move on. How many times did he start over in another part of the country? Only later to move on again.

The theme thus connects him to the idea of rebirth, starting over, relapsing, one step forward and one step backward, and I think this too is integral to who he was. And, further, I see it representing his deep-rooted connection to his Ojibway culture, the mythology and epistemology of the Anishinaabe, which informed who he was as an “Indian” (as he always said) and, of course, as you note, to his artistic practice — which, I can say with confidence, will live on as long as human-kind has a place for art and beauty in the world.

Did you enjoy this interview? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook, or send me an e-mail — and if you haven’t already, join my mailing list and keep in touch.

Support this site, Armand Garnet Ruffo, and his publishers by buying Armand’s books through these affiliate links:

Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

The Thunderbird Poems ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

“for play” — a poem by Kayla Czaga

followed by an interview about the poem

Kayla Czaga is the author of For Your Safety Please Hold On (Nightwood Editions, 2014), which won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Debut-litzer. Her chapbook, Enemy of the People, is published by Anstruther Press. You can follow her on twitter @kaylaczaga.

Photo credit: Janet Kvammen

for play

1
This is a game for girls: putting a hat
on the cat, putting pants on
the cat, drawing a turkey by tracing
her hand. Little girls like cats.

2
A dress is a game with armholes.
A dress is played with a waistband.
A waistband is a game with a firm
winner and sore loser. A dress is
plaid or floral or polkas. Dispersed
vertically with gathers, a dress is
a section of flowers in a dancehall.
A waistband plays flat music a little
girl will twist. This is a set list. You
play a girl by flipping through her.

3
the girl crayons little girls are like that
the little boy is blue
the duck is yellow
the duck is yellow tumbles forever into the green lake
the beginning of the black cat waxes in the red tree
the little girl is a sweet sad colour–bruised or blushing?
the little girl holds out her blank hands toward the little boy is blue
the little girl holds out her hands filled with little girls are like that
the sweet sad colour accumulates in the pencil sharpener
the little girl tumbles forever into the boy is blue
the little boy is blue accepts little girls are like that
the little girl is faceless until she colours it on

4
A girl is game with how many licks
gets to her centre. Little girls like
a firm licking. Little girls play will he
call on the third or fourth day
after a successful date. Little girls
play Friday flip-up day. What did
he mean, keep it casual? What did
he mean, that girl is asking for it?
A girl replays twenty unsayable
questions in her head. Little girls
lose the game inside their heads.
What was she asking for, exactly?

Interview

This poem covers a lot of ground, from childhood gender indoctrination to rape culture apologists — I think it works partly because of the four-part structure. Do you ever pre-plan this kind of structure, or does it develop in a different way, when you work on poem sequences?

When I started writing the poem, I knew it would have sections. I was trying to make the content and language age throughout the poem, becoming older and darker, and it seemed that sections would make this progression more graceful. I didn’t preplan specifically for four sections — it just sort of ended up there. I’m glad it seems to work for you even though I think three or five sections generally feels more stable.

Every time I write a poem, I have to improvise a structure to contain its content. They never completely come out in the same way twice. I always have to ask, “why this length of line?” “sections or no?” “stanzas?” Some are more similar to other poems [in the book] — “for play” was similar enough to “gertrude stein loves a girl,” and “I forgot to mention the thunderball,” echoed “Gone is the VHS. Gone is the Whir.” enough that I could reuse formal elements between those pairs of poems.

This poem recalls Gertrude Stein stylistically, which is something many poets attempt and few pull off. I think it works especially well in the third section, which contains my favourite line in this poem, “the duck is yellow tumbles forever into the green lake.” You play with Stein-esque lines elsewhere in your book For Your Safety Please Hold On — can you explain why you chose to tackle Stein lines and what you had to do in editing to make them work?

There is something so subversive and sexual about Stein’s writing. I knew as soon as I read her that she was teaching me to write about some of the things I wanted to explore — sexuality, violence, the strange half-there memories of childhood. Her style and my subject matter were a perfect fit.

When I overthink and tinker with Stein, she falls apart. Instead, I read her over and over to absorb her music as if I was a sponge. It was like rereading picture books to learn language. Every time I reread her, her work felt new to me. Then I started mimicking her in a playful way tangential to my subject. I knew that if I tried to tackle sexual violence and gender roles head on, my poems would be too polemical and tract-like. I had to get there through images, through colour and music, in a more-body-than-head way.

Why did you break up the two cat games and the line “little girls like cats” with talk of the turkey drawing in the first part? Did you play around with other images here? Can you give an example of an image you cut from this poem and explain why?

I know there’s a term in music or poetry that describes when a piece deviates from a pattern to create tension and then returns to it for closure, but I’ve forgotten what it is. I was trying to do that.

I chose the cat and turkey for several reasons:

1) I did both of those things as a girl.

2) I think they sound like funny and musically rich things.

3) There’s mention of a turkey in one of my other Stein poems: “gertrude stein loves a girl.”

4) Stein also uses the image of a turkey (and a very large one) in “Idem the Same: A Valentine for Sherwood Anderson,” which is a poem I love.

3 & 4 b) In both Stein’s and my other use of turkey, “size” is referenced. I was talking about eating disorders and Stein was asking what the difference between a medium sized turkey and a very large one was. There are undertones of body policing in this poem (i.e.: the waistband), so the turkey was sort of meant tangentially to tie into that conversation.

Those images came out very naturally together, so nothing was cut in editing that section. I’m sure that I made cuts in other parts of the poem, but I don’t keep copies of my edits and the poem was written so long ago that I can’t remember.

The third section has a nice move from the child colouring to a woman putting on makeup, two images you suture with the verbs “crayons” and “colours.” You also parallel the phrase “little girls are like that” at the start and end of that section. How much of editing for you is finding and developing, or adding, these kinds of parallels? Or do you spend most of your editing time on other things?

I find most of my editing time is spent cutting redundancies and improving rhythm. I may have added a repeat of “little girls are like that,” but it would’ve been more for sound than sense. I find that most of those parallels that you pointed out are found in my primary writing process during which I throw a lot of things on a page and see what sticks and what echoes, where the ideas and images and emotions want to go. My editing process is more of the flower arrangement/pruning part.

Your line “the little boy is blue” obviously refers to gender stereotypes but it could also be read as an allusion to the nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue.” I’m wondering if you intended that, and also: (a) if you did, does it matter to you if a reader doesn’t notice it, and (b) if you didn’t, does it matter to you if a reader reads that in? How much do you try to guide readings when you write/edit?

I didn’t intend that reference, but I think it works. My friend spotted the “pink triangle” as a reference to a Nazi concentration camp badge (also unintentional.) I think that every reader is going to bring something I didn’t intend to my poems as a result of their own unique experiences. I read an essay in which Mary Ruefle talked about someone finding some of her poems funny, when they were sad for her. I think it would be a never-ending and joyless mission to try to control a reader’s whole experience even though one might want to.

Part of the fun of poetry for me is its openness to interpretation. A poem is a game that both the writer and the reader get to play. It depends on the thinking and pattern recognition of both parties. I am sometimes sad when a reader doesn’t pick up on some nerdy thing I did in a poem, but that’s a result of those differing experiences that made her pick up on some strange unintentional allusion or technique.

I do have a group of peers with whom I share my drafts and whose feedback I listen to closely, so if they say, “hey, Kayla, this made me really uncomfortable,” or “I think you are being unintentionally offensive,” I’ll listen. Likewise, if they point out a potential reference that the poem could be using better, I will look into it.

What do you think of Kayla’s poem? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook, or send me an e-mail — and if you haven’t already, join my mailing list and keep in touch.

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For Your Safety Please Hold On ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

Guy Maddin on The Forbidden Room and Writing Melodrama

Guy Maddin, Winnipeg’s own living film legend, kindly answered some of my questions about writing melodrama and his latest feature film, The Forbidden Room, which will have its world premiere at Sundance next month. Here’s the Sundance summary for you:

“The Forbidden Room” (Canada) (Directors: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Screenwriters: Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk) — A submarine crew, a feared pack of forest bandits, a famous surgeon and a battalion of child soldiers all get more than they bargained for as they wend their way toward progressive ideas on life and love. Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Caroline Dhavernas, Roy Dupuis, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Karine Vanasse.

Those unfamiliar with Maddin’s work should rethink their life choices — I will simply note that, since completing his first film in 1985, Guy Maddin has produced one of the most fascinating and unique bodies of work in film history, in addition to developing a substantial career as an installation artist and author. In 2012, he was appointed to the Order of Canada, which is the country’s highest civilian honour.

I’ve previously interviewed Maddin and his usual screenwriting partner, George Toles, and also written about my visit to the set of his film The Saddest Music in the World (where I met Isabella Rossellini!) — so you may want to check out those posts when you’re finished with this one.

You should also check out the “living poster” for The Forbidden Room as well!

What can you tell me about your forthcoming feature film, The Forbidden Room?

The Forbidden Room, my 11th feature, was just completed and will have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2015. It is blessed with some of my favourite actors: Roy Dupuis, Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Maria de Medeiros, Adele Haenel, Sophie Desmarais, Ariane Labed, Jacques Nolot, fantastic newcomer Clara Furey (who is such a star!), and of course my longstanding muse, Louis Negin, WHO HAS NEVER BEEN BETTER.

It was shot entirely in the studio, or in many small studios, but, strangely, in public studios, over three weeks at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and another three weeks at the Centre PHI in Montreal, where any visitor to those institutions could simply walk up and watch us shoot, watch the movie’s stars act, at very close range.

I think this is by far the best picture I’ve ever made. (I hope I’m right.) It was so strange to script a movie that would be shot in public, that would make sense to the public on any given day, and then later still make sense all pieced together in one coherent feature. And the movie is in fullest, fuller-than-full colour — more colourful than any other movie ever made. How’s that, you ask? I’m feeling very proud now, like I’ve finally figured it all out, this filmmaking business. Of course I had a lot of help from wonderful collaborators.

What is the connection between The Forbidden Room and your ongoing Seances project?

Well, they were both shot in public in Paris and Montreal, but there are big differences between the two. While The Forbidden Room is a feature film with its own separate story and stars, Seances will be an interactive Internet project, something that anyone online can visit and play with. It’s produced by the sexy new incarnation of The National Film Board of Canada. I never thought I’d use the word sexy to describe the NFB, but it’s so amazing now.

The Seances interactive will launch in 2015, shortly after The Forbidden Room is released. I’ll describe the workings of Seances next interview, closer to launch date. I can say that the museum installation in which we shot all our footage was called Spiritismes in Paris, and Seances in Montreal, but Seances is the final and only title now.

It’s a place — a dark place! — where anyone online can hold “séances” with the spirits of cinema, lost and forgotten cinema. The Seances project has really evolved in recent months. It was going to be title-for-title remakes of specific lost films, but we found as we went that the spirits of many other lost movies, and the spirit of loss in general, haunted our sets and demanded to be represented in front of our cameras.

I’m really excited about the results. No one knows, in spite of what might have been previously reported on Wikipedia and even in earlier interviews with me, what’s finally going to launch (I must keep it under my chapeau for now), but I feel we have something original on our hands — all this boasting, I’m so sorry! I’m not usually like this.

But Noah Cowan, back when he was one of the directors at the Toronto International Film Festival, told me he didn’t think it was possible to make art on the Internet. That comment, from my dear friend, whom I owe $60 by the way, reminded me of what people said about cinema when it was starting out, when the moviolas and kinetoscopes were considered artless novelties, so I felt the challenge to do this, to make Internet art, to really reach everyone out there online who might be inclined to like my stuff.

So while I shot the two projects at the same time, and under the same lost cinema spell, The Forbidden Room and Seances are two distinct entities, on two distinct platforms. I might add, that part of that Seances evolution involved a few planned elements falling away — not even vestigial traces remain of some of the limbs and flippers which I once thought so important to the project. At one point we had planned a theatric release of feature-length live seances, involving a lot of monitoring of audience attention by sensors placed among the seats. We feel now we need to keep it simple and online. As well, the films shot for the Seances will NEVER exist as stand-alone shorts. They will only be broken up into fragments and placed in the Seances program for recombinations and endless permutations for the visitors to the interactive.

How did the writing process for The Forbidden Room and the Seances project differ from your previous films?

Since the beginning I’d always written with my best friend, George Toles. When I started this project, lost film was a pet obsession of mine. I started the writing process alone, way back in 2010. I had no idea where I wanted it to go. I just knew I wanted to adapt as short films a bunch of long lost feature films — if only to finally get to watch some facsimile of a movie otherwise inaccessible.

Almost every director whose career straddles the silent/talkie era has a number of lost films on his or her filmography. Some poor directors have lost entire bodies of work, though they aren’t alive any more to grieve over this. I wanted to shoot my own versions, as if I were reinterpreting holy texts, and present them to the world anew as reverent and irreverent glosses on the missing originals. I hired a former student of mine, Evan Johnson, as my research assistant, and he got into the project so much that he soon became my screenwriting partner. He brought on his friend Bob Kotyk to help, and soon the three of us got a lovely writing chemistry going.

It helped that they were young and unemployed and had all the time in the world and little interest in money. Because the project soon got very large. Every day we discovered more and more fascinating things about lost cinema, every day the conceptual tenets of the interactive and the feature evolved, became complicated, tangled themselves up in our ardent thoughts, and then suddenly became simple. It was kind of a miracle the way we figured it all out, whatever “it” is!

Evan started to surpass me in critical and conceptual thinking. I wasn’t jealous, just grateful. I asked George back to join us, but I know I had hurt his feelings by starting up without him. Thank God we remain friends. My wife Kim Morgan and I wrote three days worth of shooting material as well — that was a blast. And even the great great GREAT American poet John Ashbery chipped in with an enormous contribution, a screenwriting and literary event that gave me gooseflesh of awe and soiled shorts — shat drawers of awe.

At one point, if I remember correctly, you were planning to shoot the Seances films Factory-style, in a Warhol-like process. How and why did you abandon that idea? 

Well, I never really abandoned the Seances. They were called Hauntings back in 2010, when I first took a stab at shooting adaptations of lost films, but once completed these were to be installation loops rather than short films. I did complete eleven of them for Noah Cowan, who installed them as projections for the opening of his Bell Lightbox Building, the nerve centre of TIFF. I deputized a bunch of talented young filmmakers I had met in my travels to shoot these Hauntings in a “Factory” situation.

My writing partner Evan Johnson ran the movie manufacturing plant under the job description Hauntings Coordinator. Our production designer, Galen Johnson, made him a business card that read:

Screenshot 2014-12-05 16.38.46

His job was to keep churning out movies with a team of filmmakers of wildly disparate styles and talents, hired to direct a bunch of films all at once, all in the same room. This was a chaotic situation. I think before this Evan’s biggest professional responsibility had been pouring toxic detergent into Rug Doctor machines. But he kept this wild affair going for a few weeks while I directed Keyhole.

It was genuinely surreal watching all those silent films get shot, sometimes as many as six at a time, a row-upon-row productivity resembling, I imagine, those porn factories of urban legend. Ah, silent film, post-dubbed porn! I really wish we’d made our Hauntings Factory into the setting of a reality show. It looked and sounded so eerie, hearing almost nothing, while each in its own little circle of light a half dozen films made themselves in an otherwise dark room. We were going to shoot a lot of titles — a hundred! — but we were underprepared and definitely underfinanced, so we aborted the project after we had finished enough movies for Noah.

Evan was stripped of his Hauntings Coordinator epaulettes — disgraced! But shortly after he became my full partner on these new projects. He is my co-director on both The Forbidden Room and the Seances. His brilliant brother Galen came on as my new production designer for these projects as well. He’s such a stunning graphic artist that I found new joy in writing text for the films — intertitles in deepest purple!

Screenshot 2014-12-05 16.28.45

What more can you tell me about your writing process for The Forbidden Room and how it differed from your process on previous films?

It was pretty much the same as with George. We found ideas we liked, argued and wrote. I really like to collaborate. I can’t write alone. I’m amazed I can even answer these questions alone.

What are your current plans for the Seances website/app?

The technicians at the NFB have cooked up some incredibly cinematic doodads for this super-sophisticated app. When all the kinks are worked out, which will be sometime early in the new year, movies will be watched in ways that perhaps the chestnutty old metaphors of cinema long ago ordained movies should be watched, in ways that surpass mere streaming, something more haunted, like ghost or soul streaming!

You’re a writer, but as a filmmaker you also work with and hire other writers. What do you look for in a writer?

I don’t have that much experience working with other writers, just George, Bob, Evan, Kim and Ashbery. Each is his or her own person, with incredible strengths, and, of course, varying sensibilities and sensitivities. I’m very good at inadvertently hurting people’s feelings, so that’s always a concern, but collaborators need to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Saving feelings MUST come second to the work at hand.

I guess with John Ashbery we just let him do whatever he wanted to do because I revere him so much, and what he delivered was so gorgeous. So I guess I look for bright, funny and gracious souls. And I like hard workers because I can be very lazy. The ambitious shame me into working harder. Sometimes they even have to nag me. I never have to nag them.

Psychological realism still holds sway, tyrannically, even amongst writers and filmmakers that are not otherwise interested in realism, but you consciously work to create melodramatic characters and situations. Mostly, writers work to avoid melodrama — Why write melodrama?

I think it’s easier to achieve psychological realism with melodramatic methods. Think of the psychological plausibility, or truth, in the greatest old fairy tales, the Bible, in Euripides, in a Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck film, in Expressionist painting — in cave painting! There is every bit as much truth in these works as in all of Chekov, and more than in a security camera feed.

And surface realism does not guarantee psychological truth. I think it merely misleads the viewer into thinking he beholds reality, when in fact the story beneath the surface might be very dishonest. I’ve always defined melodrama as the truth uninhibited, liberated, not the truth exaggerated as most people feel. I just watched John Waters’ Female Trouble — not realistic at all on the surface, but pure truth to its toxically melodramatic core.

What ruins melodrama? What should a writer of melodrama work to avoid? 

Same thing that ruins all bad art, I guess: charmless dishonesty. There can be horrible melodrama too. I don’t like all of it. I just adore it when it’s done well. It feels more universal. I like all sorts of narrative genres, I don’t limit my tastes to one brushstroke.

I’m a bit puzzled by people who eschew all melodrama. Don’t they realize they’re watching it in almost everything they view? Especially in reality television, which is usually, but not always, bad melodrama, but also in the straightest most “realistic” movies. There melodrama thrives in disguise.

Isn’t all art the truth uninhibited to some degree? Sure, some art is the truth mystified, but honesty is usually exposed in some, sometimes inscrutable, way.

What is the key to writing strong melodrama?

I’m not sure, we’re still trying to do it. I would imagine even the great screenwriters and directors would admit it’s different each time out, that sometimes it works and other times merely dullness results.

I interviewed you years ago and remember you saying that you hoped to one day write a book — at the time you’d just published your second book. You still talk often of wanting to write a book (even though you’ve now published three). To what degree do you think of yourself as a writer, or perhaps as a struggling writer, and what you can tell me about your approach to writing? 

I am always going to be an aspiring writer, just as I’m an aspiring filmmaker. I don’t mean this to sound like false modesty; many people would agree with the “aspiring” part. I just think it’s the best attitude to have.

And, yes, I dream of someday writing a book, a really slender book, with a double-spaced novella inside. I think if I keep on learning, and get lucky, I just might have one in me. Probably just one.

Daniel Scott Tysdal on Writing Exercises and The Writing Moment

I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Scott Tysdal about writing exercises and his book The Writing Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating Poems.

If memory serves (and it usually does not), I met Daniel Scott Tysdal when he submitted a chapbook manuscript to my micropress, The Martian Press. I loved and published the book, Acts of Barbarity and Vandalism, poems produced through the erasure of texts relating to genocide, in 2006.

That same year saw the publication of Tysdal’s debut collection, Predicting the Next Big Advertising Breakthrough Using a Potentially Dangerous Method. This book remains one of the most impressive debuts by a Canadian author, in my view, and solidified my admiration for Tysdal and his work.

Now Tysdal has teamed up with Oxford UP to produce the best book on writing poetry I have ever seen, and the only book on the craft of writing poetry that I recommend. From the preface:

“The second assumption about the creative process upon which this book is founded derives from the first assumption: if poems arise out of a convergence of occasions, then the best way to teach the tools, techniques, and traditions of poetry is to immerse poets in the complex blend of occasions that characterizes the act of writing. This immersion is an effective way to encourage poets to write poems that — to honour the root of the word “verse” — turn, unfold dynamically with ingenuity, imagination, and skill. The following chapters accomplish this immersive introduction to craft by pairing my thoughts on a topic with a series of practical, hands-on writing moments.

“These writing moments are micro-writing exercises that invite you to try your hand at the topic under discussion. I call these short exercises writing moments because of the helpful double meaning of moment. These writing moments are “moments” because they will only take a short time to complete and because, when you undertake them, you will be “having a moment,” experiencing a break from the day-to-day that may already be common practice for you: turning—from a dinner table conversation or from an obligation at work or from a mindless stroll—to your notebook to scribble down the line or the form or the vision that just struck you.

“The writing moments have been designed with two goals in mind. The first goal is to immerse you in this meeting of life and art, this convergence of occasions, by coupling active practice with abstract explanation; as is the case with all poets, your reading process will also become your writing process. The second is to initiate you into the two extreme poles of the poetic practice: the work—the writing routine, the daily grind, the practice that becomes a habit—and the invigorating experience of inspiration—the burst of insight or feeling with which a poem so often begins (and the experience that can transform the writing habit into an addiction). Writing moments take place within the purview of both of these poles, nurturing your habit and stimulating you to compose new work.

“Each section also ends with a number of writing exercises and a pair of sample poems composed by some of the many talented students with whom I have had the good fortune to work. The writing exercises will give you the opportunity to further expand on the work undertaken during the writing moments, encouraging you to test out the new lessons and techniques as you compose new poems.” (xiv-xv)

Daniel Scott Tysdal is the author of three books of poetry, Fauxccasional Poems (forthcoming from Icehouse, 2015), The Mourner’s Book of Albums (Tightrope, 2010), and Predicting the Next Big Advertising Breakthrough Using a Potentially Dangerous Method (Coteau, 2006). Predicting received the ReLit Award for Poetry (2007) and the Anne Szumigalski Poetry Award (2006). Oxford University Press published his poetry textbook, The Writing Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating Poems (2014). He is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough. In 2012, the UTSC student newspaper, The Underground, named him one of their four “Professors of the Year.”

Adam Petrash and Jonathan Ball talk Poetry and Transformers

(Arman Kazemi’s remix/revision of a published page from The Politics of Knives)

Adam Petrash kindly interviewed me for an article he published in the Uniter — below you’ll find the full interview transcript. I modified and added to it a little as I posted it here.

What can you tell our readers about yourself that they wouldn’t get from your author’s bio?

I used to sing in heavy rock bands and had my picture in Rolling Stone. Only one good recording of me singing survives though, by my last band, Prost.

People always seem to ask who a person’s influences are, but they rarely ask why. That said, who are they and why?

My influences range and depend on the project. My two biggest influences, from youth, are probably Stephen King and Salman Rushdie. I’m interested in visceral, aggressive work that has an architectural structure.

More recently, Tony Burgess and Lovecraft. Burgess is, for my money, the best writer in Canada, or at least the most fascinating. If I had to summarize his style, I would say that he writes horror stories where the violence of the narrative begins to deform the narrative. That’s something that, I think, reaches back to Lovecraft and his clumsier attempts to describe indescribable things.

My biggest influence overall is Franz Kafka, because I think Kafka is still the most cutting-edge author around. He’s not constrained by his historical context, like other modernists — some of the stuff he’s doing in a book like The Castle is much more radical than later postmodern authors. (That’s why I wrote a poem inspired by his still-radical novel The Castle in The Politics of Knives.)

David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Solomon Nalger, and John Paizs (who I just published a whole book about) are huge influences, because they know how to make experimental narratives work on a visceral level. Alfred Hitchcock, because of my interest in violence and how violence deforms how stories about violence are told — Hitchcock is like Burgess in that way, or vice versa I suppose (a long poem about Hitchcock’s film Psycho shows up in The Politics of Knives). My biggest influence as a poet is Lisa Robertson, because of her astounding facility with prose poetry and her classical touchstones.

Of course, there are all the people you meet that get thanked in books, who really have more of an influence. People like Suzette Mayr, Dennis Cooley, George Toles, Christian Bök, Natalee Caple, GMB Chomichuk, John Toone, Saleema Nawaz, Maurice Mierau, and so many others — but in terms of real concrete influences on the writing, things that are less emotional and more obvious outside of my head, this would be my shortlist.

What drove you to pursue writing as a career?

I always loved books and I always wanted to write books. My personality is such that I could never hobby-write. I believe in taking things seriously and being professional.

What do you feel is the purpose of poetry? What do you think poetry accomplishes that other writing mediums can’t?

Poetry makes language strange. At a base level, it defamiliarizes language, so it allows you to focus on language play and to think about (and through) language itself. The effects, materiality, uses, and politics of language. Poetry frees you from the burden of having to use language to communicate something. Bad poets don’t understand this, and focus all their efforts on trying to communicate through poetry, which seems paradoxical and senseless to me.

You’ve mentioned previously that when it comes to poems written about emotions and feelings that you could switch the poet’s names and none would be the wiser. Why do you feel this way?

I’ve taken a lot of heat for saying that, but all I meant is that most emotive poems are generic — both in what they express and how they express. There remains a real irony in that fact that poets who want to express their own unique, personal emotions will routinely select the same images and the same poetic form as every other poet that is trying to express that same emotion — but in what they feel is a unique, personal fashion.

Basically, almost every poem I see that has as its core purpose the expression of a unique emotion is a generic text with a generic, lyrical speaker that could have been, ironically, manufactured by any decent poet. Since I review poetry for the Winnipeg Free Press, I am sent hundreds of books. Most are barely distinguishable from one another. I could rip out random pages and assemble another poetry book with a fake name, and nobody would be able to tell that these poems were by multiple authors, not a single author. Which is fine, unless your point in writing a poem is to showcase how you’re a unique snowflake.

On that note, do you feel poets need to be continually innovative then? If so, does that make much of the poetry published in the past redundant?

It’s more that most poetry published in the present is redundant. I value innovation in art, but I don’t feel poets have a duty to be innovative. However, they do have a duty to be great, to grasp for greatness, if they aren’t trying to go places no one has gone. What I’m sick of is mediocre, publishable poems. I would like to see both more stunning, “well-crafted” (but otherwise conventional) poems, and more risky, unpublishable poems. My tastes range, but I do gravitate more to unconventional or “innovative” work. However, it’s a taste or preference for me, not a political choice.

What do you think makes a poetry collection successful? (Not in books sold but in the book’s substance)

Ambition. Writers, myself included, need to be more ambitious. That, and following an idea to its end. I feel like a lot of the books I read go halfway. The writers don’t commit fully to their ideas and they compromise their vision at some point — or, they have no discernible vision.

Let me give you a weird example: the much-maligned Transformers movie. Once you decide to make a live-action film, not a cartoon film, and you decide on updating the look of the robots so that they are not in line with the child-cartoon aesthetic, then you have made a basic choice to move ever-so-slightly into the direction of realism, or at least reality (the space of “what-if these things were real”). What is the end of that movement?

It’s to end up in a place where we have a movie where the transformers never interact with, or even notice, the humans. They wage their war the same way we wage a war and don’t notice the ants we are trampling or bombing in the process. But Bay either can’t or won’t acknowledge that this is the logical terminus of his artistic direction and vision. So he pulls back. And you end up with a movie that is as stupid and absurd as making a World War I movie where people are continually talking to and looking after and even sacrificing their lives to save the ants in an anthill on Vimy Ridge.

To many you’re recognized as only a poet, but that’s not true because you write fiction as well. That said, do you consider yourself a poet more so than a novelist, too?

I don’t think the answer to this question matters, because thinking of yourself one way or the other is a trap. So usually I just say “writer.” In many ways, though, I consider myself a writer of experimental genre fiction — mostly horror and comedy.

Ex Machina is a science fiction novel with no characters or plot, although it’s also a somewhat conceptual long poem. Clockfire is a horror novel in which the theatre is the monster, although it’s also prose poetry. The Politics of Knives is a collection of horror fiction, and an anti-novel, although it’s also poem sequences. That’s what I think, but I must be wrong because nobody agrees with me.

Ex Machina reads like a Choose Your Own Adventure book and reading it is a tactile experience. You don’t just read the book you become physically involved in it. Why did you choose to do this?

I want to make books people don’t just read. I want them to interact with the books in a functional and meaningful way — even if that frustrates them and they hate it. I would rather the books be hated than viewed with indifference. The most sensible reaction to the upheavals of the book business in recent years is to take all that post-structuralism at its word, and try to actually create open texts, things that require reader interaction in real ways, not just theoretical ways.

Feeding off of that, in an age where ebooks have become the preferred medium do you think all avenues have been explored and exhausted in the printed format? Is there still hope for the printed book?

The book industry has, for a long time, focused its efforts on selling books to people who don’t read. They market to people who buy books for friends and families who read, or people that don’t keep a home library, or people who don’t care what they read, or people who only read a few books in their lifetimes. It’s a dumb model and it’s doomed to fail. Ebooks as they stand are mostly meaningful as a paper-saving device. When they develop that will change, but at minimum they mean that all the idiotic garbage that doesn’t need to exist can exist in the digital world. So there is hope, finally, for a world where only the books that need to exist in print do. If there is nothing in the book that requires a physical interaction, then why should it exist in the physical world?

Books that need to exist physically will continue to exist physically, because they have no other choice. Probably there will be fewer of these and less people who care about them. If we’re lucky, that’s what will happen, while all the rest will fade into the digital world, where we will still have good books and bad books, but at least the garbage books won’t ugly up store shelves. Poetry is a such a niche market that it will probably remain print for the most part, which will continue to be sad and great at turns.

If you follow the structure in Ex Machina you’ll never reach the final pages of the book and will keep reading the book indefinitely. This is frustrating; much like humans get frustrated with materialistic machines. Was that one of your intentions?

Yes, and I even made the mistake of insisting that the publisher write on the back cover that it was a frustrating experience to read the book. I don’t know what I was thinking. People read that back cover and decide not to read the book. It’s my fault because I wrote it and insisted on writing it.

The frustration is intentional but it’s also designed to force you into a position where you refuse to play by the rules of the book, and start reading it “the wrong way.” So, in the end, the frustration becomes freeing and you are happy you were frustrated and took control. Or, you passively accept the role and don’t get frustrated, and glide in loops through the book like a happy, well-oiled machine. The structure is designed to either turn you into a machine or an author.

The poems in Clockfire are meant to be plays that can never be performed. However, they’d make great film vignettes. Are you open to the idea of your work being made into a film or do you worry about the screen losing some of the book’s imagery?

I would love it, because I see a book like that as a blueprint for other things, as well as being a finished artwork. In some ways, though, it would be a violation of the concept. But the book is there to be violated — violation is a viable form of reading.

I am still disappointed that almost nobody has tried to stage the plays. There has been one attempt, that went well, I thought, by Swallow-a-Bicycle in Calgary. But nobody else. Even though there is now a Clockfire Theatre Company in, I think, France. Even they haven’t staged them, as far as I know. I’d love someone to develop a Fringe play.

If you’re open to the idea then who’d you want to direct it? Why?

It would make the most sense as an anthology film or a series of shorts by different directors. You could get up to 77 directors, I guess. The people I listed earlier would be the obvious starting points. Guy Maddin liked the book, but doesn’t seem interested in filming them. He would be my obvious top choice. Otherwise, probably people like Cronenberg and Jeffrey Erbach would make the most sense. And horror directors.

In The Politics of Knives you’ve layered the work with allusions. This makes for and encourages multiple readings. Do you think due to the length of most poetry collections that this is something most poets should be doing? Why or why not?

Poets tend to produce allusion-heavy work, I think. However, I know what you mean — I like to overload allusions, and layer in things that are coded enough that they amount to private jokes. I think of them like 2-percenters in comedy. A 2-percenter is an erudite joke that only 2% of the audience will get — but they will think it’s really funny. Since poetry readers are already quite erudite, in general, you have to work harder to produce a 2-percenter. And there is probably less obvious value in doing so.

I find, oddly, that it’s the references I think are obvious that are the ones people miss. Somebody reviewing The Politics of Knives thought, when I referred to Count Westwest in the poem about Kafka’s novel The Castle, that I was talking about some writer of fan fiction. Well, Count Westwest is the actual name of the count in The Castle. And it’s not like this was some moron reviewer — it was a very smart, well-read poet. But if you google “Count Westwest” then you don’t see the name “Kafka” until the second page of results. I don’t think that going to the second page (or adding “Kafka” or “Castle” to your search string) is too much to ask in terms of research — and I don’t mean to knock this reviewer — but I do find it strange because I would see that as an obvious reference. If I was the reviewer, I would assume, without googling, that Count Westwest was the actual name of the count in The Castle. On the other hand, we are used to thinking about Kafka as a humourless writer, due to the early Muir translations. So it seems too absurd and funny a name for a “serious” writer like Kafka, and I can understand taking the first page of Google for granted.

What I like most is lines that seem like allusions but operate in multiple ways, and could allude to various things. Like the line “Twelve awaited another.” Another reviewer (also somebody who is a smart, well-read poet, and should know better) thought I had miscounted the muses. Well, obviously I haven’t miscounted the muses. I’m not some jackass self-publishing nonsense. Like the review I refer to above, I actually liked this review overall, but it’s another example where the allusion seems obvious to me, or at least it should be obvious what it’s not.

Anyway, the line clearly seems to allude to something. But does it? It is structured like an allusion, but it isn’t clearly one. However, it can justifiably be interpreted as an allusion. For example, biblically, to allude to either Jesus or Judas. A huge difference between those two — but it can meaningfully allude to either. The apostles and Jesus wait for Judas to join them. Or we wait, ready disciples, for a non-arriving God (like waiting for Godot). And there are other ways to spin it out as well, or along those lines, and the context of the invocation of the muse complicates and develops the idea (there’s where it seems like it might be a mistaken allusion to the muses, if you weren’t assuming the writer knew anything). So how you understand the allusion, which is ambiguous, starts to turn the poem for you.

Even if you miss the possible allusion, then the line operates to build an atmosphere of anticipation, or dread (since even on the non-allusive reading, we’re awaiting the unlucky thirteenth). I want everything to be visceral and available on the surface, in terms of a mood or atmosphere, to a reader that doesn’t understand it in any depth. And then I want there to be enough going on underneath the surface for the reader to plumb the poems to various depths.

In an interview with Ariel Gordon for Prairie Books NOW you said that The Politics of Knives is “more of an amalgamation of poetry, prose, fiction, and essay.” That said, do you feel that this is where poetry is headed? Is there any room for the more ‘traditional’ forms of poetry?

I don’t see my work, or work like mine, as a barometer of where things are headed. I don’t really see myself as a poet primarily, for the simple reason that I think my worst work is in poetry, and my best work is in experimental prose that sometimes blurs into poetry — which is how I view these books.

What I do think is perhaps unique, or at least strange, and therefore valuable, is how my work draws on the influence of experimental practice in poems that are not experimental. So, I will produce poems that feel procedural, or that read like conceptual poems, or aleatory texts, but I am just writing them normally. Or, I’ll use a strict procedure, and hide it so that it seems like I didn’t, or at a certain stage in the editing process will just abandon it and free myself from the constraint.

People still seem afraid to do this, generally speaking. They want to subscribe to some practice that limits them, and they want to use these limitations to build a style. I am not interested in having a style or a voice. I just want to approach each project as its own project and do what the project demands.

People think Ex Machina was produced using experimental practices, but it wasn’t, other than a page here or there. Even my editor for The Politics of Knives assumed that the title poem, “The Politics of Knives,” had some sort of conceptual procedure. But it doesn’t. It’s just designed to read that way. People think I was covering up words in that poem. But I didn’t cover up any words. I manufactured gaps — I wrote the gaps the way I would write words. I just put the black bar into my vocabulary. Then, at a certain point, I did start editing it by covering up words. But words I wrote in previous drafts — sometimes I’d cut words, sometimes I’d cover them, sometimes I’d just add more gaps in the form of black bars. I designed it the way I would design any poem, but so that it would read like a conceptual or procedural poem, with found text. Then I added found text in parts, and not in others. Or added found text and rewrote it, or whatever. When Alana Wilcox was laying out the book, she wanted to know what the words under the bars were, so she could make sure they were spaced properly. I told her there weren’t necessarily words, or at least it didn’t matter, and she should shrink and expand the bars so they look good visually. It’s a design element, and compositionally it only matters where they appear in sequence, and their relative lengths, and the general ratio of bar-to-text.

For “That Most Terrible of Dogs,” I used found spam e-mail text as a base and revised it like I would revise a rough draft. A lot of poets will either not use the found spam, or will refuse to alter it, or will alter it so it still reads like found spam. I just treat it all like a draft.
I don’t see the difference between writing a first draft or using your poem as my first draft. That’s not revolutionary, but it’s oddly abnormal to just take experimental practices and conventional practices and put both in your toolbox, and move between them on the same poem. People tend not to do it. They tend to pick one path, or pick one per poem. I think that’s changing though.

You originally published WOLVES (lone.ly) as a chapbook through BookThug before you reworked it for The Politics of Knives. Unlike other art forms (i.e. painting/sculpture) you’re able to take your previous work and rework it. Does that mean that you feel anyone’s previously published work can and should be reworked? What do you think the pros and cons are to this?

Coming off the above answer — I don’t see the difference between using my first draft as a first draft, or using your first draft as my first draft, or using my finished, 20th draft, published poem as my first draft. I just decided to use the published chapbook as my found text for a new poem, the same way I might take some words from a billboard and use them to craft a sonnet.

I don’t see the version in The Politics of Knives as a final version or even a different version. It’s a new poem. That’s why I changed the title, to “Then Wolves.” That’s also why I released the book under a Creative Commons license. You can use “Then Wolves” as the first draft for your own poem if you want.

I don’t really think through the pros and cons when I write. I’m just working. I think about those things later on. That’s why I’ve written multiple books and thrown them in the trash. I just work on them and then think about them later, whether I should publish them or throw them away.

The work, the practice, the process of it all is more important than where you end up. You have to be willing to throw things away. But you also have to be willing to spend your time on something you will throw away. Publishing it is just another version of throwing it away. You throw your trash into the trashcan and your jewels into the world. Just get them out of your office!

Finally, what are you currently working on? What can our readers expect to see from you next?

University of Toronto Press just published my book John Paizs’s “Crime Wave” — an academic monograph about a postmodern cult film classic that was made in Winnipeg in the 1980s. It was released in 1985 and is an important example of early postmodern cinema and a significant precursor to subsequent postmodern blockbusters like Adaptation.

Crime Wave is about a screenwriter who can only write beginnings and endings, but not middles. Paizs was a major figure in the early days of the Winnipeg Film Group, and his films inspired people like Guy Maddin. His other 1980s films, like the short film masterpiece Springtime in Greenland, are also brilliant and I discuss them in the book as well.

Then I am co-editing an anthology of humorous experimental English-Canadian poetry called Why Poetry Sucks. Those two things are the focus now. I’m also going to start revamping and relaunching my website. I’m going to give away stuff there soon, and I’m going to start blogging seriously and regularly, after I finish the work on these books. One simple thing I’ll do is just make it easier to find what’s there. I have a ton of stuff there. I have an interview with Frank Black of the Pixies there. And Matthew Sweet. And a UFO expert. But you’d never know. So I’ll build an archive that will make that obvious, and make the site more of a destination and a regular source of cool stuff, overall.

So bookmark JonathanBall.com and throw it in your RSS! And sign up to the newsletter/mailing list there! The site will start being cool again, I promise.