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.