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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Zeghers on John Paizs

I was interviewed about John Paizs, the subject of my forthcoming book John Paizs’s Crime Wave (U of Toronto P, 2014), by Aaron Zeghers at Cineflyer. Zeghers reports that Paizs has taken a “vow of silence” — I have been talking to Paizs to complete this book, so I don’t know about any of that, but it’s always great to see some discussion of Paizs and Crime Wave. Zeghers sneak-previews a bit of my book in there:

While some may assume that Paizs’ decision to “pull the plug” was born purely from the commercial failure of Crime Wave, Jonathan Ball expresses a different opinion in his upcoming book John Paizs’ Crime Wave.

“We might view this form of ‘early retirement’ from personal filmmaking as not just a commercial but an artistic choice. Certainly, it seems in keeping with Paizs’ decision to reshoot the ending of Crime Wave rather than let it proceed on the festival circuit with a flawed ending despite positive reviews and reactions. This line of thinking refuses to cast Paizs in the victim’s role — sufferer of bad luck and bad business deals — and lets us view his 1980s work as the culmination of a significant oeuvre rather than an arbitrary end-stop to career cut short,” writes Ball via email.

Recent Reading & Viewing: Sylvia Legris, Alan Moore, Brian Joseph Davis, Julia Kristeva, David Cronenberg, Bruce McDonald, John Paizs

circuitry of veins and iridium seeds by Sylvia Legris

Sylvia Legris contacted me over the holidays to accept some poems, being the new Managing Editor of Grain. This brought to mind the fact that I own all of her books, but have read none. So I read her first two books. Both books are strong but iridium seeds is a vast improvement on circuitry of veins, and sees Legris branching further out from otherwise fairly conventional work. I haven’t read her Griffin-winning book Nerve Squall yet but it is next on the list. These two books meditate on the loss of a mother (but in a rather unconventional and sometimes irreverant way) and female body issues. I am partial to the poetic suite “hungergraphs” in circuitry of veins, which has a real narrative drive, it almost reads like a fractured short story. The thing that reading these two books in quick succession brings to mind is the fact that very few poets these days seem to develop. A lot of people put out first books and follow them with second books that are identical. Or even tenth books that are identical. The thing that impresses me most about these books is that you get the sense Legris has actually read some other books in the time between writing each of her own books, and moreover has read broadly, not just more books by people writing like her. I don’t get that sense from a lot of writers, and I wish I did. Curious to read Nerve Squall, due to how far apart it was published from iridium seeds I expect it to be almost the work of a different poet.

The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Vols. I & II by Alan Moore

Alan Moore is Odin’s gift to the world of comics, a literate and stunningly imaginative writer who stands out even among the best writers of the genre, let alone the hacks who fill out the ranks. Pilfering characters from the world of public domain literature to put together a superhero team of Mina Harker, Allan Quartermain, Jekyll/Hyde, The Invisible Man, and Captain Nemo is just downright brilliant. Then having them fight against first Moriarty and second the aliens from The War of the Worlds is genius. Guest appearances by Doctor Moreau and others in a sort of boy’s adventure story. What this series made me really appreciate was how awesome H. G. Wells was. This guy wrote The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, AND The Time Machine. He thought up Morlocks. I would be happy just to think up the word “Morlocks.”

I, Tania by Brian Joseph Davis

I loved Portable Altamont and thought this book was also quite fun, although as a novel it’s fairly sparse, not a lot to sink one’s teeth into. A comical look at the Symbionese Liberation Army, with all the silly song parodies and fun nonsense you’d expect after reading Portable Altamont. The book is slim and pretty and fits nicely into the pocket of your army fatigues. The passage where Katie Couric interviews the Tania/Hearst character reminded me of the ending of How to Make Love to a Negro by Dany Lafferierre, although in the Lafferierre book the scene is more substantial and has a more complicated relationship to the text as a whole.

Powers of Darkness by Julia Kristeva

I am reading, reading, reading these days, have to get through all this theory before I turn in my thesis. Although I find parts of this book impenetrable, not knowing Celine’s work, and disliking Kristeva’s writing style (or, maybe, the translation) . . . but only in parts. In other parts, the writing sparkles. It’s a very uneven book in this regard. I am fascinated and struck by this notion of an “abject” — a class of things not properly “subjects” or “objects” but somewhere in-between, blurring the boundaries between subject and object and therefore threatening their borders and producing revulsion in the subject.

Eastern Promises (dir. David Cronenberg)

I missed this film in the theatres and am sad to have done so. A stunning film with great performances, not as cold and machinic as Cronenberg’s other work. I am ambivalent towards Cronenberg although I ultimately thinks he’s great. My only real complaints about this film are that I think Naomi Watts was underutilized (if you’ve seen Mulholland Dr. then you know she is capable of much more compelling characters than the rather bland woman she plays here) and also I could see the end coming a mile away. Mortensen is fantastic and the supporting cast is great, especially Vincent Cassel.

Highway 61 (dir. Bruce McDonald)

Re-watched this, I still love this film, great Canadian weirdness married to affecting realism. As road trip movies go, this is one of the best. Mr Skin (aka Satan) is one of my favourite characters in Canadian cinema, if only because of how his presence buoys this movie up above the saccharin waters it might otherwise get dragged under. And you can’t be a Canadian if you don’t harbour a soft spot for Don McKellar.

Top of the Food Chain (dir. John Paizs)

It’s no Crime Wave (my favourite film), but I’ll take it. A great spoof of Hollywood horror that pushes the formulaic vapidity of the genre to its absolute, hyperreal extreme, for one of the most underrated comedies this country has ever produced.

Otherwise….

Been working on The Crow Murders (my thesis) and trying to prepare to enter the job market, which is looking dismal at the moment. Also working on The Politics of Knives, a poetry collection I should complete soon (mostly it collects already published chapbooks, so not a ton of work to be done, I am just writing the title poem and the rest is minor editing work). After I complete this poetry collection then I will be sitting on a total of five poetry collections, including the one coming out this year with BookThug, so with four to flog to publishers I feel good taking a break from poetry to focus on fiction, specifically the short story collection The Lightning of Possible Storms that (as previous posts will confirm) I have been working on for far too long.