8-Ball: Interview with Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is the author of If Language and Haikube, and has edited books of poetry by Lawren Harris, W.W.E. Ross, and Raymond Knister. He has been publishing since ’99, when his first poems appeared in a small housepress anthology of translations of translations of bpNichol’s translations of Apollinaire’s translations. He has published a half-dozen chapbooks, a string of broadsides, and various one-off projects, including sound poetry, visual art, web/digital art, and more. His stories, critical writing, and reviews have appeared in journals across Canada and beyond.

1. What do you want to talk about—which question do you wish interviewers would ask, and what is your answer?

I’d have to say that the text itself is already what I want to talk about, and interviews are a great opportunity to encounter somebody else’s engagement and interaction with my work. It is kind of a shocking experience to hear people interacting with your own writing in ways totally beyond your control, and I’m fascinated in the way the texts perform out there in the real world — what lines make people yawn or laugh or transcribe into an email signature. I was raised in the postmodern era which means that I’ve long had instilled in me the po-mo mantra that ‘no reading of a text is wrong’ (something I have come to disagree with, but that’s another issue), but at the same time dialogue always helps me discover the limits of what I already know. In other words, when I talk with someone, I’m learning; much less so when I talk to someone, although learning can happen there too. I’ve never believed in the solitary genius theory of literature, or at least never invested anything in that kind of romance, and it follows that my writing puts dialogue and influence in the foreground. Kristeva uses the term “symplegmatic” which I enjoy for its suggestion of a mixture of wrestling and subtle erotic embrace. This is one of the things I am always interested in with regards to interviews; a symplegmatic dialogue in response to work that I am heavily invested in. Unfortunately, I am also too neurotically postmodern to have any faith in finding my answer.

2. What advice do you wish you’d received, but didn’t, when you first started to take your writing seriously?

When I was in high school, one of my teachers collected my poetry produced in various classes and for the school newsletter. He made me wait after class one day and showed me the file he had amassed. He didn’t have much to say in particular about my writing, but he gave me a copy of George Bowering’s Selected Poems (by Talon Books) and said “you are ready for this.” That’s about as good advice for a young reader as I can imagine: real writers read.

3. What is wrong with the publishing industry, and what are they getting right?

Canada has reached the point where anybody in this country with something to say can get published. It’s a phenomenal and unprecedented moment. Its effects can be felt in the explosion of literatures in all directions. It can also be felt in the confidence and lack of interaction between literary communities. It has led to ridiculous flare-ups of turf protection, but luckily (in my experience) these kind of obnoxious aesthetic battles are rare. Instead, we have a lot of activity a lot of which is operating at a fairly high intensity. I would love to see more intensity. I would love to see more interaction; and by interaction, I don’t mean formalist poets talking to confessional poets or even conventional prose writers, I mean interacting with the intensities at play in Canada’s literary communities and coming up with new avenues for exploration. We have some real cutting edge writers in this country, and I don’t want their work to get cut off and isolated as an oddity, but rather be the impetus for the creation of new edges.

4. How will technology change writing?

Writing is technology. How will sweetness change sugar? After the Singularity, when cyborgs desert the wasteland of earth for better colonies and energy sources, humans will regroup and discover a stash of forgotten books or scrolls in the wreckage called planet Earth. These will train them, civilize them, and rekindle fantasies of agriculture and cities. Writing will shape and then warp their minds, leading inevitably to the second and subsequent Singularities.

5. What is your process for a typical piece of writing, from idea to publication? (Give a specific example.)

Please let me know if I’ve been publishing pieces that have become typical! Projects, such as Haikube which was a collaboration with Hallie Siegel and Matt Donovan, begin over dinners, discussions, coffee, tea, emails, phone calls, and then drafts, and then discussions, and then more dinners, and then letters, phonecalls, interaction with owners of CNC engraving machines and the final selection of wood type (ebony) which determines the limits of character spacing which shapes the overall limitation of the text, which leads to rewrites, more discussions, a bottle of wine, the production of prototypes which allows us to see the poems in the world, which allows us to immediately identify huge weaknesses, fundamental flaws, in our original ideas, which crises leads to new drafts, more dinners, more emails (a positive flurry of them at this stage), which leads to a second prototype, which leads to procurement of financing (or at least the solicitation of the same), production, and the creation of the first real draft of the object on borrowed money, forcing us to commit to the finality of the words and design on the cube, the occasion of which leads to an evening spent rotating the cube and jotting down favourite poems created by the movable sides of the cube, the resultant poems of which are consequently sent to Filling Station, GEIST magazine, and a couple other places who publish the poems (in full and accurate typographic splendour) which leads to a chapbook by BookThug of the original six plus other favoured poems produced by the aleatoric rotation of the cube, which sells out before the actual launch date of the art objects at the Olga Korper Gallery, creating a pressing need for a second edition of the chapbook, which Jay MillAr redesigns in response to a book he saw in New York, and which I take to Ottawa to launch, about a month before the actual exhibition in Toronto. Projects such as other projects are different.

6. What are your daily habits as a writer, and as a reader?

I try to read or write something every day, to try to eat better, get fit, and try to take long and indulgent breaks with music and movies or meet someone for drinks or food. Too much of everything is barely enough. I can handle a day without a new poem, but am crushed by one without laughter.

7. What is your ambition as a writer—what do you want to accomplish, personally and professionally?

I would very much like to think that each project that I have worked on opens up new doors for subsequent work by me and others and can be felt as the trace in each text. It’s not necessarily a linear process, for one can write the trace. I’m not trying to get anywhere with my writing, but I am definitely trying to evoke and provoke myself into new ways of being.

8. Why don’t you quit?

Because I still have a lot to learn.

The First One's Free.

The First One's Free.

To celebrate (over) a decade since my first book, I’m offering it for free.

EX MACHINA is a choose-your-own-adventure-style poetry-novel hybrid about how machines have changed what it means to be human.

Fill out this form so we can stay in touch, and I’ll send you the book.