This interview was conducted by Kris Bone, a student at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.
To begin with, in light of having written a collection of impossible-to-produce plays, what is your opinion on the state of theatre being produced today? Where, in general, do you think theatre is headed over the next few years?
Clockfire stands as a tidy summation of my disillusionment with the theatre today. The first words of the book, in place of the conventional dedication, are “The gauntlet, thrown”—the book thus stands as my challenge for artists to re-introduce “clocks” and “fire” to the theatre (violent engagement with the immediate moment of the play). The theatrical experience has become a literary experience. Most new plays take a narrow focus on dialogue and character dynamics, and remain entrenched in a bland realism, or offer the most watered-down and facile versions of avant-garde practice (“breaking the fourth wall” and addressing the audience directly remains a radical concept in the theatre, or so you would think from some productions).
That’s not to say that good plays are not still produced. The best plays today flourish melodramatic excesses in a sort of theatrical absurdism, or offer impressive spectacle (I saw a play a few years ago that reproduced the Houdini milk can escape onstage), or engage truly with the mechanisms of the theatre through complex and adept metafictions. At the heart of the theatrical experience, for me, is spectacle—not in its cheap, Hollywood sense, but in terms of how it can offer an immediate, powerful live experience. The theatre should focus on what makes it unique amongst art forms. Its literary qualities are superseded by poetry and fiction. Its emotional range is superseded by film—the close-up is automatically more connecting than most theatre. What remains to the theatre, what is unique and untranslatable, is the immediacy of the spectacular experience. Which it generally ignores in lame attempts to try to outdo other art forms in doomed excursions.
As a follow-up to that question, do you have any theatrical experience on the performance side? If so, what did you think of the experience?
I have limited experience on the performance side—I have acted in a few small plays and films in bit roles. I initially went to university to study theatre, but became disillusioned with its blandness rather quickly. I don’t mean to suggest that good plays are no longer written or performed, but that the theatre rarely seems to offer its prime goods. Of course, you could probably say the same for any modern art form. To some degree Clockfire also works as a repudiation of conventional poetry. Gregory Betts wrote an excellent review for The Bull Calf that cuts to the heart of my intentions writing Clockfire in that regard.
Having studied Canadian literature, did you approach writing Clockfire specifically as Canadian literature, or did you write it independent of a nationality? How do you feel that Clockfire fits into the Canadian literary continuum, if at all?
Clockfire has no real connection to Canadian literature, unlike Ex Machina, which to some degree I wrote as the inverse of the prairie long poem. The closest book in the Canadian realm would be Natalee Caple’s The Semiconducting Dictionary (Our Strindberg), which was written and published at the same time as Clockfire (Caple and I are friends and consulted with one another while writing the books)—although I was influenced somewhat by Erin Moure’s Little Theatres (in some respects, my book is intended as the opposite of hers, although I loved that book).
Clockfire, instead, is part of a small sub-genre of books that crosses national boundaries, and which would include Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit with its word-paintings, David Eagleman’s Sum with its descriptions of possible afterlives, Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams with its differing theories of time, Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey with its invented Homeric apocrypha, and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities with its descriptions of impossible cities. Calvino’s book was the single biggest influence on my own, and the idea of having interstitial material in Clockfire (the italicized sections, which stem from Aristotle’s notions of what elements were present in the theatre) is to some degree based on the structure of Calvino’s book, with its interstitial chapters about Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.
I love Canadian literature, but I feel more in tune (generally speaking) with American and European authors. My single biggest complaint about Canadian books is that they are often parochial as a result of our embrace of regionalism. I embrace regionalism myself: I believe in setting stories in Canada, using Canadian themes, and probing Canadian issues. It can go too far, however, as George Bowering’s satiric A Short Sad Book points out: the argument of that book seems to be that Canadian authors use old forms, but update the content (add a beaver to your sonnet and call it Canadian) when they should instead strive for new, Canadian forms. We still focus too much on content in Canada. Hitchcock used to say that he didn’t care what his films were about, and it frustrated him that this was what an audience always focused upon. He claimed that if you painted a still life of an apple, instead of noticing the formal aspects (the entire point, of course, of a still life: to paint an unremarkable item in order to focus attention on the formal choices, the method of painting), an audience would worry whether the apple was sweet enough. The Canadian audience worries whether the apple is Canadian enough.
The bigger problem in Canadian literature, I think, is that I read a lot of books that seem written by hobbyists, by people who don’t take themselves and their art seriously, who don’t treat it as work, and who seem to make no attempt to rise to or compete at an international level. I read John Pass’s Crawlspace recently, and though it’s a fine book in some ways (he’s particularly adept at sly, almost-unnoticeable internal rhymes), I thought, “That’s it? Those are the best poems from six years of work—from a GG-winning author?” The book is typically Canadian in that it’s well-written but not stellar, and a collection of disparate works with no thematic unity, with the expected content and themes, divided into three loose sections, with some epigraphs by better poets. It’s a perfectly mediocre book, but I don’t have an abiding interest in mediocre books.
Christian Bök once told me that an epigraph should be taken as a challenge. I quote Artaud at the start of Clockfire because I want to acknowledge the influence—and then attempt to defeat Artaud in a Harold Bloom-ian contest, by crafting the kind of plays he should have written, that succeed where I feel Artaud’s work fails to fulfill its own radical promise. Perhaps I’m delusional and wrong, and a failure, but I take the task seriously. Too few poets try to compete with the past, and just want to be good. They are too busy writing “good” poems instead of striving for great ones. Ambition has become a dirty word in this postmodern, politically correct age where all morons feel that their tastes and opinions have validity and should be respected by all, however illogical or unsupported. Too many people think that evolution is a lie and someone should be published simply for writing well.
Again, on the subject of Canadian literature: Do you have a favorite up-and-coming Canadian poet that we should be watching (and why)?
Poets are like Pringles, you can’t stop with just one. Right now I am most impressed by Kevin McPherson Eckhoff, whose books Rhapsodomancy and Easy Peasy suggest he could become the next bpNichol. Time will tell. Based on his first book, Fake Math, and on the follow-up books I’ve read (in manuscript), I would say that Ryan Fitzpatrick is another man to watch, because he seems to grasp how to use avant-garde techniques without sacrificing readability, fun, and even certain classical virtues like wringing emotional responses from the reader. Jason Christie’s first two books, Canada Post and i-Robot Poetry, also mark him as a stellar talent along similar lines. I’m very impressed with Helen Hajnoczky’s Poets and Killers. I might add your professor, Daniel Scott Tysdal, whose book Predicting the Next Big Advertising Breakthrough Using a Potentially Dangerous Method was a stellar debut—I haven’t yet read his follow-up book, which I didn’t know existed until five minutes ago, but Predicting showed a great deal of promise and I am most excited when I see authors blending conventional and experimental modes. But I know all of these people, so take this with a grain of salt. Kate Eichhorn may no longer count as up-and-coming, but her books Fond and Fieldnotes, a forensic stunned me, and I don’t know her at all, so maybe she would be my “objective” pick. I would like to see Tony Burgess, Canada’s best fiction writer, craft a horror-poetry book. What I most value in literature is formal experimentation that does not sacrifice but rather enhances the visceral qualities of the work: an unusual approach to form that makes the book more funny rather than less, that makes the story more bloody rather than rendering it bloodless through theory-speak.
Last and certainly not least: What is your favorite poem out of Clockfire? Is there one that you are particularly proud of having written?
I like how the title poem, “Clockfire,” serves as a succinct summary of the book and its major themes. I think that “If the Sun Still Burns” and “Gun” are the best-written. But my favourite is probably “The Mirrored Stage” because of the open-endedness of its concept. It’s the poem for which I’ve heard the most interesting interpretations. My grandmother (of all people!) posed some of the best questions: “What happens to those people now? Are they zombies? Has the theatre taken their souls?”