Jeremy Colangelo wrote a great profile/interview/review over at Open Book Toronto, focusing on The Politics of Knives. The article includes a poem from the book, “Then Wolves.” Jeremy also did a longer interview that serves as the basis for the article, so I offer it here as a “DVD Bonus.”
Could you describe the process you went through to compose your poems? When you wrote them, how you edited them, that sort of thing. Did you initially conceive of the book as a collection, or did the poems coalesce together later on?
The Politics of Knives contains nine poems, and each had its own, quite different, development. Looking at the project as a whole, I began working on a book called The Politics of Knives in 2006, so it actually predates my other books, both of which were conceived and written later. For both Ex Machina and Clockfire, I developed a concept for a book and then executed the concept in a fairly rigorous manner. The Politics of Knives, by contrast, began as a collection.
Every few years or so, I decide that I should collect my poetry, and I spend a few months editing together a collection, rewriting all the poems, and then once I’m finished I throw it in the trash. My previous (trashed) collections were titled Blood, Emptying, When I Am Hell, and Monsters. The reason I had trashed the previous collections was because at the end of the day they felt like collections, not books. I’m not interested in collections. If poems are bound between covers then they need to feel like they are a single, cohesive unit that justifies binding between covers. What was different with The Politics of Knives was that I had been producing chapbooks for a while, these longer sequences, and I thougiht it might make more sense to collect those, because mathematically speaking they would have fewer themes and perhaps cohere better. By this time, Clockfire was being published by Coach House Books, and so when I completed the manuscript I sent it to them.
By the time Coach House had accepted the book, I had decided that it was still too much of a collection, primarily because it had a suite of single poems (called “Monsters”—as you can see, a holdover from my previous attempt to forge a collection). So when my editor, Kevin Connolly, suggested removing that section I agreed, and also removed a handful of other sections, and then took what remained and rewrote it considerably, and wrote a number of new works during the editing process. So the work in the book ranges from poems written pre-2006 and poems written over the last half-year.
It finally coheres. At some point between me submitting the book and them accepting the book, I realized that what the book wanted to become was a meditation on violence, in its various forms and processes, that this was the subject that had been fascinating me secretly. As well, in a number of ways, the book is about film (whereas Ex Machina was about books and Clockfire was about theatre, and my next planned poetry project is about visual art). So despite its quite different and older origins, the book ended up being mostly composed of work after my last book, Clockfire, anyway, and mostly composed the same way as those previous books: once I’d settled on a coherent, articulated concept, I executed the concept. I tried to be a normal person first, which was a waste of time, as it always is.
Several of the poems were published in magazines, or as chapbooks, beforehand. How different were they between their initial appearances and the form they take in the book? Also, how much of an effect does this kind of pre-publication have on your writing process? (Do you, for example, edit the poems differently when they are not going to be appearing in the context of a book?)
Some of them have mild differences, like “The Process Proposed,” where Kevin and Alana helped me tighten the language, but otherwise the poem didn’t change. Others were drastically different. BookThug published a chapbook called wolves (lone.ly) which opens thusly:
when will you come. returning.
all the world breathes. your passing.
such silence. still.
there is no chorus. advancing.
you are wrong. childish.
delusions. no such things. as.
to walk, without falling.
Then you turn the page, and read:
let the angel of. no Lord.
lost. in the woods.
in a red hood.
to red halls.
This poem was rewritten and published in The Politics of Knives as “Then Wolves.” Here’s how it begins:
when will you come when
all the world breathes out when
your passing such silence
the leaves gossip when
shattered songs with no chorus
children of delusion
of thorns brambles tangle
grey chattering things
how sweetly die sparrows
let the angel of no lord
lost in the woods guide you
in a red hood with red hands
into these red halls
You can see the differences at a glance. Yes, the motivating force in editing here is the context of their appearance. The BookThug chapbook is a self-contained work, but in the Coach House Books collection the poem has to exist alongside other poems, and its erratic punctuation marked it as too different in style and tone from the other works, as did the “coda” structure. It’s already markedly different in having line breaks (most of the other works are prose poems, as you note below), and in a few other oddities, and it felt too much like a self-contained thing.
That’s not what I wanted in this book: it’s not a collection of self-contained things. I wanted poems that worked together and, in some instances, even allude or directly refer to one another across the book. So many of my edits were in the service of that. For example, I brought the pace and rhythm closer to some other poems in the book, like “Psycho.” Also, the additional “red” in the rewritten version alludes to another poem in The Politics of Knives, “He Paints the Room Red,” and its events.
“The Process Proposed” and “Then Wolves” are quite different from the other poems in the collection, which are more similar in format to your works in Clockfire. Could you elaborate on why you decided to start with a piece that looks so different from the kind of writing you have done before?
You’re referring to the fact that the book is primarily composed of prose poems, but the two you mentioned contain line breaks. I began with “The Process Proposed” because it is a perversion of the traditional invocation of the muse, so its proper place is at the front of the book. As well, I wanted some line breaks up front to signal the difference from the previous books, as you noticed. I’m not interested in writing the same book again and again, which is one of the many reasons I’m not rich. Moreover, “The Process Proposed” concerns recent political events, whereas little else in the book has that sense of currency, so I’m baiting the hook.
Ex Machina, Clockfire, and The Politics of Knives are all very different books, with each one striving towards very different goals. Could you describe what has driven this artistic development, and how your poetic sensibilities have changed between your first book and your third?
I’m moving closer and closer to producing fiction instead of poetry. I started writing poetry when young, then turned to fiction, but kept hitting walls. I decided that I was lousy at two things: (1) structuring stories and (2) producing good sentences. At the time, I decided that the most sensible solution, if I wanted to become a better fiction writer, was to stop writing fiction and instead write screenplays (to focus on story structures) and poetry (to focus on language within a line). I decided I would do that for a decade or so, and then return to fiction. This is why, if you look at the individual poems I publish in journals (and don’t republish in books), a lot of them are technical exercises or narrow, focused experiments. Which is another reason I have never been able to stomach a manuscript collecting my individual poems.
Ex Machina is a science-fiction novel with no story, and Clockfire reads like a book of short stories you have to imagine because I didn’t produce the stories, just their blueprints. The Politics of Knives contains a number of pieces on the spectrum from fragments that have no narrative structure but move as if with a narrative drive (like “Then Wolves”) to full-on short stories in prose-poem form (like “He Paints the Room Red”). In my daily practice, since I finished working on The Politics of Knives, and for most of the past few years, I have been writing fiction. I would argue that in many ways I have been publishing fiction that’s being received as poetry. Everybody calls me an experimental poet, but I consider myself a horror writer. I’ve tried to join the Horror Writers Association, but they didn’t respond to my inquiry about membership.
What drew your interest towards this topic? Is this focus on politics and double-identity an outgrowth of your work with theatre in Clockfire?
I’m interested in themes like politics and double-identity insofar as I’m interested in violence, and specifically, how violence transforms reality. Since narrative produces reality, there seems to be a close and perhaps necessary connection between narrative and violence—violence as a phenomenon, that can be positive or negative, depending on how it operates as a concept. With most art, we’re talking about concepts, about destroying or shaping ways of thinking, rather than punching people in the face. I’m interested in this transformative power of violence, which I see as inherent and necessary to art, if art wants to affect reality.
Stephen King says, in his Paris Review interview, words that I will put right into my own mouth: “I’ve always thought that the sort of book that I do—and I’ve got enough ego to think that every [author] should do this—should be a kind of personal assault.” The horror of a play like “The Doppelgängers” in Clockfire is that horror of the double, which produces a conceptual violence, since coming face to face with your double (even before he tries to kill you!) invalidates your concept of identity, does violence to that sense of individuality, of self.
Kafka’s work is an obvious influence on your poems – most obviously in “K. Enters the Castle.” Could you elaborate on how his work has influenced your book, and why you chose to give him such a prominent allusion?
I don’t think we’ve learned the lessons of Kafka. Kafka is more radical than most of us, but in quiet ways, the Statue of Liberty holds a sword in Amerika and it’s not even commented on, that’s just the world, and this single unexamined image says more than libraries of other books. A book like The Castle, even if it weren’t stunning on other levels, would be remarkable simply for how he uses commas, to drive sentences forward, as in this sentence and the preceding one, but more artfully, so that the world of The Castle only appears to the reader as K. notices or fails to notice its sudden arrival. The way Kafka uses commas in The Castle (upon reading the Harman translation, that restores his idiosyncratic style and ends the book mid-sentence, where he gave up) struck me as similar to how the camera in films will sometimes push forward to unfold the world in a slow and methodical manner, to both reveal a setting and imbue that setting with terror. In Kafka, power is omnipresent yet dormant, insistent on its nonexistence, and thereby immortal. I wanted at least one poem in the book that would address that godlike, yet secular and meaningless sense of unarticulated, always-impending violence.
To round things out, would you be able to offer a summary of your goals with this collection – what you want the reader to take away, or how you would like the text to be received?
I try not to think too much about those things. I keep my focus on the work. If you think too much about its reception, even the reception of a single reader, you lose that focus. Some writers say they have an ideal reader in mind when they work. I’m my own ideal reader. I want a book that interests me, that rewards my attention, that will reward a reader who spends as much time with it as the writer. I’m not sure who said it first, but to paraphrase somebody, I write the books I want to read but can’t find.
So far, my friend Saleema Nawaz has given me the best response to a book, to Clockfire. I launched the book in Montreal and she said something along the lines of “At home, alone, the book was frightening, but hearing you read, it’s funny.” I like to walk that line, so I guess I want readers to cross the line with me, and take the thing in from all angles.
I released all three of my books under Creative Commons licenses that allow other artists to remix the books, and relaxes controls for educators. I’m thrilled whenever I hear that people use the books in classrooms, and I love when other authors actually produce remixes. One student took Ex Machina and put in into a paint can and filled that with cement and dropped it into the ocean with a plaque reading, “This book will go on without you” (a paraphrase of the text). That’s my ideal reader. Ultimately, I want people to do things with the books, not just read them. I’m waiting to be invited to a Clockfire festival.