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.


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.

My Proposal for SCP-001 (at the SCP Wiki)

Some time back, Christian Bök introduced me to the SCP Wiki, a collection of imaginative “Special Containment Procedures” that can be likened to a crowd-sourced archive-book. In the words of the site:

SCP artifacts pose a significant threat to global security. Various agencies from around the world operate to maintain human independence from extra-terrestrial, extra-dimensional, and extra-universal threat. In the past humankind has been at the whim of these bizarre artifacts and similar phenomena, but we have now reached a point in history where we can begin to control and contain these defiances of natural law.

I quickly devoured the site, and then developed this idea for SCP-001. You can discuss it and vote for or against it at the SCP Wiki, and also check out the other proposals for SCP-001.

Derek Beaulieu voted “for” this by releasing it as a chapbook/broadsheet through No Press. I have a few left if you want one.

Item#: SCP-001

Object Class: Keter

Special Containment Procedures: To date, no adequate containment procedure has been developed to deal with the possible threat posed by SCP-001. This is due, in part, to the controversial nature of the item and debates concerning the necessity of its containment. This controversy is reflected in the item’s changing object class and varying procedures utilized in its containment. The current administration, despite charges of paranoia, has classed the object Keter, while requesting permission for a higher object class to be created and applied uniquely to this item, considering it to be the most dangerous of all known or possible items.

At the current time, SCP-001 is located in a code-locked briefcase fashioned of lead alloy and reinforced with titanium. The room and briefcase are monitored at all times by security cameras. The briefcase cannot be opened without unanimous special clearance from all current O5 officers. The briefcase itself is stored in a small, fully lighted, single-room building erected in ███ ██████ ██████. Class D personnel are posted to guard the room but may not enter without the aforementioned agreement from the O5 officers, under threat of military execution. This off-site building exists for the sole purpose of housing SCP-001 and is wired for detonation in an emergency situation.

It is the opinion of the current administration that SCP-001 represents the greatest known threat to national and global security. Nevertheless, due to special circumstances regarding its mode of function, further research on the item is disallowed, despite encouragement of same in the past, when SCP-001 was contained in minimum security conditions.

Description: SCP-001 is a simple sheaf of papers, stapled together in the top-left corner. The top paper is a covering sheet reading simply, “Confidential Report on Special Items—Classified.” The number of subsequent papers stapled to this covering sheet is indeterminate, and has ranged from three to thirty. The report is unsigned and its origin is unknown.

The first appearance of this report was on ███████ █, ████, when it appeared on the desk of ████████ █████ (deceased). The report at that time described “The ‘Living’ Room” (SCP-002). Shortly after reading the report with incredulity, ████████ █████ was contacted by phone regarding said item. The next time ████████ █████ perused SCP-001, it described not “The ‘Living’ Room” but “Biological Motherboard” (SCP-003). ████████ █████ immediately closed SCP-001, thinking it was a different report, and searched for the original report on SCP-002. Not finding it, he again opened SCP-001, and this time it described not SCP-003 but “The 12 Rusty Keys and the Door” (SCP-004). ████████ █████ closed the report once more and opened it immediately, to read of “Skeleton Key” (SCP-005). It is not known what the next actions of ████████ █████ might have been. At varying times following this incident, the aforementioned items were discovered.

Insufficient research exists concerning the correlation between SCP-001 and all other known items. However, it has been established that every event regarding the discovery of a new SCP item has followed a report on that same item appearing beneath the cover sheet of SCP-001. The current administration regards this coincidence as proof of causal connection.

Additional Notes: Whether SCP-001 is to be regarded as an advance-warning system or whether SCP-001 itself is to be regarded as the creator of the items requiring special containment remains to be seen. However, the distinction is unimportant in the eyes of the current administration. The fact remains: no new SCP items appear unless SCP-001 is opened and read. It is for this reason that the current administration refuses to repeat the mistakes of the past, mistakes that have resulted in over 1000 SCP items coming to the knowledge of the SCP unit.

Arguments concerning the non-lethality of SCP-001 itself, its theoretically beneficial use as an SCP warning system, or its use as a progenitor of advanced biological and non-biological weapons have not swayed the current administration. Nor have arguments criticizing the extreme containment procedures employed in respect to an item that displays no nefarious qualities and is not animate as such. Critics are reminded that these procedures are intended not to contain the item itself, but to isolate it from human interaction, which is to be regarded as the true threat.

Although the current administration refuses to remove the object from isolation barring special authorization as noted above, past administrations have counseled daily consultation with the item, and future administrations will no doubt counsel similar behavior. Nevertheless, it is the opinion of the current administration that, barring the destruction of SCP-001, which is not currently possible for political reasons, it is to be contained until such a time when responsibility for its containment falls upon future administrations.