Friday, January 23, 2015

TtD supplement #17 : eight questions for Stan Rogal

Stan Rogal is going through late mid-life crisis in that he decided to adopt a dog while simultaneously knock out the back section of the house – this, in order to build an Art studio for/with his partner Jacquie – while at the same time work on a new manuscript. So far, plenty of dust and fur in the house, though few words on the page. A 12th collection of poems, after words, appeared from Guernica in the fall 2014, marking his 20th book.

Rogal has published two poetry chapbooks with above/ground press—In Search of the Emerald City (1997) and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (2004), as well as an issue of the long poem magazine STANZAS (#44, March 2006).

Three poems from the unpublished “Celebrity Rag” appear in the fourth issue of Touch the Donkey, with two more to follow in the seventh issue.

Q: Tell me about the manuscript “Celebrity Rag.”

A: I had this idea to write poems about celebrities and celebrity life that would incorporate the good, the bad and the ugly, especially around the issue of fame. I also wanted to mix in the literary/artistic types with the strictly no-talent “famous for being famous” types. I decided to use the long line in keeping with the theme of near exhaustiveness of subject matter. I hoped if the manuscript was published it would be in landscape/postcard form, again keeping with the cheap celebrity/tourist/fan idea. The poems are written in a Renga style, alternating three lines and two lines with one stanza building on the previous. I chose Renga because it implies a single, never-ending poem—a suitable metaphor for the celebrity complex—and ties in nicely with Jack Spicer’s dictum that poets write a single, long poem in their lifetimes.

As a stepping off point, I took the particular celebrity names and turned them into fractured homonyms and emcrypted them within the poems, ie: Leonard Cohen might become “lend her a coin” or Paris Hilton, “prayers are hell town.” Many of the homonyms became very fractured, almost unrecognizable, and I added various clues, such as works surrounding the celebrities, biographical details or sound bites and gossip from newspapers and magazines. In other words, an accumulation of fact, fiction and my own private philosophical take on things.

I decided to write six stanzas per page for sixty pages, providing a total 360, indicating I’d come full circle and a return to the theme of a (contained) infinity alongside the more common notions of running in circles chasing my tale and the overriding theme that when it comes to celebrities, nothing changes except the cast of characters, otherwise it’s same-old-same-old, whether Kim Kardashian or Mother Teresa, one day your face ends up recognized on a bagel and it’s sold to the highest bidder and stuck on a display shelf to collect dust until the next best thing comes along.

There’s probably more, but I think these are the key points.

Q: That’s an enormous amount of activity going on in these poems. Is this process of selecting a series of baffles for projects a normal part of your composition?

A: “Baffles” is a good word. Can be used as “to perplex” or else to constrain or contain materials, liquids or sounds. I’m not sure I want to be baffling so much as I’m always looking for ways to break the balls of logic and distance myself from the more common straight narrative lyric form. I don’t want to confuse the reader so much as I want the reader to be interested in the pieces themselves and get some joy from how they bounce off each other to produce something else. It’s not so much how the pieces fit together as how the reading produces an overall Gestalt, whether gut or intellectual reaction or both. Meaning, I want the excursion to be entertaining, even if not fully comprehended.  

I suppose I prefer the term “collage” to describe much of my work. I tend toward a theme and use it as a sort of coat rack upon which to hang things in a fashion I find aesthetically pleasing: mentally, visually and aurally (yes, I do work at changing the rhythms, tone, “voice” in my poems so there is a sense of musicality). And as I am a bit of an eclectic, the taste can run from the sublime to the ridiculous. In Sweet Betsy From Pike I began with the cutesy folk song of the title and infused it with issues of ecology and the paintings and theology of Breughel. Of course, there is always a mix of pop culture tossed in for good measure. Geometry of the Odd borrowed from Chaos Theory as well as Douglas F. Hofstaedter’s book, Goedel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid. The Imaginary Museum began with Mallarme’s notion that each of us has a museum in our heads where we store art that we love. I included books of symbolism and images/Art of the grotesque. The book launched in September, after words, is a tip of the hat to folks who have affected me and/or my work and range from C&W singers to artists to poets to philosophers to movie stars.

Also, I don’t necessarily know exactly what I’m going to use when I start out, it simply accumulates with the process. I don’t know if people might consider me a maximilist, I do know that I want each poem (even the smallest ones) to be a type of portmanteau that unpacks differently to everyone. I like the dictum of Frederich Nietzsche, who said he wanted his aphorisms to contain as much material as most writer’s novels. I don’t believe I ever reach that point, though I strive toward the goal.

Q: Your work very much exists in the book as your unit of composition. How did you start working this way? You mention Jack Spicer, for example. For the sake of difference, have you composed individual “occasionals,” poems that might not fit anywhere else?

A: Hm… It’s like the old chicken and egg question. In several cases, I didn’t know I was writing a complete book along a particular theme. What generally happens is that I write a poem—occasional or otherwise—and it often leads to another, then another and so on until I think, hey, this is looking like a collection. This is especially true if I’m working from a reference(s), as in the Chaos Theory poems.

In my book of poems, ( sub rosa ), Jacquie Jacobs sent me a photo of an art piece of hers and asked me to write a poem around it. I wrote one, then I thought—what if she hates it?—so I wrote a couple more using a similar theme and similar images, though altering enough to make them separate poems. She sent another photo which led to more poems. By the time we’d collaborated on a half dozen pictures with poems, the collection begged for completion.

Having said this, I don’t think I ever write a poem as a ‘stand alone’ piece. I’m always thinking about where to place it in a larger context, meaning, in published book form. Even when someone asks for a poem or there’s a magazine contest with a specific theme, I write it to also suit my current project. Let’s be honest, I never win contests, I rarely get grants, yet if I tough it out and apply to numerous publishers, I seem to have been lucky enough to finally see the poems collected in a book.

Q: After a dozen or so poetry collections, what development have you seen across your work? What do you think you have figured out, what are you working towards and where do you think your work is heading?

A: I believe I realized early on that I didn’t want to write the same poem the same way in the same voice for an entire manuscript. I find this boring to read personally and the last thing I wanted to do was bore myself and/or anyone else. What I did want was for all my poems to be identifiable and/or recognizable as the work of Stan Rogal. A theatre professor at SFU—Peter Feldman—always said to strive to find your own personal signature. In terms of development, I’ve tried to play with various forms and still maintain my particular (peculiar) identity. I’ve always been a scavenger and assembled poems as collage, including found lists, quotes, pop culture and trivia and so on. I’ve always included a few prose poems and made use of the dramatic voice, due to my theatre training, I suppose. In my latest collection, after words, there are several prose poems and a couple of dramatic monologues, so perhaps I’m expanding my idea of what a poem is or might be. I have another completed manuscript—which I signed a contract for to be published and the editor/owner suddenly went AWOL, so its future is uncertain—comprised of five long poems. So long, in fact, they each exceeded word counts for contests and I’ve had to submit edited versions. I wrote them simply to play with the long form and knew they would be difficult (if not impossible) to publish and was thrilled when a publisher said yes. Now, the manuscript languishes on the desktop.

Ah, the life of the poet...

I don't think I’ve figured out much beyond the obvious: poetry is slow, hard, painstaking work that generally goes unnoticed and unrewarded and it’s getting worse, not better. I was told by one of my publishers to submit something new to them, though not poetry, as they were cutting back their already slim output. I hear the same from other publishers. That said, it’s difficult to publish anything that even smacks of the literary these days and I notice many established so-called ‘literary’ magazines and presses publishing M-O-R, mediocre, easily digestible, trite and often badly written, long on plot, short on style and no discernible voice poems and prose. 

I’m unsure as to where my work is heading. I’m finishing off a couple of prose projects at the moment and I expect that if I attack the poetic form again it will be as a continuance of after words with more pieces of appreciation to those whose works and/or lives have affected me.

Q: A couple of years ago your Dance, Monster! Fifty Selected Poems (Insomniac Press, 2011), edited by Paul Vermeersch, appeared. What was the editing process like for the collection? Did you have any input, or was it a collaboration between you and the editor? Do you consider it to be an accurate portrait of your poetry up to that point, or was it aiming to be more of a ‘greatest hits’?

A: I was obviously thrilled to be approached by Paul to publish a Selected Works with Insomniac. To be asked/invited to submit with the promise of publication occurs so rarely that it’s difficult not to fall down on your knees and simply be grateful for whatever appears. As it was, Paul had threatened for years to publish such a fetish object and when he finally had the opportunity, he lived up to his word. Thanks Paul and Mike at Insomniac!

The process was pretty straight-forward. He asked me to make a list of favourite poems gleaned from my assorted collections, he would do the same and we’d see where there were intersections and separations. In fact, there were fewer intersections than we might have expected. I could see that Paul’s bent was toward similar sounding and formed poems that were more narrative and contemplative. For me, I wanted more variety in order to reflect the different uses of form and tone. There was much haggling as he didn’t really care for my noisier poems whereas I wanted to make sure there was at least a smattering, especially as I knew I’d be asked to perform live readings and always it's nice to provide a balance. In the end, we found a compromise which I believe accurately reflects certain aspects of my poetry oeuvre, if not the entirety.

I don’t think it was ever meant to be a favourite hits as there’s really nothing to judge by, so completely subjective. If I it to do again, I’m sure many of the poems would be replaced by others. I think the collection may have been served better if Paul, as editor, had added a preface wherein he described why he chose me and my work, and maybe offered insights into some of the specific poems. Or, had asked me to write something. I did such an exercise for my book of haiku, Love’s Not The Way To and you were kind enough to write a preface as well. I think it served to round out the collection and give it a context. Or maybe I should have simply re-titled it, Dance Monster! Fifty Shades of Grey.

Q: It’s true: I’m always complaining about selected poems that haven’t introductions, whether yours or the selected poems of Dennis Cooley and Monty Reid. At least you’re in good company. Given much of your work is book-length, weren’t you worried about the ability of certain poems to live on their own?

A: I wasn’t too worried about this since I always write the poems as stand-alone, though perhaps becoming more...what? Approachable? Vibrant? Re-readable? My hope is that, within a collection, the individual poems resonate one to another. Also, I liked the fact that the Selected was divided by the titles of the individual books and each title contained several poems, so it gave a small taste of the whole.

Q: Who are you reading recently that have had an impact on your work? You’ve mentioned Spicer and others as poets who helped you early on, and that you continue to return to, but what other writers have come up more recently?

A: I read that 90% of all language development occurs by age five, after which we progress in small increments. I would hazard this is the way with my development as a poet. I discovered mentors early on—generally tragic figures, suicides and fuck-ups—who left their imprint and now it takes a stick of TNT for even a minor shift to occur. Marjorie Welish was a later influence. Her intelligence and precision. Judith Fitzgerald for her rawness and precision. Don McKay for his juxtaposition of the pastoral with the demotic. Other poets I enjoy, though I don’t find their work so much impacts my own as complements it somehow: Steve Venright for his quirky humour and twist of phrase. Stuart Ross for his surrealist humour and playfulness. I appreciate and enjoy your excursions in the Open Field, though I don’t feel compelled to try my hand at it. In terms of literary exercises, Greg Betts’ take on the Shakesperian Sonnet, The Others Raisd In Me, was fun. Christian Bok’s Eunoia was clever, visceral and funny and I enjoyed the Dadaist form and the conceit of Ubu Roi. Whereas similar work by someone like Anne Carson bores me to tears and comes across as academic posturing, dead and plodding and mired in Antiquity.

Otherwise, I scan the magazines sent to me and if something strikes me immediately, I read it, if not, I move on. As I mentioned, I’m working on some prose projects right now and mainly reading Don DeLillo and Roberto Bolano, both excellent storytellers and stylists.

Q: I suspect you’re already picking at the manuscript that follows “Celebrity Rag.” What are you working on currently, and how does it fit in with everything that has come before? Do you really feel that you are writing a single, “life long” poem?

A: The last poem I wrote was lifted from one of my long poems in Howl Down the Moon and re-worked to be used as my disclaimer before live readings. This poem was then included in the recent after words book. The poem was dedicated to William S. Burroughs, in time for the 100th anniversary of his birth. You see how it all comes together in one continuous line derived from my particular consciousness and all reflective of my basic metaphysical existential themes: the nature of reality, the nature of identity, the dichotomies of good/evil, truth/falsehood, life/death, is language an adequate vehicle for communication or is it true that we convey more with nonsense sounds, body tics and silences than the actual words, is there a Dog, and so on.

Al Moritz once described my poetry as “stream-of-consciousness” which it can seem like, though isn’t. Everything is placed in a certain order and for a purpose. In fact, I believe that most people exist with numerous conversations going on in their heads—juggling career, family, friends, holiday plans, shopping lists, dreams, pet peeves, affairs with co-workers—and it’s rare for anyone stick to a straight narrative except for short periods of time. I try to mirror this in my poetry. Straight narrative proves to be more fiction than fact and is the stuff of most movies and novels—a rare exception being Ken Sparling’s lovely odd novel Book—and people seek these for the precise reason that they crave some order in their otherwise chaotic lives and thought processes.

In this way, yes, I do believe I’m writing a single, life-long poem, maybe broken into segments. Allan Briesmaster commented that all my books are different, yet they are all recognizable as works by Stan Rogal, which I appreciated, since it's something I strive to attain.

As I mentioned previously, I’m not working on any poems at the moment—still feeling a bit burned about the AWOL publisher—and if I do, it’ll probably be a continuation of the after words pieces, knowing I still have a lot of people to thank.

Currently I’m trying to complete a novel. It’s meant to be my vitriolic response to all those ‘growing up Mennonite on the Prairies/mother dying of cancer’ sentimental stories that generally grab all the media attention, grant money and awards in this country.

Bitter? Maybe a bit. Perhaps I should try to sweeten my lonely crust of bread with a little mayonnaise…?

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