Chris Turnbull lives in Kemptville, Ontario. In 2010, above/ground press published a chapbook of her visual and multi-performative piece, continua, with the full-length version scheduled to appear with Chaudiere Books in 2015. Thuja Press published her chapbook Shingles in 2001. Her poetry has been published in Stroboscope, Spiral Orb, parenthetical, Nerve Lantern, The Volta, ottawater, Convergences, How2, ditch, Dusie, Dandelion, and experiment-o (Angelhouse Press), among others. Occasionally, she has written poetry reviews and interviews, as well as the “On Writing” essay series at the ottawa poetry newsletter. Her sometimes small press mag, rout/e, has more recently become an ongoing footpress project involving placing poems on trails (http://scalar.usc.edu/works/stroboscope-magazine/issue-1).
Her piece, “marsh effect,” appears in the fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: I’m fascinated in the short email, possibly written quickly (as emails often are), that you included with your submission: “It’s actually also going to be in cube form, so off the paper – just building it. You’ll see that the base ‘layer’ is the piece I submitted to The Volta – so building on the quadrant idea, in a way. The cube image is going to be part of the stroboscope submission, but the disparity between the built and the paper-dimension is interesting. I haven’t submitted the paper version anywhere, and the cube image will only be from one perspective, leaving the other views suspended.” You have a very clear sense of design and image in your work, one I haven’t seen in too many others; what is it about the three-dimensional aspect of composing visual and concrete poems that appeals?
A: Making the marsh piece three dimensional – as a cube – is a way to move off the page – both in the writing and in the eye-ing/reading. I wanted to work with space, not only create a page by writing on surface. I’m interested in the spaces not defined by the words, the poem, the page, as such, but also the existence of space(s) without the words. While I do have to print the marsh sequence (on transparency), I’m using plexiglass and mirrors to maximize depth, transparency and reflection/refraction. Where I put the mirrors can create other geometrical shapes within the cube itself and also change the appearance of forms outside the cube. I’m curious about what gets eyed, what gets read, what gets avoided (and can’t be avoided).
I’m very careful about certain elements of design in composing and constructing – making the cube requires measurement, cutting, precision, gluing, etc. with physical objects. I have to learn the materials and I make mistakes. I talk to fabricators, Chris at the hardware store, other folks who know about solvents and glues. The guy at the glass shop lends me solvent to try. Making the cube is also highly collaborative as I benefit from the expertise of others and learn the right types of questions to ask. It is essential to the making of the cube that this occurs. I don’t necessarily know how to make what I’m imagining – but I can move toward it by asking and trying. The scraps, scratches, pieces are still there, and so I start again, revisioning, reforming/shaping. I keep the mistakes. They’re physical. I’ve always felt that mistakes are important. It’s good to keep them, or put them aside and come back to them at another time. They’re opportunities and also elemental to design.
And yet, the marsh sequence (as a temporary title) is also an accrued piece that does sit on a page, in paper form. I made it in sequences; each serving as a poem on its own but also, when stacked, a visual cacophony of sorts. I wonder where the eyes fall, could get lost. Of course, with the page, the eyes tend to fasten, anchor, to the words. Stacking the poems slows the process of reading – very much as one might observe a marsh and only be able to really see surfaces. If to read the poem out loud ~
Cubing the poem in a material, three-dimensional way offers the opening of surfaces and the movement of spaces. It also suggests that viewing/reading (and this occurs on the page too) engenders avoidance. The eye doesn’t always want to let go or move, seek. The cube moves.
I tend toward things tactile and kinetic and have been moving toward a ‘built’ poetry, and thinking about it, for quite some time. Looking back, I can see that certain directions I’ve been following, or approaches I’ve taken, have a pattern. For the past few years, I haven’t really had the sort of time, or energy, in a way, that I needed to commit to what is essentially sculptured or installation forms. It takes time to construct the cubes, for example, to think them through. Tanagrams I made in Judy, years ago now, are an early indicator of this direction. Interest in kites as art and functional objects, such as through Istvan Bodocsky or Curt Asker, for example are another. continua (which will be published by Chaudiere Books in 2015) is a version of built poetry in that it is paged but also, in its multi-voice, theatrical possibilities, also aims to be off the page. The footpress, rout/e (wp.me/p4HYkz-1U), whereby poems by others are placed on trails, is also a different foray into this - a sort of stretching of page, a paralleling of page with what’s in the environment, like the woods, where the page doesn’t necessarily at first fit, stuck in the ground, there.
Q: Through all of this work, I’m curious how your installation pieces still have a strong connection to text, specifically poetry. Do you see your installation pieces as works of poetry? What is it about poetry that holds your attention?
A: Not sure how you mean here. The short answer is yes, I do see the installation pieces as works of poetry. I also see them as installation pieces. I don’t think they have to be exclusively one or the other, but then again, I also think it’s not just up to me –
There is something in the forming of the poetry that is consistent with the forming of the cube – not technique exactly, but the process of thinking, the kinetics of making, the filtering that occurs when viewing. The cube adds dimension that can’t be accessed only by page (as physical structure). Conceptually, sure, dimension can be reached – lots of examples of that – by reading poetry, by making leaps…but not physically.
I fail words. That holds my attention. I think, too, I’m interested in the interaction between the poetry, the language, and its effect – in place, personally, in relation to other things. Translation. And poetry is fun – writing can be enormously difficult and a pleasure. Finding poetry or poetic language or forms and recognizing something in them, an affinity of some sort of another, or a way of accessing something deeper or enjoying elements of what the poem is – it has its own sort of expansion.
Q: You mentioned Judy earlier. I know you became involved with an informal association of Vancouver writers during your time at university, some of which was displayed through various issues of TADS, including George Bowering, Jamie Reid, Wayde Compton, Reg Johanson, Jason Le Heup, Aaron Vidaver and Dorothy Trujillo Lusk. What do you think these associations taught you, and how much of it carries through into your current work?
A: Well, first, they became friends, though not all at once, through readings and cross associations. TADs was one venue for an informal collection of writing, but there were many inter-crossings through KSW events, Thuja, Western Front, Aaron, Roger Farr, and Steven Ward had a couple of reading/conversation series, etc. The friendships were engaging and intense in a good way. I think I met Dorothy once, briefly, at one of her readings – it was close to when I was leaving for Ottawa.
One of the things I appreciate about all of the writers you mention is that they’re very committed – to literature, to political or social or artistic stances, to the community they engage with and live in. They open things up and question status quo. I value that and respect them for it.
Like most friendships, you get a good cross-section of influencing factors which are also nebulous, traces. Friendships and conversations open up possibilities – I like to think in possibilities – I certainly learned about new writers, listened to very challenging writing, read writing that was problematic, or difficult, or edgy. I enjoyed it all. But while some of us hung out at the pub, and there was TADS, we all also did our own things – had other friendships, pursued other interests, worked independently. So, in its way, influence is never really a direct thing – it’s sifted through personal experiences and inclinations. Gerry Gilbert and I would meet at the Grind on Main in the early a.m. hours because of shift work I had at the Vancouver airport and nobody else would be awake. We’d met at a KSW reading and we both cycled. We became friends. I met Phyllis Webb through my undergraduate work; I am very grateful to her – she’s a very concise, intelligent, artistic, woman. Jamie and Carol Reid fostered an interest in the nexuses between art, music, and writing. Renee Rodin became a friend. Some of us met with Aaron Vidaver, Steven Ward, and Roger Farr of informal literary and socio-political conversations. I often think it’s not really how folks influence you in the moment, but how, later, things re-emerge, mix with other experiences, maybe make more sense or reform into a precise thought or a pattern of clarity...without a clear path back to a starting point, necessarily. Some of the writing I’m doing now most certainly does return, in a way, to things I started thinking about when I lived in Vancouver, and when I was travelling, but have percolated, and mixed, with other experiences, other writings, other directions.
Q: You also recently mentioned an association with and an influence via Phyllis Webb – what do you think you learned from the work of Phyllis Webb?
A: I did my honours thesis on Phyllis’ work, specifically looking at it through the practice of collage. I used to camp and cycle on Saltspring; I visited her there toward the end of the thesis work. She has a very penetrating mind and a way of looking at a subject intensely that I appreciated. And she’s multidisciplinary in practice. I learned about spacing from Phyllis’ writing, the visual impact a page can have – perhaps a better way to put it would be to say I learned how to apply things I observe or “see” – such as space, holes, lacunae – tangibly in my writing. She was generous in her support – as were George Bowering, Jamie Reid, etc. She is a more natural mentor for me, had a sort of knowledge and experience that fascinated me. She influenced me as a person; I was drawn to her writing and artwork.
What I was trying to get at in the earlier question was that the period in Vancouver wasn’t static. I would say that I immersed myself in many directions – Gene Bridwell at the Special Collections at SFU was a mentor in terms of fostering an interest in small press and leading me gently in directions he thought I might be interested in. George Bowering indirectly (in the ways of his) opened avenues of direction without pressures to pursue them. Jamie Reid and Carol also. The kite maker Istvan Bodoscky in Budapest, whom I met while living there, also was influential in terms of space and movement (and I’ve always loved kites). Heather Hermant, whom I also met in Budapest, and I hung out and went to different plays, music, and experimental events. I went to Budapest for some very specific reasons, one of which was the art scene. I walked in different parts of England. Hung out in Prague. Took milk run buses whenever I could and plonked myself into different spaces and landscapes. Affinities. Gael Turnbull, in Edinburgh, introduced me to kinetic writing and physical objects – again, these were interests I had but I was lucky enough to meet people who were creating things and sparking thinking...Daniel Van Klei, who is an artist, and Oliver Rathyoni Reusz, who is a photographer, both long time friends from Vancouver, have also done this – we just did a collaboration for a marsh sequence, a tangential collaboration. Jason Le Heup and I often tossed ideas back and forth, crazy things, stretching and testing boundaries. I love how his mind works. And his and Chris Walker’s Judy, with its constraints, rules, etc. was a fantastic project, inane and irreverant and deeply fun. I was involved in other things, too, life things, other friends outside the writing community, hiking, cycling, camping, travel – all of these impact the writing I do now.
Q: How have your associations and influences shifted since moving east to Ontario? I know you originally headed to Ottawa for the sake of studying at Carleton University, but have remained, and become part of a loose community of writers in and around the city as well. Has anything changed in the way to approach your work since arriving east?
A: Ottawa has a very generous and diverse writerly community; it’s quite inclusive and friendly. This isn’t a comparison, more an observation. I moved from Ottawa after my thesis work and moved to Smiths Falls, and from there, am still not in Ottawa, but living in Kemptville. I mention this because I had moved out of the writing community, for the most part, for awhile – attended things more occasionally and was very peripherally ‘around’ through invites to read now and again – partially because I let the more public expression of poetry to take a background to my work, community based activities and relationships, interests environmental. I’ve never been particularly comfortable in a public, performative space. I think I published a rout/e issue or two, and some poems under hawkweed press, but I needed some distance, perhaps – writing, of course, but really taking time and thinking, reconsidering, reframing. I knew I wanted something more from writing and took some time to sift through what that meant, how to continue. continua took a long time partially because of that – I was waiting it out, so to speak. Folks like yourself, or Max Middle, jw curry, Amanda Earl, Stephen Brockwell, among others, Ottawa based folks, are consistently supportive, and it’s appreciated – that’s part of what I mean by generosity – a person can slip in and out of the ‘community.’ I wouldn’t say my associations or influences have shifted, exactly, but circumstances changed after thesis work here. The outdoors influences my writing – the landscape here – the marshes, concession roads, trails, the remnants of things has influenced me in a different way than it did when I lived out West or when I travel. I approach writing now, because of circumstances, with a different sense of time than I used to – while I’ve always written somewhat on the fly (in between things, on buses, walking, etc.), now it’s intensified by the activities of our son. And I do think about what I write and how I write and consider how I’d like him to know that writing, poetry, language, space is more than just naming something or metering it out in iambic pentameter, that it’s difficult, that it can be kinetic, that words have power and that they can defuse, carry trauma, be inordinately hilarious. And that writing is not done in a vacuum. At the moment, he’s seeing this in the way plexiglass gets broken on the edge of a table. Not sure how he’s interpreting that... I think coming out east, living in a small town again, has given me a sense of projection and absence that belongs wholly to my experiences here. Reconsideration of forms is a continuation – probably part of how my mind works. That period of quiescence was essential to what I’m able to see and work toward now.
Q: I’m curious about what you might be working on now – you seem very much to work on larger projects, as opposed to a scattering of smaller, individual works. What is your normal compositional process? Is it a collection of scattered pieces that slowly evolve into something larger, or do you work on “projects” from the very beginning?
A: I use notebooks and record ideas, fragments of words & poems, bits of bits that I’ve read, draw diagrams. I don’t record in linear fashion; I just open the notebook. Each time I do that, I come across something I’ve written or noted or drawn or read previously, in whatever order I find it. Sometimes it takes awhile to flip through a notebook to find an empty page, and sometimes I don’t use an empty page. I re-find things, refine them, over time. It’s how I organize my thinking – the bits sit and percolate, iterate, and connections develop, things I pursue further in some form or another. Language is material, for me. It has weight, it bears load, it has depth and dimension. It can be composed or constructed from and into a variety of states. I’d say I do work on, develop, consider writing as a project form that can incorporate a variety of other elements; I’d also say that I work well with scattered pieces that may work toward something larger, that change over time. What I write or make can intersect or interact. My compositional process involves a lot of trying – I don’t mind changing my mind as I work – there is effect, intent, form, design, possibility, difficulty, mistakes.
As mentioned, I’m working on the first part of a collaboration with angela rawlings on a cube sequence. It started as a paper based cube series (one layer was in The Volta in 2013) which I worked on over time and made into a stacked plexiglass prototype. I wanted to see what would happen if I made plexiglass cubes – I wanted a high amount of transparency and layering that I could not get on paper; I wanted the depth of the cube. I added some mirrors for refraction and placed the entire piece outside to elaborate on space and movement. The piece in Touch the Donkey is the paper version. I’d been thinking for awhile, alongside this, about collaborating – creating more cubes with work by others – and asked angela if she’d like to participate. Following this, I have another plexiglass series I’ve been thinking about and am letting sit until the logistics are clearer and I have some time to develop it in the way I want. Background thinking. I’ve an outdoor monster series that I worked on this summer from my notebook, and will continue into the fall. Some of it informs an ms-ish piece. There are some things with continua I want to do. rout/e, the footpress project, will have another series of poems in collaboration with Petrie Island (http://www.petrieisland.org/). Lately, I’ve been involved with the work of Agnes Martin, and the work of Octavio Armand, among others, fumbling in Spanish while working in plexiglass, measurement, acetate, and angles.
Should also say I’ve a most-ms of short prose and poetry that is sitting while I think about if I’m done with it. I may just toss it.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I read a lot of different things as a matter of course – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, policy, scientific things. I read a lot of writing in translation. I enjoy short stories that require leaps or are inane or are complicated. What energizes me is the outdoors, exploration, visual symmetries/asymmetries. I return to books somewhat in the same way I use my notebook – looking for something else on my bookshelf, I recross someone’s writing. The best way for me to answer that question of particular books I return to would be for me to give away my books and see which ones I have left to the last. I’ve had to delete my list of particular touchstones, because that list leads to another list, which leads to another…like anyone, I think.