Jason Christie is the author of i Robot, Canada Post, and Unknown Actor. His chapbook, Government, published by above/ground press, was shortlisted for the 2014 bpNichol Chapbook Award. Jason lives in Ottawa with his wife and their one-year old son. He is the author of two other chapbooks with above/ground press: 8th Ave 15th St NW. (2004) and Cursed Objects (2014).
His poems “History of bones,” “Ejecta flora fauna” and “As seen in a book of poetry about TV” appear in the sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “History of bones,” “Ejecta flora fauna” and “As seen in a book of poetry about TV.”
A: The poems are from a new manuscript of poetry about objects.
“History of bones” is from a section called “GOVERNMENT” in which I play with the myth of Jason and The Argonauts as it was depicted in the 1963 movie featuring the animation work of Ray Harryhausen. It all began with the memory of the scene in which Jason fights the skeleton army. I’ve been fascinated/haunted by that scene ever since seeing it as a kid. Now it strikes me as a great critique of a potential leader of the people and the polis. “History of bones” captures that feeling of throwing words at a problem, like skeletons raised to fight without any idea which side they are supporting. History is made from their bones.
In “Ejecta flora fauna,” from a section of the manuscript called “The Follies,” I situate language into an unstable geography and instead of reeling from the instability, the shifts and pulses set language to ringing. I'm hoping there is uncertainty in the poem which doesn’t come across as full of anxiety, instead I hope the uncertainty suggests that flux and slippage are normal and natural processes, contrasted against stasis and rigidity as unnatural. angela rawlings once said to me that every time we try to freeze language, or capture it, it dances away, amorphous and whimsical. That insight has guided much of my writing and reading over the years.
With “As seen in a book of poetry about TV,” from a section of the manuscript called “Money Won’t Change Me,” I try to capture that headlong descent I’ve experienced late at night while deep-diving through television channels or clicking through websites. The commercials and ads slip and slide and sum up to an advertisement for a certain way of life. That’s probably why they can’t be aired during the day! They reveal too much about our lives. Ersatz, empty, desperate marketing, words hurled at a tired, haunted audience. This is my poem for critiquing my need to write poems and foist them upon my friends. It ends witch a take on how social media encourages us to divest of ourselves to entertain others and gives us nothing in return. It’s the worst job we’ve ever had!
Q: What is it about poetry that allows you such permission to explore, critique and argue? How did poetry, for you, become such an important critical device?
A: I try to foreground an experience of openness when writing poems. The movement of my mind through whatever I’m thinking echoes from a basal experience of language as sensation: visual, with how the words and letters look on the page; aural, with the sounds as the phonemes ricochet around in my mind. That kind of openness extends through the act of writing to engage with whatever I’m trying to apprehend; the attitude of openness requires exploration, but that word doesn’t quite feel right to me.
Exploration, critique and argument all carry a strong sense of self into confrontation with the unknown, the other, the challenge to master it, whereas I am very much not interested in approaching otherness with a compass, or rigorous argument. As a result of my desire to resist that manner of thinking, I find I try to subvert my ego or place boulders into my own path. Humour works in this way, to deflate my sense of self-importance, also contradiction and tangential meandering as soon as I realize I’ve dropped into lockstep mode, digressing into a love poem or focusing entirely on the sounds instead of the accumulation of sense. Of course, this all speaks to something I attempt to do, but the ego is a powerful force.
Using poems to sound the world around me was something that I did without even realizing it when I was younger. Poems were a tool to work through difficult thoughts or emotions, to try on different ideas. The characteristic of poems being flexible, concise and portable meant they could accompany me through all manner of experiences in my life without taking up too much room. I could write them on the go, while at work, while cooking dinner or in the bath. In that sense, poems became, a means of drawing a temporary boundary around a group of things in order to think about them, a semi-permeable container. Now the act of writing poetry is as much a part of my life as sleeping or eating. Not that it is as vital, but it is as pervasive. I’m always thinking about it in some way, or being open to it. I would also like to say that poems can offer a means of engaging with the world that doesn’t seem as thorough or demanding as prose (articles, stories, etc.). Poems don’t incur the same debt to faithfully reproduce a reality, they don’t necessarily depend upon that faculty for their sustenance, they can dwell more in the ephemeral, in the minutiae. A poem lets a vent into the whole pressure cooker and then bounces away on a pale horse.
In a lot of my new poems the rigidity of the form they take strains against the exuberance of the language within them, a tension which relates to the status of the object, everywhere bounded by its properties. I'm fascinated by objects and how we invest some with significance and then act with complete disdain or indifference toward others. There’s a kind of music I’ve been listening to a lot lately that operates this way on the sounds around us. Artists like Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), James Ferraro and Holly Herndon come to mind, but there are many others. They make music out of the accumulation of noise we experience online or in the background of our lives. So, clicks, beeps, soft chords and chimes, it all adds up to sounding like elevator music or smooth jazz played through a digital blender with your browser history thrown in. The noise of everyday life, the sonic objects, become the stuff of music. I hope I'm accomplishing something similar with everyday words and sounds in my poems, that the poems feel immediately familiar and yet they shift you just a bit into unease.
Q: Given you’ve produced some half-dozen or more books and chapbooks over the past decade-plus, as well as this current work-in-progress, how do you feel this engagement has developed? What do you feel you might be working toward?
A: I think I am constantly trying for a respectful understanding of otherness. I am trying to approach otherness without the violence of locating it (an impossible task, but worth keeping in the foreground of effort), thinking about otherness as in sharing proximity rather than a thinking comprised of otherness to reduce it to familiarity. I’m writing toward not taking myself too seriously and failing! I’m writing toward returning to kindness and gentleness as a tonic for authority and mastery. I’m not really writing toward anything. My friend, Jordan Scott, recently said that he thought of my writing as a lifelong pursuit, so I guess it'll all make sense at the end!
Q: What is, or at least has been so far, your normal process of putting together a manuscript?
A: I don’t know that I have a normal process, but putting together a manuscript usually starts with a lot of messy, awful poems (and sometimes never gets past that state). In the case of my current manuscript, I started with what I thought were three distinct books. I was working away on each of them and then noticed a lot of agreement and discussion between the poems in each of them. I threw the poems into one huge file and then pulled poems out until I was pleased with what was left. Now the manuscript is in four sections, one of which features the poems from GOVERNMENT, the chapbook you published through above/ground which is shortlisted for the bpNichol chapbook award, and another section is called Cursed Objects, the poems of which comprise a chapbook you recently accepted for above/ground. The other two sections are “The Follies” and “Money Won’t Change Me.” Poems from each section have been published in Poetry is Dead, and online at N/A Literary Journal.
In terms of the process of pulling together my other manuscripts, Canada Post arose from the ashes of my MA Thesis which I wrote under the guidance of Nicole Markotić. So that process was heavily involved with my research at the time and the pace of an institution.
i ROBOT started as a bunch of poems in Canada Post. Their tone and humour just didn't fit with the rest of the manuscript. I was reading some of them at the launch for the Post-Prairie Anthology from Talon, where I was approached by the publisher of Tesseract/Edge Speculative Fiction, Brian Hades, because he wanted to publish them. It was a dream come true! I cobbled them all together and then found I couldn’t stop writing them. The poems came almost effortlessly, wholly formed and required only minimal editing. I’ve never felt so much joy and satisfaction with writing as I did when working on that book.
Unknown Actor started as a book length poem which I then pulled apart and ground down over about five years. That was also a case of starting with a lot of material and then writing through it over and over and editing a lot. At first I thought it would be a whole bunch of numbered bits in a long serial poem, but it never really felt right. Sachiko Murakami helped me whittle away the dead ends until I could clearly see the material with which we were working. She also returned to me a focus upon kindness which I had misplaced.
Q: You seem to compose poems as groups or suites, whether as book sections or entire manuscripts. Jack Spicer once commented that poems can live alone no better than we can. Do you see your poetry in terms of grouping, or are you initially composing individual poems that end up in conversation?
A: Lately, I am writing poems in clusters more than individual poems. I’ve got a long-running daily poem that is accumulating bits when I remember to add to it in the mornings. I like the idea of poems that exist in a section of a book, but reach beyond to poems in other sections, or even other books. I often reuse titles, or images, or lines in that manner, like a hand extended. I once wrote a book’s worth of poems called Good Day in which each poem was also called Good Day. It was about the war that was starting up in Iraq. I have no idea where it is now.
Q: How close do you feel the current work-in-progress is to completion, and what might be coming next?
A: I think the current work-in-progress is nearly finished. I’m editing now. In terms of what’s next, I’m not too sure. I am writing some poems with my friend, Jake. I am slowly pulling together another batch of noise pieces to follow up some that I made while in Banff at the Leighton Artists’ Colony.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: There are a few books that I keep within grasping range: Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T, Michael deBeyer’s A Rural Night Catalogue, Ted Berrigan’s collected, H.D.’s collected, Michael Palmer’s Notes for Echo Lake, Robert Creeley’s collected, Jack Spicer’s collected, Erin Mouré’s Furious, Ring of Bone by Lew Welch. More recently, I’ve found Joseph Massey’s three books a potent way to get the kiln firing. I have a poem by John Barlow in a frame on my desk that I read often. I take Jake Kennedy’s Apollinaire’s Speech to the War Medic with me whenever I’m away from home.