Shannon Maguire’s second collection of poetry, Myrmurs, appeared from BookThug in October 2015. Her first collection, fur(l) parachute (BookThug), was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She was a finalist for the Manitoba Magazine Awards in the category of Best Suite of Poems and the bpNichol Chapbook Award for her chapbook Fruit Machine (Ferno House) and her work has appeared in The Best American Experimental Writing of 2014 (OmniDawn), among other places. Other chapbooks include A Web of Holes and Vowel Wolves and Other Knots (above/ground). She collaborates in experimental translation with Finnish poet Vappu Kannas and a chapbook of their recent work, As an Eel Through the Body (One Night Stand), is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in winter 2016.
Her poems “She Insists,” “Swailing 0.005: Expo,” “Heartfreak: Surrealist Invocation,” “Timing, Again” and “On Discovery Walks You Will Engineer Minstrel,” from the work-in-progress “Zip’s File,” appear in the seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “She Insists,” “Swailing 0.005: Expo,” “Heartfreak: Surrealist Invocation,” “Timing, Again” and “On Discovery Walks You Will Engineer Minstrel.”
A: I’ve been gradually working on the third book of my “medievalist trilogy”—right now I’m calling it Zip’s File: Post-Silence. The title changes periodically as I work. That’s where the poems that you’re reading here come from (except “On Discovery Walk,” which I’ll say more about below), and before discussing them, I feel I should say something about the books that precede it, fur(l) parachute and Myrmurs, because all three “projects” tease out different aspects of a larger question that I’m posing, which is something like: How has Western culture influenced (and limited) the literary, cultural, sexual, and political bodies that we’re living inside now and what role did/does the English language play in transmitting, producing, circulating, and maintaining gender, racial, and sexual difference? And how does change come about, linguistically, socially? Since (dammit Jim) I’m a poet and not a social linguist, my research has to be conducted and reported in poetic form... whatever that is!
In fur(l) parachute, I had to confront the substantial problem of writing from a queer orientation to the world, several thousand years into a culture that has very little love or understanding of my position, and in a language that is saturated with literary works that erase my ways of knowing and being in the world. In poetry, it is possible to demonstrate alternate alignments and to break with lines. So, in fur(l) parachute (BookThug 2013), I mined the English language in its earliest form for evidence of women’s lives and bonds. I chose the 19 line poetic fragment “Wulf and Eadwacer” as a source text for several reasons: because it was grammatically inflected as a woman’s monologue (or lament); because it was odd in that it employed a refrain, not to mention a female speaking voice; because of its haunting ambiguity and the fact that it straddles the elegies and the riddles in the manuscript that it was preserved in; and finally because of the human-animal (werewolf) relations. There’s a lot of academic writing on the difficulty of pinpointing what the heck is going on in the poem—does the speaker actually bear the child of a werewolf, or just a human outlaw? Is “Eadwacer” a watchman or a jealous husband? Does the child live or die?—so of course, I was interested in exposing and playing with the latent linguistic and narrative aspects. Since it was my first book, though, I was having a bit of trouble inserting my queer female speaking voice into a poetic tradition that would rather I be an object of language rather than a subject of it. Although the fragment I was working with has a strong lyric quality to it, this poetic option was barred for me, since in my subject-position I am a literary pirate (much like Wulf) rather than an Authorizer. Each poem in the book takes some aspect of the “original” (remember, it comes to us in a manuscript that was transcribed, presumably from an earlier oral tradition) and extrapolated from there to a later period in language and global relations.
bpNichol’s statement (borrowed from Ludwig Wittgenstein and modified) “word order equals world order” is tremendous because it emphasizes the practice based/ processual effects of object-relations. So, modern English is a Subject-Verb-Object language, where the subject is grammatically assumed to have agency and the object is grammatically assumed to be passive. We make it “easy” to tell who is doing and who is being acted upon because it’s built into the spacial dimension of our sentences: they start with the actor and end with the...patient. But Anglo Saxon or Old English grammar was less obvious in terms of how it appeared on the page. Like Latin, the dominant Western language of commerce and authority at the time, Old English was a highly inflected language meaning that it had eight possible cases (or forms) that any noun could take, and a noun’s relation to other parts of speech depended on which form it took. This has several consequences, the most fun being that words had flexibility on the page and often the relations between words had to be thought out more carefully (as any student asked to parse a sentence in front of the group can attest). These are endlessly fun features for the contemporary poet!
I won’t say too much about my second book, Myrmurs (since I’ve talked about it elsewhere), except that it continues the investigation into the consequences of Western ideas, this time at the formal level (I make a book-length exploded sestina) and deals in an extended metaphor between ants and language (living systems/ systems for living). My “word-hord” consists of certain scientific vocabularies as well as historical lesbian and gay vocabularies (or codes). A sestina is a combinatory machine that produces a love-lyric. Myrmurs keeps the impulse and changes the terms: self-organizing systems are the beloved phenomena of this poem.
Arriving at Zip’s File, I’ve chosen to draw out the second major foreign linguistic influence on the budding English language—the French language—as well as the second major narrative influence, the Arthurian Romance. The first major influence was Norse, of course because of the colonization of parts of England during the ninth and tenth centuries—the period that “Wulf and Eadwacer” was being recorded. And the Bible and Old Germanic oral traditions are twin very early narrative influences, but the Arthurian Romance is unique in its blending of secular and quasi-religious themes. I’ve chosen a very odd and somewhat obscure Old French, post-Arthurian romance as my source text: the 13th-century text Le Roman de Silence (The Romance of Silence) as the source text. It’s attributed to Heldris of Cornwall and written in Old French. The Romance of Silence arrived in the 21st century by the skin of its teeth: it comes down to us from a single manuscript source that is held by the University of Nottingham in England. This post-Arthurian romance centers on the gender-bending escapades of Silence (Silentus/Silentia): a poet, a knight, and a girl raised as a boy because her parents want her to be able to inherit their wealth and property—something only boys can do in this story. Another interesting note is that this poem marks an early instance of the nature/nurture debate occupying the narrative centre of a literary text in Medieval Europe. It was all but lost until the feminist literary scholars recovered it (surprise, surprise). Zip’s File explores the limits of 21st-century affection as well as Western categories of gender and species in a book-length sequence of lyric, narrative, and procedural poems. Silence’s counterpart in my book is Zip/Zoe Jones, a nouveau-surrealist and resident of a Toronto that sits just slightly ahead of our Toronto, but in an alternative history. Moreover, she and an entire urban population of radical thinkers have been classified as biohazards and have lost their status as human beings and are actively being targeted for extermination. Along with her long time partner, Desirée Gordon, an expert in artificial life and an amateur ornithologist, and a band of post-human rebels, Zip wages a gender revolution that reaches far beyond binary categories of “man” and “woman” as well as the binaries of “human” and “animal” and “machine” and “meat.” The poems document Zip’s life to the vanishing point of the Western “human subject.” Far from a presenting a bleak look at the 21st-century, Zip’s File’s has its gaze aimed at the “marvellous” in the midst of turmoil. I work with sf narratives like bio-hacking—science fiction is another genre with strong affinities to the romance—but redistribute the effects so that my text works as language poetry. The poems in question are working drafts from different points in the book. Except for “On Discovery Walks…” which I ended up revising and putting in Myrmurs. This is normal: when working on a trilogy, there are poems that come about in the space between questions and projects, and sometimes a poem moves covers.
Q: I’m fascinated at the thought of all of your work to date being part of a series of ongoing “poetic researches.” Obviously bpNichol is a wonderful model for such, but I’m curious as to what other writers you saw as models or influences for the way you approach your work.
A: bpNichol and bill bissett’s work certainly have inspired my sense of what’s possible on the grand canvas. They are both trans-form(ative) poets with one foot rooted firmly in the visual and the other sonorously mapping the contemporary world. But Erín Moure, Lisa Robertson, Margaret Christakos, Trish Salah, Larissa Lai, NourbeSe Philips, Rachel Zolf, Marilyn Dumont, Gregory Scofield, Smaro Kamboureli, Daniil Kharms, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Becket are all very important influences.
Erín Moure has been a longtime mentor and instigator. She’s probably the one I’ve talked to most about the possibilities of poetry-as-research. But long before I worked with her, books like O Cidádan and Search Procedures expanded my idea of what poetry (and language) could do and what extended questions could be fruitfully explored by poetic means. And O Cadorio, her exploration of medieval Galacian-Portuguese cantigas, showed me one way through dialoguing queerly with “dead” languages. I read that book not long after reading Elizabeth Grosz’s double-header meditations on time: The Nick of Time (2004) and Time Travels (2005). Something clicked. And just as I’d finished fur(l) parachute, and was working on Myrmurs, Caroline Bergvall published Meddle English (2011) and, thinking of Angela Carr’s The Rose Concordance, I suddenly felt part of a transnational queer feminist surge in poetic medievalism...
On queering the body and/through technologically mediated embodiments, Margaret Christakos’s and Larisa Lai’s extended work on the subject over a number of books (and even crossing-genres) provides many points of contact especially for my current book. I see Zip’s File as being in conversation with books like Christakos’s Multitudes and Excessive Love Prosthesis and Lai’s Automaton Biographies among others. Trish Salah is a poet whose work I admire greatly, and who offers a very important challenge to outdated modes of feminism that pit themselves against trans people and sex workers.
M. NourbeSe Phillip is one of the models of how to use “avant-garde” techniques to short-circuit the racist and sexists underpinnings of late capitalism. Her ongoing performances of Zong exceed the limits of poetry and enter into ritual.
I’ve also been reading a lot of First Nations writers such as Lee Maracle, Gregory Scofield, Sharron Proulx-Turner, Marylin Dumont, and Leslie Belleau, whose novel Sweat should be widely read. Their work collectively reminds me to pay very close attention to the kind of “mappings” that I do at the very earliest stages of a project. To be committed to a decolonial approach means being very careful not to repeat violent cultural and linguistic structures in one’s work that may be so normalized that they seem invisible. Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia is an excellent example of how to negotiate the minefield of ongoing colonial violence and genocide in the context of contemporary poetics. I’ve been very fortunate to watch Rachel’s process during this project and see the ways that she struggles and faces the nasty entanglements of being a settler (even an unwilling settler) and trying to unsettle oneself and other settlers.
My work is sustained by ongoing provocations and conversations. I find I’m very fortunate to be a “Toronto-based” (I’ve lived in or around Toronto for most of my adult life) poet because Canada is a hotbed of poetry-as-research (be it multilingually inclined or driven more by eco-poetic investigations, or working at the borders of colonialism, gender, and sexuality, or some combination) and there are many vibrant conversations a-go in Toronto. And people pass through and get swept up into them. One very important site of poetic discussion (not just for me, I am sure) was Margaret Christakos’s “Influency: A Toronto Poetry Salon” which ran out of the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies from 2006-2011. I was fortunate to attend two sessions in the last years of its existence and there I met a number of peers as well as established poets whom I’ve had the good fortune of staying in touch with in the years since. In fact, you’re one of the poets that I met there! And Liz Howard, Sonja Grekol, Joan Gunther, Ralph Kelowe are just a few of the participants who I first came into contact with there, and who have become indispensable interlocutors. More recently, I participated in a national group of feminist writers who met online in the “Electronic Garret” and they’ve been very important to my ongoing “queries” and approaches. As has, David Bateman’s wickedly textured autobiographical performance poetry and “queerrealist” paintings.
The last thread I’d like to draw out is the “posthuman” thread. Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott’s collaboration Decomp is a thrilling “try” at getting the environment to write back. a.rawling’s Gibber Bird website is a really interesting attempt at sono-cartogarphy that also attempts to break away from an anthropocentric poetic subject.
There are just so darn many people who’ve provided nourishing conversation (whether in person or through their work) that I feel like my response only picks at the surface.
Q: You mention Zip’s File as being the final book in your “medievalist trilogy.” Given that everything you’ve worked on to date has been part of a single project, how easily do you see yourself simply creating something entirely different? And is this how you see your writing progressing—working from large project to large project—or might your subsequent book be something smaller in scale (but not in scope)?
A: Hmm... I’ve always thought of nets of questions as acting something like colours: depending on the combination of questions you ask, and your methodology, certain aspects of a situation or a dynamic will be absorbed into the framework, and certain other elements will be reflected (or refracted) onto the page. So, um, one can do endless things with colours... Plus, while it is true that my “medievalist trilogy” used three different methodologies with certain overlapping features (the selection of a medieval “source text” or “source form” and the selection of particular vocabularies suggested by and/or extending the chosen text) to approach a small set of interrelated questions, they also swerved away from following just one line of thought... So maybe my next solo project will start from a new set of questions, or maybe it will approach similar questions from the perspective of yet another source text in another language... I haven’t decided yet. But while I’ve been working on my trilogy, I’ve also been engaging in several collaborative projects that have also taken my thinking on new trajectories. For instance, the Finnish poet Vappu Kannas and I have been working on a book length collaborative experimental translation. A chapbook of our work is slated to be published by Kristy Bowen’s Chicago based Dancing Girl Press and will be out by the end of 2015. Our initial manuscript was written with a time constraint (24 hours per poem) and language constraint (Vappu started the sequence by sending me a poem in Finnish, a language that I don’t know from atoms with the one rule that I wasn’t allowed to google translate or use a dictionary or any other means to get at the semantic secrets of the poems). We wrote the initial draft between November 2012 and January 2013 and then let it sit till July 2014 when we met in Toronto to do an intensive editing and regenerating session. We're going to do another one sometime early in 2015 at which point we hope we’ll have a finished manuscript... And then, of course, I’ve been working on a dissertation project... But no doubt what remains the same across the board is that there is a research component and a serendipitous component to every project I’ve done so far, and that likely won’t change. Even if I go micro. Or branch out into new media (which I am hankering to do, but it costs money), or bioart (ditto). We’ll have to wait and see. I’m not there yet, I’m still working on Zip’s File etc.
Q: What do you feel your collaborative projects bring you that your other projects don’t?
A: Each collaborative project in-progress has brought with it the challenge and excitement of watching another embodied mind working its way through a shared inquiry and negotiating ways of remaining in dialogue across vast differences. In the case of my collaboration with Vappu—an entirely mysterious language. I could, however, argue that all of my projects are “collaborative” in the sense that they involve me responding to other peoples’ words—sometimes with a gap of 1100 or so years in response time... But working with real live other poets who can see my response and raise me a surprise with a side of rebuttal can make the difference between nurturing and tending an underdeveloped poem and tossing it aside half-way through because it is easier to start from scratch than it is to prune and groom and build up layers. There is an element of “seize the collaboration,” of showing off a bit for the other person (and being called on it) that allows a space of extra daring in my experience of this sort of thing. Most of the time, anyway.
Q: I like the idea of all of your work being “collaborative,” and I think one could argue that all writing exists in response to something or other, in varying degrees. Robert Kroetsch argued that all writing is conversation, existing in a context far larger than any individual writer or text. How do you feel your writing fits into those larger conversations?
A: I definitely torque the lines of Western literary tradition. Being a person who believes in the self-organization of matter (that is, that inorganic and organic matter are part of a continuum and that dynamism is internal to a system, rather than external to it—making mechanization and vitalism equally untenable), most of the Western tradition of poetry is obsolete, from my perspective. Or maybe a better way to say it is that contemporary conditions invite poets to transform the western literary tradition. We need to rethink poetic tools if the activities of generating and reading poetry are to have relevance as we move into a world where people will be conceived and born in a variety of ways (they already are); where they will have increased opportunities to radically modify their bodies within their lifetimes; where individuals may have more agency with regards to their own deaths; and where the ecosystem may no longer be able to sustain us unless we give up on war and heavy industry. Welcome to the queer 21st century.
I am in awe of experimental film and experimental music. And I am reading more and more philosophy and scientific papers. I’m in the conversation about emergence and the stakes of theories of “the human” and “the animal” of materiality and embodiment: the politics of matter. The conversation about decolonization is extremely important to me. As is social justice and experimental eroticism.
Q: After your first trade collections, another forthcoming and various chapbooks and works-in-progress over the past few years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see yourself headed?
I am getting better at finding the interesting tensions in language and playing them. More often now I arrive at a poem in fewer drafts: I can do some of the steps in my ear. I’m also really into micro-structures and setting them in motion so that other structures emerge—again, I have a better intuition for such things now than I did three years ago.
I really want to add a layer or two to my practice. I am a noise poet so I have to move into sound art and other new media approaches. I want to write plays for robots and make sound poems with insects and birds and bacteria—others are doing this and there is so much more work to be done. It’s not a matter of moving away from the page in a progressivist way—its rather about taking the practice out into other fields and looping back to the page and out again and again. I’d like also to make full-length stagings of my books so that the micro and macro structures can breathe and be heard. But this is all very expensive to do. So it depends on whether or not I can gain access to the tools and expertise to make these projects happen. Writing poetry is about the cheapest art in terms of cost of materials. It is labour intensive, but paper and a pencil will do. Right now I’m typing on a laptop with a cracked screen. If this computer stops working, there is one at the public library that I can use in a pinch. There is something extremely lovely about the democracy of this.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
I read widely. I read periodicals such as Scientific American and the online contemporary art archive and journal e-flux. Jacket2 is the go-to for me regarding contemporary poetics. I am currently reading a fascinating collection of essays, The Multispecies Salon, edited by Eben Kirksey. I’m also actively reading Spinoza as well as commentaries on his work by the likes of Henri Atlan and Moira Gatens and Gilles Deleuze. I’ll soon reread Norma Cole’s Spinoza in Her Youth. I’m also astonished by Chantal Neveu’s A Spectacular Influence, which I read in a translation by Nathanaël. But mostly, when I’m writing poetry, I’m reading other things. I return to the work of Donna Haraway and Karen Barad often.