Tuesday, January 24, 2017

TtD supplement #70 : seven questions for Colin Smith

Colin Smith’s latest slab-o-pomes (and other “treats”) is Multiple Bippies, out from CUE Books in Vancouver, 2014. He lives in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory, where he tries to walk softly.

His poems “Piece with Screws Loose” and “Poem to a Right-Hand Margin” appear in the twelfth issue of Touch the Donkey. His poem “This poem makes me feel:” will appear in the fifteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Piece with Screws Loose,” “Poem to a Right-Hand Margin” and “This poem makes me feel:.”

A: Well, “Screws” is a rollicking dystopia that works itself out in a more fragmented and sonically driven way than my more typical means of portraiture by aphorism. It’s a tribute to human failure and hubris, really. With a cast of beelyuns (even the Sea King helicopter has a line to say)! There are a lot of puns and coded references. Mostly true quotes (the f-bombing one is Stephen Harper getting caught in candour’s trap). 

“Margin” is a chunk of aggrieved anarchist cant. In three stanzas, two of which are — depending on which word you might prefer — tall, thin, or skinny (and which blip a lot). There’s plenty of ripping on right-wing economic and social theories. Its middle stanza is more coherently narrative, and seems to be channelled by a bad-taste malcontent wishing for another 9/11-style Attack on America. 

The title “This poem makes me feel:” ambiently echoes Robert Fitterman’s This Window Makes Me Feel, which is a text I’ve yet to read (sadly and ridiculously). The poem is a faux or botched ars poetica. It has a gnomic construction — the other two poems could be accused of this, too — and is somewhat playful and sincere, though it also satirizes some elements (or tendencies) in poetry that get on my final nerve.    

 Q: Are these poems part of any larger grouping you might be working on currently? I’m curious about the way you write, from constructing individual poems to the ways in which you construct manuscripts. Do you write individual poems that group together after a certain point, or are you working on any kind of unstructured ‘collection’ from the very beginning? 

A: These three could kinda sorta be related in something beyond temporal batching. Well, “Screws” and “Margin” could — as fairly explicit political poems that cavort in the same tree and are busily and happily sawing off branches that are near each other. “This poem” might in theory work in the same manuscript (depending on what else was kicking around in there helping offset the political stuff), or maybe it best belongs in a different book. Ech — what editorial dough-braiding we can get into over this!

Mostly I tease out one frikkin’ poem after another. The ugly and obsessive matters of what make up my poems cause me a fair bit of pain and confusion, so cooking them up is hard and delicate work. To worry about where any poem “belongs in a manuscript” as I’m writing it is too crazy-making and irrelevant a burden for me to ever rationally want to add. 

Get the damn thing scripted and worry about location later, that’s my motto! 

Needles to say [sic], a book-length poem might duck these fussy considerations. While incurring a new one — how to keep the mass churning to effect without entropy or boring amounts of repetition killing it. 

I wonder whether in contemporary editorial fashion we’re too partial to overshaping manuscripts, producing books that are too conceptually tidy, that lack danger, unpredictability, risk. That bear too narrow a field of focus.  

This keeps me up some nights. 

Or maybe that could be disregarded as empty and fretful gassing from an old fart (I’m nearly fifty-nine as I write this [January 2016]). I do recall the days when more poetry books were assemblages of a poet’s best scribbles done since their last book, sensibly put together but not allergic to variety. 

(Or is it that all too many poets are eager to be uniform in their work? That’s a horrid thought that can’t be ignored!) 

We could use Charles Bernstein’s The Sophist as a glowing litmus test for an outer limits of editorial shaping. Is it a perfectly balanced mess of profligate, abundant variety? Is it too indisciplined? Might it be taking the piss? After many readings, I still can’t be wholly sure what it’s up to. (Which might be “merely” the Bernstein effect!) Given the title and its dependent content, I’m tilted toward considering this book’s shape as completely intentional. Others may not.    

Pontification over. Shoot me now. 

Q: Is your refusal to be “uniform in your work” a deliberate approach, or is it simply a result from being open to a variety of styles, forms and movements?

A: Six cans of Kokanee, half a dozen Mooseheads. Part contrivance, part intuition. While I mostly work in free verse, I don’t ever want to be exclusive about it.  

Considerations of aesthetic fit are the endless trump here, and should be. Finding the best strategy and vocabulary for each poem. The world is lumbered with more than enough limitations without me adding to them! I always thought that one of poetry’s better angels (or angles) was that it could help make our considerations of the world larger (I still believe this). So, no language need be excluded, no tactic need be forbidden.  

Although, having just issued a version of “everything is permitted” with that last sentence, I’ll now qualify it by saying that it’s morally noxious to maim the afflicted — one should just flat-out not do it. 

The linguistic cargo of a sonnet can be very different from a LangPo word-salad approach. If you want to, and you have the technical moxie to get away with it, why not do both? Why not head for other possibilities as well?

Q: When you are working the “linguistic cargo of a sonnet” and “a LangPo word-salad,” is this a deliberate attempt to offset one against the other? Do you feel limitations through either consideration individually, or are you simply lifting from both to achieve something other? 

A: It’s a deliberate attempt to do something, though I’m not sure “offset” would be the key verb. However, sure, yeah, of course offsetting is a useful part of it. To “corrupt” might be more apt. Different lexicons in close proximity to one other bleed colours and tones onto each other’s bodies, or, if you like this image better, they’re on a winter balcony passing a joint back and forth. They’re sharing, playing, exchanging lexical goo, hatching some arcane plot that neither could have come up with alone. “Corruption” in a sense of enlarging possibilities, of collaborating to make larger communities, more wide-ranging and spectacular texts. 

I feel limitations aplenty, you bet. All words have specific meaning (we’re blessed to have some that carry multiple ones, better yet if they bear contradiction — good morning forever, “cleave”!) and all syntax organizes toward some sort of “making sense.” As people are condemned to action, words are condemned to meaning. This specificity yoked to what we could laughingly consider the reality principle can make us feel that our time trucking in words is to overly trite or blatant ends. Words, bleh. Could we have some more blah? Jesus, could we just step away from this matter for a spell and throw Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz on the boombox? Follow that up with some Kris Davis and Satoko Fujii? Mmm. 

But it’s fatuous to curse one’s tools. We need to accept the demonizations of concrete meaning, but place them in flexible architectures that make questioning a large part of the deal, yes? That seems best. 

“Otherness” is a salutary though painful quality to have in a text. It can lead us to an unexpected view through the prism, an appreciation of difference. 

Actually, otherness is social realism. Humans are weird, they don’t belong on this planet (they’re sure not doin’ it no ecological favours), existence is absurd. Pithily all I might need say is the phrase “The Ascension of President Trump” (potential poem title, going once going twice … spew for free!) to prove this point.

Q: How are your collections, whether books or chapbooks, constructed? Have you a particular shape in mind at the offset, or are collections shaped through their own means? Do your books build themselves?

A: Constructed opportunistically, by me with the help of others. Virtually never through their own means. So my books don’t tend to build themselves, except that one poem may call for another to be written, natch, and a congruent mass can come of that if played at long enough. 

I’ll give you a guided tour, rob! Shall try to keep this frisky and any shitshow of ego out of it. 

My first book, Multiple Poses (Tsunami, 1997), was a reasonably coherent chunk of nine poems all written under the mad flag of my Kootenay School of Writing decade (which started in 1987). After having disavowed the lousy lyricism I’d learned earlier in Ontario and got mired in. Although two of the poems — “Godzilla Fugue” and “Autumnal” — were expanded and renovated from short poems written in the Eighties (maybe even in the Seventies!). The original MP manuscript had ten poems — one of them, “Spot Quiz,” was too anomalous, so we decided to remove it, what the hell, there was a sixty-four-page book without it. The “we” in this respect were editors Deanna Ferguson and Michael Barnholden. Mike and Dee gave me edits — most of which were cutting redundancies and decapitating preachy bits — and Michael did the typesetting slogs, with me at his elbow so that I had input, which was a kind and great courtesy. 

Have just remembered that Tsunami asked me for a manuscript before I fully had one. The virtue of being a slowpoke writer and being part of a scene, no doubt. 

“Spot Quiz” got its ass kicked forward into 8x8x7 (Krupskaya, 2008). Where it joined four other poems from the Vancouver years (“Just,” ‘That nostalgia,’ “Splice,” and “ambitious character hydroplaning”) and hooked up with seven poems written in Winnipeg between 1998 and 2005. 

Okay, now Here Might Be the Exciting Dragons part — a tale never told publicly. How, one might rationally wonder, does a Canadian poet based in Winnipeg have a book out through an American press based in San Francisco? What gave me the nerve (or gall) to send them a manuscript? 

Well, I, um, hadn’t. But I had been miserable enough in The Peg to leave it and give Vancouver a second shot in 2005. Rejoined my cherished Koot Skool, which had more people involved in running it than during some overstressed spells earlier, which was fantastic. Renewed matters with old pals and made new friends: Donato Mancini, Jonathon Wilcke, Nikki Reimer, Reg Johanson, among others. But I’d underestimated the havoc that the damp climate would enact on my maimed back. (I’d underestimated the grimness of world-class neoliberal economics and the gross ramming toward the Olympics, as well.) In less than a year I’d lost seven years of measurable prairie healing and was pretty much screaming in pain again. I cut my losses quickly and returned to (mostly) dry and sunny Winnipeg after fifteen months in BC (a return morphed into what, a sabbatical?). Relieved but enormously saddened. 

I’d left a big handwritten sheaf of post-MP poems with Donato, ’cause he liked my work a lot. Encouraged him to share them so that I wouldn’t become a total ghost in my most homelike landscape. What he wound up doing was format them on his computer and commence agenting the damn wad around without me being in the know (made much easier by the fact that I didn’t yet have e-mail). Donato sent them to Jocelyn Saidenberg and Kevin Killian at Krupskaya. I come home on a scandalous smelter of a prairie day near the end of July 2007 to a phone message. Kevin Killian’s queeny voice laying it out, “Hi, Colin, hope you’re doing well, I’m calling on behalf of Krupskaya, we love your book, we want to publish it.” I sit down stunned on hot hardwood, thinking Book?, Book?, an idiot mantra.  

Isn’t that too funny? Weird, insane, moving.         

So I had the good sense to say Hell Yeah to this prospect. Next: scrambling to find out which poems were actually in the book! Proofreading what Donato had sent them. Making changes to some of the poems. Then waited with held breath for Jocelyn and Kevin to chime in with complaints about the worst of the bad-taste images, the abundant swearing, and toxic political sentiments. Nada. I exhaled and thought Wow, cool, alrightythen. 

They did a beautiful job on a high-speed schedule. 

The chapbook Carbonated Bippies! (Nomados, 2012) came about because Meredith Quartermain approached me at the Vancouver launch of 8x8x7 and said “You know, if you ever wanted to publish with us, we’d be happy to have you.” (Nomados is Meredith and Peter Quartermain.) I was honoured and thanked her. Had no serious intent to follow through, had little new work laying around. But I’d begun tinkering with the idea of partly recanting my disavowal of the yucky lyric, to see if I could get away with it all these years later, or maybe to satirize it (or maybe both). Wrote a small number of formalist poems, imagined doing a few more, shot Meredith an e-mail.   

Carbonated Bippies! contains a long cento; a sonnet; a poem that uses Jackson Mac Low’s Daily Life procedure (with two more constraints added by me); three close parodies of canonical chestnuts by Shelley, Webb, and Stevens; and a couple other poems that use devices I cooked up. 

I got some rewrites from them and we stumbled into finding a terrifically tacky cover image for it. We had a blast from start to finish! 

Finally, Multiple Bippies (CUE, 2014). Uncollected prose yapping about poetry (and community), plus the reprinting of Multiple Poses and Carbonated Bippies!, which had both gone out of print. This book represents more agitation on my behalf by Donato Mancini. When Roger Farr passed the editorship of CUE Books to Reg Johanson, Donato proposed to Reg (at some reading they were at, I believe) that it was some kind of dreadful shame that Multiple Poses had been unavailable for so long. Why not reprint it with some additional stuff? Reg liked the idea, it flew with the press’s board of directors, we were On. Donato took on the main editorial role, possibly partly because Reg would be out of town over Our Summer of Frenzied Production. Todd Nickel was the typesetting and design guru for the book, and he did heroic and exquisite labour on it. 

I made a few tiny changes to the older poetry and corrected typos. It was decided that the new stuff would be a short anti-manifesto sort of manifesto or ars poetica called “Why Poetry” (published 2009 in The Collective Consciousness) and a zonkingly long, chatty yet informative interview between me and Donato about my years in the KSW. This interview was originally published by Open Letter in 2010, and for the book we updated it — modified a few futuristic projections that now belonged to a past (or didn’t happen), added books to the “reading list,” and mentioned some things we’d forgotten the first go-round. 

Donato wrote a witty foreword that makes me and the poems seem smarter than I really am or they are, and with that flourish we were done. 

In sum, rob, how my books came about. Mostly through unconventional means, to put it mildly!  I’ve been blessed and lucky to have such mad or devout friends and cohorts who’ve gone to such extraordinary lengths to get my malign poems into print. I cherish them.

Q: While I’m not surprised at the support that your work receives, I’m fascinated by your openness to the book and chapbook-making process. Given the ways in which you compose poems, whether individually or in groups, I’m wondering what kind of portrait your work, once published, provides? Looking back on your published books and chapbooks, how do you see your work, and where might you see it headed?

A: A portrait of sustained social truculence, maybe? A useful truculence, I would hope! As in, inspirational to others looking to contribute to weird forms of resistance.  

Ack, what a painting to consider! 

Most of them would count as satire. I hate human aggression, see no need for most of it. Especially that which is normalized as noble or necessary or patriotic. Sold to us by a spinning variety of lying bad dads. I try to whomp up nervy poems that can function well as rebuttals to History as Writ by the Usual Odious Victors. Poems that hop around like guerrilla fighters, unpredictably and with plenty of opportunistic tactics on board. 

Vicious call-outs that are also self-indicting. I’m not self-righteously above the fray. A lot of sadness rises to match the anger in my work. 

There’s also the irresolvable irony of behaving aggressively in language as a means to condemn aggressive human behaviour. A kind of toxic irony comes out of that! 

I imagine that as long as there’s some manner of foul injustice happening somewhere on Planet Earth, I’ll carry on writing this way. World peace would negate any necessity to write as I do. Fine by me! I would stop, or make different styles of poem. Maybe something more laudatory, yes? That could be sweet. 

Looking around the world, I think Erm, Not Gonna Happen.  Hi-ho.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I always need to read a fair bit of political nonfiction to keep in touch with what “the world” thinks it is, ho ho ho. I consider every quadrant of that zoo. 

Otherwise, experimental poetry and scads of it. The more the better. Keeps the synapses limber. 

I like poems that expand my consciousness. Poems by people completely unlike me. Poems that get me laughing. Poems that challenge my understanding. 

Poems that aid the permanent insurrection. 

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