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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

TtD supplement #84 : seven questions for Jonathan Ball

Dr. Jonathan Ball writes fiction, poetry, screenplays, and criticism and teaches literature, film, and writing in Winnipeg. Visit him online at JonathanBall.com, where he writes about writing the wrong way.

His poems “EMILY CARR,” “FRANKLIN CARMICHAEL” and “JESSIE & JAMES FRANCO” appear in the fourteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “EMILY CARR,” “FRANKLIN CARMICHAEL” and “JESSIE & JAMES FRANCO.”

A: “Emily Carr” and “Franklin Carmichael” are from a poetic sequence called “Group of Seven,” which is from my manuscript-in-progress, The National Gallery. The book explores the role of art in the construction of our personal, social, and national selves.

At the heart of The National Gallery is a simple question: Why write poems? Each sequence attempts not so much to answer this question as to complicate the question.

“Group of Seven” questions the traditional purposes of poetry and addresses its various failures. Each poem is titled after a member of the Group of Seven (including major affiliates, for a total of 12 poems) but refuses to respond to the work of that artist.

The poem “Franklin Carmichael” is effectively a satire of the worst of our nation’s “Canadian content”-style poems but I try to turn it towards something surreal and disturbing. Gary Barwin’s poems, especially his book The Porcupinity of the Stars, was a massive influence on this manuscript.

With my last book of poetry, The Politics of Knives, I tried to draw influence from filmmakers and I have taken a lot also from David Lynch, who in my view always sacrifices sense for tone. I do that to some degree in poems like “Franklin Carmichael” and “Emily Carr.”

In “Emily Carr” I also take a page from Rilke with the final line — “Take this poem into your heart” — which mimics to some degree the final line of “Archaic Torso of Apollo” — “You must change your life.” A different sequence in the manuscript, about my daughter Jessie, draws heavily on Rilke.

“Jessie & James Franco” is a more straightforward poem about my daughter Jessie. She tagged James Franco in an Instagram post where his photo on her wall was in the background and I thought that was hilarious. A lot of The National Gallery is shaping up to be about my daughters, mostly the older Jessie.

Jessie is 17 now and it has been a difficult few years of late, although that is in no way her fault. We’ve had an interesting life and she’s very much at the age where you find yourself reflecting on life as she nears legal adulthood and you have so many more things to worry about (in the teen years) than you once felt that you had to worry about.

I’ve been very lucky because she’s the best daughter in world history but it’s still an emotional time. So, I’ve found myself writing the kinds of horrible, emotional poems I hate. So I puncture them with humour and horror and surrealistic turmoil.

Q: What do you think it is about the “Why write poems?” question that requires response, even if only complicating more? Is this a question you see currently in the culture, or is this more of an individual query?

A: It’s hard for me to answer this question in an interview, because it is a complex question that I am still thinking through, and the book will be my answer. I will just say that it is a question for the ages, and certainly one for this age, and a constant question for any good poet. (… and also for someone like me!)

Q: I’m curious about your attraction to the book-length project. Did it evolve naturally, or are there specific authors that have influenced that direction?

A: Somebody (I forget who, I think it was derek beaulieu) pointed out that I had done a book about books (Ex Machina) and a book about theatre (Clockfire) and a book that is in many ways about film (The Politics of Knives) and expected I would do a book about visual art next. I brushed the idea off but it stuck, and eventually I noticed that I have a number of poems that mimic techniques from visual art, the way that The Politics of Knives contains some pieces that mimic film techniques. 

I also became very interested in the film Texas Chain Saw Massacre and specifically in how the murderous cannibal family in the film is portrayed as an enclave of creators — they cook, they construct sculptures, decorative furniture, and of course masks from their victims, the film ends with an interpretive dance, and there are odd objects that seem entirely artworks, like a clock with a nail driven through its face that hangs suspended in a tree.

Texas Chain Saw Massacre
is a masterpiece, and was actually somewhat controversially made part of the permanent collection at NY’s MOMA. Anyway, I was thinking a lot when I wrote John Paizs’s Crime Wave about how postmodern art and related aesthetics have vaulted “failure” to the height of something like an artistic value, and seeing TCSM again in a cultural moment awash in controversies made me think a lot about the ethics of art-making, so those ideas started to dovetail towards what I saw myself expressing in poems.

I was also commissioned by Gallery 1C03 at the University of Winnipeg to write a poem sequence about Guy Maddin’s collages, and I have already mentioned that the poems of Gary Barwin and Rilke have been stuck with me over the past few years. I found myself writing more personal poems, but also spinning out strange, dark poems that seem to focus on moods and seem more “painterly” in a sense, like this one, which doesn’t have a title yet:
I walk three hallways
In the first I carry
A cup of blood
And seek my name
In the second the moon
Cannot see
What it loves
In the third I hold hands
With a torch
And its shadow
I promised to meet you
But I’m gone
Natalee Caple gave me some great edits on that poem, and her poems in A More Tender Ocean are other ones that I’ve found myself returning to. Of course, there are the standbys that always influence me, like Lisa Robertson.

I consider myself a horror author, and Tony Burgess and Thomas Ligotti are the two great influences on everything I do at the moment.

The manuscript for The National Gallery has grown much more organically than my other poetry books, which were more concept-driven. However, it’s gotten to the point where I am taking control of its growth and directing it more fully, as it nears something like completion.

Q: I’m fascinated by your work in the ekphrastic, especially since it appears to have grown organically, as you suggest, over multiple book-length projects. What do you feel as though you’re able to achieve through writing poetry around other genres – theatre, film and visual art – that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise?

A: The two main things that I achieve through working in ekphrastic modes are avoiding direct discussion of my emotions — so much so that when I actually address an emotion I’ve experienced, it serves as a shocking turn in the poem — and marrying my academic interest in art with my creative art-making.

I love writing a poem that works as a poem and stands alone but also has an interesting and complicated relationship to somebody else’s artwork. It’s a way to inspire yourself and to create and also be analytical and critical in a sense. I have always been ambitious, and it is also a way to associate yourself with your artistic heroes.

Christian Bök once told me something along the lines that if you open your book with a quote by Kafka, now you are in competition with Kafka. You have to be more Kafkaesque than Kafka. I like the challenge of that concept. When I wrote my poem “K. Enters the Castle” in The Politics of Knives, I was very much thinking in those terms. How can I take what Kafka was doing and extend it beyond Kafka? What would Kafka write if he had watched Tarkovsky’s films, like I had?

I have always loved art and my art-making is fundamentally an expression of that love for art. My first “real” poems came out of transcribing song lyrics. I grew up mainly in a small town far away from anything like a music store and I would get “new” (to us) music when a friend went into the city and brought CDs back and then would record unlabeled cassettes for me.

I always wanted to know the words but I went to high school in the age of grunge and everyone mumbled and slurred. I would lay in front of the cassette player and transcribe the lyrics, stopping and starting, rewinding, playing things back. Eventually, of course, the Internet came, and you could look up song lyrics. When I did, I discovered that I was wrong in many instances.

I remember one specific song — Pearl Jam’s “Ocean” — I was almost totally wrong, like 90% wrong. And I looked at Eddie Vedder’s lyrics and “my” lyrics and I liked my lyrics better. Then I started writing original song lyrics to replace the lyrics in my favourite songs, and moved to poems from there. I had been interested in writing beforehand, but this is when I started to seriously write.

So, in a way, my earliest “real” attempts at writing were very much a form of ekphrastic writing and, in many ways, I have just continued that trajectory.

Q: After a handful of books and chapbooks over the past decade-plus, how do you feel your poetry has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I’ve become more interested in poetic sequences and poetic “groups” where you have maybe individual, stand-alone works but also a sense of cohesion or development. I like the juxtapositions between things. With The National Gallery a lot of the poems have titles that don’t relate directly to the content of the poems, and it creates an interesting tension sometimes to puncture or subvert or ironize the more typical title-body relationship. This is something that I stole from David McGimpsey, and in his honour a suite of poems is called “Food Court” and are all titled after fast food restaurants.

I’ve also become more interested in narrative, especially experimental narrative, and I’ve honed in more fully on violence and horror. In many respects my technical approach has broadened and I’ve experimented formally more as I’ve concurrently narrowed my thematic interests.

I find that my work keeps returning to the question of how to live in a world where we feel more and more connected to each other but less and less connected to power. We gain more freedom in our personal lives but feel less free in the world. Then we see violence as a shortcut to connection and control. My work more and more wants to understand that violent impulse as it manifests.

I keep drawing closer to horror. Horror has a clean structure and is ontological in nature. It questions the nature of reality through offering the monster as the truth of reality — a frightful truth that everyone works to deny. The fundamental anxiety that is expressed in horror, at its purest, is Are we wrong? And the answer of true horror is always We are wrong.

In horror, the struggle is less against that monster than against the reality of the monster. The threat in horror is always a symbolic threat, a fate worse than death, and the monster represents the fate worse than death. The challenge of the truly radical horror story is simple and precise but powerful: How do we accept the presence of this monster? How do we accept its truth? How should we suffer the fate worse than death? 

Since I have this increasing interest in narrative, and in horror, all of my writing plans after The National Gallery, and most of my actual writing over that last five years, has been in fiction and nonfiction and screenwriting.

Thematically, The National Gallery keeps asking the question you’ve asked: Where do I see my poetry headed? The answer it keeps returning is Into Oblivion. Maybe that will open a new space, a space of true horror, and I will find that space to be more poetically productive. Or maybe it will be my last poetry book.

Q: Through all of this, what holds you to poetry? You’ve worked in film, and you talk of being drawn closer to horror: why poetry, over moving further into film, or even prose? What is it about the form of the poem that brings you back?

A: Well, in fact I am moving further into film and prose. I’m abandoning poetry. I don’t know if I will come back.

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

A: I read poets, which is perhaps why I have kept coming back to poetry, to follow on your previous question. I feel like poetry is functionally language made strange, defamiliarized, and in poetic works often nothing else needs to happen. There’s a purity of function in some ways. In poetry, I go back to people who surprise me, and who work in long lines and prose poems or sequences, generally. Lisa Robertson, Sina Queyras, Jenny Boully, Erín Moure, Natalee Caple.

That said, there are a few things I keep returning to, often to reenergize, and many of them are not poetry. I have eclectic tastes. This list is going to seem deranged.

I keep returning to a few films: Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, and In the Mouth of Madness by John Carpenter, for various reasons, and the films of Guy Maddin and David Lynch and John Paizs, who I wrote a whole book about. The Mirror by Tarkovsky as well. A few TV shows, like The Wire and Bojack Horseman and The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development.

There’s a documentary about Jerry Seinfeld called Comedian that I consider one of the great films about the creative process. Comedy in general is something I truly value on a writing level. Steve Martin is my favourite comedian. His act at its height was a brilliant meta-level parody of a stand-up routine where punchlines aren’t the focus or source of the laughs. A lot of other comedians and comedy shows, definitely.

I find rappers fascinating. There’s something about their intensity alongside their wordplay. Poets who don’t listen to rap music are beyond my comprehension. Rappers and comedians are the great poets of our age.

I value intensity. I value tone over sense. I return to a few books and authors religiously. Truly radical horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Tony Burgess, Thomas Ligotti. Melville’s Moby-Dick. Kafka’s work. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a perfect novel.

The single thing I seek the most when I feel like I need something new in my work is something new from an author new to me. Something I have not read and have never seen before. Right now, I’m reading A Void, Georges Perec’s novel that doesn’t contain the letter E. I’m listening to Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN. I’m going to watch Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog.