His poem “The pragmatics of to belong as not belonging – uncertain ontological whims and communal phantasies from Chapter 4 of The Book of Uncertain – A Manual” appears in the twentieth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “The pragmatics of to belong as not belonging – uncertain ontological whims and communal phantasies from Chapter 4 of The Book of Uncertain – A Hyperbiographical Users’ Manual.”
A: Well, this is really the crucial question facing us at this moment of intensifying crisis. Modernity destroyed a mode of being-together that was an intimate proximity, both to other people, to other animals, and to the divine. It wasn’t idyllic by a long shot. It was by all accounts brutish, violent, and horribly intrusive. But it was a different mode of being-together than what awaited us in the cities. Living cheek by jowl, we insulate ourselves from the people who live closest to us for privacy, where the only animals we ever encounter are domesticated pets, where our meat is purchased in cellophane wrapped packages, and where the divine, as Jean-Luc Nancy put it, no longer flutters except exsanguinate and grimacing.
What’s missing is belonging in a human sense of being-together. We struggle to live among the wold vagaries of vast markets, including labour markets that force people into motion all the time. Witness what just went down in Oshawa. Society is a place of probabilities and statistically verifiable behaviours among alienated individuals determined by a set of social imaginary significations and governed by imposed norms. We are seeing the result of that process that has been going on now for some 500 years in the rise of reactionary populists like Trump and Bolsonaro who are able to exploit that deep alienation by creating a “movement” in which people experience a sense of belonging to something with others who also belong – a being-together, but one that is finally based on exclusion and violence against those who don’t belong. William Carlos Williams nailed it in that poem in Spring and All that later got called The Crowd at the Ballgame:
It is alive, venomousTo belong as not belonging is to find a way to do both at the same time so that the exclusionary violence can’t find purchase in the indeterminacy.
it smiles grimly
its words cut—
The flashy female with her
mother, gets it—
The Jew gets it straight— it
is deadly, terrifying—
It is the Inquisition, the
It is beauty itself
day by day in them
Q: How does this compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing?
A: Well, it’s really all the same work, ever since Iterations of the Diagonal back in 1995. It’s the work of finding ways to weave the complexity and mystery of beinghere in language. Think of the poem as a step transformer in a cosmos that radiates energy at an infinite number of vibratory intensities. The poem receives high-voltage information and transforms it – steps it down – into a gnosis acceptable or accessible within our finitude. Those higher voltage levels can't be processed without possibly burning out the receiver unless they are modulated. Imagine a poem that literally blows your mind, leaves the mind shattered by the sheer intensity of the energy transmission. Something like that, on a less catastrophic scale, happened to me in 1964 when I walked into an enormous lecture hall full of hundreds of students and saw on the green chalk board at the bottom of the bear pit a poem:
so much dependsI got a blast from eternity that shook me profoundly. It wasn't the full voltage but it was intense enough to leave me struggling to come to terms with a whole new dimensional possibility of language. Things looked different. The gnosis transformed me so that the work and the initial knowledge of techné required to fulfill my obligation to poesis began to come into focus. That formation goes on through all my books addressing one necessity after another.
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
22 Skidoo marked a transition to a new energy level that is still significant in terms of what I'm doing now. In that initiatory book, the incoming energy included encoded instructions on how to proceed that were tied up with two facts of that moment: teaching my five-year-old daughter antique slang, and the imposition of a physical limit dictated by the number of the lines on a page in my notebook. The mystery surrounding chance and fate then become part of the procedure and resonate with that indeterminate knowledge.
Cosmographia, my very own post-Lucretian faux micro-epic, took it to a new level, channeling Lucretius to compose a cosmographical epic outside any current imagination of the possibility of poetry – pretty much limited to either the bio/psychological or the sociological – that I’m aware of.
Great Canadian Poems for the Aged addressed that incoming energy in the context of Canada as continuing composition, and the ways in which that ongoing composition, which, as far as I know is unique in the world, undoes the nationalist obsession with “identity” by continually reopening it to include more and other. The danger is that the past will evaporate completely. These poems address an imagination of Canada that I first encountered in 1966 when I crossed the border as a 20 year old refugee fleeing being forcibly impressed into the USAmerican Imperial War against Viet Nam. The questions that it proposes have to do with cultural memory and cultural composition and Canada's unique contribution to the question of national identity. Identity as non-identity. Belonging as not belonging.
The Book of Uncertain--A Hyperbiographical Users Manual is unique in that it attempts to find a relationship to the material of bios that escapes the usual psychological or sociological reductionism. Jack called me on that years ago and I have never forgotten. How do you open your sense of “the life” to those larger energies that inform us? It’s not easy to get beyond that reductionism because we are inundated with messages asserting the supreme significance and democratic virtue of our feelings which include feelings about our social identity. The whole culture is saturated in it, so it’s easily commodified and sold. A poetry of modular elements rather than intermodal excess. Meubles, Olson called it. Selling the “self”. Copyrighting it. But the question of being resonates at frequencies far beyond that meagre attention. The question is how to compose the language, how to arrange the words so that they receive that gnosis, harbour it at accessible intensities of energetic information that locate it in other ranges of significance, one of which we think of as Myth. It is always a disturbance, and its ordering of language is also always a disordering because it is finally uncontainable.
Q: You mention your work to date as all being part of a singular, extended work. How did this first emerge? Was this something deliberate on your part, or was this something you discovered along the way?
A: I just think that the work of poetry, the mode of knowing that poetry is uniquely capable of manifesting, embodying, because of its particular relationship to sounding, sound’s body, has driven my love of poetry from the beginning. All my books have been addressed to that soundingknowing. Even Iterations of the Diagonal and Dislocations in Crystal which were assembled from single poems or series of poems. With 22 Skidoo the book became the unit of composition, as I said, partly by chance, perhaps with a bit of fate thrown in.
At the time, I was primarily responsible in our family for ferrying the kids to their schools and their various activities. I spent a lot of time waiting for the piano lesson or the karate class to end. I had almost no time to sit at a desk and write. So one Saturday at a soccer lesson in the field house at the U of T Athletic Centre, I thought, why not write a book of poems centered on the old slang I was teaching my infant daughter at night before bed. Since there were 22 lines on my notebook page, I decided to do 22 poems of 22 lines each. Then I wrote down all 22 titles—yap, caboodle, golly, etc.. All I had to do then was fill in the poems wherever I was sitting waiting for the kids to come out. Thus 22 Skidoo was born. And SubTractions. It has been a very productive methodology for me, one I still follow to a large degree, even though the kids are now grown. I love titles. And I love the challenge of facing a title like “Myth, Gluten Free Pornography, and Your Health,” or “Axial Ordination: The Calculation of Sublation,” and then having to compose its poem. That’s really fun. And it’s conducive to the process of composition as steady work rather than what Jack Clarke called an irregular momentary incursion.
Q. With eleven trade collections under your belt, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: It has become more relaxed, less concerned with the cruelties of perfection, and more at home with its own stuttering forays beyond what it already knows. In that sense, I don’t see it headed anywhere. The question is where does it see me headed? My hope is that it will continue to unfold its surprises and tangled language into forms I didn’t see coming. I love being blindsided by poetry. That could be my epitaph: MB—Blindsided by Poetry. My current work, a book called The Book of Uncertain – A Hyperbiographical Users Manual, consists to 20 chapters (I have the titles!). I am just finishing up Chapters 8 & 9, which leaves 11 to go. Since I am 72 years old, finishing may take what time I have left on this plane. So I guess you could say it’s headed for the cliff like my heroes, Thelma and Louise.
Q: I’m curious about your interactions with Robert Duncan’s work. How has his writing influenced yours, if at all, and how did you and Victor Coleman end up co-editing his The H.D. Book? How did you approach editing such a hefty volume, especially as a pair?
I first came into Duncan’s work through Robin Blaser when I was a student at Simon Fraser University in 1967. Robin gave me the world, including Blake, H.D., Spicer, Williams, and Pound. And Olson. And of course Duncan. At that time Robin and Duncan were on the outs, but whatever was between them, Robin always expressed profound respect for Duncan and his work. He ends up as a Great Companion in The Holy Forest, along with Pindar and Dante. That’s impressive company. So I read with great interest and admiration The Opening of the Field and Bending the Bow. I was never moved to write like Duncan in the way I was by H.D., Williams and Spicer, but his thinking deeply influenced me. After various peregrinations, I went back to school in 1980 after a 10 year stint working in various industrial situations. I ended up in a course on contemporary poetry at UC Santa Cruz with Nathaniel Mackey who was very close to Duncan. I wrote a long essay for Nate on Eros and imagination in Duncan’s work which is when I became aware of The H.D. Book. I learned a ton doing that essay and began piecing together the scattered limbs of The H.D. Book, Duncan’s magnificent quest for a poetics through an intense, prolonged meditation on modernism.
I was supposed to edit that work after I completed my PhD. at Buffalo, but for several reasons it never happened. Later, after I moved back to Toronto in 1993, Victor Coleman and I decided to respond to the continued deferral of the publication of the book by posting a pirated edition on line. I had copies of all the little magazine publications from my stint in Buffalo. Victor, who is an excellent typist, transcribed them. We posted the book online attributed to Frontier Press, and anonymously mailed out 3.5” floppy disks to 30 or 40 poets we knew would keep spreading it around.
The original editor The H.D. Book for some reason couldn’t manage to supply an acceptable manuscript to UC Press. After three shots at it, UC took it away from him, and through a series of unexpected contingencies, eventually offered it to me. Since Vic had transcribed the whole thing, they were persuaded to include both of us as joint editors. We had photocopies of Duncan’s manuscripts with his handwritten changes. The editing was pretty uncomplicated. There was a bit of confusion at some points about which of several different manuscripts to use as copy text, but mostly Duncan had carefully indicated his intention. Vic and I spent a year reading the whole thing aloud to each other a couple of times, interpolating the various versions. Sometimes we’d go up to my cottage near Wiarton on southern Georgian Bay and spend three or four days doing that on the deck. Reading Duncan’s marvelous prose aloud in the presence of Georgian Bay . . . it was glorious.
Q: Did you see any shift in the ways in which you approached your own writing, given how deep you were delving into Duncan’s work? Did any poems emerge from this process of editing, reading and rereading?
A: More confirmation and challenge than any profound shift in approach. I have been close to Duncan’s work for a very long time so editing The H.D. Book wasn’t so much about being inspired, so to speak, as being reminded of my responsibility as a poet. What has always been significant for me is his understanding of poetry as responsible to what he calls What Is. Jack Clarke once told me if I wanted to write poetry I needed to go live in the Air Force Academy and understand what goes on there. Part pun, part metaphor, the challenge was to come into the power of a poetry that is beyond you but integral to the full complexity of the world. Knowing my history as a war resister, his point was that poetry you to move beyond the meagre limits of the self as bios rather than zoë, where bios is a recitation of the events of a life, where zoë is the time of the soul. The self as bios, he said, will only yield what he called antithetical systemic representation. I needed to fully engage with, to immerse myself in, that which I had opposed, or posed myself against. Instead of opposing it, poetry demands that you enter it and find a way to open the work to it. That’s Duncan’s challenge as well, his sense of responsibility, the ability to respond.
In these strange times, we find ourselves caught up in powerful historical currents that seem to continually tear us apart, polarize us into unresolvable warring camps. It’s a ferocious incursion of intense Typhonic energy, and the pressure is on us to hole up behind some impermeable moralist wall and duke it out with the enemy, to make identity – that unification process – the goal of poetry, and to mobilize it against antithetical identities. William Blake called that state Ulro and pictured it as a man and woman tied together back to back. Beyond that he saw two further states of being – three fold vision, Beulah, a “sexual” paradise of the visionary union of opposites in which identity gives way to what’s beyond it by embracing what it has excluded; and Jerusalem, or four fold vision, in which the full spiritual reality of all creation is apparent in every perception. Jack articulated that in terms of a poetics he called the strengthening method of world completion. That is Duncan’s assignment, as well: to never allow your poetry to lose sight of its responsibility to the forces of that larger field of What Is.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
Good question. I constantly read to feed my work, but it’s not so much a particular work as it is a writer. And there is no single writer I return to. It’s a bunch of them. Mostly it’s poetry and philosophy. Jean-Luc Nancy, Stanley Cavell, Isabel Stengers, Karen Barad, Giorgio Agamben, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are constants for me, stars in my internal sky. Then there are H.D., William Blake, Robert Duncan, Billie Chernicoff, Jack Spicer, Lissa Woslsak, Charles Olson, Jack Clarke, Gerrit Lansing . . . it’s hard to draw a line, actually, because picking up one thread leads to the whole poetic firmament coming in.
If you absolutely forced me to pick one from each group, I suppose it would be Emerson and Jack Clarke for exactly the opposite reasons. Emerson is the beginning of a mode of thinking that provokes and feeds into all the significant current thinking of our condition, including the Europeans via Nietzsche. The rich, multi-valenced complexity of his language and the extraordinary break he makes into what he calls the “ordinary” or “common” are openings that have yet to be fully grasped and embraced. At the other end, Jack Clarke’s work went about as far as you can go today. From Feathers to Iron remains the most significant work on poetics since Valery and takes Charles Olson’s breakthrough work further than anyone else has dared to imagine. As does his poetry which is a constant source of astonishment. I love Jack Spicer. He is a huge player in my imagination of what poetry can do. But he takes a turn with language that leads down a very dark hole that winds up with him as sacrificial victim to wild logos. Jack’s domesticity, like Emerson’s, saved him from that. He was a motherman, a nurturer, gentle but absolutely incisive. As Al Cook said, he took it as far beyond Olson as Olson took it beyond Pound. And that’s pretty much as far as we have got.