Thursday, August 2, 2018

TtD supplement #111 : seven questions for Stephen Cain

Stephen Cain is the author of six full-length collections of poetry and a dozen chapbooks, including False Friends (Bookthug), I Can Say Interpellation (Bookthug), Zoom (above/ground), Etc Phrases (Bookthug), American Standard/ Canada Dry (Coach House), Torontology (ECW) and dyslexicon (Coach House). His academic publications include The Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages (co-written with Tim Conley from Greenwood in 2006) and a critical edition of bpNichol’s early long poems: bp: beginnings (Bookthug, 2014). He lives in Toronto where he teaches avant-garde and Canadian literature at York University.

Three poems from his “Walking and Stealing” appear in the eighteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the sequence “Walking and Stealing.”

A: Walking and Stealing is a long serial poem composed over the summer of 2017 which encompasses my interests, over the past decade, in constraint-based writing, psychogeography, and political resistance, and continues my exploration of the pun, popular culture, and alliteration. Each section was composed at a park in Toronto and the GTA between innings of games in which my youngest son, a Peewee AA ballplayer, was pitching and fielding. The composition time of each section is the length of a game, and the first draft of each section was recorded in a notebook in the shape and design of a baseball (see attached). While the impetus and origin of the poem is juvenile sports, baseball is not so much the subject of the poem, but the site and event which allows the poem to arise as I explore duration, association, and subjectivity. The game of baseball also functions as an analogue for poetic exploration; for example, the title of the poem refers to plays in baseball (interestingly, two ways which one can gain a base without hitting a ball), but also to psychogeographic perambulation and “stealing” as poetic intertextuality.

Q: How does this work compare to some of the other writing you’ve been doing lately?

A: It’s hard to see where you’re going when you’re in it, but right now W&S feels libratory. It’s led to a one-off poem of discarded lines “Punch the Wall” and a longer serial poem “Tag & Run”. But it also fits with academic work I’ve been pursuing: an essay on the writing of Queen St. West as a hauntology, another on spatiality in Austin Clarke’s depiction of Moss Park, and even a newer enterprise analyzing the depiction of Kensington Market in Canadian sit-coms. There’s also a nascent uber-project tying together the early cinematography of David Cronenberg with the public sculptures of Sorel Etrog, Oscar Wilde’s visit to Canada, and spaces where Emma Goldman, Jane Jacobs, and Kathy Acker changed the trajectory of Toronto’s cultural representation. 

Q: With a half dozen trade titles and a dozen chapbooks published so far, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Like the previous question, I don’t know if I can say there’s been an evolutionary trajectory of my writing. I don’t hate my earlier books (which I understand most poets do at middle age/ mid-career), and other than believing that my ear is better now, my interests in poetry have remained fairly consistent: exploring how, through word-play and humour, language can “surprise”, reveal latent political and ideological constructions, and hopefully allow the reader to see material conditions in a new way. As to moving forward, I still feel these issues haven’t been exhausted; I’ll keep trying my hand at new formal structures and make modest efforts at inventing new ones. Right now I’m excited by working at the micro-level: short lines, intense alliteration, and highly condensed puns, striving for maximum compression as I hope W&S illustrates.

Q: You’ve long been engaged in the serial poem/sequence, and even spent a time working sequence of tens, in tens. What is your attraction to working such longer, sequential forms, and what do you feel you can accomplish through such that might not be possible otherwise?

A: Indeed, I’m still at it. W&S is a site specific and temporally-bounded serial poem (poems at a set baseball diamond and the game time = composition time). You’re right that I keep working in sequence and with constraints. I think I’m not as bound by the sequence of 10 as I used to be (relinquishing the “metric system”? Decimation, a lost manuscript of the 1990s…) but I still find the serial form useful. While earlier in my writing I was more of an OuLiPo/ constraint poet, I’m finding the Spicer/ Blaser serial form more intriguing these days. Could it possibly be a happy medium between the two schools? I like listening to Martian radio to guide how I move from line to line and stanza to stanza, but I also like having an end-point, or a point of closure (i.e. I stop listening to the broadcasts after 10 lines or 6 innings).

Q: Do you see a distinction between, as you describe them, “an end-point” and “a point of closure,” and how do you decide which to utilize? Or does it vary from piece-to-piece?

A: Interesting question. Yes, I feel there’s a difference, with “point of closure” being something more definitive, pre-planned, tied up nicely, whereas “end-point” is more like “I think that’s the end, that’ll do for now.” Years ago when I was researching the history of the long poem in English literature I recall that I came to accept the difference between the Modernist Long Poem ™ and the Postmodern Long Poem was about conclusions. That while some Modern Long Poems “fail” to come to conclusive endings, they at least envision an ending—cross that bridge, bring rain to the waste land, write your way out of hell—the Postmodern long poem doesn’t have an end goal in mind. They can both equally fail but I guess the PoMo version doesn’t even have that wager on the table. I find myself mostly in the latter camp these days with both W&S and the new sequence I’m working on (Tag & Run) in that I value the process itself over getting to absolute conclusions.

Q: Would you call this an evolution in your work, valuing the process over absolute conclusion, or more of a realization? Either way, what has the difference been?

A: I think it’s more an issue of resisting the “punch line” poem, or the poem that builds to a powerful final line. Not in itself a bad thing, but the danger is that the whole poem exists just to support that final phrase. Why not just present that “crowd-pleasing” line and give up the pretense of all the excess build-up? It was more a danger in my earlier short poems, or in my concrete poems (the pun-based ones, or ones involving permutations of initial words that reveal puns) rather than in the longer sequences, but it can occur in the longer pieces as well. I guess my coming to this point is not so much evolutionary as it is a reflection of my aesthetic sensibility over the last few years, perhaps paralleled by my interest in free jazz and improvised music: I like moment to moment surprises, or periods of confusion followed by flashes of recognition or illumination, rather than a steady move to a final climax.

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

A: Always bpNichol, always bp. But since you asked about revisiting, rather than new poetry that I find exciting, over the past year (and during the composition of W&S) I enjoyed re-reading (and found inspiring) the works of Gwendolyn MacEwen, Jack Spicer, Dionne Brand, David McFadden, Phyllis Webb, William Blake, Erin Moure, Gertrude Stein, Aimé Césaire, Nancy Shaw, and Iain Sinclair.

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