Thursday, November 29, 2018

TtD supplement #121 : seven questions for Ken Hunt

Ken Hunt’s writing has appeared in Penteract, The Blasted Tree, No Press, Freefall, Matrix Magazine, and in the anthology The Calgary Renaissance. His first book of poetry, Space Administration, was published in 2014 by the LUMA Foundation. Ken has two books of poetry forthcoming from BookThug: The Lost Cosmonauts (in 2018) and The Odyssey (in 2019). Ken also has a book of poetry forthcoming in 2020, from The University of Calgary Press, entitled The Manhattan Project. For three years, Ken served as managing editor of NōD Magazine, and for one year, he served as poetry editor of filling Station. In 2014, Ken founded Spacecraft Press, an online publication venue for experimental writing inspired by science and technology. Ken holds an MA in English from Concordia University, and is a PhD candidate at Western University in London, Ontario.

His poems “UNCLASSIFIED,” “The Autokinetic Effect,” “Sleep Paralysis” and “The Klass Curse” appear in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “UNCLASSIFIED,” “The Autokinetic Effect,” “Sleep Paralysis” and “The Klass Curse.”

A: These four poems are excerpted from my current poetry manuscript-in-progress, Project Blue Book. The book investigates the UFO phenomenon, its surrounding subcultures, its related conspiracy theories, and its status as a kind of ‘modern mythology’.

The drop poem “UNCLASSIFIED” refers to conspiracy theories that claim NASA has withheld information about its space programs and missions from the public. Some claim that this withheld information deals with extraterrestrial encounters. Others claim, infamously, that this withheld information would prove that one or more of the Apollo space missions were hoaxes designed to act as pro-American Cold War propaganda.

The title of the poem “The Autokinetic Effect” refers to a hallucinatory phenomenon often experienced by fighter pilots, where stationary dots of light outside the aircraft appear to move. This phenomenon is often cited as an explanation for UFO sightings reported by fighter pilots.

The title of the poem “Sleep Paralysis” refers to a common explanation for abduction experiences. Each line in this poem is lifted, verbatim, from abduction narratives written by abductees. In particular, only lines beginning with “they” were selected.

Finally, “The Klass Curse” is a condemnation of the stubbornness and gullibility of UFO conspiracy theorists, made by the late journalist and skeptic Philip J. Klass, which I have repurposed, verbatim, as a found poem.

Q: How do these poems fit in with some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: These poems incarnate my continuing interest in writing poetry that responds to the sciences. I suppose the poems (or rather Project Blue Book as a whole) are similar to my forthcoming manuscripts (The Lost Cosmonauts, The Odyssey, and The Manhattan Project), in that each book represents a link in a kind of chain of texts that I’m in the process of producing. In addition to pursuing a PhD thesis that investigates examples of related works of poetry from the latter half of the 20th century to the present, I find myself compelled to add my own works to the canon as well, in order to address subjects that haven’t yet received the level of poetic attention that I think their continuing sociocultural impact warrants.

Out of the poetry published each year, and out of the catalogue of poetry written over the course of the past few decades, relatively few books have engaged in significant ways with scientific language, events, and ideas. Books that have done so have largely gone unnoticed, relative to books of poetry that have engaged with other subjects.

Like the stereotypical group of nerds inventing intricate D&D narratives in a dim room, I get the sense that many poets with an interest in responding to the sciences with their work (whether they are part of a group of likeminded peers or not), end up ostracized, or perhaps ostracize themselves intentionally in response to an all-too-familiar expectation that little to no understanding, let alone attention, will come their way, despite their best efforts.

I want not only to bring academic attention to the bridges being built (rather than burned) between poetry and science in our politically divisive environment, but also to bring together poets writing about these subjects, in order to create a stronger, more coherent community. Many of us are reticent to share our interests (what poet isn't?) until we feel we have a common space in which to do so.

I think that poets whose work engages with the sciences (whether by way of ‘cosmic mysticism’, ‘ecocriticism’, ‘the necropastoral’, the ‘abyssal sublime’, or some other critical perspective), have a great deal to offer the sciences, not only in terms of how poetry might critique the often problematic practices of the science-focused industries, but also in terms of how poetry has the power to draw positive attention to scientific breakthroughs and ideas that have the potential to greatly enrich the human experience, combat poverty, offer us greater agency over our biology, and restore parts of the environment that industrial practices have damaged.

Although my own work can wax apocalyptic and favour the strange, the mysterious, the unknown, the horrific, the tragic, and the sublime, the vast majority of the science-inspired poetry that I read tackles science from a myriad of tonal, thematic, and narrative approaches. I’m constantly amazed by the new and different ways in which poets are approaching scientific subject matter, and I hope that this eclectic community continues to experiment and innovate.

Q: I’m always fascinated by poets who engage with science, although I’ve become less convinced over the years that the combination is as unusual as popular thought might suggest. What is it about the blending of poetry and science that still manages to maintain, in your view, such a stigma of rarity?

A: C.P Snow’s 1959 lecture The Two Cultures (later published as a short text) describes what the author perceives as a growing rift between the humanities and the sciences. Snow argues that the ‘culture’ of each department has tended to perceive the other as oddly off-kilter in linguistic, philosophical, and moral terms at best and, at worst, in outright opposition to their ‘core values’ (to skirt orthodoxical terms). Snow points out that this rift was not always so pronounced, but rather it seems to have widened sharply over the course of the 20th century.

While increased support for multidisciplinary endeavors has done significant work to productively ‘entangle’ the academic realms of the humanities and the sciences, I think that this perceived rift in academia still reflects a larger perceived rift in culture, a rift between two elements of a false binary consisting of conveniently-constructed actors of two types: those who are generally more skeptical of scientific practices and those who are generally more supportive of them.

Given the oversimplification performed by the aforementioned binary, Snow’s dialectic approach becomes less useful when tackling the question of how such spheres are overlapping today. I think that “The Two Cultures” is most useful in the sense that it encapsulates an oppositional view of science and poetry, a view that many of the poets I am interested in have been working to deconstruct.

Stereotypically speaking, poets are often seen as slaves to passion, while scientists are seen as slaves to reason. I think that these stereotypes contribute to science-inspired poetry’s “stigma of rarity,” as you put it. If one has been exposed repeatedly to these stereotypical characterizations of poets and scientists, one finds it harder to imagine the two working together or drawing from one another’s ideas; criticism is easier to imagine than synthesis.

There is a significant amount of science-inspired poetry being produced, far more than this “stigma of rarity” suggests. Ironically, Snow, in attempting to draw attention to a rift, ends up propping it open in a way by lending attention to the aforementioned false binary, to the burning of bridges rather than the building of them.

Peter Middleton’s book Physics Envy does some important work in terms of highlighting instances of overlap and idea-sharing between science and poetry in America. As recently as the mid-2010s, scholars such as Peter Middleton, Mary Migdley, Joyelle McSweeney, and others have begun to elucidate the complex relationship between science and poetry. Their work does a great deal to dispel the myth that both poetically-inclined scientists and experimental poets are few and far between.

Q: What made you approach exploring these questions and relations through poetry, as opposed to working in more traditional critical forms, such as through academic writing?

A: I appreciate the potential brevity and flexibility of poetry relative to other forms of writing. For me, creative prose and the academic essay, respectively, rely on more rigid formal scaffolding to wedge themselves into their definitions. In contrast, I see poetry as paradoxically both far less constrained by default and yet far more open to the application of customized constraints. For others, prose and the academic essay can offer the same flexibility as poetry does for me (Louis Bury’s PhD thesis Exercises in Criticism, for example, is a series of essays written according to the constraints of the texts they examine.)

Oddly enough and, I suppose, in contradiction to the previous paragraph, I have recently found myself moving towards a kind of prose-poetry in my creative work. I still strive for a certain ‘density of music’ as I’ll call it, but structurally, I've been more and more inclined to emphasize narrative in a given book, both within poems and between them. I've found that maintaining narrative in poetry offers a constraint of its own that has proven productive for me.

Speaking of forms of writing, my PhD thesis at Western will also discuss the relationship between science and poetry, giving me ample opportunity to explore the topic more thoroughly through academic writing.

Q: You’ve mentioned a couple of names and specific works so far, but have you any other models for this kind of work? What works or writers are in your head when you’re writing?

A: I have a kind of ‘critical mass’ model of writing, if you like. I gather and read through materials until I feel like I have a massive enough pile of notes for a book-length project, and then I dive into it, surfacing when necessary to fill in any gaps.

On a side-note, I also make it a priority to contribute to the design of my work; Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typography, a kind of ‘book design bible’, has been tremendously valuable to me since I bought it as an undergraduate. Christian Bök’s books of poetry, all of which he has had a hand in designing, have also served as valuable references for me over the years.

In terms of composition, if my poetry had a mother and father, so-to-speak, its mother would be Gwendolyn MacEwen and its father would be Christian Bök. When I prepare to write, I usually have both of their respective works in mind to some degree. MacEwen is also one of Christian’s favourite poets, so in a way, both he and I owe a deep debt to her. I re-read Christian’s Crystallography and MacEwen’s The Armies of the Moon every so often, but I use these texts more as launchpads than as blueprints. They warm me up by revivifying my appreciation for what poetry is capable of.

When I write, I draw from a variety of sources at once. I take a lot of notes when I read, look at, or watch relevant media, and then I go through those notes when I write. I record impressions from any media I’m exposed to, whenever something catches my eye. For example, because much of my recent work has depended upon digging through historical narratives, I’ve read through various historical texts to get a more broad sense of my subject matter.

Most recently, I’ve immersed myself in the odd and esoteric texts of the ‘UFO subculture’ in order to establish a sense of its most significant figures and events. In my current writing endeavour, Project Blue Book, I’m approaching the subjects of UFOs, alien abductions, etc. as 'modern mythologies' of sorts. I'm currently reading Carl Jung’s book Flying Saucers: a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, along with various books written by purported witnesses to events involving UFOs and extraterrestrials. Scholar Susan A. Clancy also has a book called Abducted, printed by Harvard University Press, wherein she studies abductee experiences.

Q: You reference working in terms of book-length project. What brought you to this point in your work? How did you decide that the full-length manuscript, over, say, the individual poem, would be your unit of composition?

A: Having the goal of producing a thematically coherent set of poems motivates me to write by giving me a goal to work towards. Creating a kind of conceptual scaffold that wants to be filled with poems and then struggling to fill it makes the process of writing more generative for me. This way I can also respond to material that interests me in a more detailed and complete way by making that material the subject of a book of poetry.

Q: Finally, with a small handful of poetry collections and chapbooks either in print or forthcoming, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: I can’t be certain about where I’m headed, but you could say I’m cautiously optimistic in general. So far, my chapbooks have received a fair amount of positive attention. Most importantly, these publications have put me in touch with some brilliant contemporary poets and independent publishers (Anthony Etherin and his Penteract Press, Kyle Flemmer and his The Blasted Tree, derek beaulieu and his No Press, Christian Bök and his Chronium Dioxide [Cr02] press, etc.) Given my forthcoming books, I hope that what I've written will both satisfy those already familiar with my work and also intrigue new readers.

My practice has changed significantly since I started writing seriously, in ways I’ve elaborated on earlier in this interview. I could see myself shifting into writing prose some time in future but, for the next four years, I’ll be focused on academic essays when I’m not chipping away at Project Blue Book.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

TtD supplement #120 : seven questions for Michael Robins

Michael Robins is the author of four poetry collections, most recently In Memory of Brilliance & Value (2015) and People You May Know (forthcoming 2020), both from Saturnalia Books. He lives, teaches, and parents in Chicago.

Six poems from “Philip Says” appears in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “Philip Says.”

A: “Philip Says” is my half of a postcard correspondence with the poet Ada Limón. That exchange took place in 2014, and is part of a larger, ongoing project (since 2005) in which I trade a postcard-a-day each February with a different poet. My most recent collaborators were Kate Greenstreet (2017) and Noah Falck (2018). I’m exchanging postcards with David Trinidad in February 2019.

The 2014 exchange took an unexpected turn when the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman was reported. Even now, all kinds of clichés flood my language when I consider the early, unexpected loss of someone who possessed such exceptional talent and who, despite profound self-doubt, was absolutely committed to his art. “Philip Says” is rather oblique in addressing Hoffman’s death, but the poem remains an attempt to navigate grief and impermanence.

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

A: Lately, I’ve written new poems that may or may not be included in the forthcoming book (People You May Know) and revising a group of thirty poems written this past April as part of an emailed, poem-a-day exchange with Adam Clay. The line lengths of this work are longer than those in “Philip Says,” which probably indicates my distance from studying and teaching Robert Creeley’s poetry.

Reading aloud has been essential in my writing process since the beginning and, in my more recent work, I feel I’m offering even more of myself to accuracy and how to convey it through taste: how the mouth and breath shape the poem. When trading postcards with another writer, there’s just a few hours, at most, to attempt something beautiful, and my own goals for the project include letting the language stand as a pure record of that effort, without revisions down the road. In contrast, the last poem I “finished” took nearly six weeks of revision. After many years living inside couplets, I’m more and more attracted to tercets, and I’m even more attracted (in theory at least) to the idea of letting content dictate form.

Q: What do you feel these collaborations have allowed that your solo work, at least to this point, hasn’t? More specifically, what differences have you noticed, if any, between your work as part of collaborating with Ada Limón over working with Kate Greenstreet or Noah Falck?

A: I’m suddenly suspicious of using the word “collaboration” in describing these projects, although there’s certainly a collaborative spirit in terms of commitment and simultaneity. With the postcard exchanges, I rarely have a sense of what’s going to happen in terms of shape or content until each February begins. Plus, due to the delay and general unpredictability of mail delivery, the first dispatches often don’t arrive for five, six, or seven days, so initially my collaborator and I are working blind. Still, I’ve yet to correspond with someone I haven’t met at least once, and I inevitably rely on some part of our shared history. Examples include invoking the town of Amherst, Massachusetts (where I went to graduate school with several collaborators) or the landscape where I taught last summer with Noah Falck and others at Kenyon College. And to help counter the empty mailbox and unavoidable silence that begins an exchange, I’ll start each day of the month by reading a few pages of the other poet’s most recent collection in order to associate or respond indirectly to a phrase or idea in their writing. In a more direct response to your second question, the direction of my writing in each yearly exchange is surprising, and also very much guided by my reading of, and relationship to, the other writer.

In response to your first question, the time it takes me to finish a poem (one that I’m writing on my own, without a postmark deadline) has slowed over the last few years. This isn’t a complaint as long as I’m satisfied with the end result and, should I feel discouraged by the pace of things, I need only remember that a “quick” poem for Elizabeth Bishop was one that took several months to complete. Few people understand why anyone writes poetry, and fewer people know how much time the poet spends alone, occupied inside a single memory, image, or other moment in the language. Correspondence (i.e. Postcard Poetry) offers relief from that isolation because my audience, when it boils down to it, is a single person who’s anticipating my words in their mailbox. Regardless of its shape or method, collaboration combats the solitary act of writing through intimacy and by connecting one human voice with another.

Additionally, given the frequency and time constraints established in most of my collaborative projects, the exchanges remind me that there’s no single way to write a poem. There’s also the reassurance that, yes, poets are capable of making something in the smallest window of the day. I work seriously on each postcard, knowing it’s doubtful I’ll permit revision after the fact. And although my side of each exchange settles into a consistent tone and shape, on more recent occasions I’ve given myself the project of writing a singular, month-long work. This culminated in a 174-line poem (sent to Dan Chelotti in 2016), an untitled 200-line poem (sent to Noah this year), and even a book-length sequence of 112 short paragraphs (sent to Kate in 2017).

Q: With four full-length poetry collections and three chapbooks over the past dozen or so years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: As impressive as that publication history might sound, I feel like I haven’t published at all. Maybe it’s a sense that all of the poems I’ve written are working toward a single poem, the ending of which will arrive with my death. Plus, for every book I’ve been fortunate to publish, there’s another manuscript that made the finalist lists at presses X, Y, and Z, but won’t likely see the light of day. I’ve begun to wonder at what point should a writer stop letting editors decide if his, her, or their efforts are book worthy? We forgive Whitman for self-publishing Leaves of Grass. I’m no Whitman, though I’m lucky to have accumulated as much writing as I have. I’m much more interested in the poem started this morning than the one written five years ago. Our job as poets, after all, is to write the next poem.

Ultimately, I hope that each new poem will reflect a broader knowledge of the world and surprise me with its language, subject, and style. But who knows what kind of trajectory awaits. Paraphrasing a line from Noah Baumbach’s first film: you shoot for the stars and maybe you hit the roof. I won’t write a poem if its destination is already set.

Q: You mention that you’re working on a single, life-long poem. Was this something you decided early on, or was this something you realized along the way?

A: Along the way, for sure. Peter Gizzi, with whom I studied at UMass-Amherst, has described book organization and his awareness of the thread that exists between the first poem of a new book and the final poem of his previous collection. He’s not just structuring a book of poems, he’s shaping an ongoing body of work. Here, in the early decades of the 21stcentury, most of us have photographs and curate some record of our lives on social media. When I first stepped into poetry (swept up by its river, you might say), I felt the possibility of language cutting through the noise and a discrete, more accurate record of an existence. When I’m corresponding with friends, even friends who aren’t writers, I’ll sometimes include my most recent poem. For me, it’s the most accurate response to the question, “How are you?” or “How have you been?” The poem is the mental space I’ve occupied, and its creation is a genuine record of how I’ve spent my days. Then the work accumulates and, yes, ideally becomes evidence of a life.

Q: What does that mean for you in terms of building book-length collections? Do these exist as a continuous thread, or are projects constructed concurrently?

A: It’s difficult to work on more than one poem at a time, let alone book-length projects. In the last decade, I’ve tended to write in a certain mode or style (e.g. the couplet or a staggered line) before transitioning to something else. I mentioned writing very short paragraphs in my postcard exchange with Kate Greenstreet, and in a year and a half I haven’t yet returned to the paragraph form. “Philip Says” reflects, to a degree, my reading of Creeley, and my insistence on the short line (a period spanning about four years) is behind me, for now. In terms of book-length collections, that gathering of poems loosely reflects a contained period of my life and my writing. The length of time might span a month or several years. If lucky, sometimes the manuscript becomes a book, which allows me another opportunity for focused revision and re-envisioning.

Going back to style, it was odd when my last book (In Memory of Brilliance & Value) was accepted because the medium-length lines of that work preceded my exploration of shorter lines, and so I found myself struggling to reengage with a form that wasn’t in my immediate wheelhouse. It took considerable effort to reengage with poems that were several years old, though I was eventually able to remove some pieces and offer revisions to others. The origins of those poems remain firmly rooted in 2010 and also reflect my efforts five years later. I mean, Paul Valéry is credited with acknowledging that a poem is never finished (it’s merely abandoned), and with that in mind I found consolation in letting In Memory of Brilliance & Value stand as a record of the best I could do as a writer on the day my final proofs were due. I have zero desire in becoming one of those poets who regrets the past and makes changes years or even decades after the writing has appeared in a book.

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

A: As a parent of two children, my time for reading feels smaller than ever. My library continues to grow (more slowly than it used to) and I’ve managed to extinguish most of my guilt for what I haven’t read. I’ve also grown comfortable thinking of my book collection as a partially explored library where discovery is very much alive. I’m not always intellectually or emotionally ready for the books I acquire. Our tastes as readers change (thankfully) and what sustained me in my early twenties can leave me puzzled in my early forties. There are also books I purchased five, ten, or fifteen years ago that are just now beginning to resonate. For the past several years, sober and sometimes less so, my evening ritual involves searching that library, browsing poems until I find one that hooks my attention, my affections, and then post a photograph of the poem in my social media streams. This might sound like I’m dodging your question, but I’m constantly looking for the undiscovered gem. Maybe it’s a poem by Muriel Rukeyser. Maybe James Schuyler, Gwendolyn Brooks, or a poet whose name I won’t know until I open the latest issue of a literary journal. The energy of such poems brings to mind Whitman’s dictum from Leaves of Grass: “read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life.” Poetry has accompanied the best periods of my life and served as a ballast during the worst. Poetry gives me an essential reason to live and be alive. I hate to imagine a world without the kinship of poets and their work.

Friday, November 9, 2018

TtD supplement #119 : six questions for robert majzels

robert majzels is the author of four novels, a book of poetry with Claire Huot, and numerous translations, including 5 novels by France Daigle and, with Erín Moure, several books of poetry by Nicole Brossard. He did time as an associate professor in the University of Calgary, and continues to write from time to time.

His “four verses from khArlaMoV’s aNkLe” appears in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “four verses from khArlaMoV’s aNkLe.”

A: These four verses are part of a longer work, which I can call poetry or prose or hybrid, or mixed whatever, depending on what a particular publisher is looking for. I think we’re beginning to realize that simply adding new categories to old labels whether in genre or gender is a form of more or less aggressive normalization. Reason why I prefer to think of it all as simply writing or, if I must describe the genre i’m working in, let’s call it "twisted ankle." The language and form shift as the work shifts between narrative streams, philosophical wonderment, poetic phrasing, political rant, with bits of translational exercises (e.g. the two versions of the Wang Wei poem in the four verses), and self-reflexive wrestling with writing itself and my responsibilities as someone who writes.

The Peony Pavilion, a Kunqu opera by the 16th century Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu provides a scaffolding for kHarLaMov’s aNkLe, which follows the 55 scenes of that Ming Dynasty classic. K’s ankle is also a kind of notebook following my study of several fundamental texts of Daoism attributed to Laozi and Zhuangzi. Because writing is really always first of all reading, I’m always simultaneously writing and studying one or more texts. In the writing of a previous novel, Apikoros Sleuth, I was following the Sanhedrin Tractate of the Talmud. In this case, the near perfect stillness of the dao provides a contrapuntal slowness to the otherwise frenzied pace of the aNklE. My interest in both The Peony Pavilion and the daoist texts is of course a product of time I spent in China and the critical role of that country and culture to the future of the world. The Dao is particularly attractive to me because it suggests a sacred practice of atheism, and a refusal to present an all encompassing theory or dogma. It’s mostly about undoing our assumptions. I’m also fascinated by the daoist withdrawal from the world and refusal to act. The pull between a desire to change the world and the suspicion that it might be best to simply withdraw from it are at the root of kHarMaLoV’s aNkLe.

Formally, I’ve tried to break free of a number of traditional literary techniques. I’m working towards a form that can open up to a more rigourous social, political and literary criticism. I’ve always felt that the long argued opposition between fiction or poetry as social commentary vs formal experimentation is false. It seems obvious that structure and form, including grammar and punctuation are not rules based on some natural order, or a reflection of the “real” world; on the contrary, the formal rules have evolved in the complex power struggles between various social forces. These rules and norms determine the way we think about our selves and our lives. So writing, for me, is about challenging, exploring the limits of literary and other modes of communication to make other ways of thinking and being possible.

I’ve been working on this particular project for several years, with no expectation of seeing it in print. In a way, abandoning the idea of publication was what made it possible for me to write k’s ankle. I had to break with the discursive formation of canlit. Especially after seven years in the creative writing academic mill. I had to find a place to write without an imagined audience looking over my shoulder.

The fact it's taken me several years to write khArlaMoV’s aNkLe is perhaps ironic because the underlying theme of the work is URGENCY. Urgency in the face of environmental destruction, the military industrial complex’s permanent state of war, police racist violence, empty gestures toward reconciliation with Indigenous nations, and the complacency of the rest of us who are deadened by disaster and wasting our lives trying to earn a living. One of the principal strands woven into k’s ankle is a kind of picaresque narrative of the adventures of a group of junky anarchists who call themselves khArlaMoV’s aNkLe. The group alternates between long bouts of doing nothing on junk, when they can get it, and repeated attempts to assassinate Stephen Harper and then Donald Trump. (That’s the utopian aspect of the work — who wouldn't love to light up those bastards.)

The title refers to the Canada-Russia Summit Hockey Series in 1972 when Bobby Clarke, on instructions from the Canadian bench, broke the Russian star player Valerie Kharlamov’s ankle. In a way, that event marks a shift in the Canadian psyche. Gone is the pretence of good sportsmanship, replaced by the will to win, to own the podium. Trudeau’s smiley face may seem to be a return to happier times, but really it’s a thin mask, wagging tongue attached, concealing our active participation in a completely indefensible war on the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, conducted through unmanned drones, high altitude bombing and proxies. What the multinational manufacturers of armaments and their political puppets have come up with is a way to wage permanent war without disrupting the daily lives of their own citizens: unlike Viet Nam and the WWars before it, there’s no conscription, no rationing, no continuous return of body bags. The only disruption comes from the occasional individual suicide bomber trying to bring our war back home to us.

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

A: It’s better.

Q: I’m fascinated by your experiments with form, from the structural resonances of Teeth to your current work-in-progress, what you’re referring to as a “hybrid.” What is it about bringing unutilized or under-considered structures into poetry or prose that you feel you wouldn’t be able to accomplish otherwise? And how successful do you feel you’ve been?

A: The big question, the chicken and egg of content/form. As I mentioned in my response to your initial question, I don’t believe that the structures and conventions of writing, including grammar, punctuation, spelling, and going all the way up to the formal rules of poetry and fiction, and especially the distinctions between genres are natural or immutable. They are constantly changing and the result of changing relations of power. We only prize symmetry over asymmetry or closure over open-endedness, clarity over ambiguity, or the phallocentric curve of so much narrative structure over the chaos in our lives because they have been drummed into us for so long. The problem with “Little Red Riding Hood” is not so much the sexist moral — young women should not wear red capes or stray from the narrow path through the woods — as the fichtean curve of the narrative structure. I remember years ago the first time I heard bebop, I told my friend who’d brought me there, “this is just noise.” He said “you’re just not ready for it.” If you listen to bubblegum music all day long, you’re going to have trouble following something more complex. Only a few years ago, the time shifts, tangled narratives, rapid cuts we see in mainstream cinema and television today would have been unthinkable.

When I was teaching, I developed an argument about experimental writing. I compared it to medicine: mainstream bestselling authors are like general practitioners; they see many patients but nothing too complicated; literary writers are like specialists; they see fewer patients but treat more complicated issues; and experimental writers are like research scientists working in the lab; they see no patients, but their work is essential to the specialists and generalists. That usually satisfied my students (though they were mostly all thinking, “please, god let me be a general practitioner”.) After dealing with writers and students for a few years, I don’t really believe in that argument anymore. It reminds me of the claim writers make in the face of the indifference of the general population to their work that canlit contributes to the economy. I certainly don't want to contribute to the economy. I think so-called “realist” writing is as accurate a reproduction of the “real" world as pornography is a true representation of sex. And the effect is similarly corrupting. It objectifies the world and shackles the collective imagination. We’ve known for a long time, for example, that iambic pentameter is not the natural rhythm of the English language, that Shakespeare’s plays were not conceived in five acts, that no one’s life actually follows the phallic curve to climax of conventional narrative structure. I agree with Nietzsche: “we are not rid of God because we still believe in grammar,” and Lynn Hejinian: “there is no need to distinguish poetry from prose.”

I think writing is as much about undoing our assumptions, disassembling the structures that limit what we can imagine about what is possible, juxtaposing what may seem to be unrelated images, phrases, words, as it is about creating anything new. When I write, I'm trying to do dreamwork. I understand the impulse to write clearly so that a progressive message can be communicated, to see writing as a kind of sugar coated pill delivering sometimes harsh medicine. But I don’t believe that’s what happens when an audience encounters the text. I support the struggle for inclusiveness and diversity, but I’m wary of the attempt to encourage tolerance and respect by simply substituting a different character in a familiar story. I don’t agree that we are fundamentally all the same. If we believe that, what happens when we encounter someone or something that is fundamentally different.

With the 85 project, I worked with Claire Huot to undo the poetic line, and the distinction between translation and original writing. With “kharlamov’s ankle” I’m trying to get rid of the literariness of writing. I want to write something that can’t be easily integrated into the pretensions and bourgeois values of the literary, with its allusive elegance, its prettiness, but at the same time not a simple flat prose. For example, the elimination of the sentence, the elimination of most punctuation (not telling the reader where to pause or striving to eliminate the deferral of meaning), the use of the period as a musical notation rather than a limit, all these open up the space of writing for me.

Q: What was it that prompted you to collaborate with Claire Huot? How did the 85 project come about?

A: Claire Huot is a sinologist by trade, fluent in reading and writing Chinese, and speaking Mandarin. She has taught Chinese studies at the Université de Montréal and the University of Calgary, published two books on contemporary Chinese culture, and served as the Canadian Embassy’s Cultural Counsellor in China. From 2000 to 2002, we lived in Beijing, where I learned some Chinese, and began to scratch the surface of Chinese culture. At the same time I was trying to find a way to write poetry out from under the boot of the line. In my research for my novel Apikoros Sleuth, I had come across a book by Marc-Alain Ouaknin entitled Le live brûlé (The Burnt Book), in which he cites a Talmudic debate over what constitutes a book. Long story short, the rabbis conclude that a book consists of a minimum of 85 letters in continuous movement (you can see the article on the website below for more how the rabbis got there). I started to write poems in 85 letters. Claire pointed out that one of the classic forms of Tang Dynasty poems, the jueju, consists of four lines (columns) of five characters each. Since a Chinese character is the equivalent of a word in English, these poems were composed of 20 words, which averages out to about 85 letters. We began a long complex, radically ethical process of translating Chinese poems into English. Our goal, in Lawrence Venuti’s terms, was to resist normalizing the poems, “to register the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text” in the translated works. In that sense, we were following Pound’s attempt to allow Chinese poetry to impact what poetry in English could become, rather than transforming Chinese into something we already recognize. In particular, by paying attention not only to the meaning of the Chinese characters, but to the radicals and phonemes contained within each individual character, we were able to explore the connotations within words as well as their literal meanings. The 85s ended up adopting various incarnations, as visual poems, stencils, video taped readings, three dimensional sculptures, and as a set of five books.

You can find a more detailed description of the 85 project online as well as examples of the poems and video recordings: http://www.85bawu.com/Assets/Articles/About%20the%2085%20Poetic%20Project.pdf

Q: What effect do you feel such an immersive project had on your subsequent work? Were you, as you suggest, able to get “out from under the boot of the line?”

A: The 85 poems combined formal rigour with a transgressive impulse. On the one hand, there was the 85 word limit, and the need to remain faithful to the source text in Chinese; and on the other hand, the resulting works moved across a variety of genres, transgressing the rules of each. My favourite incarnations of the 85s were the oral readings (which can be seen on the 85bawu website). The reading is made difficult by the layout of the poems (running down instead of across and right to left), so that it is virtually impossible to produce the usual flowing poetry reading to which we are so accustomed. The oral 85s are marked by stuttering, repetition and doubt. A sound and rhythm I enjoy very much because it enacts the relationship with another culture and language that is translation. At the same time the reader is humbled in a manner not unlike the feeling you get when you try to live in a language not your own.

The effect of the 85 project for me was twofold. On the one hand, it failed to make Claire and I rich and/or famous; at the same time, it opened up disruptive possibilities, freeing me from the constraints of commercial and academic poetics. That doesn't mean I'm against constraints or formal rigour; writing is inevitably an activity shaped by constraint. Even Bartleby the Scrivener's exquisity writing practice, standing in a corner in silence, was constrained. I just want to find new forms to reflect the world we live in and resist the tyranny of conventional thinking. "If it looks like art, it isn't art." The 85 project along with my stepping away from my brief life in academia, made it possible to write “kharlamov’s ankle,” to break with lyrical prettiness, and to include within the work its own critical component, so that it’s possible to respond to your question by citing the text:

"can we cut that insidious artful shit creeping back in after we swore we wouldn’t do that on account. of this ain’t yer litter-rah-rah-ry press sucking off the state’s tit acts just like a big press only smaller this ain’t reading in yer shithole town tonight this ain’t. yer artsyfartsy goody2shoes creeeeAtif writhing grad-you-it stewed.ent mean while. hackademics jerk off another critterical paper at one another for performance points in the annual review we were emilianO’s bandits on smack booger junior says you drop. the bombs we’ll locate targets refuel yer killing machines our dirty oil hELLo I’m bob and I’m a poet hello bob I haven’t written a poem in 24 hours some folks would say longer those marShall islanders shall we welcome them with open arms my idea any idea is a sponge only a sponge in a tsunami well… meAnwhile some boys lost their dirty jobs in the dirty oil patch concussed hockey heads broke kharlamov’s ankle joined up killed men women & children in rival oil fields overseas and all the while puffed up poets drank. cocktails with that grinning monkey of a governor-geNeral"

I wonder if there's a press out there who might be willing to publish a book like that? Probably not, but you never know. Even a publisher can occasionally be self-destructive...

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

A: I’ve drawn inspiration and pleasure from a range of texts over the years, but my process is less about returning to old favourites than finding and gathering together the texts that directly or indirectly inform the specific project I’m currently working on.

I mentioned above, some of the Chinese texts I was reading while working on “kharlamov’s ankle.” A starting point for the project was a concert I attended in Beijing in which an encounter between “East” and “West” was staged in the performances of a countertenor in the European Baroque tradition (Purcell, Dowland, Byrd, Handel, etc.), and a Chinese kunqu opera dan, a man playing a female role. I was immediately struck by the ambiguity and disruptive nature of the male high voice. I did some reading in those two areas, including Peter Giles’ comprehensive History and Technique of the Counter-tenor, from which I gleaned the name and story of a 16th century English countertenor who was also a spy Nikolas Morgan.

Also, at the same time, I returned to Valerie Solanas and Kathy Acker, to undercut the masculinist undercurrents in my own literary practice. I included Emily Dickinson and Emily Carr as characters in k’s ankle (all my characters since my second novel City of Forgetting have been borrowed), Dickinson because of her strange unclassifiable poetics, partly a product of her reclusive existence, and Carr because of her relationship to the world, to what, in a strange dissociation, we call “nature” and “animals”. Also, her grave happens to be across the street from where I lived during the writing of k’s ankle. I imagined both Emilys as assassins targeting Stephen Harper and Donald Trump.

Anyway, those are some of the authors and texts I read in the course of writing this project, a real hodge-podge of a bibliography. This method of research is also, of course, a form of self-education, though unlike any traditional academic curricula. I’ve not found academic approaches and structures useful, the isolation of disciplines, the divisions within disciplines, the isolation of English literature as a department separate from other national literatures, the classification of works within literature into categories invented and imposed on writing by literature’s clerks, their inflexible periodization of literature, and the inevitable exclusion of valuable marginalia that follows. I’ve seen first-hand the terrible normalizing, spirit-killing instruction of those clerks and watchdogs of literature. I won’t state categorically that it hasn’t and will never produce any literature that isn’t formulaic and boring, but it’s not for me.

Rereading the above, I think I’ve highjacked your question. I apologize.