Friday, January 4, 2019

TtD supplement #124 : seven questions for Rob Manery

Rob Manery, formerly of Ottawa, lives in Vancouver with his partner and son. He is the author of It’s Not As If It Hasn’t Been Said Before (Tsunami) and The Richter-Rauzer Variations (above/ground press).

Five poems from his work-in-progress “Equivocation” appear in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the work-in-progress “Equivocation.”

A: When I was preparing to teach Macbeth, whose plot is driven by the equivocations of various characters, I became interested in a tract written by Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, called A Treatise of Equivocation. It was discovered by English prosecutors who were pursuing Catholics after the failed Gunpowder Plot which was an attempt to assassinate James I and the entire British parliament. The treatise was used to convict Garnet in an English court and sentence him to death. The treatise explains different strategies for misleading an interrogator without telling a lie, although some of the suggestions would clearly count as lying in any common understanding of the concept of lying. However, the treatise is a remarkable attempt to exploit the ambiguities of language to circumvent an overly restrictive ethical rule, the biblical commandment to never tell a lie.

Poetry is sometimes accused of being misleading. We can think of Riffaterre’s often quoted statement that “poetry says one thing and means another.” He argues that poetry employs “indirection” in its expression. Indirection, in turn, is said to result in three possible outcomes: displacing, distorting, or creating meaning. Ambiguity, in Riffaterre’s conception of poetry, serves to distort meaning, as does contradiction and nonsense. The presence of ambiguity in a poem seems to take on a Jesuitical character. A more positive view of ambiguity sees the possibilities that it affords. Rather than concealing or distorting meaning, it can generate multiple interpretations.

A Treatise of Equivocation, however, sought to use this possibility to conceal a “true” or intended meaning. I became fascinated with the strategies proposed by the treatise, but also by the language used in the document. With the poems, I wanted to rework the language in the treatise to transform the language to make it suggestive of multiple possibilities, to potentially reveal rather than conceal meanings. So that is the basic idea that led to the writing of the poems.

Q: How does this fit in with some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I often use source material to create poems. In the past, I have used archival documents related to the Winnipeg General Strike to construct the poems in It’s Not As If It Hasn’t Been Said Before. In “Equivocation,” I am also using an historical text to create a series of poems. However, with the earlier work I used chance procedures to generate an initial text that I shaped into the poems in the book. With the poems that form “Equivocation,” I did not use any formal procedure to generate the texts.

The use of source texts is a way for me to explore the language used in those texts and to reveal particular usages or patterns that reflect a certain, often political, discourse, which I think might resonate with contemporary political discourses.

Q: What are your models for this kind of work, and what first precipitated your interest in exploring these kinds of discourses?

A: I think I was always (at least since I was a teenager) attentive to how language was used to convey political messages. This attention certainly became more acute when I started reading the Language poets and their ideas about the relationship between form and ideology. People like Charles Bernstein were talking about how form, stylistic choices, vocabulary, syntax, etc. carry political meanings, not in a simplistic manner, such as disjunctive verse is necessarily a critique of capitalism, but suggesting that we need to consider how verse forms resonate with other more dominant discourses, and how form might reify ideologies or offer new possibilities for understanding how meaning is constructed. Jackson Mac Low wrote an essay, included in the anthology In the American Tree, in which he warned against an overly simplified equation of form and any specific political critique. However, as Mac Low and others noted, the texts that were being labeled “language-centred” or “nonreferential,” despite the problematic nomenclature, tended to eschew, or at least problematize reading these works as expressions of the poet’s thoughts, ideas, emotional states. They are not poems that could be easily paraphrased. This disavowal of lyrical self-expression did embody a critique of a dominant discourse, one with relevance that extends beyond poetic expression.

As mentioned above, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets had an enormous effect on how I think about writing. Ron Silliman’s procedural writing is especially important to me as are Mac Low’s aleatorical writing processes and John Cage’s use of chance in his compositions. Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Testimony are also models to some degree.

Q: I know you, alongside Louis Cabri and Christian Bök, studied at Carleton University under Robert Hogg, including a week-long seminar he gave through your Experimental Writers Group. How important were those connections to your writing, and do they still provide direction for what it is you’ve been working on?

A: I certainly studied with Bob at Carleton, but I don’t know if Louis and Christian did. Louis had finished his BA by the time I met him. I only met Christian when we started the MA program at Carleton.

Bob certainly was an important influence. He opened up contemporary North American poetry to me. In his courses, we studied the Black Mountain poets and the TISH group, among others. I first read Ashbery and Stein in Bob’s class. Most importantly, he suggested I read the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, which I did and which changed the way I thought about poetry. Later, he taught a class on the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and their antecedents. Bob’s own work also profoundly affected how I thought about language and the line, how words interact spatially, and the possibilities afforded by the short line.

I met Louis when he invited a small group to form the Experimental Writers Group. A friend of mine who was invited asked me to come along to the first meeting. I think I was the only person other than Louis who was interested in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, so he and I would meet to read and discuss these bewildering poems and soon began to organize readings, and then publish a magazine. Louis is an extremely astute reader, not to mention a phenomenal poet, so I learned a great deal from him as well.

Christopher Levenson was another influential figure. I took, I think, six courses with him, including a poetry workshop. While we do not share a similar poetics, I learned a great deal from him about technical aspects of poetry. A lot of attention was paid to textual features of the poems we studied. The close readings we did were invaluable in developing a sensitivity to the possibilities of language.

I also took a graduate course with Seymour Mayne at the University of Ottawa. The course was an examination of the history of the little magazine in Canada. It was a fascinating course and timely for me in that Louis and I were just beginning to publish hole magazine. It provoked a great deal of thinking about the role of a literary magazine and provided models as well as suggested possible directions a magazine could take. Mayne was a wonderfully open teacher who seemed to enjoy serious discussion of ideas, challenging us to take a stance, defend it, but also reconsider our positions. I learned a great deal from his course.

Q: With a decade between your Tsunami title and your above/ground press chapbook, which is, itself, already more than half a decade old, you’ve never seemed the sort of writer in any particular hurry. Do poems percolate for a long time before composition? Does writing come in bursts, or are you working, quietly and slowly, at something for years before releasing it into the world?

A: My preference is to let work sit for a while so I can read it again with a bit of distance and then decide whether I am satisfied with it or not. Although, that practice varies depending on the piece and the circumstances.

The other factor is that I am a slow writer. I often use procedures with which I experiment and refine until I hit upon one that I think is working. The procedures typically are used to develop an initial text that I then work with, experimenting with different forms, moving lines and fragments around, often removing more and more of the initial text, paring it down until, eventually, I arrive at a version I am happy with. Often, this takes time, much time.

Q: Is this current piece part of a larger work, or a stand-alone? Are you specifically working on anything at the moment?

A: “Equivocation” is a stand-alone work, but I also see it as belonging to a group of non-aleatoric poems that use source material to generate the text. There are also some poems that are related thematically to “Equivocation.”

I am working on two separate projects. One is a return to the chess generated poems I was creating twenty years ago and another is a series of poems written for friends.  

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

A: There are quite a few poets I enjoy reading over and over again – Celan, Zukofsky, Ashbery, I could go on and on – but I read them because their work continues to intrigue me. There are many whose work I am happy to revisit. The new collections from Talon of Daphne Marlatt, Phyllis Webb, and Fred Wah have been welcome reading. I am looking forward to Roy Miki’s new collected works. Simply, I am inspired by writing that leaves me a little bewildered, writing that suggests other possibilities for language.

No comments:

Post a Comment