Monday, January 27, 2020

TtD supplement #151 : seven questions for Ben Robinson

Ben Robinson is a poet, musician and librarian. He has published three chapbooks – Mumbles in Hollywood, California (Simulacrum Press), The Sims in Real Life (The Blasted Tree) and TALKING GIBBERISH TO STRANGERS (above/ground press) – and has more work forthcoming with The Alfred Gustav Press. He has only ever lived in Hamilton, Ontario on the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. He is @bengymen on Twitter.

His poems “OPEN4BIZ,” “Democracy Is Just the Name of Another Café,” “Hotdog in a Hamburger City” and “Est. Time Travel to Downtown” appear in the twenty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “OPEN4BIZ,” “Democracy Is Just the Name of Another Café,” “Hotdog in a Hamburger City” and “Est. Time Travel to Downtown”.”

A: These days, for better or worse, I seem to be writing three different kinds of poems, two of which are represented in the poems included in TTD. “Hotdog in a Hamburger City” and “Est. Time Travel to Downtown” work in a narrative mode where something strange happens in my day and then when I sit down to write my imagination runs wild with it, amplifying certain details. “Democracy is Just the Name for Another Cafe” and “OPEN4BIZ” are a little more observational but they use a less linear, kind of collagey structure with short two/three-line stanzas.

HD: I wrote this one after my last visit with Gary Barwin while he was the writer-in-residence at McMaster and the Hamilton Public Library a couple of years ago. There’s a great hotdog cart on the McMaster campus so I got one for the trip home and then when the bus pulled up I wasn’t done eating. I hope some of Gary’s spirit is in this one.

ETT:  This one was an unsuccessful entry in CV2’s 2-day Poem Contest. For the contest, they give you a list of ten words that you need to fit into a poem. I kind of tried to skirt the rules by jamming most of the required words into the monologue in the middle. I imagine the judges were quick to realize that. With the kind of poems I write, I didn’t see any other way to get feckless in there without butting it up against something like pieces of shit. Even though the poem didn’t place in the contest I still liked it and hoped I could do something with it. I pulled a couple of the more obvious ten-dollar words out (commodious and roric) in the hopes of disguising its origins a bit. I’ve spotted other unsuccessful entries from last year’s contest out in the wild as well.

I’m pretty sure there was one in Stuart Ross’ new book. We’re like a secret society of loser poets now, you see the word frisson in someone’s line and you just know.

DEMO: I was waiting for the bus on Halloween morning last year and a guy standing very close to me puked everywhere without much warning so I decided to hold onto that. There’s a cafe downtown in Hamilton that is right across the street from an army barracks so there are always soldiers coming in for coffee in fatigues and berets which is definitely strange. This one also has some elements of what I’ve been calling “social media centos” where I try to redeem some of my time spent on Twitter for poetry purposes. A couple of the images in the poem are loosely based on pictures I liked on Twitter.

O4B: This one is basically all true. I had just moved to a new neighbourhood when I was working on this poem and I was collecting all these little fragmentary images and eventually, a theme started to appear. It can be hard to tell when these ones are done but I try to wait until I get the feeling of the individual pieces beginning to hold together, to congeal. Not that I’m a baker but I think of it kind of like dough, or maybe like good packing snow.

Q: How do these pieces compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: These pieces are all part of a chapbook manuscript that will be published by above/ground press,
Department of Continuous Improvement, and are also part of what will hopefully be my first full-length collection, tentatively titled The Humans Are Dead, We Are the Humans Now.

These poems are fairly representative of both the chapbook and the collection as a whole. Perhaps the only missing thread is the third of the three kinds of poems that I mentioned above — more realistic narrative prose poems. As a whole the collection focuses on life in the city — the chaos and humour and absurdity — as well as the false divide between the human and the animal, the urban and the natural. There’s a lot of garbage and vehicles and animal life in the poems. Lots of movement both formally and in terms of commuting/transportation.

Q: What has been the process of putting together a full-length collection versus putting together your handful of chapbook-length manuscripts? Is it simply a larger version of the same process? Was there a difficulty in reconceiving work that had been produced as part of a smaller unit into part of a larger structure? What have the differences been?

A: In some ways, the goal has always been a full-length collection. I grew up, like many of us, as a lover of books and so the logical extension of writing poems was to eventually put together a book of them. Lately, I’ve been trying to interrogate this fixation with having a book to my name as a means of legitimating myself as a writer. I’m worried about rushing into the first one and wishing I had been more patient later on. You hear of writers being embarrassed by their first books and trying to keep them out of print, but I also realize that I have to start somewhere.

I don’t know that the collection is a larger version of the chapbook, at least not always. Lately, I’ve been interested in writers who seem to work exclusively within the format of the chapbook and do not seem to be interested in full-length collections. Fracturing that linear understanding of poem >> chapbook >> collection has been freeing for me. Seeing a writer like Amanda Jernigan list her chapbook The Temple alongside her full-length collections at the front of her new book has helped me to value the format more (and why not, those Baseline Press chapbooks are nicer than most trade books).

The difficulty for me in trying to assemble my first collection has been one of scale. I come to poetry via music and so sequencing ten poems for a chapbook had a clear analogue in the album, whereas I had no frame of reference for putting sixty pieces in order. Because The Humans Are Dead is not built around a discernible sequence, the structure of the collection became apparent very slowly as I have been writing the poems that comprise it. I didn’t consciously set out to write in a certain direction, I simply started writing poems and then, when those poems were finished, I took a step back to see who and what was in there. It has been interesting to see how some poems from three or four years ago that felt like bizarre outliers at the time presage some of the writing I’m doing now and fit seamlessly into the manuscript.

In some ways the distinction between the chapbook and the collection feels analogous to the short story and the novel; there is some relationship between the two though the possibilities are different. Sometimes an excerpt of a novel can make a great stand-alone story, other times not so much. Some of my chapbooks feel like they could swell and deepen to become longer works but sometimes I get to 20 pages and think, this idea has run its course. I have two chapbooks coming out that are excerpts of The Humans Are Dead and if you read the chapbooks together you would have a good sense of what that manuscript is like. I also have a couple more experimental works coming out as chapbooks which I don’t have any plans to try and assemble into a trade book at this point.

Overall, the process has forced me to try and gain some perspective on what it is I have been trying to do in my poems for the past few years, what has been successful and how those successes might connect. I enjoy a more unconscious approach to poetry because it provides a lot of excitement and surprise for me but I’ve had to learn to use my analytical mind in the process of collecting – beginning to interrogate what is happening below the surface, what I seem to be fixated on. Writing my first query letter was difficult for me because I hadn’t been thinking about what the poems were about while writing them, at least not in any overarching sense. Now when I am writing, I try to be more conscious of what I might say about the work so that I have some language to describe it when necessary.

At this point, the process of assembling seems to be ongoing. I imagine, in some sense, the manuscript will continue to change and shift until the book is fixed in print and I can no longer add or subtract from it. Poems are still being added every so often but the process has certainly slowed from the frenzy of about a year ago where they seemed to come one after another. Maybe the fact that the poems are still coming means that the book is not quite done and I am rushing, however, I wonder if that Paul Valery quote that “Poems are never finished - just abandoned” holds for books as well. Regardless, the manuscript is feeling more and more fixed as time passes. Maybe that means it is done, maybe that means I am just tired of looking at it.

Q: Perhaps it’s too early to know, but with a couple of chapbooks under your belt, how do you feel your work has progressed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: My progression has been an ongoing process of trying to be more comfortable with writing like myself and embracing my particularities. My favourite writers and musicians and artists are the ones who find a way to have their unique personalities come through in their work, who make the kind of work that could only have come from them. I think about someone like Anne Carson who writes so firmly through a classical lens and is unapologetic about it.

Part of that process for me has involved embracing humour. Before I had ever read in public I don’t think I understood the effect humour could have on how a poem is received. At one of my first readings, there was a man in the back with a huge laugh and I guess whatever I was doing was hitting with him and he just kept going off and it messed with me to the point where I was having to pause after certain lines to wait for him to quiet down. Up to that point, I hadn’t been thinking of the poems as particularly humorous so I had to reevaluate things after that reading. Since then I’ve been trying to embrace humour in a way that doesn’t rely too heavily on punchlines or cleverness but instead deepens and broadens the work.

After a reading, someone once told me I reminded them of Dr. Seuss which I was kind of offended by at first because his work is so silly and I had this idea of myself as a serious poet. That being said, I’m learning to embrace elements of children’s literature in my work — the play, the imagination. My grandmother recently told me one of my poems reminded her of a scary children’s story and I like that. Some of the poems start as these seemingly innocent narratives which I then try to take somewhere a little more surprising or complex — subverting the expectations of those simple stories to make them engaging for adults.

Something else I’ve been trying to embrace in my writing has been my upbringing in the church. At the same time that I've been steeped in the musicality and play of children’s stories I also have the rhythms of high religious language in my mind. For a while, I didn’t know what to do with all that Bible inside my head because that’s not something you see a lot of in contemporary literature. For me, it comes through in some of the allusions but there’s also this King James Version prophetic voice that can surface at times. The combination of the two modes, a voice meant for children and a religious voice, makes me think of this illustrated children’s Bible I had growing up where they took these wild stories about plague and war and tried to make them slightly less terrifying for children by illustrating them with colourful cartoons. Maybe what I’m doing is the inverse of that. Poems for adults in the guise of kid’s literature. Regardless of what’s going on, I find that tension of high/low, dark/light, humorous/serious to be interesting.

Q: You mention the Bible, but what other works or authors first brought you to the kinds of writing you’ve been attempting? What other writers are in the back of your head as you write?

A: Early on it was Michael Ondaatje. Poems like “The Cinnamon Peeler” and “The Story” and most of Handwriting had this really beautiful mythic quality that I was drawn to.

Most recently my encouragement has come from:

Kim Hyesoon — “I wept, wondering how I would ever use up all that ink, writing about all the unjust deaths, with my tiny pen as skinny as a butterfly’s hind legs?”

Tongo Eisen-Martin — “By the time craft starts it’s almost too late to accomplish anything that’s outside of your day-in-day-out practice. As long as I’m really getting it in outside of the craft then the politics just plays out naturally.”

Christian Wiman — “There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found, and if this is not recognized, then the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment.”

Ali Blythe — “I could say something / beautiful if I only had / until this pencil ran out. / I would be so careful.”

bill bissett — “trying so hard to build we can’t help / but destroy each time.”

Matthew Zapruder — “I’ve heard Bob Hass say, when talking about what to do when a poem feels stuck, to ‘put the problem in the poem.’ Bring the ongoing conflicts you are feeling, the limits of your understanding, into it. Articulate those struggles. Open yourself to the reader.”

Q: You mention working with Gary Barwin during his time as writer-in-residence, suggesting a bit of an influence there. What is it that talking to him allowed for you and your work?

A I’ve been going to see the various writers-in-residence for a couple of years now. I didn’t do the MFA thing so finding ways to approximate that kind of mentoring has been important — people to help direct my reading, help navigate publishing and to critique my work. The WiR program, in particular, is nice because the visiting writers get paid but there’s no charge for the writers who come to meet with them. The idea that these writers are available in this way still kind of blows my mind.

Gary continues to embody a spirit of possibility in my mind. He seems undaunted by the constraints of genre or even medium (something I imagine comes partly from his time studying with bp). I had been thinking about how I might incorporate my other life as a musician into my readings before I saw Gary play saxophone at one of his. I asked him about it recently and he said something like “they’re both just going on stage and making sounds” which is, of course, true and may seem obvious but that helped me relax about it all.

Last year Kate Cayley was in residence and she was also amazing to work with. So smart, so perceptive, so many good questions and reading recommendations. We worked through multiple steps of revision on a particular poem of mine which was helpful. She also put me onto Maggie Nelson which I’ve been taking full advantage of. Kate had different strengths than Gary and that is part of the beauty of the program — each year a new writer, a new perspective. If nothing else the appointments have led to engaging conversations with kind and interesting people.

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

A: I go back to Stuart Ross’s selected Hey, Crumbling Balcony! and You Exist. Details Follow. for the anarchy and refusal to play by the rules and pure imagination. I go to Tongo Eisen-Martin’s Heaven is All Goodbyes for the breadth, for a voice that feels like it could go on forever, effortlessly spreading out over the pages. David McFadden’s selected poems Why Are You So Sad? is a place I turn for reminders about simplicity and clarity, about not getting caught up in the details all the time. Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child for poems that are taut and lean, considered and intricate in ways that I don’t always understand. Mikko Harvey has been a more recent discovery but I’ve already read his collection Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit twice. I love the turns in those poems. They move so quickly in unexpected directions. And what a title.

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