Tuesday, January 5, 2021

TtD supplement #177 : seven questions for Jay MillAr

Jay Millar is the author of several books of poetry, the most recent of which is I Could Have Pretended To Be Better Than You: New and Selected Poems (Anvil, 2019). He lives in Toronto and is the co-publisher at Book*hug Press.

His poem “CANTO ONE” appears in the twenty-seventh issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “CANTO ONE.”

A: This is the first poem from an as yet untitled sequence of ten poems that I began over a year and a half ago, for which I have so far written three and one third poems. Two things inspired the sequence. The first was the publication of I Could Have Pretended To Be Better Than You in the spring of 2019. Tim Conley edited this collection, which spans 25 years of my writing, and the first section of the book included a number of works from various micropress publications issued in the 90s – poems I hadn’t thought of in years, or had even forgotten about. Tim included a pair of poems from J: A Metric System, a book-length work that was published in 1996 in an edition of ten copies. J used a form of composition that I hadn’t thought about in years, and was relatively simple. Since I was in a slump with regard to writing poetry (or anything) at the time, I thought I’d revisit the form, but ramp things up for the present sequence – make it far more complicated. I won’t say much about what the form is, since it’s only a structure, and all poetry is about structure. The second thing that inspired the sequence was our present cultural milieu, which had caused in me (and continues to do so) a lapse in my ability to believe that language, and specifically poetic language, or maybe more specifically the poetic language imagined I spoke, is meaningful. This is more or less a personal hunch – I still don't know if that’s true; after all, many people continue to write and publish poetry, and apparently so do I. What makes my particular utterance any more or less significant? Regardless, having a complicated form to deal with allowed me to think about other things – basic prosody over intentional utterance, really. Which not only allowed me to begin writing, it allowed me to continue to work on “Canto One,” and when it was finished, move on to “Canto Two.”

Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing over the past few years?

A: I’ve been thinking about this for over a week now. In one sense there isn’t anything different about it since the same person who wrote that other work also wrote this piece, so there are lots of connections/similarities. Rediscovering earlier work, for instance, inspired this piece. But I am also not the same person, and I have not written a piece exactly like this one before, so it is different in that sense. I have trouble seeing any one text separately from everything else – it is all one massive poem that will end when I end – I am “language made meat,” as I once heard someone (Drumbolis?) describe bissett. There is a part of me that is suspicious of these sorts of questions because I think they are about “growth” or “development” or “progress,” which are all pretty loaded terms in an age of devolution and regression. It’s either that or I’ve hit the plateaus of my life – things are fairly flat and day-by-day around here (not that I lack joy or despair or any of the human things that make this plains-work very real and wonderful). Although, now that I say this, I will confess that I am interested in discovering new things. A new language, for instance (hvordan går det?), or even – gasp – prose. I am interested in discovering new ways to talk about writing and poetry. Maybe the most exciting way to talk about it would be not to talk about it at all any more.

Q: Do you regularly go back to earlier work when thinking about new writing?

A: Not deliberately. In fact, sometimes I find it hard to write because I’m trying to “make it new,” as is apparently a preconceived and somewhat pretentious requirement to be a writer of significance in the land of poetry. If I’ve already explored some sort of formal apparatus, to do so again feels less interesting. At the same time, the idea that poetry is at the forefront of some kind of battle (over what I can’t imagine – the imagination?) is a young person’s folly, methinks, and it has become clear to me that “avant garde” writing is an act that relies on looking back on a tradition just as much as when one is inspired by say British Modernism or any other tradition that has been suppressed by British Modernism. Nothing is really new, or at least I hope not, since I am clearly someone suspicious of the notion of progress: We are fooling ourselves when we use militaristic metaphors to suggest we are advancing something. Further to this, the advances we think we are making to poetry or writing as an art form seem far less interesting or necessary than the advances poetry and writing could make in the world, if you catch my drift. Besides, thinking about poetry as a formal battleground feels like to return to how things were in the mid to late 90s – why do that? There is a here and now that I feel I’m operating in, quietly, and pretty much on my own, and as I get older in this ongoing present, and there is more distance and time swirling through me as a person, I find memory has becomes something far more layered and textured and complex. And how that complexity relates to the present is necessary. Time is linear in theory only, or perhaps it is only linear as something that exists outside the self or between selves. Inside time has little respect for linearity at all, and perhaps that is the kind of returning to earlier work that occurs as a natural and organic process of being alive. In the case of these new Cantos I didn’t even realize how similar they are to Lack Lyrics until Mark Truscott pointed it out to me. I don’t think I noticed that because I was building this new work as an echo of a much earlier project. But to answer your question, repetition is an object worth exploring.

Q: Oh, I would agree completely. I’ve even been thinking on such myself, lately, although I’ve done little to act on it, as yet. You’ve given the impression that you don’t write often, but you did release a selected poems not that long ago. Did that allow you a sense of progression or trajectory in your work over the years that you hadn’t been aware of previously?

A: It certainly presented me with one possible narrative – the linear kind that exists outside of myself, and one that Tim Conley managed to piece together as the mindful reader/hunter/gatherer/editor that he is. Stuart Ross commented to me that the collection reads like a novel, which I take to mean that Tim created a very convincing narrative. That said I am careful not to believe that it is the only narrative, but a possibility, one paradigm that can be said to represent my work, but certainly not the paradigm. To have one thing stand for a self is rather dull. I have my own versions of trajectories that I doubt are convincing at all since they are less narrative and more like swarms of thoughts and ideas woven together as I pass through the world. It isn’t terribly real, or solid, or however you want to define it. At least not by the standards we use to record something. I mean, the only way to make sense of anything is to create structure, to build connections between things, points of reference, moments in time; to impose structure is what allow something to be understandable to others, and even for the self to be understandable to its self, which is perhaps why poetry, being primordially about structure, is so palpable in both positive and negative ways. At least to me. What I did see in the narrative as presented in the selected is a trajectory from the wild abandon of youth, the irreverent and joyful practice of someone who tried things out, emulating the work of others that I found appealing, that eventually shifted into something else: something or someone more guarded, careful, and calculated. Which might explain why I believe I have been writing less and less as time goes by. I’m not sure when the shift happened, but it did – it is otherworldly, in a way, to reflect on work by that youthful poet; even more so to reflect on who he was: someone who is attached to me by linear time and a name only.

Q: When I think of writers such as Michael Holmes or Mike O’Connor, their productivity seemingly ground to a halt as their engagement in publishing increased, although I don’t get the sense that your writing is negatively impacted by your work through Book*hug. How has your writing been influenced by your work as an editor/publisher, and vice versa?
A: Sure, I think about this all the time. There are lots of us in publishing who started out as writers: Alana Wilcox knows the exact date she stopped being a writer; Beth Follett has chosen to close Pedlar Press in part so that she can return to her own writing. If I were to use a baseball analogy, to live in the world today is to play in the American League – we are all specialists, and we are supposed to keep to our own lanes. Publishing and writing, although historically and naturally entwined, have become in many ways incompatible. I have found this particularly so since Book*hug Press has grown to the point where it is marketing and distributing books all over North America and beyond. Some days I even feel less like a publisher, at least in the sense of what I imagined I was getting into when I was starting out, and more like an accountant or data manager. And so I continue to write, even if it is sluggish and far less productive than the output of many others, even the most glacial of writers that I know. Perhaps I continue as I do to combat the imperialism of specialization, but it doesn’t mean that my work as a poet hasn’t been relegated to the state of hobby. But maybe that’s where it belongs: years of publishing have led me to realize that my poetry might not necessarily be something meant for a “public.” And if you work/fight/strive for public attention you are really fighting for something else, something that has very little to do with poetry. Regardless, there are things one gets to see across the literary landscape from the vantage point of a publisher that a writer doesn’t necessarily see, nor should they have to: that’s not their job. One of the interesting things that I have observed over the years is that writers often think they understand how publishing works, which can often give rise to certain grievances, and I can say from experience that I too once thought these things as a writer. Sixteen years into Book*hug, I continue to witness writers sharing things on social media about their relationship with publishers that are just as naive as I was years ago. Which might be why I do my best to be as transparent as possible with the writers I work with as a publisher. One of the most influential aspects of being a writer who also publishes comes from having pulled back the curtain to see the mechanics of literary production and capital as a publisher – knowing how the sausage is made can make it very difficult to write.
Q: I know one of your early influences was Vancouver poet Gerry Gilbert, which seems curious to me, given how expansive his work became, and how, in comparison, carefully deliberate yours has become. What is it about Gilbert’s work that influenced how you think about writing? What other poets or works might be sitting in the back of your head as you write?
A: What attracted me to Gilbert when I was younger was exactly that expansiveness. I loved the idea of writing as expression of time: Gilbert’s practice was an expression of time passing. His totem animal was a slug, which leaves a trail of slime; writing, if you allowed it, could be the slime trail of language. It didn’t necessarily need to make sense, even, since there are moments in our lives that are kind of meaningless. It was thrilling to me that there could be an alternative to writing a poem, like each poem could be part of something larger, that being life itself. Life writing / the writing life. There’s also a passage in The Year of the Rush in which Gilbert commented on art and writing, saying that if what he saw all around him in Canada that was being touted as great art, then fine, he would endeavor to create the worst art possible. His work was messy and unpolished (in a polished sort of way), and as such it stood apart from the more celebrated work that often embraced notions of “craft.” How could that not appeal to a young writer with a serious streak of self-doubt? In terms of his art for art’s sake I don’t give a shit about greatness attitude – and there is a wonderful headlong embrace of the possibility of failure to Gilbert’s practice that was palpable to me – Gilbert just made sense. At the time. But over time I came to understand that he sacrificed all sorts of things that I wasn’t going to sacrifice in my life, such as how he wrote himself out of view, or became less relevant over time as culture changed around him. In particular, he sacrificed his relationship to his own family, and I recall the one time I spoke to him on the phone: I had young children then and he asked about them (they were in the room, so were present on the call) and then said that he hadn’t been too good in the parenting department. After that I started to see kinks in his approach – while he might write a poem about playing a game of Scrabble with family or friends, I’d rather play a game of Scrabble with mine. Writing is a selfish act, and Stephen King has written, I think in Misery (a novel very much about how to write a novel), books are most often dedicated to the person who suffered most from the writer’s selfish act of writing it. Perhaps a poem can exist in what isn’t written, or there is a need to recognize that the art-ifacts we create can be misleading; perhaps this is another reason I don’t write as much as I used to. Maybe there is something to be said about this more generally in relation to the entitlement of the white male poet of the Twentieth Century – that writing, very much a product of the ego, means something in particular when one considers the intersectional relationship of gender, race, class and historical moment of a particular writer. Another early influence of mine is Ted Berrigan – I loved The Sonnets and their controlled chaos, and I loved his poems that were musically constructed and emotionally charged expressions of his days. But at some point I read Ron Padgett’s memoir Ted and realized that this larger than life person who was at the centre of a large community of poets was also a selfish junkie dickhead who was more interested in the poem and substance abuse than existing beyond 48 years on this planet. Like, he left his young kids and Alice behind because of his choices, which were his right to make as a fully conscious American living in the Twentieth Century, I think. But still, selfish. I still read Berrigan’s work, not as much as I used to, and I continue to enjoy it when I read it. But the poets who sit in the back of my head as I write now are those all around me – the poets I work with as a publisher, or friends I have made over the years through our ongoing practice. A community of my mind: it includes writers I’m in communication with regularly, and writers I haven’t spoken to for a long time. And even dead writers.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Lately narrative has interested me. Whether it is a fictional or non-fictional narrative doesn’t seem to matter – I’ve been drawn to it. And it doesn’t seem to matter what it is either: crime fiction, literary fiction, science fiction, books about politics, the economy, natural history, sociology, culture, the anthropocene, extinction, etc etc. If this is because I have a story in me that wants to get out, so be it.

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