Michael Turner is a writer of variegated ancestry (Scottish/ German/ English, mat.; English/ Japanese/ Russian, pat.) born, raised and living on unceded Coast Salish territory. He works in narrative and lyric forms, both singularly, as a writer of fiction (American Whiskey Bar, The Pornographer’s Poem, 8×10), poetry (Hard Core Logo, Kingsway, 9×11), criticism and music, and collaboratively, with artists such as Stan Douglas (screenplays), Geoffrey Farmer (public art installations) and Fishbone, Dream Warriors, Kinnie Starr and Andrea Young (songs). His work has been described as intertextual, with an emphasis on “a detailed and purposeful examination of ordinary things” (Wikipedia). He holds a BA (Anthropology) from UVic and an MFA (Interdisciplinary Studies) from UBC Okanagan. Currently he is an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Graduate Studies, Ontario College of Art & Design University and a workshop leader at Mobil Art School, Vancouver.
His poems “A Small Pile of Leaves,” “Adverbs,” “Before and After,” “Conditional” and “I Could Never Leave You” appear in the twenty-ninth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “A Small Pile of Leaves,” “Adverbs,” “Before and After,” “Conditional” and “I Could Never Leave You.”
A: These are poems gathered from a small “pile” of documents I keep in a folder called ORPHANAGE. The poems in ORPHANAGE are those that occasionally come to me, out of the blue, beginning as an image, a line or a phrase, or sometimes based on an encounter (a text, a recording, a human interaction). From there I work them up and once done I file them away, returning to them occasionally, tinkering with them, as I myself have been tinkered with by Time and her changes. Only when asked if I have something to submit (“between 3-5 poems”) do I look inside this ORPHANAGE for relationships between the poems – a figure or a sequence. What I am giving you (you asked me for 3-5 poems) is a family that, in every instance but the first, carries explicit evidence of each member’s source (“after,” “for,” epigraphs). Your role in this figure or sequence is crucial: had you not asked me to submit something, these poems would not likely appear as they do. Same if you had chosen three of the five, not all of them. The reader will likely have other ideas, and this is something I have time for, too.
Q: I’m curious about your interest in the solicited occasion and the importance of the relationship between the poems prompted by such occasions. What is it that compels you to consider such relationships for poems in journals, outside of the eventual relationships between such pieces within the possibilities of a finished manuscript?
A: The solicitation is an occasion, an invitation to compose with poems, as opposed to lines within a single poem. That you asked for 3-5 poems implies, at least to me, a figure or a related sequence, which I came up with intuitively, associatively -- how five poems might play well together, support each other, become more than the sum of their parts. Of my first three books (Company Town, 1991; Hard Core Logo, 1993; Kingsway, 1995), the concept was more or less in place before most of the poems were written, all of them based on a starter figure or sequence. After The Pornographer’s Poem (1999) was published, after I kind of ruined myself in the process of writing it, I began to question the way I worked, based in part on how the world was changing – diversifying, picking up speed, the ubiquity of the internet – and what I had learned about myself within a changing cultural ecology. Being in this emergent world meant, at least to me, being available to it in a way that didn’t have me bogged down by deadline book writing, feeding a market that demanded I work on the terms it was dictating to me, as novel writing can sometimes feel like. So rather than wave away those motes (the manner in which poems can first come to us), I stopped for them, absorbed them in an effort to learn something about myself and our moment. The occasional in this instance is not a poem to be read at a ceremonial event, but the time and place in which the poem occasionally comes to me and, of course, the experience of writing it into being.
So yes, after the poems are written and placed in ORPHANAGE, the occasional invitation to submit something for publication, which, in this instance, was an invitation to gather my poems with the poems of other poets in one of your space crafts, Fleet Commander mclennan! Your invitation to join Operation Touch the Donkey could be based on any number of things, but for me it means there is something I do that is relative to the success of its editorial mission, and that the selection and composition of the crew -- the five or six poets whose poems will appear with my poems -- also constitutes a figure or sequence. I hope that those of us who find ourselves together on this mission will at some point consider each other’s poems in relation to our own. The speed in which the world now travels has it that more and more of us have less and less time to look beyond ourselves when it comes to publishing in journals and anthologies (recall Boris Groys’s recent observation: “Today, everybody writes, no one reads”), that after checking to see that our work is laid out correctly, how it looks in the selected font, we file the book, add it to our resume, then return to our devices -- our platforms -- for more dopamine.
Q: I had noticed a pivot in your work with The Pornographer’s Poem, as though it represented a point one could easily understand a “before” and “after” in how you approached and structured books. I’ve also noticed how, since The Pornographer’s Poem, your work has been composed as shorter, often self-contained, pieces that collaborate into larger, book-length structures, as opposed to those earlier books, some of which would have been far more difficult to excerpt. Was this structural shift part of that same process, wishing to more easily change or shift directions within book-length structures?
A: I think it’s fair to say that I changed the way I do most things after TPP, not just in writing but in the way I structure and participate in my day – a unit of time I have come to savour. It was ten years before I published my next literary work (8x10, 2009), a project designed to be written occasionally, episode by episode, and gathered together in a structural regime based on an 8x10 segment grid, the “8x10 glossy” being a now out-of-date petit genre photography format (to borrow from French painting parlance), which is what it is comprised of: portraits based not on faces but on behaviours, engagements between people in a world where time and space is unclear. These were, in effect, line drawings, or lightly drawn situations that I thought readers could bring something to, rather than watch pass by, as often happens in the Western, Romance, Crime and Espionage subgenres. The book that followed -- 9x11 and Other Poems Like Bird, Nine, x and Eleven (2018) -- began with an eleven-page text consisting of nine prose “lines” each, called “9x11,” followed by a selection of “Other Poems” drawn from ORPHANAGE. My original intention was to repeat the “9x11” structure three times, with the two in-between spaces filled with ORPHANAGE poems, but decided against it because, once again, I was beginning to feel dictated to, beholden to terms that belonged more to harmonic symmetry, in this instance, than the kinds of complexities required to negotiate these post-9/11 years – a time that, on the surface, is one of blinding binaries, but is more complex than the extremes we have come to complain about.
Q: Was it really, you think, that you simply outgrew those prior structures? And what do you feel is possible through these new structures that might not have been possible otherwise?
A: Before he died, the composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was asked what he thought of CDs – specifically, newer audio recordings that use digital tools as opposed to analogue systems like 2” tape. He said he loved the clarity of digital sound, but lamented the loss of the room where symphonic music is often performed and recorded; how in digital recordings the music “just hangs there,” without floors or walls or ceilings; how digital or binary systems are biased towards the source signal, not what seasons it, as hotel ballrooms and opera houses were built to do. I forget what the interviewer said next, but Bernstein went on to say that he was by no means opposed to digitally recorded music, but was eager instead to hear music composed with this digital signal in mind, how it opens up new compositional potentials. Sometimes I wonder if that “absence” is present today, where the confessional is no longer a windowed room with a unilateral dude inside it, but a space-less, instantaneously relational electronic “platform,” which I guess is what social media is, no? Social media seasons everything we produce and consume. Am I on it? Apart from my blog, no. Like Melville’s Bartleby, “I prefer not to.” But like Beckett’s immobile narrator, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Q: I’ve always been curious at how your different solo and collaborative explorations through genre—music, poetry, fiction, criticism, screenplays and visual art—feed into and even play off each other. How do you see that interplay of genre at work through the poems you’ve been generating lately, and how does that differ from any prior work? How have those processes evolved?
A: There’s a lot to say on this topic, if only because I am fortunate to have had many opportunities to work with some remarkable visual artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, where each experience is particular and relevant to its particular set of problems and conditions. Rather than provide examples, I would reverse the question(s) and state that working collaboratively has required me to renew my relationship with my own beliefs and tendencies, be they ethical or aesthetic, and approach each collaboration with an open heart, mind and spirit. This is easier to do when it is like-minds that have brought the parties together. Only once have I found myself in a situation where my name was drawn and I was partnered with a musician I had absolutely no common ground with. What I learned from that experience is beyond words, which is exactly what we were asked to provide when given the first and last verses of a song that, to this day, is still without a chorus.
But if I were to attempt a response to your question – a question I appreciate, btw – I will defer to Tennyson’s line from “Ulysses,” which has remained a keystone for me since I first read it in high school: “I am a part of all that I have met.”
Q: If ORPHANAGE is an occasional project prompted by the occasion, does that suggest you’re working on other projects simultaneously?
A: ORPHANAGE is not so much a literary project as a housing project, a place to shelter that which suddenly shows up and is in need of food and clothing. Back in the mid-1960s, an emerging poet who had just published a poem in Saturday Night magazine might submit a grant proposal to complete “a collection of poems,” and would like to do so “on a Greek Island – where I have use of a typewriter.” The collection “will be called Poems,” and that was enough. (I see books like this all the time in Canadian thrift stores.) Today, in our academy-driven, research-creation moment, granting agencies require a social adhesive to their applications, which, I’ll admit, I am philosophically disposed to, though in its excesses can be just as endless. But to be honest, the first poem I wrote for what is now my current manuscript Playlist: a Profligacy of Your Least-Expected Poems (a selection of which were first published in periodicities) spent time in ORPHANAGE -- but not for long. The methodology behind the creation of that poem was one I knew I would return to.
Q: I suppose my own bias is in play throughout these questions, presuming that you compose with the “book” as your unit of composition. Your published work leans towards such. When putting a writing project together (in terms of your poetry and prose works), how do you see the final result? Are “project” and “book-length manuscript” interchangeable terms? Or is that imprecise (or even missing the point)?
A: I think “project” and “book” are closer to each other than my housing folder (ORPHANAGE) is to either, though it bears mentioning the term “projects” entered the American lexicon in the 1950s to describe massive social housing developments, such as the thirty-three high-rise tower grid that Minoru Yamasaki designed for the City of St. Louis in the mid-1950s. A failure, of course, because it became unsafe for people to live there (drugs, crime, overpopulation, violence -- we’ve all seen The Wire, right?) and was demolished within twenty years of its erection. But yes, the direct-address, documentary poems (a la Dorothy Livesay) that make up my first two books were composed within the morphology of the book, while Kingsway that followed was more of a sight and mind work, the single page stanzas standing in for city blocks (a la la concretistas). As for “the final result,” that is, in effect, decided at the onset – a bookwork. Yes, I would say “project” and “book-length manuscript” are interchangeable terms, despite my decision to forsake the original intention of 9x11 and “people” the remainder of it with those from ORPHANAGE.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I was thinking about that the other day while putting to bed the room I once used as my study – how for years I have had the same stack of books within reach of my keyboard. Phyllis Webb’s Selected Poems: 1954-1965, Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (1977), Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee (1982), Gail Scott’s Heroine (1987), Margaret Sweatman’s Fox (1991), Tim Parks’s translation of Fleur Jaeggy’s Last Vanities (1994, trans. 1998). As for more recently published books, I have separate shelves for those. Of these books, I find myself returning to Marie Annharte Baker’s formally curious Indigenous Awry (2012); the three by that poet of the deracinated subject, Danielle La France (mostly Just Like I like It, 2019); Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: an American Lyric (2014), for its insights into the injuries and intersections of the Black American experience; and Sachiko Murakami’s Render (2020), which is to my mind the most evolved of the current crop of confessers. All of these books shelter me, clothe me, fuel my hunger to write.