Jan Conn’s most recent books of poetry are Edge Effects (Brick Books, 2012) and Tomorrow’s Bright White Light (Tightrope Books, 2016). She won the inaugural (2006) Malahat Review PK Page Founders’ Award Poetry Prize and a CBC Literary Award for poetry (2003). She is a member of the collaborative writing group Yoko’s Dogs. Their books include Whisk (Pedlar Press, 2013) and Rhinoceros (Gaspereau, 2016). She has created large format mixed media paintings collaboratively with the visual artist Annemarie Buchmann-Gerber of Saskatoon, SK. She is also a biologist; her genetics and ecological work on mosquito vectors of tropical pathogens results in frequent travel to Brazil and Peru. She grew up in Quebec and now lives in Great Barrington, MA.
The first part of this interview took place on the afternoon of April 2nd, 2016, when Jan was visiting Toronto to launch her ninth collection of poetry, Tomorrow’s Bright White Light. I met her at the house where she was staying, and we walked along the Don Trail towards the Merchants of Green Coffee shop, where we spoke for over an hour.
The second portion of this interview was conducted through Skype almost six months later, on a Sunday afternoon in September. Jan Conn has also subsequently clarified some answers over email.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
PART ONE—First Meeting, in Spring
Phoebe Wang: You said something that really interested me, which is the idea of the poem as performance, in that there’s a different function for the poem when it’s performed and when it’s read on the page. And that made me think that the questions you pose in the poems are different if they are performed than if they’re on the page.
Jan Conn: That’s true. When you hear poems being read to you, the intention of the reader may be slightly different from the way the work appears on the page, which isn’t necessarily conscious. A simple example is if, at the end of a phrase you see a question mark, the way you voice it alters. The cadence changes, the tempo and length of pause may also shift. When listening to someone reading aloud, there isn’t the luxury of sitting and thinking about the possible layers that questions might evoke the way you do if you close the book and pause. You put that internal analyst aside for a time when or if you read the work on the page or on the screen.
PW: You also mention that we don’t have the attention anymore to listen to performance, but we used to as a society, as a culture. There’s the idea of oral literatures, and also the function of Greek tragedy, in that listening to the performance was cathartic, and that has some interesting resonances. If poems are doing this work of being a warning, then if we hear the warning, it’s almost as if we were experiencing the danger.
JC: I exaggerate, of course. There are people who recognize the vital importance of listening, who advocate the inherent value in slowing down. Perhaps this is a bit analogous to the slow food movement. There exist genuine efforts to build communities that foster the range of voices—I feel this is urgent and necessary. I’d love to see this happen in schools, in a genuine way. I don’t know if it’s possible, given the expectations of us to be “on” constantly. Contemplation is not universally encouraged.
PW: I know, and that’s a paradox, because the more voices there are the less time we have to hear all the different conversations that are going on.
JC: Right. You don’t have endless time to read poetry. All our lives we have to choose—this book, voice, style or that one over there.
I think most people who are good poets are trying to become better. Stan Dragland says, “Go deeper”—that’s the most important thing that I want to try to accomplish with my writing. I prefer to read writers who continue to challenge themselves. It’s fun to listen to flashy word music, too, and I enjoy it—language play is a treat. But if there’s not much more than the glitz I’m not so interested. I might rather listen to someone who is saying things slightly more plainly, but more insightfully or feelingly.
PW: That makes me think of something you said earlier about the relationship between accessibility and communication.
JC: It’s not my job to make poems accessible. I don’t feel that even faintly. I do feel that communicating your intent clearly is not the same as making them accessible. If they happen to be accessible, and the work speaks in some way to a larger audience, that’s icing on the poetry cake, but if that’s going to be a criterion then the poet may end up with poems that are less complex, less challenging and interesting.
Why bother writing a poem? What was the whisper, void, inkling, that prompted the desire to write even one word? So much of the astonishment is having little to no idea where the poem can take the writer. And then even when the poet has done all he or she can to edit it, I think one doesn’t really know if the work is genuinely “good”—whatever this means. Very rarely, the whole poem seems to drop from the sky (well, the creative neurological networks) but in my experience this is rare—I usually get snippets and just keep working.
PW: In Tomorrow’s Bright White Light, the first third of it to me was less accessible but communicated a lot, and then the middle third was more accessible and the last third kind of went back to being less accessible but made me connect more to the first third. Once I had done the work of trying to access the poems in the first half, that work came with me.
JC: I like your perception—I was linking each poem to the next by association, mood, overall tone. The order of this manuscript happened during two consecutive evenings in São Paulo, Brazil. I don’t mean the poems lined themselves up; rather they were following a particular logical sequence, a sort of zigzag, that felt absolutely right. Accessibility was not a conscious part of this process.
PW: I think it probably was because of the stanzas. The first third has a lot more single-line stanzas, more questions. The middle third has more lyric poems, more stories, more narratives, so those are easier, more accessible. But they were all communicative in a different way.
JC: Part of what you’re perceiving may be my slight rebellion against narrative poems, which of course are a very natural form. I like to experiment with language, line breaks, words, like many writers. I don’t feel that the single lines are fragmentary—they are connected, though this might not be immediately apparent. There can be a thin line that’s tricky to negotiate in terms of oneself and one’s voice. I do want readers to figure out what I’m doing—these are not riddles … Like any poem, at times these don’t work at all. There has to be some kind of a connection and the reader has to feel it or sense it or be willing to go with you.
It’s not entirely a rebellion but it’s another way of thinking about what else a poem can do or be.
If a poem is too abstract, too hard to get, obscure or private, you don’t do the extra work, you just say, “oh! Nice language, oh well!” So? [laughs] I can read another book! Do you know what I mean? It goes back to communication, what do you really want to say?
PW: Let me shift a little bit. I feel as though people ask you a lot about the overlap between poetry and science in your work. And the older I get, the more I feel that the connections between disciplines are not as far apart as we think. I mean, we can describe it as a Venn diagram, poetry and science overlapping, but also when I talk to children, they don’t put things into little compartments …
JC: Boxes …
PW: Or boxes, they think of what they did today, and it’ll make them think of something else. So I wonder if we’re actually thinking of disciplines now in a different way than we used to. And how do you think about those overlaps?
JC: That’s a very large question. I wonder if we could focus that question down a bit because it’s so encompassing. I don’t just want to repeat what I’ve said previously about science and poetry, because now that I’m painting I’m also noticing the amazing links between visual aspects and language.
One of the things I learned from my visual art collaborator, Annemarie Buchmann-Gerber was that if you add anything—a line, a mark, a colour—you reduce your options in the painting, but on the other hand, you can always simply paint over what you’ve done, not to obscure it completely, but adding a textured layer. I find this very intriguing because it makes me think that it’s always possible to change direction …
I’ve been meeting and reading about more and more people who learned to become an X are also deciding, “well I can also become a Y and a Z and there’s no reason why I have to stick to that label.” Very freeing. I didn’t start painting until relatively recently. That’s a long time to wait on one level but perhaps I had to wait to meet this wonderful collaborator before I could start to paint.
PW: Your work also features the figure of the female explorer, maverick. Is this deliberate? How much do you identify with other women explorers in their field and people who really push the boundary of knowledge?
JC: I do identify but it’s not often very conscious … I’m just doing. Exploring has been part of my life since I was a teen. I don’t read a lot of biographies, but I have focused on a few specific women such as Margaret Mee and Remedios Varo. There is a striking multifaceted aspect to these two particular women.
PW: You also write about Eva Peron, in “Touch Me Anywhere to Begin: A Biography of Eva Peron.” Peron was a maverick in her own way …
JC: Yes, she was, and she was very disturbing, and that poem actually got started by reading a brilliant essay by Alma Guillermoprieto, who’s one of the most remarkable Latin American writers I’ve encountered. That got me started because the way she was describing Eva Peron’s life—I suddenly went, “Oh my God, this is so insightful.” I did research on Eva Peron and found that she seemed to be impulsive and fascinating by turns but absolutely and extraordinarily odd. For many historical reasons, Argentinians became mesmerized by her; perhaps they needed a saviour at this particular time, and gravitated toward her.
PW: Do you think that people are repulsed by the figure of the female leader, the female maverick, or fascinated?
JC: A lot of it depends on the culture they were brought up in. Aside from the culture of their nation and their religion, I’m talking about the family culture. If a father doesn’t value the daughter’s particular gifts, if he says outright or implies, “you can’t do this….” There are several potential consequences. Possibly there wouldn’t arise these amazing female mavericks if they hadn’t had to push against major obstacles of many kinds and dimensions.
I find such female figures fascinating but I don’t usually think of myself as a maverick female explorer. I’m too busy to stand outside and say, look what I did, except occasionally when, for example, my bicycle trip through Japan when I turned thirty, following in Basho’s footsteps, I actually do say, oh …!
PW: I think you are a maverick!
JC: Maybe. But I do think that having other women who’ve done marvelous things is very important to be aware of, to see possibilities. And look what women can do! Even in a contemporary world that feels very fragile, there’s lots of work to do, and some of it could be incredibly meaningful.
PW: I agree, I just want to see people being supportive, being given the same amount of support regardless of their gender, or their racial background.
JC: Yes. But each of us is shaped by a very specific background. It requires concerted effort, often, to work against stereotypes, to listen, to be empathetic.
PW: That goes back to something you were saying about value judgments, and one thing that I find really refreshing is the lack of hierarchical value in your books, in that different points of view in your books and different voices always seem to have equal weight.
JC: Each of us has many voices, it’s important to allow them a say. But I never thought about the equal weightedness. Thank you, that’s a very good observation.
PW: This is your ninth book, and there aren’t too many people in Canada who have had nine books out, so I think that’s quite an accomplishment.
JC: Thank you!
PW: And it’s as if every book pushes a boundary of a different kind.
JC: I hope so, that’s certainly my intent.
PW: Could you tell me about the cover for Tomorrow’s Bright White Light? It’s beautiful; I love it!
JC: I met Annemarie, my collaborator, in Munster, northern Saskatchewan, when she attended a reading I did from Edge Effects (Brick Books, 2012). Several of the poems in that book focus on the brilliant Swiss painter Paul Klee, and Annemarie is Swiss-Canadian. She listened with enormous attention and had a strong emotional reaction to the work. She came up to me afterward and began a conversation about poetry and painting, then invited me up to her studio. I was very taken by the fascinating work she was creating as a fabric artist and a painter.
We decided to collaborate, taking a risk, having no idea how we would begin, but I traveled to Saskatoon for five days in the spring of 2014 and we started. The cover painting, “The Dream Horse Rises to the Top” is the first thing we did. It combines fabric and acrylic. The original horses were hers, from another piece, but we modified them, and painted boxes around them. We modified them so that the new piece would be ours, not just hers. There’s more of Annemarie in this first one. As we did more and more paintings they became more shared, so it was really 50/50 in the end. Sadly she died in December 2015. That’s been very difficult.
Now, “The Dream Horse Rises to the Top” has many layers of meaning. I remember she said, you’re the poet, you have to find the titles, and I said, wait a minute, you can contribute! We sort of teased each other about labels.
Having things or images inside boxes intrigues me. They’re contained, but what surrounds them, the texture of it, it’s very sea-like, a sense of being suspended in air or water.
And we bought this fabric that’s part of the piece, it’s a wash cloth, seventy-five cents at Canadian Tire. We had so much fun making this and the other six pieces we created, because we did everything together, we argued, we painted, we erased, we had so much fun.
PW: I’ve heard you talk about it in other interviews, so I didn’t ask you directly about it, but it seems that collaboration is really important to you.
JC: I think you can develop so many more innovative ideas, it makes you bolder, you try things that you might not be willing to do by yourself. You’ve got somebody on your team, or a friendly antagonist who’s saying, why do you want to do that? This can force you to articulate better; it’s very valuable.
PW: This title is also very suggestive of linearity, of … futurity, if that’s a word, and so we’ll finish up by talking about this interesting, almost ironic title—
JC: It’s very ironic. It’s the title of a poem in my previous book, Edge Effects. That’s a rather disconcerting poem, about a prostitute dying by herself. But I also chose it for a sense of continuity, even though I feel like this book went in a different direction.
It’s ironic and yet … people have an immense capacity for renewal. Maybe this buffers the inherent irony.
PW: I think so. Renewal with every book, renewal with every voice. Every poem that we begin is a kind of restarting.
JC: Yes, it’s so boring to use the same voice over and over. We’re so embedded in the concept of “our voice” but we can get dis-embedded and try something else. We don’t have to get stuck; we aren’t trees. We can move!
PART TWO—A Fall Revisit
PW: Rereading your book, what really leapt out at me this time was the humour of the voices. I don’t know why it slipped me the first time. I wanted to ask about how you use both questions and humour to involve the reader. Do you think about how to draw in the reader using that sense of joy and by undermining yourself a lot?
JC: It seems to be part of my personality, that undermining, a kind of humour that doesn’t hurt anyone else. A lot of humour is disguised racism, ageism or sexism. This sounds simplistic, though, because humour is also very complex, and context is important. It’s one of the most difficult things to learn to use well.
I like it, of course, if people who are reading it laugh, but I don’t consciously put it in a poem to make the reader say, “oh!” It’s just part of the landscape of the poem, somehow. When I’m writing I’m not really writing for an audience, I’m writing because that’s what I need to do, so I love that people notice the humour when they do.
PW: The humour does well to balance, or to counterbalance the meditative quality to your poems, particularly around time. You say in one poem, that “time has lost track of me”; “I’ve an earlier century in mind… ”; “I intended to say something philosophical about time” …
PW: That to me is why the humour works. Because there’s a balance against this meditative quality. The serious, weighty, “I need to think about this” quality.
JC: Yes, it’s one of the most complex aspects of our present day lives. Even though you might aspire to philosophies of living in the present, you can’t function without understanding the past—you can’t toss history.
The sense of time to me is quite strange and unpredictable. I think in each person time changes as you change in your life. It sometimes feels like it’s expanding and contracting in such fascinating ways.
PW: How would you try to use the poem to try to reflect those multiple timelines you’re a part of: the everyday time, the eternal time—the connection you have with the universe—and then something I might call the time-of-the-poem, which is the time you’re creating in the experience for the reader?
JC: You might be ascribing to me an awareness of my own writing that is not always clear to me. It’s not because I don’t rewrite and rethink enormously but because it can take so long to have critical distance from a work—that I think I never achieve [laughs] no matter how hard I try.
I work to make the very best possible poems I can but I don’t usually have bigger themes in my brain—I don’t know why. Maybe it’s not the kind of brain that I have. Much of my writing is very intuitive, informed by reading, thinking and feeling, rather than by theory.
PW: I wanted to ask about certainty. Even that lack of awareness, I think, contributes to a poem, in that a poet’s position is always a sense of uncertainty.
JC: You never know if what you’ve written is very good or not.
PW: Yes. [Laughs]
JC: You really don’t know in your life. I think that makes it more powerful. There’s always a sense of, “I don’t know if that’s a really wonderful piece of writing or if it’s not,” and you can see for yourself if it’s technically good, but you can’t tell if it’s a poem that’s going to move other people or be the best possible poem you could write at that time.
PW: But it’s not just even a certainty about the quality but a certainty about perception. So, you have one poem that talks about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. You also have a lot of poems where you as a person are also uncertain about what you perceive, how you’re perceiving it, and from what angle. And it’s the quantity of knowledge and not just the quality of it. So do you use poems to explore uncertainty in the things that you perceive?
JC: I have great doubts about the way I perceive the world because it’s a singular, maybe insular point of view. It’s great when I discover that other people share at least bits of it. But I have to stick to my inner vision because it’s the only one I’ve got.
I know there are people who spend enormous amounts of time trying to craft a poem in a very particular kind of way. I’m not that person. I keep trying to do something different and it doesn’t always work. Sometimes I cram too many ideas in, and they feel dense. I have all kinds of failed poems, even published poems that I think, “No!” I never read them aloud. Maybe they weren’t as deep as I could’ve gone and they weren’t as insightful, or whatever it is. You can usually tell when you’re reading a poem aloud that there’s one little section or there’s one whole stanza that’s just not in sync with the rest of the poem—it simply didn’t get to where the rest of the poem landed.
PW: You say that your own poems are very dense. I do see lots of poems that have lots packed in, in terms of images, but I also feel a sense of gaps or space being left for the reader. And you even write about what you call “the Rauschenberg Gap” and the gap between life and art. That’s in “Melodrama is Foreign to My Nature.”
JC: Oh yes! [laughs] That was funny.
PW: Yeah, it is really funny. I want to try to close it. There’s always a space between our lives and the art that we want to make. And I think that’s actually present in all of the books of yours that I’ve read; how is life separate from art, how does art come into our lives, how we make room for it. That’s something I’m very interested in, as well, because my mother’s a person who tried to make her life into a work of art.
JC: Yes, I remember you talking about that.
PW: So she always wants to have beautiful things around her, she always wants to present things in an artistic way. So I was like, “you can’t do this to your life. We’re not a performance! You don’t need to stage it!” So what are your thoughts? Do you feel as though you ever really—
JC: Merge them?
PW: Yeah, merge this gap? To try to have a life that is …
JC: I think if you spend all your time staging it, that you’re creating a separation of yourself from some aspect of your feelings and it becomes too artificial. I would be fearful of that, because I think you would always feel like you were on a kind of stage. It seems to me to be very dangerous.
JC: So let me backtrack … I said something about density, I think that wasn’t perhaps quite the right word, I was responding to what you articulated about the first third of the book being maybe less accessible, that there was more of the associative linking among the single lines. That goes back to our earlier conversation about narrative—that I’m trying not to be glued to narrative. I appreciate that you’ve noticed that space in my poems because I do think that’s something that I’ve worked to create to allow a person listening to be able to enter. I don’t want them to stay out, I want them to be able to join if they want. And I love it when people ask questions.
What I love is when three people are talking about a poem of mine that they’ve only listened to. And they all take away completely different aspects of it. Because they’ve interpreted it in the light of their own life, which is all we’ve really got. That’s remarkable to me. I would almost like to make poems that would go back and forth with people who are listening and see what how they felt, what they saw, what they heard. I find it really pleasurable how people interpret whatever I’ve written. When I listen to people, I get the language wrong. I’m not using a microphone; I’m just there with my notebook and my pencil writing little scraps of phrases and things as I recall them, but my memory is, like everybody else’s, filled with imagination and creativity, so it doesn’t even reproduce things accurately, necessarily, it kind of goes off on its own, which I think is totally normal. But entertaining, for sure.
PW: You have poems that are dreams, or talk about dreams. For instance, in the poem “When the Known World is Flat,” where the speaker wanders through a mutating landscape, and in “Light Strikes Where in Can,” where “outlines/blur” and a kid “warms … his feet in a dream of the Arctic Ocean.”
It seems to me that the poem itself is a kind of dream landscape—that you present these images and there’s a lot of space in between and it’s kind of like the thought is leaping. Are you conscious of the role that dreams or the dream-life has for you?
JC: I used to spend hours writing down my dreams every morning or even in the middle of the night. I rarely do that now. I think my inner life is probably extremely rich, or at the very least very crowded! It’s a nice place to live. I spend a lot of time there. I don’t consciously think of my poems as dream landscapes, because so much of the impulse to begin them comes from an actual experience of mine or of someone’s, or from a painting, something that was actually fairly concrete. My dream images, when I pay attention to them, can be very lavish.
If you pay attention, the way your subconscious uses images to tell you things is absolutely amazing to me. Everybody has that. I think it could happen to anybody who pays attention so a lot of it is just being aware.
PW: I have just one more overarching question about your poetic career. Do you see all your books as being a part of one project, or do you see them as being very separate?
JC: It’s the latter, definitely. There was an incredible focus on Mexican art in Botero’s Beautiful Horses because I’ve been engaged in Mexican art and Mexican artists, in terms of travelling there and looking at their art and trying to experience as much as possible, for a really long time, since I first went to Mexico in my early twenties. For the Paul Klee poems in Edge Effects, I spent about four years reading about his life and his work, going to galleries, I went all over the world to look at his paintings, including archives. Jaguar Rain: The Margaret Mee Poems was a very specific project.
All the books are linked, there are common threads, but each manuscript is a new way of approaching or processing life. It’s rare for me to do a book-length project like Margaret Mee. I love to learn new things; I never know what they might be, or become.
PW: Do you have an ongoing project, and if so, are you fine talking about it?
JC: I did write a poem that I found enormously fun because I did an incredible amount of research; it’s partly about the contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and what he did with the twelve zodiac heads. I saw his show in Cleveland in 2012, and imagined aspects of the found and the lost heads, and so that was really fun because it put me into that particular period of Chinese history.
I like the fact that, because it’s a poem, and not a novel, it’s quite time-limited. It’s so focused. If the poem ends up a couple of pages long, you can put an enormous amount of work into it and then you have to forget all that information, otherwise you’re writing a poem that’s just filled with facts—
PW: I’m the same way too! I was just saying that to somebody, that you do a lot of research, and then you just forget about it! And then you just kind of write from the emotional experience that you learned. I wasn’t like that before, I used to want to put in a lot research, lots of facts.
JC: It’s not as creative. Too factual, it interferes with your own creative process. Maybe because you don’t have enough trust in it yet, or one doesn’t, so as you get better or as you grow more into whatever your own voice becomes, is becoming, it’s always becoming, because it doesn’t stop somewhere, here we are. My voice is always going to change. That’s the nature of the beast. You learn to trust it more and to take more risks. And that’s part of your intuitive piece. Our intuitive pieces. You’re increasingly more willing to rely on it, because you know that you can trust it and you can do marvellous things.
Phoebe Wang is a poet, reviewer and ESL teacher living in Toronto. Her work has been published in Maisonneuve, Prism International, and THIS Magazine. Her most recent chapbook, Hanging Exhibits, appeared with The Emergency Response Unit in Spring 2016 and her first collection of poetry, Admission Requirements, is forthcoming with McClelland & Stewart in 2017.