“Irradiated Mutants and Psychopathic Poems”: A Conversation with Michael Lista

by Myra Bloom

Raised in Ottawa, moulded in Halifax, Myra Bloom currently lives in Toronto, where she is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at U of T. As a baby, she was spoon-fed poetry along with her mashed carrots and has been devouring it ever since. She has published academic essays in several journals. This is her first interview.

Michael Lista is the author of Bloom (House of Anansi, 2010), poetry editor for The Walrus, and the author of the “On Poetry” column for The National Post. He is a poet and essayist, whose work has been published in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, Arc, Descant, Canadian Literature, and Border Crossings. Recently, his work was included in the companion book to Guy Maddin’s film My Winnipeg. He has been a finalist for a National Magazine Award, the Arc Poem of the Year Prize, The Malahat Review Long Poem Prize, and the Descant/Winston Collins Prize, and he has been shortlisted twice for the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Toronto.

This conversation was valiantly conducted over loud music and trivia questions at The Wilson 96 on College Street. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Myra Bloom: Can you talk a bit about your process when writing Bloom? Did you sketch out the plot first and then write the poems? Or did it happen incrementally?

Michael Lista: Well, the actual story of what happened with Louis Slotin on May 21, 1946 was there in outline. What happened with Slotin is kind of common knowledge now. I found the story of Slotin on Wikipedia when I was accidentally just surfing around. The story of the accident was really specific—what happened at the lab, what happened with him and his replacement, Graves. We knew that he was there at the lab; we didn’t know exactly what happened with him, so there was enough solidity in the accident that there was enough to base the book around, but so little about Slotin that I could kind of experiment with what happened on the actual day. I ended up figuring out what happened with him through the writing of the book, which itself took sort of an accidental path. I knew I wanted the book to start in the morning and end at night to mirror Ulysses because there were enough puns in the chronology of Slotin’s life to justify it and I just sort of assembled the manuscript by trial and error. My governing rule was: does the poem work as a poem? Does it work with what I’m trying to do with the parallels? If it does, then it could have a chance at staying. I probably wrote four or five times the number of poems that are actually in Bloom and then assembled them with respect to their aesthetic merit and whatever double duty they had to do for the parallels and the chronology.

MB: How did you choose which poet to emulate for which poem?

ML: Some of them I knew I wanted to take a crack at, either because I liked them and admired them or because I think there was something in them that I could bend to my purposes. But a lot of the time it was accidental; it was what I was reading at the time and a lot of the ones that I tried hardest to translate—or whatever you want to call it—just didn’t work as well and so they didn’t make it. So the Bloom that you see in the book is the result of something like accident. Even though it’s a really deliberate process, a really deliberate aesthetic, the fact of them ends up being accidental.

MB: You mentioned that you found the historical record pretty scant. Do you think your book adds something to the historical record?

ML: I think it depends on how you define historical record: if you use the strictest sense of the term, no it doesn’t. There are elements of it that are completely historical and there are elements of it that are completely ahistorical. The character of Joanna is a complete figment of my imagination. There’s no evidence that Slotin was really involved with anyone really seriously, but in the book the whole thing is a secret marriage, so it could happen. Part of the thing that I was trying to do with Bloom is that the main historical fact, at least insofar as the Canadian character is concerned when it comes to Slotin, is that he’s not really defendable. He doesn’t really fit what we think of as the Canadian character very well: he wasn’t a collectivist; he died seeking his genius abroad. He was involved in the most serious weapons advancement (essentially) in Western history. He was ambitious, he was hubristic; those things don’t sit well with us. Because he was so completely forgotten, I felt like I had the liberty to recreate him as I wanted. But I think, at least in my book, the fact of our amnesia of him is so front and centre. That in and of itself is of some historical merit.

MB: Do you see your work as a corrective of our amnesia?

ML: It’s not up to me to decide whether or not it is corrective. I think it’s diagnostic. I’m interested in the fact that we don’t remember him. How is it that I had to come across someone of this historical significance totally randomly on Wikipedia? How is that? I’m not saying he’s the sort of guy we should name high schools after, but we should at least hear about him. But we don’t. And so I hope to take a little bit of a cavalier approach to his legacy; I could prompt us to take people like this seriously, even though we don’t really have a spot for them.

MB: Do you feel like there’s some kind of ethical weight on you, like you need to do this guy justice? Does the question of the ethics of representation enter into it for you?

ML: Yeah, I don’t think that I do him an injustice. When I was in Winnipeg touring the book, I did one reading where I was at a bookstore, and there were two women, later-middle-age, who were sitting at the back and who asked me why I thought I had the right to write about him, to besmirch his name. The way they read it was that Slotin was a hero. And that was always the official line—the military line, the American government line: that Slotin’s quick action saved the seven men in the lab. But of course, he wouldn’t have had to save them if he had followed the standard safety procedures, if he hadn’t endangered their lives in the first place. So I think the book is ambivalent enough that people can make up their own minds about what happened to him and how he acted and what the morality of it was. So I don’t think I really impose any editorial viewpoint that the historical facts don’t bear out themselves. I think the most important ethical thing was remembering him, and insofar as I did that, I think any critics of the book’s historicity have to take that into account: that he was a really marginal figure, a forgotten figure, until this happened. Whatever correctives people feel they need to add they do hopefully because something in the book prompts them to.

MB: You open Bloom with two epigraphs, one of which is Plato’s account, from The Republic, of Odysseus in the underworld. The shades are choosing lots to determine their next life and Odysseus chooses the life of an obscure man. In what way does this allegory relate to your protagonist, Louis Slotin?

ML: Well, Joyce had that in mind when he wrote Ulysses, and it’s the reason he picked [Leopold] Bloom for who he was. So in some ways, Bloom is a reversal of that modernist idea. Leopold Bloom is in every way unremarkable. His inner life is incredibly remarkable, but his historical value is almost nil, which is what supplies the beauty. I’m sort of making the opposite point in Bloom: even though Odysseus chooses a lowly man, he ends up becoming himself again.

A lot of Bloom came out of an argument that I had with my dad when I was sixteen when we were on vacation, and he was talking about how in his mind people can’t change. And I remember being sixteen and being in love with literature and thinking, ‘That can’t be true. I mean, my dad is a very smart man, but that can’t be true.’

And I remember as I was refuting him, and it’s happening right now, it happens every time I tell this story, I can hear right now the sound of my dad’s voice coming out of my throat. That even as I was refuting him, not just the tenor of his voice and the cadences, but the grammatical structures, the argumentative strategies, the way I would turn a phrase, it was my father’s, and so I was refuting my own point as I was trying to make it, and that’s really what Bloom is about: that the older I get and the more I read and think, the less I think free will is possible, and the more I think the cultural and biological and experiential determinants that shape us end up making the choices that we think we have much more narrow than we think they are.

MB: It seems like a very Greek idea: your character is your fate. Would you agree?

ML: It is. But it’s also borne out in contemporary science: someone like David Eagleman, who wrote Incognito: this guy’s at the forefront of cognitive research, and he himself shows that free will is probably just a staging ground where cognitions from the lower parts, the pre-conscious parts of the brain, rise up and are claimed by free will. So the idea is old, but it’s also true. That’s what I wanted to take a crack at.

MB: Intertextuality is not a new phenomenon in literature. However, it is also a rarity for a first collection to feature such a dialogic engagement with other poets. Do you see yourself as writing from within the modernist intertextual tradition (following Joyce, Eliot, and so on)? Or rather, is your dialogism a departure from the idea of the lone poet?

ML: I think it’s a bit of both. I think if there’s a single poem or a single organizing aesthetic structure that Bloom is in response to, it’s notUlysses or The Odyssey or even any of the parent poems: it’s The Waste Land. Because I don’t actually really think (and people might disagree with me because they can), that anyone has answered, aesthetically, the main claims of Eliot in The Waste Land, yet: that the fragments of the culture can only really be seen ironically, that history is this ugly wheel that we’re fixed to and that all of the things that came before us are only ironic shades of what they once were. I don’t think that’s true. I think what I was trying to do with Bloom was to show that those deep structures—the deep aesthetic structures, the deep intellectual structures, are still not only not ironic but they’re vital, too. And they’re things that we can’t help but repeat, but that doesn’t make them depressing. There’s still immense value in them and we can still create novelty from them. Slotin is the opposite of the figure of Tiresias because Slotin can produce something novel from the things that have come before us. The other thing that I’d like to say about that is that, and this is sort of the subject of my next column in the National Post, is that

I despise what contemporary poetry has become insofar as the highest praise you can pay a poet now, today, is that ‘she has a unique voice’ and that the autistic runicness of a voice is the thing that a poem most aspires to, and that’s it.

I don’t really give much of a damn if someone’s voice is so bizarre that it raises the hairs on the back of your neck. That’s fine, but it’s by no means a yardstick, never mind the yardstick, by which we have to measure poems. What’s always interested me is the deep thinking. And I don’t think you can really do it if your goal is to sound so unlike anyone else. Because it means in some sense really rejecting the influence that is your heritage, and your birthright; you sort of have to sing with the whole language, the whole tradition, before you can really say something new. You can’t just eschew it all and try to create it again from scratch.

MB: So do you believe in the Renaissance idea that the artist needs to study and engage with the masters?

ML: Yes, I do. I do, very much so. And I think that that’s an incredibly unfashionable idea right now. And I mean, you can’t do anything fully new unless you are totally aware of what Eliot unfashionably called The European Mind. And it doesn’t have to be the European Mind. You have to really get what the project of humanity has been in the deepest sense that you can, just to start to sing something that’s half-new.

MB: So do you consider Bloom a way of finding your voice, or is this your voice, fully realized through an engagement with the tradition?

ML: That’s a question that I can’t answer. That’s a question for a critic. But what I definitely was trying to do was toy with people’s idea of what a first collection should be, which is that ‘you try out your voice in different styles’ and stuff like that, but that’s not just what Bloom is doing: all of that, whatever you want to call it—imitation, homage, palimpsest or mimicry—is for an aesthetic purpose. Most of the time, a first collection is written just to find your voice. That’s not what Bloom is trying to do. If Bloom is anything, it’s a parody of a first book. And what our expectations of it are.

MB: I’m trying to reconcile things you said in two different interviews. The first is your statement to Lauren Kirshner in 2009, before the book was published, that “The goal of a Bloom poem is usually to deride, undercut, revise, cheat, lie, steal, be generally shady. If any good comes from them, it’s usually at the expense of the original.” The second is your characterization of the poems as “metempsychoses” in an interview you did with Jacob McArthur Mooney, where you said that the poems were “transmigrations of the soul” in response to Jacob’s question about your book’s role in contemporary ‘remix’ culture. Is there sincerity in your poems, or is some kind of subversion inherent in the remix?

ML: I almost don’t even remember saying that [to Lauren Kirshner]. I was really anxious about how people would react to a Bloom poem. I thought that they would be a lot more upset; I thought that there would be a lot more concern with their being something like plagiarism, which is what I was always flirting with. The whole point is that a Bloom poem has to be a simulacrum of what Slotin did in the lab. That’s the only historical fact, really, to work on. So I wanted that fact to be present in every moment of the day: that it was prefigured, and resultant of, this one moment. That a Bloom poem was essentially “tickling the dragon’s tail,” which is what they called the experiment. That it was in some senses a kind of irradiated mutant of the original. And I was worried that in some senses people would be upset by it, which is why I think I come across as being more confrontational in the Kirshner interview and less confrontational in the Mooney one.

People didn’t really end up being all that upset about the form that the poems took. Maybe I didn’t give people enough credit that they were ready for this sort of form to happen. One thing that people really haven’t done, and I include myself in this, is to look at the relationship between the Bloom poem and what the original poem was doing. I mean, in some cases it was parasitic or antagonistic or confrontational, but in other poems it isn’t: it’s respectful, and I think if you look at any given parent poem from Bloom and what the original poem was doing, I think the relationship between them supplies some of the emotional and aesthetic information of where Slotin is at that day. And I’ve sort of forgotten a lot of the nuances to it because it’s been a while since I wrote the book but I do know that at the time, the tension I had with the original poem was a way of expressing what Slotin was feeling at the time, which you can only really know if you look back at the original.

MB: So, here’s a particular question. In “Louis Slotin and the White Lie,” you both engage [poet Don] Paterson’s ideas seriously and at the same time bathetically reverse him. I’m thinking in particular of his stanza from “The White Lie,”

But consider this: that when we leave the room,
the chair, the bookend or the picture-frame
we had frozen by desire or spent desire
is reconsumed in its estranging fire

Paterson is talking about a thought experiment in which we estrange ourselves from the mundane order of things to realize that they’re constructs of our minds. You render these lines:

But consider this: things we’ve betrayed,
Forgone, or loved too deeply to desire
are reenlightened in divorce’s fire

Your literalization of divorce, namely, Slotin’s divorce from his wife, uses Paterson’s deeply serious, deeply existential poem and creates humour. Are you poking fun at him directly? And more generally, why do you use humour?

ML: I wanted Slotin to be funny because it always terrifies me when people in positions of gravity or really serious power are being funny. You see memes of it all the time: memes of old photos of Reagan and a young Donald Rumsfeld and a young President Bush standing around in a room together in the White House laughing. Humour seems inappropriate in retrospect from people in positions of enormous power, and it’s also the absolute most human thing: of course the guy who has his finger on the nuclear button is going to crack jokes once in a while; I feel that it’s his right, that’s the way humans work. I wanted Slotin to be funny, or irreverent, or clever. Sometimes too clever by half. Because I think that’s the only thing that could really show how a human being was at the helm of unleashing the greatest weapon of mass destruction we’ve ever encountered. There is something almost funny about the atom bomb. Someone like Stanley Kubrick got this right from the very get-go, that it was sort of hilarious. Doing the sort of po-faced, purely earnest treatment of Slotin wouldn’t get the sense that the being that made the atom bomb really is only half a chromosome away from the chimpanzee.

MB: You kind of pre-empted a question I was going to ask you about the relationship between grand historical events and the pawns of history. It is sort of funny that human history rests in the hands of these guys, these Leopold Bloom figures, right? You have the grandeur of the atomic bomb and all of our cultural imagery but then you bring it down to this intensely human level with your focus on ‘some guy’ we don’t even remember.

ML: At one point Louis Slotin was sixth in line in terms of seniority at The Manhattan Project. Sixth. He was fuckin’ up there. Way up there. Because he was the guy who had assembled all of the atomic cores that went into the bombs that were dropped on Japan and the ones afterwards, he was called the “Chief Armorer” of the United States. What if it was that that guy, the Chief Armorer of the United States, what if he was a joker who told half-good jokes? How horrifying is that? It is horrifying, but that’s the only way to really understand the bomb: it’s made by guys who tell half-good jokes.

MB: It’s kind of analogous to the way these losers like Hitler somehow seize power and the entire fate of human history comes to rest in their hands.

ML: Exactly. Hitler, who got laughed off construction sites when he tried to work as a construction worker in Austria, and would go home to write pissed-offedly in his journal about how all the guys who laughed him off the construction site were just drunks who would go and have beer with their sandwiches at lunch. History is full of those losers. And Slotin is a bit of a loser. He’s a holy loser, but he’s a loser.

MB: Do you think there’s any essential connection between science and poetry?

ML: The first answer that comes to mind is that I used to think so a lot more because I was writing Bloom. I think for me in many ways the most important ancient poet in terms of his ideas was Lucretius. And style, too; I think he’s up there with Virgil in Latin as being an absolute realist. I think that for a long time while Lucretius was lost, we thought that in order to be a serious poet you had to be a believer in something, you had to be in some sort of way credulous. But Lucretius shows that there is something sexy and real and holy about the scientific method. I’m interested in, or I was interested in Bloom, and I think in my new work, too, in showing how cognitive structures are the result of biochemical structures, neural architecture, and how neural architecture is represented formally. I’m really interested in that. Received forms for me, and received in the widest possible sense, you can use those as formal analogies for the deep structures that make us think the way we think in everyday life.

For me, Auden solved this problem by showing that the Modernists were sort of wrong, especially T.S. Eliot, [who held] that received forms like the sonnet, the villanelle, rhyme and strict metre, are old-fashioned; they’re just political enemies meant to reinforce power structures. No no, that’s not true, that’s how they were, but now you can use a sonnet to show the way that your genetic inheritance makes you think a certain way. You can do that if you’re a good enough poet; you can do that.

MB: I know that your new work is about Paul Bernardo

ML: It’s not about Paul Bernardo!

MB: So it’s not about Paul Bernardo. I’m really reticent to say anything. Do you maybe just want to give a little summary?

ML: Sure. I guess the way I describe it is that it’s a book of poems that isn’t about Paul Bernardo.

MB: But is it from the point of view of Paul Bernardo?

ML: No. Now I’m realizing that I do have a sort of intellectual neurosis about the stories Canadians don’t want to think about, or can’t think about. I was born in 1983. My twelfth birthday was the day that Paul Bernardo was convicted, and I remember in the years leading up to it that he was this constant presence in our house, on our television. I had a younger sister and I remember the terror of my mother and I didn’t understand what it was.

MB: Did you guys have the ‘white van’ scare?

ML: Yes. But first of all, Paul Bernardo didn’t drive a white van; he drove a sports car. But there was that paranoia all over the place. And Bernardo is still the one serial killer whose name we can’t bring ourselves to say. We can say Picton. Picton killed many times as many people as Bernardo. He killed 44, 45 women, or something like that.

MB: But he killed prostitutes; we don’t care about them.

ML: That’s part of it, too; that people only really got pissed off about it when Kristen French went missing, who was a good girl in a Catholic school uniform. Bernardo didn’t kill prostitutes, but we cared less when they were more marginal class figures. So if Bloom is my Odyssey book, if it’s my Odysseus book, this one is my Orpheus book. I want it to have two aesthetic effects in one. The poems are not about Paul Bernardo. They’re not about his victims; they’re not in the voice of his victims, they’re not in his voice. They’re poems about every single thing except for Paul Bernardo. But he’s there. The rapes and murders are there. They’re there in a very specific timeline. I want them to be psychopathic poems. Bernardo was a psychopath. The two major things that distinguish a psychopath are the inability to feel empathy for other people, and artificial charm or glibness. And this is something that the police who arrested Bernardo—he was arrested no fewer than two times before he was finally charged.

People would call in and they would say, “Listen, I think I work with the Scarborough Rapist.” At Price Waterhouse Cooper, people called in and said they saw the picture, his composite sketch, and they said, “I work with this fucking guy.” And they brought him in. By no fewer than two police forces. I’ve read the police report. And what these pardoned officers would say is that he was too charming. He was too well put together. One of them even said that he was too “classically handsome” to be the Scarborough rapist.

Which of course is this whole story. I want them to be psychopathic poems. So they’re going to be beautiful, they’re going to be classically made, a lot of them have really rococo rhymes.

MB: Is there one protagonist? Is there one point of focus?

ML: No. There’s not even one subject. A lot of the poems are set in that time, they’re set in the Toronto of the late ’80s, early ’90s, and there is a definite chronology to the thing. But there are hundreds of voices in The Scarborough, which is the book’s title. I want it to look like the city. I want it to look like the GTA. Voices in different languages and different tonal registers, different points of view. But the crimes are happening in them, the way it must have been at the time in the city. All this noise, all this chatter. All this beauty.

MB: Do you feel like there is something particularly timely about those poems, or is it just another subject that piqued your interest?

ML: Well, I mean, there are always serial killers in the news. We’ve had Russell Williams. And the Picton stuff is still in the news. No, I feel like the subjects always present themselves. You can’t, or at least I can’t, look for my subject. The subject has to just show up. And this is something I’ve thought about since I was a kid. If it’s timely, great. But you can always bank on psychopaths being timely.

MB: There was a moment long before 9/11 when ‘Beware of serial killers in their white vans’ was a schoolyard mantra. And I guess serial killers are still timely but it feels like the danger now is a foreign danger, the danger of terrorism, the danger of the outside infiltrating the inside. These home-grown serial killers like Russell Williams still walk among us, for sure, but when I think of ‘danger’ now my mind immediately goes to Osama bin Laden, to al-Qaeda.

ML: Well, what’s amazing, too, and that’s something I wanted to show, too, is that most murders are not the result of a stranger who picks you up off the street and murders you. No, most murders are husbands murdering their wives, or uncles murdering their nieces. It’s almost always someone you know. And that’s what I wanted to do with this book, too. There should be a fear that pervades it all. That in some sense the murder is happening behind all of the poems, but it doesn’t happen to the poem’s subject. It doesn’t happen to you.

MB: So it sounds to me like, for you, the long poem—or maybe ‘long poem’ is the wrong language, because it’s not like you’re writing a poem—the collection is a way of telling a story. Do you see poetry as the medium through which you tell a story?

ML: Yes, I think that both Bloom and the new one [The Scarborough] are sort of long poems but they’re also anthologies, in their own way. I like the tension between those two ideas. Bloom is partly indebted to the school that we call ‘conceptualism’. The Scarborough is a little bit less so because it’s a conceptual book that isn’t about its concept. It’s still sort of a long poem, but it’s made up of a bunch of smaller ones that are even more like an anthology than Bloom is. But is poetry a way of telling a story that I just want to tell? No, because I think, or I hope, that with the work I do, the forms of the poems are never arbitrary. I don’t write poetry because I’m ‘good’ at writing poetry, or that it’s my ‘passion’, or any of that. I write it because it has to be written as poetry and I hope that my stuff can’t be adapted, essentially. You can’t think, “ Bloom would make a really good movie,” or, “The Scarborough, let’s turn that into a fucking musical theatre play.” No, part of the meaning is the fact that it’s in verse. Especially with the new one, the fact that it’s in traditional verse.


Raised in Ottawa, moulded in Halifax, Myra Bloom currently lives in Toronto, where she is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at U of T. As a baby, she was spoon-fed poetry along with her mashed carrots and has been devouring it ever since. She has published academic essays in several journals. This is her first interview.