Ken Babstock’s first collection in 1999, Mean, won him the Milton Acorn Award and the 2000 Atlantic Poetry Prize. His second collection, Days into Flatspin, also garnered high critical praise. He was the winner of a K.M. Hunter Award. His poems have won Gold at the National Magazine Awards, have been anthologized in Canada and the United States, and have been translated into Dutch, Serbo-Croatian, and Latvian.Babstock worked as Poetry Faculty at the Banff Centre for the Arts and currently lives in Toronto. He is currently the poetry editor for the Toronto-based press House of Anansi. Babstock’s third collection, Airstream Land Yacht, won the Trillium Book Award, was shortlisted for the 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize, and was nominated for the 2006 Governor General’s Award for poetry. His most recent collection is Methodist Hatchet.
This interview took place at Free Times Café on College Street in Toronto as winter began to return to spring for one last week
E Martin Nolan: I’ll begin by referring to something you told Sina Queyras, in a Lemon Hound interview after Air Stream Land Yacht [ASLY]: that you were still in the educational process in regard to poetry. Is that still true?
Ken Babstock: Oh yeah. With any poem as it’s coming into being—two, three lines in—one hopes that one is still listening to the beginning of the poem as its trying to show you its form, what it wants to do. So yes—at the level of listening to the poem, putting one’s self in the position of student to the poem. Now, with reading, it’s primarily about the joy and love of the poem, of the form. But then you discover a new poet, a new collection, and there’s always a level of mimicry, you want to do that. So most of my reading is scouting around for things I can’t do. It’s a process of putting yourself at the feet of someone else.
EMN: Can you give an example of something you were reading in the process of writing Methodist Hatchet, something that you wanted to catch up to?
KB: The first thing that comes to mind is August Kleinzhaler. I had always followed him, but when the collection Sleeping It Off in Rapid City came out, there was something about how he frames a poem. I’m still not sure how to articulate it, but it’s something about opening in media res and then: what corner of the poem’s reality is being framed, looked at? There’s something about how the poem is speaking itself and defining its own boundaries that I found enormously mysterious. I could not find a methodology at work, and maybe that’s his aim: from poem to poem, there remains a very eclectic way of approaching the subject matter. In any case, there was something going on, and I just kept going back to the poems, over and over, trying to figure that out.
EMN: Does that come out in the book?
KB: I don’t know. I would love it if it did. I like jittery movements between poems—like setting a pastoral next to a manic monologue—I’ve always liked shifting tones and registers between poems, so possibly some of that got in there but it’s hard to tell when an influence is just adoration and when it shows up in the writing. I sure wouldn’t mind some of that poem-to-poem mystery.
EMN: Sticking on influence, and seminal authors, there’s a poem in here—the title poem actually—that borrows—I don’t know if this is copying a form or just a repeated segment of verse, making a form of it perhaps—but it begins with some lines from Ashbery.
KB: That begins with some lines from “The Interesting People of Newfoundland.” It’s a bit of a joke. The poem is attempting to deal with my own strange relationship with Newfoundland, where I was born. So I lifted the lines from Ashbery—who I assume does not have a deep understanding of Newfoundland, it’s a fun poem—and I mirrored the lines of that tercet. It’s a kind of joke within a joke because it’s more like holding a mirror to those lines instead of creating a form. As far as seminal poets—speaking of mirroring—I fear I’ll just end up saying what I’ve read about myself as far as influences. For sure, I’ve loved Muldoon for a long time, and Stevens, and Stevens’ rival Frost, Seamus Heaney. But for this book I was reading a lot of American work. That might be an upshot from the last book, when I was reading a lot from that little corner of philosophy: studies of consciousness, theories of mind, that kind of Anglo-American analytical philosophy, including William James. But my reading is so intuitive and eclectic that I end up forgetting what I’ve read. I try to keep it chaotic and undirected so that what ends up falling into the poetry does so in some kind of organic way, as opposed to a directed study.
EMN: Do you think that way of reading—wandering, undirected as you say—is related to your general way of thinking, or to the writing? Because your poems shift in a way that reminds me of your description of your reading habits.
KB: It would be almost impossible to explain how my mind works habitually—I might be able to describe how it worked a minute ago—but with the poetry: I do believe that what poetry can do—and what other forms of thinking and making don’t do as well—is make connections, make associative leaps, putting disparate elements in close proximity to each other. I do remember wanting that in my work for some time, wanting to leap between, say, fields of knowledge, wanting the present real, whatever one might be looking at or thinking of, to then lead to something that might not be present. Connections and leaps; I would love for that to be a dominant aspect of the poetry.
EMN: Why is that so attractive to you?
KB: It seems to be one of those elemental truths about the universe. It is absolutely true that the universe is flying apart, but it’s also very true that in a very real sense everything is interrelated. So part of what the mind can do for the body—which is dying and flying apart—is to remind the self that things are related to each other—often in very tenuous ways, but things are interconnected. I don’t want to sound like a hippie, but that’s true at the level of, say, neutrinos, all the way to how what you buy on the street corner effects someone labouring in a factory in Malaysia. So things do connect, though it often feels like a struggle to peel away layers of obfuscation to show how things are connected. Or even to make up connections, but that is how the mind works.
EMN: But at the same time, aren’t you fragmenting in these poems?
KB: I don’t know if I’m doing it, so much as it’s already there. At least, I’m going to stand by that. I do believe that fragmentation explains how things are, physically, but also intellectually. There is a kind of impossibility in casually making connections. Whatever cutting-edge physics is telling us right now, what bio-genetics is telling us, or chemistry, what political theory is telling us, it’s incredibly difficult to keep abreast of, even for the specialists in the field. So there is a blasting apart of information that makes it close to impossible to get a handle on the reality of the world we walk around in every day. So I think the fragmentation and the confusion is inherent to social reality right now. So I hope the poems are allowing for that, but at the same time insisting—not that things can be put back together as a whole—but that connections can be made, that interactions can be made, that interconnections can even be made up. There’s an insistence on some semblance of order against a backdrop of chaos.
EMN: So it’s doing two things at the same time.
KB: I hope so. I was thinking about this in regard to one poem that seemed to be made of concentric rings of order and chaos, and I’m not sure which one the poem is insisting on. Formally, it wants to play with order but is insisting on disintegration. Subject matter-wise, the poem seems to be doing the same thing, waffling back and forth between a kind of holding together and dispersal. I don’t think the poems insist on any one way; I think they want both to be true at the same time.
EMN: So the fragmentation is the result of the backdrop—
KB: I think so. I wanted to be honest about how little I understood. It’s a portrayal of a mind failing a lot of the time. I wasn’t trying to be deliberately obfuscating, or to throw a veil over things, I just wanted to be honest about moments when it seemed impossible that the mind could get a handle on what was going on. So, it was an attempt to draw a picture of that while at the same time allowing for the urge to make connections, moor the poem, put a hook in reality.
EMN: So at the same time, this same action is doing two things: declaring a falling apart while at the same time insisting on a miraculous holding together.
KB: Which may be wishful thinking, but that’s one thing I insist on poetry doing. It can allow for as much entropy or chaos as possible but it must also insist on some risk of connection.
EMN: What is it that makes the connection?
KB: Ugh. I’m afraid I’m about to pretend I understand things in philosophy that I’m really wishy-washy on. I’ll go so far as to say that I don’t think we’re trapped in either the solipsism of idealism—that the world is just a creation of my mind—nor are we trapped in a completely autonomized, selfless, purely determinist world. I think the reality—or whatever the right word is—is created in a very literal way, where the subject meets the objective. There’s a hinge there, where my perceptions meet the objective world, and that’s where the world is created.
EMN: So this interaction-space between the subject and the object, would that be the “Explanatory Gap” that you refer to in Air Stream Land Yacht?
KB: It’s certainly analogous to that. That term, “explanatory gap,” is lifted from theory of mind, theory of consciousness. But in a more general sense, I think that space where the subjective and objective meet, that problematic hinge, is closer to the truth than previously entrapped versions of reality would have us believe. Whether or not we’re trapped in the self, or if there is no self and we’re trapped in a determinist universe—where those two things meet or blur together is closer to the real state of things.
EMN: You mentioned that you are hesitant to speak for philosophy, so how does poetry contribute to that conversation?
KB: By Metaphor; it’s really poetry’s reliance on and trafficking in the ability to speak on one thing and mean another, or speak on three things and really refer to a fourth. It’s trafficking in a certain way of knowing the world that relies on the analogous, pointing at some other thing to describe this thing. Even at the level of perception, how the mind works, how knowledge is formed, humans are reliant on pointing to another thing to understand the thing being perceived immediately. The realm in which poetry is most comfortable is in that blurred, edge world—where you turn the poem this way, and it gives of this charge, and you turn the poem another way, it gives of a different charge. It’s—I don’t want to use “indeterminate” because that word is locked into a certain critical mode in the U.S.—but it is that shifting boundary-space in which poetry exists that all other disciplines are converging on. Not that they’re going to start taking poetry seriously, but they’re turning back to metaphor because there’s no other way to communicate.
EMN: Who is?
KB: Everyone. I’m thinking of sciences. Everything from astrophysics to biology. Their forms of knowledge are so highly specialized that at every step they are so reliant on metaphor—it’s like they don’t realize how good they are at writing poems.
EMN: Are you referring there to a failure of certainty? Whereas in a past era, certainty might have been the goal, the ideal?
KB: That’s probably a big part of it. At the edge of all these disciplines, they have to take on board a fundamental uncertainty. It’s funny, because culturally, the hard sciences get derided for their preachiness, but at the bottom they’re far more invested in uncertainty than we give them credit for. And poetry is the art of uncertainty.
EMN: So metaphor is this consciously flawed, inexact tool we need to use.
KB: Yes. It’s doing two things at once: it’s trying to say what it knows—x is like y or z—but for the maker of the metaphor it’s also pushing back at you, reminding you that you’re this close but still this far away. It always points to that gap, at its unfinished-ness. No matter how exciting or illuminating the metaphor seems to be, it always leaves a gap, reminding the maker of its uncertainty. At the same time, it’s a way of knowing the world and of not knowing the world.
EMN: So it gives up on certainty in order to have some functional understanding of the world?
KB: It has a great power, verging on hubris, but carries with it a certain humility—because I want to describe this, but given that I can only do it via analogy or metaphor, it points to my not actually fully knowing the thing.
EMN: Do you see poetry as a field encasing the interaction between subject and object?
KB: I think that field—whatever it is, that boundary world where subject and object collide—is a breeding ground for metaphor, a zone that metaphor comfortably inhabits. So I want to reverse your description and say that poetry is an art one attempts out of joy, but in order to take part, you need to go find that place where your subjectivity starts to blur with the objective.
EMN: So instead of poetry containing that field, poetry is contained by that field. OK, given that, can you say that the gap between subject and object is similar to that between author and reader?
KB: Yes. It becomes more complicated because the reader is another subjectivity, which to me is a part of the objective world, because I can’t know your subjectivity, so I know you as a part of the exterior. But I can assume you have your own subjectivity, and a nice way to think about the poem on the page is that the objective world will come to meet it in the form of readers.
EMN: Can you think of it as a triangle [interviewer draws graphic, shown below, and shows to poet], with the poet and the reader—two subjectivities—then some kind of shared experience of an objective reality and between them a field of interaction? And I think you vary in this, but I’m wondering who controls that field; how much control does the poet have in that interaction?
KB: That’s tough. I think I agree with you. You said the poems seem to vary in this respect and I think there’s a swing, that they veer back and forth between situations in which I do have control and am choosing the words and trying to depict reality as I see it, and in situations in which, at other times, the world, objective reality, is pushing in and batting my perception like a bird. And I’m OK with that, too. Hopefully it’s evident that the boundary is a zone, like a blurred thing with no hard edges. It’s a kind of streaky zone, in which at times you can pull control back closer to your subjectivity and at times it drifts further toward the objective. I mean streaky as in smeared, as in the edges are not defined so that there are times when the poem is closer to what it feels like to have control—this would be the near side of the smear—and other times when control feels further toward the objective, like the poem is written from elsewhere.
EMN: In a poem where you’re on that far side of the smear, being bandied about by reality, how do you think about the reader at that point? With the poet lost in the field, does he need to be rescued by the reader, found? Does the reader pick it up from there?
KB: I kind of like that, positing that the reader has a fundamental part to play, not in putting the pieces together but in making sure they don’t fall completely apart. But you used the phrase “thinking about the reader.” I try not to. I can only posit a mind like my own. So, to try to make something that carries some surprises and pleasures for me, as reader, I have to imagine someone like myself. Trying to construct a reader seems to suggest a kind of everyman or every-person that doesn’t exist. I think the best thing to do is to imagine these other subjectivities are like your own, while being vastly different. So I try to bring the poem up to a place where the strangenesses, ambiguities, ambivalences are pleasing and problematic to me and hope that I’m representative of readers.
EMN: With that in mind, isn’t the reader going to read like you because the book represents your mind? And, more specifically, I wonder if you do this consciously: you seem to place clues for the reader at certain points that then become key. Are those clues to yourself that the reader can catch on to? I’m thinking of a description in Days into Flatspin of not going for narrative but instead opening a man-hole on a tense scene. [“I shy from explaining, not being near/ as adept at the ending of stories as I am at the lifting of lids off gloomy/ scenarios just long enough to get/ a whiff of the runoff, the runnels of subsurface flow.”]
KB: Funny, I was just telling a friend I’m not good at narrative.
EMN: I’m also thinking of the description in Methodist Hatchet of Coleridge’s mind, that it wasn’t the opium that led him to compare his perception to a scattering of birds, but that the world and his mind is just scattered in that way. I read that as “OK, this is how this poem is working too.”
KB: Within those lines there’s also some mild cheekiness, different levels of conviction, because he himself denied that it was the opium addiction, claiming that his mind was so overheated all the time and that’s why he couldn’t complete things. We know enough now about addiction to know that it likely was the addiction that caused that, or played a large role in causing that. So those lines have their own little joke, but it’s true that even by putting that joke in there, I hoped it wouldn’t over-determine the poem in any particular direction. But in general on the clues, or hooks, or peeling the mask off at certain parts of the poem, I don’t like to think of it as a puzzle that needs to be unpacked. I think of it instead as—as I said before—insisting there be at least a thread or scrap of knowability, of order. It may be just the poem enacting my own need to hold things together. Sometimes it is some kind of meta-poetic clue, but I tend to think of them as shreds in a generally more fragmented or evasive poem, where I couldn’t let it just fly off and completely disperse. It’s the urge in me as poet to bind things together.
EMN: Like a pushing out against chaos? I’m wondering now if it is the mind being bandied about, or if it’s being crushed, and in these moments you are applying pressure outward. But the way you do that—the way you push back—is by pointing out a lack of order. For instance, in “Compatiblist” [from ASLY], you begin with “Awareness was intermittent.” Then, in Methodist Hatchet [in “Five Hours in St. John’s], you mention Eliot’s objective correlative and suggest, I think, that the objective correlative is “flux.” Even the way you tell us is suggestive of flux.
KB: Which is a strange way to rethink Eliot’s idea, which has become a basic tenant of lyric poetry. It became lesson number one to find the objective correlative; attach the perception onto the object and the emotion will depict itself via language. In that poem, the poem itself is framed as a lostness, depicting five hours in St. John’s with nothing to do, so it takes off on a surreal trip through the city. So there’s a purposelessness about the poem because it’s about listlessness.
EMN: It’s about a gap?
KB: It’s about a gap and so the poem is self-conscious, searching for its own objective correlative, which is flux. I’ve always thought about that poem as cartoonish, but it might have more going on in it than I gave it credit for. I like the window for invention that it afforded me. It’s a poem without a dramatic arc, it’s more a flat line, so I could enjoy painting the scenery. But perhaps that little quasi-joke in it might have more to say than I originally gave it credit for.
EMN: What you’re describing is a sense of permanent transition, a continuous state of becoming, so my question is: how does that affect you? How much anxiety, fun, or excitement does it cause?
KB: Writing [“Five Hours in Newfoundland”] was fun. But the fact that you used the term “anxiety” is causing me anxiety [laughs]. I’m one of those people—and we’re common in the developed West—who suffers from mild anxiety disorders. I wonder if that’s a floor or foundation that the poems reflect, or if I like to feed the anxiety. It’s possible that I refuse sureties because I’m most comfortable in the anxiety caused by flux or uncertainty.
EMN: Well, it’s fertile subject matter.
KB: It’s highly fertile subject matter, but it’s not a nice way to be in the social world, you know? It’s not a nice way to wake up in the morning or go to sleep at night, but I remain attracted to it. And there are all sorts of iterations of the same thing, like Nietzsche or Emerson. There are all sorts of species of insistence on doubt or change or process or ambivalences; it’s so rich. It’s the transition back into everyday life that’s problematic.
EMN: But at the same time, there are clarity poems in here, too. For instance, “Brief Coherence” is about waking up in the morning and finding peace, as opposed to the feeling you’ve just described. Where does that come from?
KB: There’s this thing—you come across a poem by somebody and it reminds you of the vast landscape of emotions and psychological states that for whatever reason you have excluded from your own poetry. I’m thinking of poets who have covered such a wide expanse of ground that I’ve never covered—Frank O’Hara, Les Murray, Louise Gluck. Those poets remind you that, hey, everything is up for grabs, that a poem can circle around something other than a highly-pressured, dark anxiety. Now, “Brief Coherence” started with a line lifted from a Via Rail safety pamphlet—“Via Rail now has Wi-Fi on the Windsor-Quebec corridor”—because I absolutely love the music of it. So it began with a found line and it later became a poem in which I wanted to investigate those far too transient moments when things seem to fit, when the joints seem to be working.
EMN: That brings me back to this concept of a continuing education. ASLY contained a lot of difficulty and contemplation, and while there’s certainly some humour in that collection, there’s a lot more humour or lightness in Methodist Hatchet. I’m wondering if that’s the product of a larger process, if because you did all that hard, very mindful, intellectual work in ASLY, you arrive at Methodist Hatchet lighter.
KB: I don’t want to try to connect that idea to my own personal growth, but if the poems—over the course of four short books—have evolved or grown up, if they’ve developed the ability to integrate more humour and wit, if that’s as far as I’ve gotten, I’d be very happy with that because that signals a slightly more grown-up ability to think about things. Whereas, if you consider the youngmanish, pull-your-hair-and-moan, angsty tone that might have suffused at least the first book, there’s no way around that—short of something ugly—except to gain some kind of equanimity. I think stoicism is the beginning of humour, or something like that. For the poems, without becoming comedians, to learn how to smirk, shrug their shoulders, have a laugh at times, I hope it indicates a kind of expansiveness without losing sincerity.
EMN: So the humour is a sign of maturity.
KB: I hope so.
EMN: Is it a relief, then, to write those types of poems?
KB: Well, they come with their own danger. Humour is very, very difficult. It’s very easy to sound like you’re just giggling to yourself, and in a far more puerile way than pulling your hair and moaning. The anxiety becomes “should I keep this in, or am I being needlessly cheeky?” So while writing [those poems] I’m hoping that whatever moments of humour exist in the poem are there in an embedded way, are there to talk back to those moments of more conviction or intensity, to let a bit of air in.
EMN: Let’s shift to form. I’m not sure how to describe your use of form; there are a lot of formal poems in here, but they’re also all over the place in terms of the type of form used, but also in how tightly controlled or how consistent those forms are. In any case, there are more formal poems in Methodist Hatchet, as compared to, say, Mean or Days into Flatspin, although there are formal poems in those as well.
KB: For a long time, the work has wobbled between forms, as in making something recognizable on the surface, and free verse.
EMN: Where do the forms you use come from? It seems sometimes like you write one free verse stanza, then copy that shape or structure, although I haven’t scanned any so am not sure if there’s a rhythmic regularity.
KB: I have done that. I have thought in terms of free verse while using stanza shapes, which is like a sculptural thing because there’s nothing mathematic about it, I’m not counting syllables. So I have often tried to visually shape a stanza form. I still play with prosodic patterns at times, although it’s always loose—if it’s mostly four or five beat lines you won’t have trouble finding wobbly ones that are three or six. For me, form becomes something that is in play, or alongside, as I’m writing each line. Whatever it is I think I’m thinking about while writing the poem, I hope it contains and is also form.
EMN: What does this loose formalism do to these poems? How does a rough shape or idea guide the still-somewhat-free prosody?
KB: That makes me think about the prevalence of end-rhymes at the beginning of Methodist Hatchet. In my head, the first third of the book is clinging to scraps of a more visual form and as the book drifts further on, it drifts more toward the poems declaring their own form by virtue of what it is, in the end. I might be wrong about that because the book’s so new.
EMN: On the prosody, I notice a lot of stress in these poems. In strictly formal work, poets achieve rhythm by sticking to, or departing from, a preconceived rhythm or rhyme scheme. In lieu of that kind of guidance, how do you conceive of how sound is organized in a poem?
KB: That’s tough. I was looking at a couple of the poems recently and iambic pentameter came back into my head. I wondered, am I still playing with it, am I bouncing off it? I’m not sure. There’s really no settled way to answer your question because each poem takes part in a different kind of lineation or rhythm but I can talk about enjambment. I’m attracted to doing two things at once with enjambments that make a rip in an expected prosody, that seem to rend the line. But then I also like to read through the enjambments to that same rhythm—my ear seems to somehow resist making anything rhythmically ugly. What direct me, then, are stresses: reading through enjambment to make sure I enjoy the rhythm of the line. Most of the rewriting is dealing with syllables, like dealing with three weak syllables in a row. I am focusing on stresses, but I also love making the poem look like it’s bouncing off the walls, so there’s a tension between how it moves down the page and the calm that’s played out through the sentence unit, which gets pulled and twisted across line breaks.
EMN: I notice a lot of spondees in Methodist Hatchet, creating a kind of regularity, or anchor. A lot of these, as you say, are broken by enjambment, but then it’s like, “but that’s still another spondee.” But to get back to what you just said, how do you conceive of the relationship between the line and the sentence? Does one hold the upper hand?
KB: I believe that part of what a poem is doing is not giving either one the upper hand. I try to avoid dramatic pauses because I want the sentence to read through the line break. Just the pause that occurs as the eye moves over to the beginning of the next line is long enough for me. The sentences are there to be read as sentences, but the breaks are there for a reason. They are creating an internal tension, or chaos, that’s flowing against the forward movement of the sentence. I love it when a line echoes a far more traditional prosodic measure because I like pointing backward and I like trying to write into what I feel to be contemporary poetics. I like when those two forces inhabit the same line.
EMN: Do you think about sprung rhythm?
KB: Yes. I tossed myself into that in a big way, around Days into Flatspin. I got into Hopkins through Ted Hughes. Sprung rhythm, in the way it plays out in Heaney, Walcott, Hughes, Les Murray, has made it so that syllables can blur together, but you can still catch the strong stresses. I was immersed in that a while back, but maybe it’s become a part of the way that I hear stresses. This would relate to the use of spondees that you brought up earlier, which I am aware of to the point that I’m almost afraid of it becoming a tick. But because the sentences are often complex sentences with many clauses, many commas, I am aware of my ear wanting variance, which often comes out as long sentence, long sentence, then bang-bang: sentence fragment or two word sentence—something like that. So maybe spondees are starting to represent my own pushing back against a complex sentence or a complex syntax that comes out of those sentences.
EMN: So the spondees are creating variation in that way, but aren’t they, at the same time, creating that variance by setting up some kind of regularity?
KB: Well that’s what I mean by them threatening to become a tick. If the spondees become expected, it’ll be like, “oh, here comes another spondee.” Maybe you’ve put your finger on something that’s threatening to become habit. But I also think it is a kind of social anxiety that’s coming out in the sentences, because I do love fluid, tangled, complex sentence structure—in both prose and poetry—and I love watching the sentence fall and stumble across line breaks—in other people’s work as well as my own. But, at the same time, relying on that entirely can look and sound incredibly stiff or pretentious, a little buttoned up. So whatever part of me likes to flip the finger at authority might be starting to jump in a little too frequently with the spondees or sentence fragments. Still, as far as the poems creating their own form, there is a kind of battle of wills going on about what vocal register I’m comfortable in. For instance, a line that sounds too much like a pipe-smoking grandpa is likely to be followed by one that sounds like a snot-nosed ten-year-old. But it’s all bound up together: the shape of the poem, levels of conviction inside lines, and hopefully it’s a dialogue between all aspects of form as they play down the page.
EMN: That plays into your stated desire to juxtapose. I sense a similarity between that and something I noticed while listening to a band called Heron. They often switch between, or juxtapose, something old-timey, banjo-sounding, and a heavy funk-blues that puts you in mind of Rage Against the Machine. Listening to that, I get the sense that, instead of fragmenting or breaking down or doubting the worth of those different forms or feels, they are honouring them and making good use of them. So getting back to your instinct to juxtapose the pipe-smoking old man and the snot-nosed kid, can you talk about the aesthetics of the mash-up?
KB: I’ve come to think of it in much the way you just described, as opposed to taking the stance that there is not a self to write from, there is no author, etc. There’s a lot of truth in [the latter sentiment] but there’s something ill-conceived in the way it is described, to me at least. I think I’m closer to wanting to update some version of “I contain multitudes.” As I go on, I grow less and less comfortable trying to fake a unified voice throughout a poem and more comfortable with, as you said, sampling and mashing up. I hope it’s an upshot of deciding that, “you know, maybe that’s closer to the truth of the matter: that I cannot say or posit or do anything without some other angle in my head denying or pushing back, shouting against, answering or opening a new dialogue.” I’m hoping then that the poems are a picture of how things are. Or maybe they’re just evidence of a weakness of will [laughs]. But I’m definitely more comfortable, now, with allowing a poem to argue with itself than I used to be. I used to want a poem to exert a kind of inevitability, like it was a machine on tracks and it was going to its destination. Now, I’m more comfortable positing a machine on tracks but then having it fall and dissolve into a cloud. I’m just so uncertain about things, and to allow that uncertainty into the poem can just wreak havoc on the poem and the form.
EMN: To me, then, you’re using the mash-up in a different way than those who would fragment in order to scramble our sense of order, to be skeptical. Would you say you use the mash-up to reconstitute sincerity?
KB: Yes. I think that’s a nice, brief way of explaining it. The mash-up, or sampling, in its recent history is a substantiation or manifestation of that kind of post-modern irreverence for what would be called the high, or for authority of any kind. It was a surge of a democratic-minded, everything’s-for-everybody, there’s-no-ownership aesthetic. But we’re comfortable with it now to the point that when I mash-up, by collapsing registers and sampling different aspects of self, or bodies of knowledge, or whatever, and putting that all together, I’m certainly not expressing any effective irreverence toward an establishment. It’s more like it’s become a valid method of expressing some form of sincerity, of putting a poem together while attempting to be honest about one’s own ignorance of where one stands in the whole mess, and of allowing for the fact that yes, I have access to Shakespeare’s collected works but I also have access to YouTube. Because it’s all there and it’s all fair game.
EMN: Sticking on this, I thought of Ashbery enough while reading this book that I checked Ashbery’s Forms of Attention out of the library.
KB: I’ve read that. Really good.
EMN: His work often kind of flits about, from here to here to here. Would you agree that your work has the same kind of attention span?
KB: It’s certainly something I share to an extent. I think where we differ is that Ashbery is much more relaxed and OK with sitting and letting time go by so that the poem is a depiction of lost attention. He’s OK with that, that’s fine. It’s this wonderful ornamentation of unknowing of un-attention. His ease with his poetic project is glorious and really admirable. But I have a hard time letting the duration of lost attention last for that long. I don’t know why that happens—maybe it’s an unhealthy hunger for significance or meaning—but the poem quickly shifts back. They will represent lost attention, or distraction, or a missed opportunity, but my poems more quickly shift back in to going after it, whatever “it” is. So there are differences there, but Ashbery, he’s become—he’s an influence on everybody. I remember—I think it was between Mean and Flatspin—I couldn’t deal with Ashbery, I just did not know how to read the guy. It took time. But eventually—I think it has to do with calming down, to quit worrying and just read Ashbery—and now I love the guy.
EMN: What’s the secret to reading him? Is it letting go?
KB: It’s altering slightly the expectations you bring to poetry. In my twenties, when I was struggling to read him, I was overburdened with an expectation that a poem was going to hit, and hit hard, that it’s going to grab your heart and squeeze something out of it.
EMN: In a certain way.
KB: In an immediate, visceral way. I was overburdened with that, and it took time to shift the lens and realize that poetry is allowed to do anything, so let it off the leash because you’re really strangling poems by expecting a narrow effect from them. So once I calmed down a little bit, and opened the window, and just read Ahbery—and this, obviously, was alongside reading a lot of other things—but once I calmed down and stopped scratching and clawing at the windowpane of every line, then it started to happen. But yeah, he’s huge. He creates these great pictures of the background, these neutral states that haven’t enjoyed enough description. Like when you wake up from a nap and you’re making coffee, all that lost time, or when you’re driving down a highway, when you are conscious, but if someone were to ask you, “what just happened? What was going on in your head?” If they ask that, you can point them to an Ashbery poem.
EMN: It’s also like when you have a train of thought, then try to trace it back and figure out how you arrived where you are, but can’t. You know what I mean? Is that like creating an Ashbery poem?
KB: Yeah, the mind works—you can’t call it logically—it works successfully when you’re just musing, or otherwise trying to get from A to B, but the steps are all half-disappeared in the muck. The practice of logic is a very particular thing; the way the mind normally works, the way the imagination works, is a-logical and it can feel like a walk in the woods, or an elevator ride. It’s a blank space that’s incredibly rich and Ashbery’s genius is in reminding us how rich most of our downtime is.
EMN: Do you think that the everydayness that he writes about is something that’s always been there, and he’s just the first to look at it, or is that instinct a product of our time?
KB: At some level, it’s always been there. But he not only gave it attention, but he also made it beautiful. It can be difficult to talk about “beautiful” in regard to contemporary poetry, at least according to some discourses, but when Ashbery is at his best, it’s absolutely beautiful. I think there’s a hinge there—anyone could delineate a conscious down time, or a blank in consciousness and just fill it with anything—you could fill it with radio static—but Ashbery is able to fill it with a richness that I’m not too afraid to call beautiful. It’s the intimacy of the language, the vernacular, then he hits these notes that are like … Mozart.
EMN: But don’t you risk a lot of banality in the process?
KB: Yes, and he knows that. Even the biggest Ashbery fan is going to tell you that he’s going to miss the mark sometimes. A friend recently described it as—he included James Tate in this, too—being like waiting for the bus: if you miss one poem, another will be along. I think the trick is to let a poem drift by, then finding a poem really grabs hold and you open your ears and eyes to that poem. Even then, part of the power of the poem is the feeling that you just missed something, which mimics what we’ve been talking about: the way consciousness misses moments. So maybe he’s way more in control than we give him credit for. I mean, he’s creating a downtime even within the poem, while knowing where that richness will pop up.
EMN: Given the distinction you explained earlier between the traceable way logic works as opposed to the way the mind, or imagination works—in flits, jumps and transformations—would you say that you, again, differ from Ashbery in that you insist more on the logical, that you resist that pure mindfulness?
KB: I think I still have—maybe it’s a hang up. Whereas Ashbery has made peace with a project that describes what it is to be, I think my poems are still hung up on what it means to be, so they tend to run down useless alleys sometimes. The poems want to find out something, want to bring things to a crux in a way that Ashbery is at peace with not doing. I don’t know if that’s a bad mistake on my part. I can tell when the poems are wasting time, and I’m not happy with that, so I try to have something at stake in each poem. It’s not always the meaning of life, it could be minor, but I have a resistance, in my own work, to drifting off for too long.
EMN: I sense that resistance. Your last two books end on instances that veer toward wisdom sayings that are striking because of the spastic, ADD kind of feel that predominates much of the rest of the books. So, if the world is really more like the fragmented end of the spectrum, where does that wisdom come from, where does the poet find that kind of authority to make those kinds of statements?
KB: I think I know the lines you’re talking about.
EMN: “we should be held and forgiven” in ASLY and “If it’s on its way, we should greet it” from Methodist Hatchet.
KB: To be honest, it wasn’t until I finished Methodist Hatchet that I realized that the last line echoed that one from [ASLY], with the collective pronoun and that same tenor. Wisdom’s a scary word, but I will say that the “we” in the last moments of the book refers to the various forms of speaker in the book, so it’s like trying to take care of all of us [laughs], you know, wanting to find some vestige of care for all of the Is in the book. And, of course, whenever you use the collective pronoun, it’s going to reverberate outward, so this is not a false humility. I’m aware of attempting to say something with the last line of Methodist Hatchet. There’s a larger issue there, as ecology comes up more in this book as a looming, imminent catastrophe. But on a more honest level, the movement at the end of the last two books is an attempt to—not to gather together and put back together—but to gather together and express a kind of care for these discreet and separate and possibly very lonely instantiations of self.
EMN: In both cases, there’s a striking forth, you know, “Let’s greet it,” that’s an active movement, but at the same time it’s humble because it’s “whatever it is.” But even that is more active than “let’s not greet it. Let’s let it overtake us.”
KB: It plays with a cynical tinge too, like “we should greet it,” as in “we should collaborate.” That points to a hopelessness, and it’s the last line of a poem called “Futility Music.” Futility music is the term the US military applies to the pop songs that they find to be most effective in psychological warfare, Metallica, Eminem, Britney Spears. [Laughs] Frightening, eh? So it’s playing with a deep nihilism but it’s hopefully also expressing some kind of care.
EMN: Is that agency?
KB: Yeah, agency, an activeness, at least.
EMN: Is that something you take a stand on, is that a post-post-modern thing, to re-establish that agency in the speaker, that it’s not all made up meaning, that there’s something still that’s tangible?
KB: Something worth—tangible would be shot down quickly—but at least something worth positing and insisting on even if it’s illusory. There are illusions worth keeping.
EMN: Isn’t that what the Buddhist would say, that even though it’s an illusion, it can still be called beautiful, worth dying for in some cases, or at least sticking your neck out for?
EMN: To wrap up, I’d like to ask you about place. There are a lot of places named in your work: Ottawa Valley, East coast, West coast, just to name a few popular ones. Why do you focus so often on place?
KB: I do enjoy, on an aesthetic level, the naming of a place, as in “this poem is happening here,” but then the poem itself might become unmoored and wander on its own. So the named place—whether it’s Toronto, or Berlin, etc.—becomes only a version of itself, a staging, as in “this is Berlin, but also not Berlin, or this is the Berlin of my imagination.” Again, I like the doubling, the ambivalences, thus the title (a Methodist hatchet is a double sided axe). I like the resulting instability and—simultaneously—the reassurance that comes from there being an actual place, that is mapped, that shows where the poem happens, but at the same time, the poem is lifted off and hovering above the actual setting.
EMN: I didn’t think about that, but there is that tension there, like you can be everywhere at the same time that you’re in Berlin.
KB: I personally love the feeling that comes when you’re in a place that isn’t making sense in the way that you’ve clichéd the place in your head. There are tourist postcards in my head of what I think about Toronto, about what the central mode of being in Toronto is. But when you find yourself in some little corner of Toronto that doesn’t fit with that, it’s a strange little shake up to go through. You say, “I’m in Toronto, but I’m not, I’m lost, I can be anywhere right now, this is a very displaced place.” Again, I enjoy showing the real and then shifting the next scene to the unreal and having that bleed back into the real.
EMN: Has Toronto had a specific effect on you?
KB: That’s tough to say because I want to say it’s afforded me everything because so much of what I’ve done has been done in the twelve years that I’ve been here. But to put little images of Toronto into the poems, I don’t know, maybe that won’t happen more until I’m away. But I love the city because I don’t know it. It’s my home because I live here.
EMN: While your mind is elsewhere?
EMN: I think of the Sri Lankan Tamils blocking the freeway, they’re here, but their hearts are elsewhere. So would you say the city allows you to be here and to throw your mind elsewhere?
KB: Maybe Toronto is that—not to over use the word “post-modern”—but it has this unrootedness about it that can be liberating. Vast swaths of the city don’t have generations of history here, but at the same time, we’re all actively, day to day, making the city work. But still it’s a kind of ex-place, or a yet-to-be determined place.
EMN: Given that lightness, that openness, and given that it extends to other parts of this very global nation, and also given that your reading and influences are very global—UK, Australia, lots of American stuff, etc.—what significance does Canadian-ness hold? Does it matter in light of this global perspective?
KB: I think there are identifiable things happening in Canadian poetry that can be said to be ours. If Karen Solie was born in France, she wouldn’t be Karen Solie. She was born and raised in Saskatchewan, so whatever is the vague effect of that Canadian-ness is unavoidable. Also, there’s a cohort of my immediate peers whose work I find incredibly invigorating and world class and then I still absolutely love to see what Don McKay, Will Burns, Don Cole are doing, and so there’s that generation ahead of us that I think are immensely important. That gaggle of poets who are loosely associated—Zwicky, McKay, Bringhurst, etc.—the way they’ve thought and rethought ecology vis-à-vis poetry, I think that’s a very particular, very singular, moment in the broader world of eco-poetics, and I don’t think that’s mirrored anywhere else, but I could be wrong.
EMN: Would you say that your generation is freer to be globally influenced because that generation did so much to establish a Canadian poetry?
KB: No, I don’t think we’re any more cut off from a national consciousness. But I think it’s more a matter of doing what you’re doing without thinking too much about how your work stands in relation to either that generation above yourself or vis-à-vis British or American or West Indian poetries. This can become a wildly confusing topic. For example, I’ve said to an English friend, a poet, that maybe we’re producing Anne Carson and Christian Bök, and all kinds of eruptions of particular genius because nobody’s listening, so there’s an absolute freedom. I suggested that maybe once you’ve internalized that Faber & Faber aren’t going to do an anthology of Canadian poetry, that you’re able to do whatever. Now, this was me just shooting my mouth off, but he was visibly upset. He said, “you cannot think that way, you gotta take it seriously.” He didn’t understand what I was saying and I was really shocked by him being so vehement about how important Canadian poetry was, because it doesn’t have the same influence in London as American poetry—in fact they tend to blend the two together if they don’t forget altogether that Canadian poetry exists. It’s a strange, ongoing process that must shift between individuals, as far as how one thinks of one’s self as an instance of national literature.
EMN: One thing I’ve noticed is a boldness and lack of hesitancy. A lot of book-length projects, long poems, epics.
KB: I think there has been boldness ever since that explosion of poets in the sixties and seventies. They opened up some broad avenues, and now the talent is like ten feet deep in the generation ten, even fifteen, years younger than me. The talent is coming thick and fast and that didn’t used to happen. So yes, there’s boldness, an attention to craft and technique, a confidence that’s impressive.
EMN: Would you say, then, that’s a historical event, the result of this intergenerational passage?
KB: As well as an openness to the richness that is outside of Canada. There’s a real sense of, “if I’m gonna do this—” then they just let loose. If the publishing industry survives, I have the feeling that the generation just under me might turn out to be a miracle generation of world-class poets. But you never know.
EMN: I’ve been thinking a lot about follow up questions to this interview, but they have a tendency to feel like they’re on the way, then dissolving and becoming pointless. Which I think is appropriate, because this book has a wonderful way of feeling always on the verge of arriving, but then maintaining a fundamental dynamism.
KB: “Always on the verge of arriving, but then maintaining a fundamental dynamism.” I’m really pleased that you’ve singled this out as one of the book’s fundamental or persistent effects. I can’t explain it fully but I recognize it as maybe the result of a deep-lying urge that existed during the writing of these poems. To put it crudely, no matter how burdened the poems seemed to want to be by ratiocination, argument, and rhetoric, something in me desired very much to save the poems as poems. The evasions, and cuts, and shifts and some of the humour represented, to me, attempts at allowing the poems to sing their way out of their own posited “aboutness” and all concomitant traps. So, again, wanting it both ways, I suppose. The poems each in their own way engage meaning even as they pull out all stops in trying to mean by other means.
EMN: The book definitely holds together, but never in any way I could rationally explain, thus the dissolution of so many thoughts. Also, we talked a lot about the mind in relation to the multiplicity, or copia, or plethora that our modern technological world has been exacerbating. But, maybe it’s not the mind I sense holding together. So I ask you: in the midst of the fragmented world that you claim is there before you apply your mind to it, what happens to the heart?
KB: Firstly, and quickly, the fragmentation I referred to certainly takes in aspects of the technological but is not limited to it. Then on to the head-splittingly huge and ultimately unanswerable part of your question. In a lot of important ways, I think the answer to this is frozen over in the bleakest sort of ice sheet of truth. “What happens to the heart” in the end is that it dies and is no longer “in the midst of” anything at all. When you say “the heart” I’m assuming you’re referring to the tangle of emotional responses and connections and fears and dreams and loves we develop over a lifetime. These end. And “the heart” knows that it ends. And so the heart becomes a big part of what’s doing the thinking, if we go down a sort of Heideggerian road with this. It is directly confronted with this “crisis of finitude,” the knowledge of its own end, and so is forced to find ways to keep itself from collapsing, combusting, shriveling, retreating or exploding on a daily basis.
E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He received his MA in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto in 2009. His non-fiction has appeared in The Detroit Free Press, Pucklife.com, Broken Pencil Magazine and The Puritan. He is currently working on a poetry manuscript entitled For the Ghost of Muley Graves and looking for a home for another, Still. He teaches and writes in Toronto. You might know him as Ted. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read more essays—on sports, music, politics and more—and check out some poems at emartinnolan.wordpress.com.