Put on Your Negative Capability Helmet and Go with It: Excerpts from a Conversation with Donato Mancini

by E Martin Nolan

E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He’s an associate editor at The Puritan where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in The BarnstormerThe Toronto Review of BooksLemonhound, CV2, and Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race (McFarland Books), among others. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.

The interdisciplinary practice of Donato Mancini focuses mainly on poetry, bookworks, text-based visual art, and linguistically oriented cultural criticism. He has published numerous books of visual and procedural poetry including Buffet World (2011), Fact ‘N’ Value (2011), Æthel (2007), and Ligatures (2005). A book of Mancini’s critical writing, You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence, was published in 2012 to wide, controversial reception. Notable exhibitions of Mancini’s visual art include exhibitions through Artspeak, the Western Front, Gallery Atsui, Malaspina Printmakers Society, Open Space, and CSA. He has also been a curator-in-residence at VIVO Media Arts as part of the archival project Anamnesia: Unforgetting, and he has performed in the 2013 LIVE! Biennale of performance art. Loitersack (2014) is a book of poetry, poetics, theory, theory theatre, questions, and laugh particles. SNOWLINE (eth press) is his most recent bookwork.

This conversation began at Holy Oak Cafe in Toronto and was continued over email.


E Martin Nolan: I get the sense that your new book Loitersack was written out of a specific intent. What was the motivation behind the project?

Donato Mancini: Initially, it was supposed to be a kind of cultural theory and poetics “commonplace book.” I wanted to establish a ground for myself in thinking about language and the social, a ground from where I could work through poetic problems. As time passed, and after I learned about Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, I realized that a labyrinthine commonplace book could potentially be of real interest and of real use to others. So I started compiling it with readers other than myself in mind. As a commonplace book, much of Loitersack is collaged, paraphrased, quoted, distorted, or refracted through other sources. It pulls together many important questions asked by cultural theory that are still in circulation—but often in an inert, safely bracketed way.

EMN: Such as?

DM: Questions about the social constitution of language and of the literary field. Questions about the materiality of language. Questions about how aesthetic value and the idea of art-as-value function socially. Questions about taste, power, and symbolic and material economies. Questions about how, where, and by whom meaning is made. And more and more. And more. There seems to be a danger nowadays of abandoning all this restless inquiry in favour of a cozy return to reifying (and now corporatist) discourses of aesthetic excellence and quality. There is such a strong push in that direction from outside of poetry. Seriously—super-luxury condominiums are now being advertised (like at Main and Broadway in Vancouver, the vortex of gentrification where I live) in almost precisely the same language too often used to “celebrate” art and poetry. A lot of poets will agree with me that poetry should try to interrupt those kinds of cultural narratives, if only to create other room in which to breathe, think, and feel.

EMN: How do you account for the tenacity of that way of thinking about poetry? Is it simply because it’s convenient, and there’s a certainty to it, and it makes it easier to think about it if you have goal-oriented thinking?

DM: It gives the consoling illusion that a scary, complicated problem has been reduced to parameters that are readily measurable. I don’t think art functions in any way that is consistent or containable enough to actually measure art’s value. This is not a negative versus positive question: part of what makes art valuable is that it’s finally impossible to know why people make art at all. This reminds me, among other things, that it’s important to keep in view the fact that poetry has been by no means a good thing in many contexts. When countering sentimental ideas about art and creativity, it’s all too easy to point out poetry’s nefarious role in projects of language centralization, nationalism, racism, colonization, empire-building, disenfranchisement, psychological abuse, etc.

EMN: This month (February 2015) I have been running a series for the Town Crier. It’s loosely organized around activism and poetry. I keep thinking I should look at not just the activism and poetry of protest but also the activism and poetry of power. Does accepting a blandly positive definition of art make us complicit in the forces that run people down in the streets? Is the poetry of power and oppression supported at least in part through a false faith in poetry’s benevolence?

DM: It can be—but it depends on where and how it’s being used. In certain contexts, people really seem to need to believe in the wholesome, almost magical power of art in order to make use of its better social potentials. Alright, okay—I’m there. But it is rather bitterly instructive that almost exactly the same language used to celebrate creativity and glowy aesthetic togetherness is used to advertise luxury condominiums as part of a neo-colonial, gentrified urbanism. Art (and the idea of art-as-value) is being used as one of the key tools in depriving many, many people of their right to live in cities. So either you have to actively and sensitively discriminate between iterations of what is ostensibly the “same” language or you have to try to find another language. Or do both.

EMN: A lot of people assume that postmodern art is working to break power structures and thereby acting as an anti-oppressive force.

DM: I hope it can still be used that way.

EMN: Is the danger then that it could take on its own romanticism?

DM: If behaviour around language contains that language or manages and mobilizes its “difficulty,” it can end up functioning as oppressively as any other implement of unjust power. If taught in certain, rigid ways, the most formally innovative poetry can be as normative as making students stand up to sing “O Canada” every morning. So I don’t really think the meaning of a work is inherent in the formal devices it deploys—although, I do still think that here, now, where I am, some textual strategies are more likely to predispose me toward active, receptive negotiation with the text (and the world that text participates in) than other strategies.

EMN: In Loitersack, that notion comes up in terms of identifying the creation of the poem in the reading of it.

DM: It’s also about remembering (and trying to keep constantly in view) that meaning is constructed much more on the reception end than it is on the production (intention) end. Readers need to see themselves as active participants in the constitution of any text as poetic. It’s in readers’ active attention to the text as a poetic text that it becomes poetic.

EMN: You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence and Loitersack share some subject matter (they both take on review culture, the production of taste, assumptions of quality, and the role of the reader). Maybe this is old-fashioned, but to some, it might seem more natural to make these critical arguments in prose. But Loitersack is just as effective at critiquing what is generally considered “conservative” or “traditional” aesthetics—in a different way. How do you choose the form given the subject matter? How do you decide what material to cover in a poem and what to cover in prose? What kind of opportunities does writing about these matters in poems give you?

DM: I decided early on that Loitersack would be a poetry/poetics—by which I mean a book of essays about poetry/poetics in the form of poems modelled on the pack rat techne of a sprawling commonplace book. But the category of poetry is very elastic for me, so even that provisional limit implodes/explodes right away.

“I don’t think art functions in any ways that are consistent enough, or containable enough, that its value is actually measurable.”

When I was my only reader in mind, I thought it would be entirely a book of aphorisms. Gradually, other trajectories were opened like in “Whisper Sweet Notations” and “Introspective Data” (a long piece built mainly of massed questions). “THEQRY” was the last piece written. “THEQRY” is meant to pick up on, among other things, the criss-crossing maze of voices and the different directionalities of address throughout the rest of the book. “Introspective Data” is like the affective resonating chamber of the whole thing. “Laugh Particles” liquidates (or spectacularly burns down) everything I had so laboriously accumulated up to that point in the book. The three mid-length lineated poems—“Whisper Sweet Notations,” “Biwrixle,” and “Indexical Signature”—are like corridors between the longer, essay-like pieces. They perform some of the ideas raised in the longer pieces, and in so doing, they also lead toward or away from them.

EMN: To be honest, I have been seriously wondering if I want to think about Canadian reviewing anymore, yet I can’t seem to drop the topic. So Loitersack was a relief because it addresses these critical issues in a playful, often ambivalent manner. For you, is it a relief to move away from a prose argument where the rules are a little more defined and toward a poem (or a play) where you’re able to embody the principles and keep them in play by the force of the art rather than the solidity of the argument?

DM: I don’t know if I’d call it a relief. It can be horribly difficult to write poems. In a lot of cases, I first try to create a specific linguistic space or ambiance to work in by amassing a lot of notes. I compile a log of interesting linguo-junk that has a certain wrinkle or tilt to it, and then I try to shape a text that will provide an opportunity (or a staging area) for an unfamiliar but engaging experience. The decisions I make as I “write” in this way (a process that can take years—“Introspective Data,” for example, started in 2009 and was revised until the last micro-second before publication in 2014) come from thinking about poetry and its history across models of musical architecture, conceptual art, and critical argument. I write essays in a comparable way, but the materials I amass are limited by different concerns and found through different discovery processes. I’m a very anxious writer in many senses, and one of which is that I want to use these modes (essay or poetry) in the most socially textured way that I can. By which I mean, I try to write in a way that teaches me something I don’t expect (or even necessarily want) to learn. It’s research. Thus, in my book, I quoted from Kenneth Patchen: “i wanted/ to write/ a book/ i could/ read/ for/ the first/ time after/ having/ written it.”

EMN: But there’s more humour in Loitersack.

DM: I don’t know about that. You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence has about seven jokes on every page. I’ve had some people (and I mean people who generally agree with my arguments, too) tell me that the humour is one of the book’s most distinguishing features: “It’s a hoot!”

EMN: Do you agree there’s more play-space available in the poems?

DM: In poetry, you can make up your own rules—you can invent form in a different way than you can in making a sequential argument. In fact, whenever I approach a book (and I’m sure a lot of poets share this), I’m trying to re-imagine what a book can be. To my mind, form always remains to be invented.

“I don’t really think the meaning of a work is inherent in the formal devices it deploys.”

Form only exists either as speculative potential or as unconsummated memory. It’s mostly a hallucination, or it’s reconstructed in retrospect on the analyst’s divan. Given these assumptions, it’s not that poetry makes more play-space available to me, but that working in the space of poetry compels me (as a matter of conscience) to play a lot harder. In all its furious hoarding and compulsive play, Loitersack is kept from becoming chaotic by its intricate and murmuring self-referentiality. There are zillions of mirror fragments and sympathetic resonators reflecting, echoing, and sounding inside.

EMN: I saw that. The third section, written in aphorisms, is building clearly off the first, and you’ve seeded the Stanley Fish quotation in the first, and then brought it out in the third. There are reflections like that throughout.

To finish off my previous comment regarding whether this constitutes a relief for you or not: in Loitersack, the argument does not have to make sense in the same way a prose argument does. It can just be. It can stick out, come back [to the argument], and then stick out again in some other way.

DM: In a text like Loitersack, I don’t have to fill in the evidence for my assertions in the way I do in a conventional essay. If people agree or disagree with me, it’s not because I provided compelling evidence to support my claims but because of something about disposition or affiliation. Making the argument less specific and less concrete in this way can actually make it more broadly useful to readers, as it allows people to furnish their own evidence (or counter-evidence) for whatever claims of mine they decide to grapple with.

EMN: Exactly.

DM: In theory and critical writing, the “evidence” given is sometimes only that the assertion in question has been made in comparable form before by some canonical (or otherwise authoritative) cultural figure. People often claim truth by pointing to the fact that someone previously—someone whose name bears more cultural capital than their own—has thought through a problem in a similar way or has even made the same argument. Not to say that arguments built in this way are invalid, but I think it should be acknowledged that these arguments mainly reveal chains of consensus rather than record results of an investigation into problems.

EMN: Or they reveal deferral to authority, which itself is contingent.

DM: Yes. That’s why, when I quote people in Loitersack, I quote them in an ambiguous way, so the meaning of their presence isn’t clearly (or merely) authoritative. It’s not clear if I’m exactly “agreeing with” or deferring to the people I quote—because that’s not really how I’m using their words.

EMN: And there are certain quotations, like “if you know what the poems’ job is you should ask who the poet’s boss is.”

DM: Well, you’ve just quoted me.

EMN: Still, there’s an ambiguity there; the boss is an authority figure who is, perhaps, himself the person asking the question and relying on someone else to interpret the answer. And there’s nothing guaranteeing this boss’s actual authority. It’s in question.

DM: And the boss comes back later in the form of the play’s Officer character.

EMN: There are other moments when the reader has to ask, is this idea about this book or about all books? Like “social/ problems/ conceivable only/ in poetic terms/ of a jargonite/ PH.D&D” or “we don’t need art/ anymore.”

DM: That latter poem, “Abattlehorseanudewomanandananecdote,” threads together different poetic discourses not often found together in the same space. It’s not about whether I believe any of it precisely (though I must be in there somewhere); it’s about setting these possibly incompatible discourses in motion against each other—and thereby creating a very sticky situation. So “Abattlehorseanudewomanandananecdote” is absolutely not an ironic poem, but it is a dialogic—or even a relativist—poem.

EMN: With all the statements around conceptual art—another example is “a very talented/ conceptual artist then/ cleared away/ the supper dishes”—the reader is left wondering if you’re knocking the art or mocking the way people talk about the art.

DM: “We don’t need art/ anymore” is included as an example of an almost verbatim statement that functions vastly differently depending on the context in which it’s uttered. Fiscal conservatives would say “we don’t need art anymore” in terms of an economic fundamentalism. Certain Dada artists might say “we don’t need art” with an anti-imperialist, anti-war, or anti-nationalist inflection. And conceptual artists might say “we don’t need art” in the sense of being opposed to object-based art. “We don’t need art” could also be said by a dead-bang nihilist. You understand. So yes, in this poem, the problem that concerns me is how people talk, think about, experience, and organize around these phenomena (called works of art or poems) more than the “things” themselves.

EMN: Let’s pause here and talk about the compositional process. I must admit I have not the foggiest idea about how one would compose certain parts of a poem like “Biwrixle.” However, I’m comfortable enough reading it, and I think a poem like that really comes alive when read out loud. As the audience or reader, you have to let go and let the arguments and sounds roam about your consciousness. But I have a hard time imagining writing for that effect. If you take a lyric poem, you can say (of course, I’m simplifying for convenience), “I’ve evoked the wind and the tree and the fog. I think it’s done.” But how do you know you’re done when your goal is to invite a negotiation as opposed to impart a fixed understanding?

Let’s ground this in the actual words of the poem. An excerpt from “Biwrixle”:

cone smelt milk
lancet tel
egram yacht collusio
n dry telephone drip …
drip … drip …

drip … small-c
modity belt be
littling shuttlecock apple
told listen
ed understood

icy spa
zz swams m
ini squints h

ue-noise jaguar
’s ear flau
tist lip oilsick c

anti all prize
coal strawberries
cochineal bead ver
million lump [ … ]

Your notes tell us that “Biwrixle” means “to change, transform.” That is obviously happening with the line breaks interrupting words and the semantic de-familiarization occurring in general. I also read the end of the poem (“enough!// enough!”) as a reflection on the linguistic madness that precedes it, for it acknowledges that the preceding language has been spilling over its boundaries, overwhelming its semantic capabilities. But that’s the easy part, for me.

The thing that intrigues me more is how you so tightly control the language such that it spills over in that way. How do you control to produce uncertainty? I’m curious about how much is improvisation and how much is meticulous editing?

DM: The notes also mention that the poem is a “writing-through,” which means that it’s a procedural poem. I built a little machine made of rules that determined how I would process Osip Mandelstam’s prose travel piece Journey to Armenia. I then cranked Mandelstam through this imaginary machine and edited the results to serve up the poem as it appears now. As it is, the order of the words arise from strict-ish procedures, while the line breaks, word breaks, and stanza breaks are more improvised. But it was done very quickly, so you could say the machine itself was improvised.

EMN: I did not realize it was that strictly procedural. Yet from your answer, I think I might still be on the right track. I bet a lot of poets are essentially improvising line, word, and stanza breaks but not always to the same end. Some are trying to give the reader a level of certainty with those devices. But you made choices of line breaks in “Biwrixle” intended, I assume, to unsettle certainty.

You mentioned “musical architecture” earlier. I’m interested in how that comes into play in shaping the poems, particularly the “hallway poems.” “Biwrixle” reads aloud really well as does the second half of “Abattlehorseanudewomanandananecdote.” There’s a lot of repetition in the latter poem (“snuggle the/ smuggle the/ market into our/ pockets moan in”; “written about & discussed by they/ who talk like musicians who think/ they talk like philosophers”). The question and answer format also allows for call and response. The A speaker says early on, “I [feathery] am all ways nervous i/ dauntive mind to say/ always always [skirr]/ nervous i.” As the questions go on, the answering voice then seems to embody that nervousness as the lines shrink:

or none
pours pours
the page i’m
happy only happy
when it
of poem it
as time
happens the
information awl the
smokey old info [ensnufflés]
surrounds us just curious
[cuss] by the name of it.

Am I on the right track as far as music coming into play? Do you consciously use musical qualities to allow you to suggest meaning in poems that mostly work to unsettle meaning?

DM: In relation to my poetry, music mainly provides structural ideas about how to organize an experience—that’s what I mean by “musical architecture”—that are temporal, time-based, but non-narrative. As to the local “musical qualities,” the term I use is actually “mouthfeel.” It’s embodied. It has to feel interesting to imagine it in my mouth. (I learned this from Jordan Scott more than anyone else.) I know from experience that if it feels interesting in my mouth, it will also sound interesting—because of how the ear and mouth are indexed to each other in speech. Keep in mind, though, that for me, “interesting” is sometimes lulling and soft, sometimes dry/crisp, sometimes gratingly harsh, etc. As to the pieces you cite above, I’d mention that music is a mysterious quantity for most people who—like myself—aren’t good musicians. Although I’ve successfully performed and composed music, I’m not good at it in a way that its nuts-and-bolts mechanics make practical sense to me. After all this time, music still feels like sorcery, and I’m glad for that. I want poems like the ones you mentioned to feel as compelling (or as compellingly alien) and as strange (but highly affecting) as music feels—absolutely present yet unknowable.

EMN: You’re putting on the play that ends Loitersack, “THEQRY,” tonight [the night of the original interview]. What does staging a part of a book reveal about the way we socialize around poetry—

DM: Let’s say: “the way people organize socially around poetry.” This includes “socializing around poetry” (as in sharing conversation, drinking, etc.) but it is much more than that.

EMN: How has staging the play gone in that regard?

DM: One of the more interesting things about poets’ theatre is that it draws more people into the performance. Instead of one poet reading poems at the pulpit, there are any number of people performing. More importantly, it’s usually not over-rehearsed nor too refined as a performance. It has an interesting meta-tension, like it’s been put together with scotch tape and could fall apart at any point. As a performance, it doesn’t feel completely secure no matter how finished the writing is. And that contradiction is fantastic. For me, it’s dramatic. In this nervy tentativeness and the tottering contingency of it all, many of the social signals that would establish a clear kind of hierarchy in the space are muted. It potentially changes the kinds of relationships that are being built in the space during the course of the reading.

EMN: Is there any risk in the taped-together nature of a performance like that?

DM: People like that term, “risk.” I don’t know if I use it. Do I?

EMN: I don’t think so, or this is me applying it to your work, my own perspective.

DM: I’m interested in the fact that people use that term, “risk,” more than I’m interested in the term. What do people believe is being “risked” when they talk about risk?

EMN: Well, I guess you’re risking something that if you really interrogate, isn’t much of a risk.

DM: You could say there’s just as much risk in a straight poetry reading. Sometimes I think I give good straight readings, and other times I think I fumble or mumble.

“If you fail to be adulated are you a loser? Or was the Greyhound fare to get there what you really gambled?”

In these cases, am I risking social embarrassment? Lowered reputation? Or if you travel a long distance to give a reading and only four people show up, are you then a flop—is that the risk you took? Flopping risk, risking flop? If you fail to be adulated, are you a loser? Or was the Greyhound fare to get there what you really gambled? I’m not sure. What’s the thing you should be attaining that you’re not attaining? To know what’s being risked, you’d have to have consciously decided what that thing is.

EMN: I guess I’m using the term in a way that destroys itself. A person would only be seen to be taking a risk by someone who believes the risk actually exists, but the person who does not perceive the risk would see it as an opportunity to introduce randomness.

DM: People have said to me: “you’ve never taken the safe route in poetry.” And I do appreciate the compliment. However, I don’t really know what it means. I don’t know what it is to take the safe route in poetry.

EMN: What about establishing an idea of good taste and writing toward good taste (to use the term from Loitersack)?

DM: Yes. That might be considered safe; I can recognize that abstractly. But what if you do your absolute best to hew, to intellectually sell-out, and to satisfy the Arbiters of Good Taste, and they decide you don’t have that O. Wildean magical power of Tastefulness? (Either I go or the wallpaper goes!) My problem is that I don’t usually enjoy the products of mandated good taste, so I don’t personally value them—nor do I understand them very well. I mean, I don’t go in for growlers of craft beer. So I wager it would be far more of a risk for me to try to write “tastefully,” which here means “safely.”

EMN: That reminds me—I once started to write something about David Solway’s criticism, and then I decided I didn’t feel like it. In my research, I read a Quill & Quire review of his essay collection Director’s Cut. The review started, “You can almost hear the opposition sharpening their teeth.” The oppositionit was set up as this well-established binary. I find it depressing.

Let’s take that concept and try to ground it in the play, “THEQRY,” which can be read as a microcosm of poetic discourse.

DM: It’s a microcosm of the field of cultural production. Those characters are living clichés, and each have their scripted part to play. That’s part of the problem the play raises: people (myself included) are all too often acting out clichéd roles even when they feel like they’re being creative, spontaneous, engaged, etc. That’s partly because the social roles available are so limited by the language in which they’re constituted. When I use the phrase “materiality of language,” that’s a dimension of what I mean: that the symbolic order of language affects the order of the real by conditioning human behaviour.

EMN: The play bears that out: Officer is the manager of good taste, and Donny feebly searches for approval by trying to live up to that standard. The mother is reputation-concerned. Then there’s Isadora and the servants, who have more rebellious streaks.

DM: The servants are much more than just rebellious—they represent the oppressed Other. Their presence is possibly the most straight-up Marxist aspect of the play. In the overstuffed room of the High Culture Kitsch Climax, all that neurotic blood and guts entirely depends on the labour, the suffering, and the invisible presence of exploited, oppressed, and colonized people. Living in Canada, a nation founded on genocide, that’s something no one involved in the privilege of making art can either evade or expiate by good deeds. Please don’t think I’m joking.

EMN: The unspoken thing is that the named characters have all these material possessions.

DM: The hoard of possessions represents relationships and processes just as much as the characters do. This unspoken thing is reflected elsewhere in the book. For example, “Snowball in Hell Turns to Billiard Ball” has a consciously recherché use of The Exorcist as a source of tropes for poetics. The Catholic imago of Hell is about the repression and sublimation of the suffering and exploitation on which privilege must feed. The dæmons ever threatening to pour back into the world are nightmare phantasms of the oppressed, those made invisible or demonized in the discourses that protect privilege.

“Living in Canada, a nation founded on genocide, that’s something no one involved in the privilege of making art can either evade nor expiate by good deeds.”

The implicit threat is that at any given moment, those under heel could fly together in solidarity to topple the whole boot. The 50 or so servants on the stage in “THEQRY” could tear that family apart if they ever came together with a unified will. So the only people you ever see co-operating (or even hearing each other) are the servants. The character Isadora has a special relationship with the servants, but she is not one of them, and arguably, she still (unjustly) draws her power from them. The larger point is that the privileged must always live with this black spot of paranoia, the “blind spot” of their peripheral vision. In The Exorcist, this potential, which can only seem monstrous to those it threatens, is represented by the “Legion” (the many) who speak (and piss, vomit, stink, vandalize, etc.) through the possessed Regan. It all takes place in this domestic space that the elite thought they had successfully conquered and claimed. Remember that the girl’s mother, an A-list actress, is in the midst of shooting a film about political unrest.

EMN: In the play, you have the social structure set up. The characters battle it out in their own weird ways. The thing that ultimately resolves the conflict is laughter and humour, which is a theme in the book.

DM: Well, I don’t think that anything is “resolved” so much as “dissolved” (as in disintegrated) by the laughter at the end. What interests me about laughter is how it functions communicatively insofar as laughter seems to work in irreducibly different ways in different contexts and moments. Plus, laughter is rooted in the body and in the irrational, libidinal impulse that is probably more basic than language. Non-human animals laugh. Furthermore, close readings of transcripts of speech in which laughter occurs show that laughter is usually not associated with humour in any way. I’m curious about the kind of research into laughter that problematizes generic questions like “What’s the function of humour?” or “What is structure of the comic?” Those might turn out to have been the wrong questions all along. But I’m just starting to read in this area, so I don’t have any well-developed theories yet.

EMN: Could we start to hypothesize? You approach poetry as social function and as a means of communicating in a social setting.

DM: Yes.

EMN: And you believe that it, poetry, is completed through the writing-reading axis. What role could we hypothesize for humour within that structure?

DM: I think the moment a joke (or witticism) happens is a moment of synthesis—just like that power attributed to the poetic. Concerning laughter in connection to humour, one of the most interesting things is that you often laugh before you know why the laughable thing is funny. And everyone is familiar with how difficult it is to explain a joke in such a way that makes the joke become funny for someone who didn’t initially get it.

“Laughter is constantly ripping up the ground of the social and reorganizing it, and ripping it up and reorganizing it again, in a way that can be troubling.”

That, among other things, is good evidence to me that humour is as linguistically synthetic as are the best moments in poetry. When someone’s being really densely funny, they’re doing things with language just as rich as anything done by poets.

EMN: As would be the obvious case in the linguistic play of someone like Stephen Colbert.

DM: As with almost any humour. But humour and laughter are also scary. You laugh at something without knowing why. Or you laugh at something your politics tell you really isn’t to be laughed about—and this might tell you something about your ideological constitution that you’d rather not know. In these terms, laughter is constantly reorganizing social space. If you tell a joke to a room of people, those who laugh at it and those who don’t laugh are suddenly (instantly!) organized into groups along different affiliations. Laughter is constantly ripping up and reorganizing the ground of the social, and then ripping up and reorganizing it again in a way that can be troubling.

EMN: For you, does humour just become another area of exploration? An area that’s difficult to settle and thus worth tackling?

DM: I’m attracted to it because it is both enigmatic and uncontainable. I like working with material that I can’t even pretend to have mastered. If I’m going to make jokes in my writing, no matter what I’m hoping to convey, some unpredictable stuff is going to leak through my fingers—and it will leak even more the harder I try to hold on to my intentions. It’s going to go into places I don’t expect (and might not want) it to go. That’s when poetry happens, and I try to follow.

“I want an encounter with a specific text, with a particular strangeness.”

For me, poetry tends to be least interesting—only as a writer, not always as a reader—when I think I know too precisely what is being said.

EMN: So you want to un-fix the game against you.

DM: Yes, make the wager. That’s part of what I’m getting at when I advise, in Loitersack, that poets should “cultivate an impossible relationship with language.” By threading humour into my work, I make that kind of relationship so much more possible.

EMN: To paraphrase, you just said “to make the impossible more possible.” This brings me back to my previous question concerning composition. How do you determine when your relationship to language is impossible enough? I’m starting to get the sense, now, of why writing poetry is not a relief for you.

DM: How could I possibly answer that question given the very statement I just made?

EMN: Fair enough. But I remain intrigued by the paradox of making an impossible relationship somehow more possible. I suppose it’s by nature ungraspable. It’s a very rich thing to ponder, and it speaks to the kind of tension that runs throughout Loitersack. As you said, laughter doesn’t quite resolve the play.

DM: It ends in an episode of unhappy laughter.

EMN: That episode … dissolves the differences between the characters.

DM: It maintains them; it reifies them. Remember that each of them laughs in a totally different tone as if for a different reason. Often in life, laughter is a social fragmentation that is experienced—disguised, in a sense—as a coming together. The characters laugh all at once, but it reveals their division rather than their unity.

EMN: Laugher as simultaneously a separator and a conjoiner.

DM: That’s how laughter seems to work. In Loitersack, there’s a piece called “Laugh Particles.” It’s a totally workhorse transcription piece: I laboriously re-transcribed all the laughter in Laughter in Interaction by Phillip Glenn. Among the larger lessons to take from the way researchers like Glenn study laughter, it’s that laughter is constantly—on a microscopic level of moment-by-moment interaction—reorganizing the social ground.

EMN: Can laughter unify?

DM: It can bring people together; it can form bonds of affiliation. But nothing is inherently good about that power. Everyone laughing in a large room might be laughing at a KKK joke and bonding in shared racism. Togetherness is not inherently good, and there’s no reason to believe that it is. When people talk about the value of poetry being in its universality, I get nervous for this very reason. Too many iterations of universality as a social principle have only led to horror. So I don’t usually want a sense of a universal/mythical depth sounding from poetry. I want an encounter with a specific text and with a particular strangeness.

EMN: Considering some of the rhetorical battles waged over poetic interpretations, can the resolution of those conflicts be in humour? If humour or laughter is not predictable, is that the thing that can allow us to live within an ambiguity as opposed to waging battle across ideological lines?

DM: It’s a good question. It certainly feels that way. Laughter or humour can give people the feeling that a resolution has happened, but I don’t think that means it has necessarily happened. I’m not looking to humour for any kind of answer.

EMN: Because it can’t give one.

DM: It’s a dangerous energy in language. It’s like electricity. It burns.

EMN: If you accepted humour as the resolution to the multiplicity of opinions about what poetry is, you would have to accept that there is no resolution. It would be just an opening up.

DM: I certainly don’t think that the multiplicity is just something to laugh off. The stakes are real, yet I doubt I want resolution. I don’t think poets or critics should strive toward consensus.

EMN: Let’s return to a hypothesis. Can we say that humour is an ambiguous tool used to build an ambiguous framework about an ultimately ambiguous and ever changing art form—because you don’t ever want to come to a refinement or to an established truth? Does humour give us a way of leaving the poetic discourse open while still being able to be in it?

DM: As time passes, just like anybody, I’m going to accumulate more and more assumptions. I have quite a few already. In some senses, they are operating for me as truths, and they’ll continue to do so. But within the space of the text, I think that if I perform those moments of realization with too great a sense of certainty they necessarily become falsified.

EMN: Sticking with humour, in Why Poetry Sucks, editors Jonathan Ball and Ryan Fitzpatrick define humour, and they link humour and poetry by claiming that both defamiliarize language and meaning-making. Ball and Fitzpatrick speak about extending humour from simply something that makes you laugh to something that might just make you uncomfortable.

DM: A lot of humour never makes you laugh at all and has nothing to do with laughter. Steve McCaffery, for example, is an incredibly funny poet. I’ve spoken to him about the threshold of humour—the event horizon of humour. It’s like the event horizon before an orgasm, just before the laughter erupts. A lot of McCaffery’s texts play right on that threshold and defer the eruptive event. Laughter and humour are often not even in the same space whatsoever. The two orbit each other, but to assume there’s a fundamental connection between them is a mistake.

EMN: I saw Jodorowsky’s Dance of Reality recently. Like his other films, I found it a good way to reconceptualize the way we think about poetry. Sometimes things just happen in a film like that. They’re not laugh-out-loud funny, but you grin a lot throughout or chuckle while cringing a bit. Or it’s like in Herzog’s Bad Lieutenantthere are random shots of a lizard. Some critics would ask, what’s the point? They might comment on what purpose this scene serves aside from simple goofiness.

DM: That’s hilarious if all they walked away with was the question, “What was the lizard doing there?” It makes me think the lizard added something important to the film. But with hyper-adjudicative critics and reviewers I come to an absolute personal limit: I have no idea what people who write that way could possibly want from—or be getting out of—art.

EMN: Status?

DM: It could be status. I think sometimes reviewers don’t know that it’s actually the linguistic engine—the ideolect and the genre of the review—that is actually just running away with them. I’ve experienced that often enough. I wrote a lot of reviews in the early 2000s, and I found it difficult at first not to write in that mode. Sometimes I’d have to go through several drafts before I wasn’t merely performing as that clichéd jerk, Dr. Stern Reviewer. The easiest thing to do in writing a review is to drop into that language and bundle together pseudo-statements of your aesthetic principles, your individualist Laws of Good Art. In that case, the ideolect itself is writing the review on your behalf.

EMN: Or predetermining it.

DM: But what’s the point? What’s the aim? I mean, do you feel vindicated when you’re able to decide or pretend to decide with godlike certainty that something is good or not? Does it give you a feeling of satisfaction? Do you suddenly command the thing? Do you own the thing? Does it feel like a conquest?

EMN: Or feel like you created order.

DM: There’s another force at work, too. It might be a particularly North American behaviour related to how poetry is taught in school. Let me give a counter-example. In the late 1970s, Wallace Chafe led a research study that resulted in a book called The Pear Stories: Cognitive, Cultural, and Linguistic Aspects of Narrative Production. The researchers involved produced a short silent film depicting a man picking pears and a kid on a bicycle who steals some of those pears. Researchers then showed the film to people from different countries and asked them to write about what they had seen and what had happened in the film. North Americans consistently oriented to the task as if it were an academic test. They wrote as if they were being tested on their memory of the plot and details, and they evaluated the film technically (they reviewed it). By contrast, people in Greece tended to argue about the morality of the characters’ actions. Instead of trying to demonstrate their mastery of the film, Greek respondents asked questions of the film—they got inside it, they argued with it, and (implicitly) they argued with themselves.

EMN: One of the motivations behind Why Poetry Sucks was to confront that punishment-based model of reading. Like if you don’t read “well,” you’re a bad person.

DM: Fervently adjudicative reviewers might be the most extreme victims of that feeling. A lot of that work reads as if the reviewers are trying to abolish that sensation by gaining a sense of superiority over the work under review.

EMN: And behind it all is a moral imperative. What if we replaced that moral framework with a humorous initiative?

DM: I’m not sure I want to think about it that way. But maybe in laughter some of the weight of the poem-as-test can be eased. Take someone like the visual artist Maurizio Cattelan. A lot of people have legitimate, serious problems with his practice, but it’s pertinent here because it’s funny in a way that people might call “disarming.” It feels disarming because it’s stripping you of the very tools you have brought to deal with the anxiety of meeting this cultural test—“Okay, I’m going to see this art object, and I’m ready: I’ve brought all my intelligence; I’ve had some coffee; I’m going to understand this thing.” Then you see Cattelan’s sculpture, and it’s so sublimely goofy the bottom just drops out—your weapons are useless. Maybe humorous poetry can work in a similar way, and maybe that can be liberatory in the long run.

EMN: As can going into a poem looking for humour. Going in with the state of mind people call “good humour.”

DM: Being in a “good humour” about texts has really started to infect the way I read. I’ve started to find the funniness in things that are not “supposed to be” funny. That tells me I’ve been freed of at least some of that anxiety. It used to be hard for me to read work that wasn’t explicitly avant-garde, postmodern, experimental, or whatnot because I’d get examination anxiety.

“It feels disarming because it’s stripping you of the very tools you have brought to deal with the anxiety of meeting this cultural test …”

The only writing that didn’t give me that feeling was experimental writing, which opened a space where I could play mentally (and a place where I could decide what I was feeling rather than being told how to feel) rather than a space where I was implicitly commanded: “You must understand this, take away a moral lesson, eat a spiritual vitamin, gain erudition points, become a better citizen, etc.” Now I can read works that are supposed to be normative in an ab-normative way. I can read them for their kinks. So much has consequently been opened to me as a reader that wasn’t available before.

EMN: I also like to remind myself that if aliens came and dissolved every living poet right now, the editorials the next day would read: “That’s really tragic and horrible, but thank god they didn’t take the nuclear engineers or firefighters.”

DM: In North America, sure. In some other parts of the world, people would be quite unhappy to lose the poets.

EMN: Even so, doesn’t the value of poetry depend on it being different from forms of value that exist in other realms? It’s not market value, or moral value, or a practical one. The world would not go into nuclear meltdown without poets. There are definable stakes in the case of the nuclear engineers.

DM: Well, you already know that I think you can’t define too narrowly what the value of art is—if you can define it at all. Poetry, in particular, can only matter socially if it is something crunchily other.

EMN: What is that “something other”?

DM: By definition it has to be left undefined.

EMN: I think it loses its power the moment you try to give it power.

DM: And it becomes too narrow the moment you define it. You exclude other definitions and curtail other possibilities. Instead, I say, put on your negative capability helmet and go with it.


E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He’s an associate editor at The Puritan where he also publishes interviews and reviews. His essays and poems have appeared in The BarnstormerThe Toronto Review of BooksLemonhound, CV2, and Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race (McFarland Books), among others. He teaches at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.