I blame Mitch Hedberg for all of this.
Close reading and literary criticism have never been things I come by naturally. In fact, a twelfth-grade English teacher nearly put me off reading and writing forever with a rambling, pedantic interpretation of Of Mice and Men—I’ll never forget the way all the fun bled out as she droned on about what it all meant. Serious writing, I thought, was engineered specifically to be taken apart. And, by extension, all other types of writing were just frivolous entertainment.
Ten years later, things have changed.
Mitch Hedberg’s stand-up first made me wonder whether there was something in common between “serious” poetry and “frivolous” comedy. Hedberg, for those of you who have the misfortune of not being familiar, was an American comedian famous for his non-sequiturs and peculiar, stilted delivery.
(Look him up. I’ll wait.)
You’d be remiss to call Hedberg a poet. I don’t think anyone would have called him that, and I doubt he would have called himself that, either. Upon closer inspection, though, it becomes apparent that his work relies heavily on the careful manipulation of language, specifically the literary technique known as paraprosdokian—a mid-way turn that reframes the first part of a line or statement.
One-liners like “a severed foot is the ideal stocking stuffer,” or “I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too,” are typical of Hedberg’s style. Did Hedberg write his jokes with paraprosdokian in mind? Probably not. But there’s no reason that we can’t apply a literary eye to the material all the same. Take, for instance, the first Hedberg joke above. It’s the choice to employ the word “ideal” that makes it work—a severed foot is ideal because it would fit perfectly in a stocking, but it’s the exact opposite of ideal given the yuletide context. And in the second joke, it’s the playful, elastic relationship to tense that forms the bedrock of the humour. In both cases, a writer’s eye for language provides the essential machinery of the humour. So why don’t we ever seem to talk about comedy the way we talk about poetry?
As a longtime fan of stand-up and an occasional comic, I find that people tend to think of comedy as being an organic thing: people are just funny (or they’re not). The joke-writing process is opaque. One of the results of this opacity seems to be that in conversations about writing, stand-up is rarely given a seat at the proverbial table. It’s not that it’s completely verboten, nor that nobody’s ever delved into it, just that many serious writers don’t give it a second thought. At the same time, last I checked, there aren’t exactly a slew of poetry specials available on Netflix, either. Both mediums involve the intentional structuring of language with an outcome in mind—and yet their audiences, attitudes, and relative places in the world could hardly be more distinct. Are they really as different as they seem?
In order to get a sense of the two disparate worlds and any connection between them that there might be, we brought together some of the city’s best and brightest, and sat them down around a tape recorder: Bänoo Zan, Owain Nicholson, and Ana Rodriguez Machado represented Team Poetry, and Joel Buxton, Tim Blair, and Juliana Rodrigues served as our resident comedians. Over the course of two hours, we spoke about craft, experiences, and the position of each medium in the world.
The following conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.
Kris Bone: Well, we’ll jump right into it: how did you come to the medium you work in now?
Bänoo Zan: I remember when I started writing poetry. I was ten years old and my father had bought my two sisters and I three little chickens. One winter morning, we woke up and they were dead. So, I told my sisters, “let’s write a poem about it.” I don’t know where this came from—I remember that we went to our father’s room and sat down, but the only person who ended up writing was me. And then, you know, I forgot about it. I put the poem among my books. My mom discovered it later, took it to my school and asked the teachers to encourage me. Since then, I’ve been writing. That’s why I think I’m a poet of loss, you know? I write better when I’m dissatisfied and I’m unhappy, when I miss things, so that’s the biggest motivator.
Joel Buxton: I was a high school teacher for a couple years and I felt very creatively bottled up, and so I took a year off to go to Japan. When I came back, I just told my parents “I’m moving to Toronto to be a comedian,” and they were like, “What?”
Owain Nicholson: They said “You’re joking, right?”
Joel Buxton: Yeah, there you go. I think I was drawn to it because it’s—not to belittle the other types of performance art, but I do think it’s one of the most difficult. It has all the elements of all the other ones combined. There’s a purity to stand-up—and in poetry, I think, where you don’t really need any equipment at all to do it. You don’t need a tech list, you don’t need walk-up music, you could do it without a microphone—it really is the most basic form of performance art I think.
Juliana Rodrigues: Sometimes I feel like when people discover comedy, particularly stand-up, something has happened in their life that was a big ordeal, and then they kind of snap into stand-up comedy. But for me, it was a slow realization. I had been doing comedic acting in elementary school, and then when I got to high school I was doing improv acting as well. After experimenting with the different mediums of performance comedy, I decided that it was going to be stand-up.
Tim Blair: I knew I was into comedy for a very long time, I remember as a kid, at first I just wanted to grow up and live movies—I didn’t understand how it worked, I thought I could just live them. It wasn’t until grade ten that I went to an art school and we had a stand-up comedy unit. We had to prepare two minutes and I fell in love right there. That was the first time that I had the courage to go “this is what I want to do.”
Ana Rodriguez Machado: Yeah, high school. High school helped. I took Writer’s Craft and got guided by a really good teacher—shout out Mr. Bowering (and, uh, he’s listening)—and I was dealing with a lot of childhood drama. I was really interested in family, things like trauma that is inherited, and family mythology, and kind of the mix of languages my family spoke. I moved to Canada when I was ten, and English became this weird new native language and Spanish kind of went underneath it or something like that.… So I was really interested in how those two languages communicated with each other. I started writing bilingual stuff, and asking people if that was, like, a thing, and it was, and I just kind of ran with it, so I think I was dealing with things I didn’t know how to verbalize on my own. Eventually the poems became readable and they were very bad.
Owain Nicholson: I would agree. I moved across the country when I was 12 after my parents split up a second time, and then I was living with my dad in a place that I wanted to like—which didn’t really work out. I think in a similar way, I was like, I need a way to do this that isn’t starting fights at school or something. So I think that’s where I came from.
Kris Bone: There’s a common theme of wanting to express something you don’t have another outlet for.
Juliana Rodrigues: Like escapism—from something, on some level.
Kris Bone: Joel, I’m interested in what you said about stand-up being one of the hardest art forms. Part of that, at least in my experience, has to do with the audience. I’ve found that people are not afraid to be negative at stand-up shows—whether it’s heckling or just being kind of generally rude and shitty—whereas I find that poetry audiences have more respect for the material. I’m curious as to how everyone feels about the relationship to the audience in the art form in which they work.
Owain Nicholson: With poetry, I find it’s a very intimate thing. Especially if you have a very small reading, like if it’s you and three or four people listening to you, you have to be connected to every one of them a little bit, and that usually creates a kind of respect. It’s not really that easy to manage, especially if you’re reading.
Ana Rodriguez Machado: I find it really thrilling. I’m interested to hear what the comedians would say about this, but in poetry, there’s so much control in the way that you write—I write page poetry; I don’t really plan for performance necessarily, but I’m always sounding it out in my head anyway. At readings, especially with bigger audiences, there’s more surprise. I have so much control in the way that I try to time things, and then people will laugh at a line unexpectedly.… You find that the work is still surprising you when another person grabs it and makes it theirs, and I find that so delicious and electric. I can’t imagine how awesome it is to get a laugh when you want it—or when you don’t want it—in comedy.
Joel Buxton: Yeah I think that’s a critical element of the laughter, because there’s something a little bit arrogant about stand-up comedy in the sense that comedians are essentially saying, “I’m funny, I should be the centre of attention right now, and you should all be listening to me.” I think that does tend to make the audiences a little more like, “alright tough guy, put your money where your mouth is. You better be funny.” I think that’s reasonable, but I do think that’s an element of it that is, or can be, daunting depending on the crowd.
Bänoo Zan: Because some of my poetry is first person, people have difficulty separating it from me as the author. In one of my poems, “Iran,” I’m personifying the country as a woman who’s being gang-raped. So when I performed that poem, or workshopped it, some people came to me and said, “Oh, did that happen to you?” After some time, I just got used to it. I let people just take whatever they want, you know? Because there’s one layer of this poem that obviously talks about that experience, even if it’s not my experience, I don’t even bother to correct people now. When you perform a poem, whatever experience you deal with, people are going to associate that with you and you have to be really brave. If it’s the first time somebody hears it and they’re not used to hearing such a thing, they associate you with that, and it’s hard for them to dissociate—even, unfortunately, some poets. Their reaction might not be very obvious, but they withdraw from you—like, a cold reaction, the distance. That’s how you get the feeling or a reaction, which is different in poetry, I think. If they’re not super enthusiastic, it means there’s something wrong.
Owain Nicholson: But I do find it’s not always about something being wrong with the writing as it is about something being wrong with the audience. Because, as you say, they take what they want out of it. And essentially, what any of us do as writers is tell stories. I think both poetry and stand-up are more primitive, and in that way an audience can get it wrong, which isn’t necessarily your fault, as a writer. It’s a really blurry boundary.
Bänoo Zan: That’s true, but it’s especially true if, like me, you have been the product of two cultures. If I perform my work to Iranian audiences, they’re going to miss probably the references to Western culture. And if I perform to Western audiences, they’re going to probably miss some of the references to Islam and Iran. Unless they check them out, right? And the parts that you don’t understand, you grapple with. Because despite the fact that we say art is universal, it’s quite cultural. I also think that it’s hard for any audience to really appreciate the other—the truly other is an outsider. My approach is that basically I come from a different world, so it’s harder to even understand.
Owain Nicholson: To build bridges.
Tim Blair: Audiences are so important in stand-up. The audience is everything. I feel like as a comedian, you kind of feel like “Am I crazy?” and when you get laughs, you’re like “Oh no, I think I understand. I’ve got a nice view of the world, people get my jokes.”
Kris Bone: What is the responsibility of either form to accessibility? Should your work be accessible?
Tim Blair: I think it’s important, but I don’t know how much, as an artist, you have control over that.
Juliana Rodrigues: Sometimes I also feel like it comes down to—I’ve gone back to jokes and maybe concepts that I’ve tried earlier that just haven’t worked with the audience, but I think that was a matter of my writing ability—that I wasn’t able to effectively communicate what I was thinking and my perspective.
Joel Buxton: Yeah, I would agree with that. It’s an issue of execution. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bit that I thought would never, ever work, it was more “am I skilled enough to take this on right now, or do I have the tools I need to make it funny?” Because certainly, yeah, I’ve laughed at stuff I thought I’d never laugh at, if it was executed well.
Ana Rodriguez Machado: I think that the minute you try to make the work accessible, that’s when the work suffers massively, because when you think about the best writing, it’s always really specific experiences. We’re all walking around going like, “am I the crazy one? Yeah? Probably?” No one’s vision, no one’s experience is so deep and specific that nobody else will understand it, right? So it’s one thing is to be purposefully obtuse and to try to be tricky and to try to play with language and timing and stuff, and that’s all craft, but—yeah, that’s something I struggle with so much: trying to make things accessible, and then you’re trying to figure out who it’s accessible to, and how does privilege play a part in that, and who is this audience that I’m trying to pander to.
Juliana Rodrigues: I find the more that I go into my own personal experience, the more accessible it is to everybody. If I talk about my own experience—like, what’s it like going into Victoria’s Secret for me, from my perspective—then all of a sudden the audience becomes interested in what I’m experiencing. Rather than “as a woman,” I am now just a person experiencing this.
Owain Nicholson: I took the risk with my first book to write with technical language outside of poetry—I do archaeology, so I was working with certain scientific language, which has influenced the rest of my writing. I’ll use very specific language in terms of body parts, bone formations, even things like stratigraphy, how you look at stratigraphy, or areas of time in an archaeological context, and I know that that is going to push some readers away because they’ll just not understand it, but if I don’t use it, the poem suffers more. Right now, we’re in this era of extreme technological freedom of information, so if somebody really can’t use Google to look up a word, then I think we’re already at a bigger problem than me choosing to use a word and asking them to do work. I find that if you ask an audience to do work, most of the time, unless it’s just like hecklers or whatever, they are going to try and go halfway with you, as opposed to just being like, “Dude, nah.” So in that way I think it’s a bit of a risk that people might not understand, but I think that most people, most audiences, will try to understand. I think part of taking that risk is earning it.
Bänoo Zan: I agree, I think poetry is supposed to be emotionally relevant and urgent. If that is lost, everything else is lost. If the poet is writing just to play with language, which happens sometimes in extremely experimental poetry, or when she or he wants to make it very accessible—just cuts off all the references and stops playing with language at all, makes it just very simple, non-figurative language, as it happens in some spoken-word poetry, both lose a group of people and lose the honesty, and this lack of honesty, of course, will show. I’ve had this experience of being to different events where the poet is very relevant, politically, socially relevant, but because of these problems, they do not connect with the audience.
Tim Blair: I feel like in comedy, though, if you have a very controversial opinion and you’re able to—back to execution—execute a joke excellently, it’s almost more valued. If you have something that most people wouldn’t agree with, and it brings people joy or laughter when they hear it, it’s like, “OOOH!”
Kris Bone: I’m thinking of that Saturday Night Live monologue that Louis CK did, the one where he talks about the pedophile in his neighbourhood growing up. I don’t know how many people here have seen it, but I thought it was well-executed, to speak to what you’re saying, Joel. I was impressed because there was a part of me that said “you shouldn’t laugh at this” but I found myself laughing at it, and you’re right: it was more effective because of that.
Ana Rodriguez Machado: I think anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, that makes you feel shaky on the solid ground that you thought you were standing on—that’s successful art. So I think comedy and poetry both do it, in similar ways and in different ways. If you’re like, “I’m solid in these beliefs and this is who I am, this is how I see the world,” and a poem is able to just take the rug out from under your feet and ask you questions and make you shake up the world that you’re standing on, that is, I think, the point. That’s a really good poem and that’s somebody who took a really big risk as a poet or as a writer.
Juliana Rodrigues: See, I don’t know if the writing process of poetry differs from writing stand-up, but usually if we say something shaky that kind of gets the audience nervous, there has to be an instant release. Is that the way you write poetry?
Ana Rodriguez Machado: That’s an interesting question.
Owain Nicholson: With poetry, in my experience, you probably have more space than in comedy, especially if it’s a long poem, because you can set a number of things that then create that twist at the end. I’m thinking about a poem by Patrick Lane, “The Calf,” which is about a couple of boys who take an outsider boy from a small town in BC out with a calf, and then the two boys from the small town have sex with the cow, and then they offer it up as a gift, essentially, of inclusion, to this boy from a different place, and he refuses. But it takes a while to get to the refusal, right, and that’s—it’s weird at first for a lot of people. But because of that, you want to understand what this boy is going through, right? And then when it changes and he refuses it, the most effective part of that poem is how that boy sees the emotions on the faces of the other children. It’s really creepy as a poem, but I think that was a big risk to take in a two-page poem, just because for the first two-thirds of it, you don’t know. And it’s … eerie. But then you have two pages where it’s other stuff, too, so you can play with it. Whereas if you were onstage, that might be a really hard poem to read to an audience, because they might not be willing to sit that long for it. If you’re reading at home by yourself, you’ve got your cup of tea, you know, you’re already relaxed.…
Tim Blair: You can take a break.
Juliana Rodrigues: Yeah, yeah. You can look ahead and be like “Oh, okay. Good. He refuses.” For a comic, if we were to turn that into a stand-up bit, the end when he says no, would have to be like, the biggest payoff.
Joel Buxton: In comedy, there’s a huge importance on target—“who are you targeting with this joke?”—and the longer you leave the target unclear, the more uncomfortable people get, which leads to a very simplified and unspoken rule that you should only speak to your own experiences. Which I think some comics easily break out of—Louis CK for example—but a general rule of thumb in comedy is if you’re not Korean, you probably shouldn’t be making fun of Koreans. You can talk about Korean culture, but your target should clearly be white people who are racist toward Koreans, or something that is in your wheelhouse, which I why I think that Louis CK bit was so interesting. His target wasn’t the pedophile, it was society. I think that was what caused so much controversy: how dare you bring up pedophiles and not have them be the victim of the joke? Instead, picking on us, the people who hate pedophiles. So I thought that was really interesting. Very masterful. Pulled it off on a pretty huge scale.
Bänoo Zan: A lot of poets, what they do, is they try to end with a nicer piece, to leave the audience in a happier mood. I don’t do that. But there are different styles as well. In spoken word poetry, it’s become the norm that a lot of spoken word poets give trigger warnings, you know, they say this poem contains this and that, references to—in case you need to take care of yourself. But some people have come to question that, because art needs to be disturbing. If, as you said, if art doesn’t do anything to you, then why are you exposing yourself to it?
Ana Rodriguez Machado: Yeah.
Bänoo Zan: If it’s too safe, emotionally. If it doesn’t challenge you. I think in the writing world, I don’t know for good or bad, one of the things that I see happening in the Canadian literature scene is that everybody wants to be politically correct and nobody wants to question anything that is the consensus of the majority of activists. And I find that artists following activists is a step backwards. Artists need to have a greater vision. We need to be ahead of the times. If you read the history of art, a lot of books that were banned or censored, or writers who were absolutely considered unmentionable, are now considered the greatest visionaries because they were ahead of the times, and I think that sometimes it gets so bad that in the name of political correctness, we have become one another’s greatest censors.
I come from a part of the world where—I didn’t have to leave Iran. I had the best job. Everything. Financially and professionally, I’m much lower now than I was in my country. I left it because of a lack of freedom of speech, lack of freedom of expression. And I feel that if we let go of that, there’s nothing else to hold on to. Because people who start attacking the others in the name of political correctness do not realize what will happen if they let go of freedom of expression. We would be the first ones who would be attacked if that was gone. The artists, the thinkers, the people who are challenging the norms. We would be the first ones.
Kris Bone: A lot of the time, I think, both poets and comics have a different role—the classic image of the comedian is the court jester who is able to say anything. Whether or not that holds true, I don’t know. But does poetry or comedy have an important function in society? They give us the ability to present meditated and mediated thoughts that may not be comfortable, but that allow us to pull the rug out from under people, if done well.
Juliana Rodrigues: I was just going to say, that’s interesting, because if you do talk about something controversial—if I say I’m pro-choice, for example, and someone in the audience is pro-life, but they laugh at my joke, it’s kind of almost like they’re in agreeance with that perspective. So in a way, through laughter, you don’t necessarily change their perspective, but you allow them to understand a different perspective at the very least. Right? Because they’re laughing, they’re showing that they agree with what you’re saying on some level. So it’s more than just finding it funny, it’s more like, “You know what? I kind of agree with that concept, and it’s funny.”
Kris Bone: It’s almost like a successful, induced empathy—whether or not they agree with it on an intellectual level, they’ve been able to appreciate it.
Juliana Rodrigues: Appreciate it, yeah.
Kris Bone: And is that an important function of comedy? Does it surpass entertainment to achieve that, do you think? Or should it?
Juliana Rodrigues: Yeah, I think so.
Joel Buxton: I think stand-up is kind of like a canary in the coal mine of censorship for sure. There have been a couple cases that have come up in human rights tribunals. One pretty recently. He was a Quebecois comic who was fined for things that he said onstage, which was kind of an interesting precedent to set. I know that for me, as a comedian, I really like to poke at audiences sometimes. I have a bit where I just start off playing with the audience…this hack technique to get an audience response. It’s like, “Let’s hear from everybody who loves cats.” (“Yayyy!”) “Let’s hear from everyone who loves dogs.” (“Yeaaahhh!”) “Okay, now just to be fair, just to check off all the boxes, let’s hear from all the people who believe that the Bible is the literal word of the Lord.”
And nine times out of ten, there’s no laughter, but just this silence of people being like “No way, we’re not religious. Don’t you make us do it.” So I’ll usually end up being like, “Oh I didn’t realize this was an atheist crowd. Well okay, well, who’s fucking tonight?” And then it usually gets a laugh, because it becomes clear that we’re trying to get away from binaries and “this side vs that side,” and stuff like that. I think I do feel a responsibility—a little bit, not a huge one, but I do feel myself compelled to push back a little, but on these black and white sort of binary positions that people tend to align with in the political correctness camp.
Ana Rodriguez Machado: Yeah. I think that the whole “political correctness vs freedom of speech”—all these things have become so stale because everybody’s just yelling at each other, and the words don’t have any meaning anymore. But I find this a really interesting point, where people get really aggravated because they’re like, “You’re taking away my freedom of speech,” and I feel like everyone forgets that you’re free to say whatever you want, but you’re not free from criticism. Everybody’s still allowed to criticize what you’re saying, and you’re part of a dialogue—especially if you’re saying it in public, especially if you have an institution behind you, all these other things. You have to be prepared to stand behind what you said and you have to be prepared to accept that you maybe were wrong, and have an open mind and not have such a huge ego that you’re just like, “NO I’M JUST GONNA YELL,” right? And I feel like that’s what Twitter has become, everybody’s just screaming all the time. It’s like, yes it’s freedom of speech, we’re very privileged to have that in this country, but you’re also up for criticism when you speak out loud. Everybody’s allowed to respond, right? It’s a conversation.
Owain Nicholson: One of the issues that I find is that people will say anything and they will use that as the right to say it—so in that way, freedom of speech becomes irresponsible and that’s where, for me, the blurriness with political correctness comes in. Because if you’re doing as much research as you possibly can, you’re taking a risk to say something that might be against the current realm and you still run the risk of being criticized irresponsibly—that’s a scary place for an artist to be, especially if the reaction is complete censorship. And I don’t like the direction that goes. Particularly if your job as an artist is to criticize your culture—constructively, in theory—then we no longer have anybody who can talk about ourselves, which is a scary place.
Kris Bone: And have any of you ever run up against people who’ve been hyper-critical of your work for that reason?
Bänoo Zan: I’ve had a couple of encounters. In Iran, what we say is that we do have freedom of speech—what we don’t have is freedom AFTER speech. In Iran, I had a colleague at university who held up a copy of the Quran and said “This is a book like any other book”—he lost his job. That’s what I mean. What I feel is happening in the current Canadian literary scene is that people—the left—are turning against themselves. As soon as you dare question the practices now that everyone else has come to consensus with, and your vision is different, people are so intolerant against you that they don’t give you a chance to even open your mouth. They just silence you out of the whole conversation. And I don’t like it. Can I say I don’t like it? It’s politically incorrect but I’m going to say it.
Owain Nicholson: I totally agree.
Bänoo Zan: I think artists have forgotten that we are fighting not against ourselves, but against ignorance, against stupidity, against monopolies that are controlling people’s lives. They show more resentment against a fellow artist whose idea is a little bit different from theirs; I don’t see that much reaction against the enemy they claim they’re fighting. If I, as a poet, have no tolerance whatsoever to listen to another poet who might be different, why do I expect the audience to listen to me? Why do I expect people to buy my book—people who might be even more different from me than my fellow poet, right?
Kris Bone: We’ve talked about craft, we’ve talked about execution, so I want to hear about each of your individual processes. How do you know when a joke or a poem is finished, and what is the process by which you determine that?
Juliana Rodrigues: I recently just turned twenty, and so a lot of my comedy comes from my take on things, and I find that as I get older, my perspective changes. So, every three months I have to go back, and although a joke may be good—good meaning it’s finished, or complete, or I think it’s funny enough that I don’t have to change anything—I now need to go back and change and revise. In that sense, a joke is never really done. I might also outgrow some jokes, because I don’t feel comfortable performing them anymore.
Kris Bone: So it’s a kind of perpetual thing. It’s not necessarily ever finished-finished, but it is usable?
Juliana Rodrigues: Yeah.
Kris Bone: Is that the same for poems, do you think? Do you revisit your poetry, or does it hit a final form, and that’s it?
Bänoo Zan: Some poems are born almost complete. For the poem “Iran” I remember, I was going around and there was a time then, people were saying “Okay, we’re going to attack Iran,” so I was just—I was really upset. I was here, I was away from Iran, for almost two or three weeks I couldn’t eat well, I couldn’t sleep well … I wasn’t myself. So this poem was born and I just revised it quickly. I even remember the scene: I just sat beside my bed, I made quick revisions, I sent it out, and then in less than an hour it was accepted online somewhere. But there are poems that I write and they sit probably for months or years—they can wait. Some poems insist, “Finish me. I want to be shared with the world.” These poems can’t wait—they come back and haunt you. So you have to work on them. But I also try to at least get somebody else’s feedback after I work on the poem and I think it’s finished. Because if I don’t know where the poem is going, then it’s the wrong time to show it to other people. Because they might suggest a hundred different ways to go and I have to figure out what I want the poem to do first.
Juliana Rodrigues: That’s interesting. So you would show your poem to one or two people.
Bänoo Zan: Absolutely.
Juliana Rodrigues: And be like, “What do you think of this,” and if they have a few questions … then that’s when you go and make edits? For us comedians, if I go and bring a joke that’s half-finished up on stage at an open mic or something, I know that it’s half-finished, and I know the direction I want to take it, and so I just need to know that the audience will laugh at what was already there, basically. But sometimes in that process, it’s like, “Oh, they laughed at this part off-beat and they’re expecting me to go somewhere, what would it be like if I brought it there?” And then sometimes halfway through the process it just turns into a completely different thing than I had originally imagined.
Tim Blair: Sometimes I think a joke’s done and then I’ll perform it one certain time and I find with the audience something new within this joke. I feel like I finish jokes temporarily. I’ll be telling a joke in a certain way for a span of a few months and then at a certain time I start to hate the joke or think, “I need to go in and just change a thing,” to make it more interesting.
Joel Buxton: Adding to that, for the last couple of years I’ve been thinking a lot about, since stand-up comedy is primarily a performance—sometimes it does get written down, but for the most part it’s a performance—it’s occurred to me that maybe there is no perfect way. It has to do more with the audience. In the last couple of years, sometimes to the detriment of consistency, I’ve been fooling around with not ever committing anything to paper and letting it change based on how I feel about the crowd, maybe adding in a little more riffing, or even finding tags in the moment, but in the next show I don’t bother with them because it doesn’t feel right for the crowd, so it almost becomes less a piece of work and more of a … direction? A little bit influenced by improv. There’s a road map, but there’s also like—it’s adapting to the audience, which I think, yeah I there’s something to that, it’s just a very … scary approach. [Laughs] Because yeah, it can be risky.
Ana Rodriguez Machado: Yeah I totally agree, I’ve read stuff at a reading that I haven’t done in a book, and I read it and I change it while it’s happening. “That line is terrible, I’m going to change this word from ‘and’ to ‘or’” and it sounds like it didn’t change at all, but to me, such a tiny, tiny word makes a huge difference in a 12-word poem. I like to think of them like living organisms: I’m just trying to let them do their thing, trying to facilitate them existing in the world. That’s why it makes me almost sad to publish work, which is not a good attitude. [Laughs] It’s the same as when the audience takes on some kind of ownership of the work or of the joke or whatever it is—this thing is being born in front of you and then it becomes other people’s. I can never really let something go. I’m always fussing over how to bring it closer to its true form, even though that true form is always going to be somewhere in my head, not really on a piece of paper.
Bänoo Zan: Since I started memorizing my poetry and reciting it, I have added another stage to my poetry production. When I think a poem is finished, I start memorizing it to perform it somewhere. And if I can’t memorize it after a number of times, depending on how long the poem is, I go back and revise the poem one more time, because it doesn’t hold together well. Musically, it doesn’t flow well. Because if it flows well I should be able to memorize it.
Juliana Rodrigues: See that’s a really interesting perspective, because there are some jokes I can’t memorize to save my life and I’ll go on and do it several times and it just won’t click. But then there are some jokes where things do click and they’re easy to memorize, so maybe that’s what … maybe I just learned something really important. [Laughs]
Kris Bone: As far as the pull of an idea and whether ideas have a form that you kind of need to let them dictate, rather than trying to dictate the form for the ideas: does theory enter the process right away? Does it come later? Does it matter at all?
Owain Nicholson: Theory always comes later. I never sit down and decide I’m going to write a sonnet, or that I’m going to write a poem that rhymes or has internal rhyme or that I’m going to constrain myself to a certain standard. When I revise, I actually read everything out loud. I obsessively read everything over and over and over again; it’s how I find my line breaks, it’s how I find my grammar, even if it’s wrong, and when the flow doesn’t break—I don’t memorize my poems, I’m not that great—but when it flows all the way through then I have a thing that is there. Then, if there are problems with the idea, with how the concept works, if I don’t feel like the fulcrum is completed or turning enough or if there’s not enough tension, then I go back into theory. And usually for me, going back into theory is sort of like, “Okay well, out of the poets that I’ve read, who is this poem like? Who do I want it to sound like?” and then I’ll go into the literature and find somebody I want to draw upon, and in that way it keeps me close to the tradition of what we do. If only to see, “How does Tranströmer do it?” “How does Darwish do it?” You know, “How does Crozier do it?” And then I’ll go back and keep reading aloud.
Tim Blair: I think it changes from joke to joke. Sometimes I’ll go in with just something I’m passionate about and I’ll write the joke and the structure comes later. Other times I’m like, “I want to write a joke in this style” or “I want to play on this convention. It’s something I’ve seen be done and it’s exciting. How will I figure it out?” So it depends.
Juliana Rodrigues: It’s kind of interesting that you mention that you go to the poets that you’re inspired by, and then you re-read your poems, not necessarily to mimic them, obviously, but to kind of get a gauge of their process. How does it work? I know for a fact that if I watch something—recently I saw Sarah Silverman’s special—if I was to go and start writing material, I would be like, “I hope that when I’m writing this piece it doesn’t sound like something Sarah Silverman would say, and that it’s coming from me.”
Owain Nicholson: When I write fiction, or when I used to write fiction—the first time I actually completed a novel, I sat it on a shelf for like six weeks. I came back and read it and I could actually tell whose book I was reading as I was reading through sections, because I would inadvertently steal the way that they constructed sentences or dialogue—how some people write snappy and some people want you to linger in something, but with poetry I think I have more—I don’t like using this word for it—but ‘faith’ in my own instincts.
Joel Buxton: I think probably comedy is more finite than people realize. Which doesn’t mean that it’s any less complex, but in terms of theory I think the best way to absorb theory is to expose yourself to artists you admire, because then it comes in subconsciously. I also think you can apply yourself and learn. Like one of the main reasons I did six months of one-liners was to say, what if I stripped away all of my soul and just mechanically constructed jokes, which was an incredibly painful and masochistic thing to do. [Laughs] But I did feel like I came out of it with these things programmed into my brain. So when I finally took the foot off the gas and said I was going back to traditional stand-up, those pathways were still there. The joy came back, but I also had these neural pathways built up that were sort of mechanical that I could rely on instinctually.
Kris Bone: And was that the end goal from the beginning? Was it about sort of building new pathways? Or did you think of it that technically, that clinically, at first?
Joel Buxton: I think it was an emotional project in the sense that I felt like I was relying too much on persona over joke writing and I thought, “Yeah, I could stand to improve, so let’s take away all my safety nets and just rely on joke-writing.” So yeah, I don’t know if I’d recommend it. But I will say I do feel like the project compressed the amount of time it took to learn those things. Not that I’ve mastered them, but I think it was more effective than reading a book on it or listening to a bunch of comedy albums. It was a little more intense I guess.
Kris Bone: Ana, what’s your relationship to theory?
Ana Rodriguez Machado: I like to think of it as how play comes into your work. Sometimes I find I take myself way too seriously and I have to get out of my sad immigrant head and write about something else. [Laughs] So I find I actually use constraints as a way to get other stuff out. I had this one experience where I just wrote a poem—I don’t usually write by hand, but I wrote this one by hand—and I decided that the only words that it was going to keep repeating were “my mother is” and I just kept writing and writing and writing and writing. It sounded kind of like a song in my head, and it worked. I’ve never rewritten that poem at all, I published it and that was it. And that doesn’t usually happen to me. Normally, it’s a much more constipated process—sorry, that’s gross. [Laughs] I find constraints, in that way, are really fun when you can play with language and you can remember what’s fun about the craft that you’re doing, especially when you’re in a rut or when you’ve been writing about the same thing way too much and you’re trying to build a manuscript and you’re hitting the same note way too much and you’re missing a bunch of other notes—like the choir is not complete yet. I guess with theory, and with reading other people, too, I find that it really brings back the joy and my love of this stuff that we do, especially when I’m really tired of myself. I find that it’s a really fun and funny way to figure out that you’re just growing and trying to figure out what your voice is, and to trying to figure out what’s yours and where you fit in this giant chorus of people. So yeah, a relationship to play, a relationship to craft is I think the thesis of my rambling. [Laughs]
Bänoo Zan: One of my inspirations is going to events. So when I go to events and I listen to other poets, I’m saying to myself, “Okay, here is the way that she or he is saying it. I can’t speak like them; I can’t write like them. How can I write in my own way?” And probably because I have been writing for a long time, I’ve gone through different stages—I look back at my older writing, and of course, you imitate. But then I think I’m closer to my voice now than when I started. But I think just the experience of writing over time brings you closer to your own true voice, where you can contribute that which nobody else can. So we don’t need to worry about that, it happens at some point if we do it long enough.