Lately, I’ve been writing about things that have been erased. Things that have been cut to pieces. Things that have been forgotten. And I’ve been thinking, too, of things that are only possible now. Things that can only happen after the internet. Things that can only happen once publishing and layout technology is easily accessible and free. I’ve been thinking about these things for many reasons:
1) Copyrights are always expiring
2) The public domain continues to expand
3) Literature is only just beginning to respond to the technical innovations of the internet
The more I think about it, the more I realize that my writing is only really possible now. So much of my work depends on powerful layout technology and accesible text. Canadian Literature recently published a poem of mine called “The silhouette of a pole on the shore of the Nass River.” The poem itself was written inside Adobe InDesign. In a lot of ways, the open space that InDesign provided really allowed me to think outside of what was previously possibly with a program like Microsoft Word. For me, Word only closed doors. I was always struggling with format, with spacing, with alignment. With InDesign, I could suddenly do whatever it was that I wanted to do. The availability of the source material was also integral to the way that poem was written. Bareau’s writing was there. Barbeau’s writing was ready to be excavated. His words were ready to be put through the same type appropriation that he fostered with his ethnographic process.
That poem is part of my forthcoming book, The Place of Scraps, which is slowly coming together:
I do wonder how poetry will continue to respond to technical innovation. Kenneth Goldsmith is currently in the process of printing out the entire internet. Christian Bok is storing poems in bacterium and then getting that organism to produce new “writing.” Jordan Scott and Stephen Collis are giving nature a chance to write and rewrite Darwin. A writing collective called .UNFO is artificially extending Adolf Hilter’s Mein Kampf.
My response has been to reduce, cut short, rearrange, truncate. Others seem to be responding by extending, pushing forward, and creating. I wonder what I should do next?
You probably know this already, but I love poetry. I love the infinite possibilites. I love the uncontested space. But I also love the brevity. When I was at the Nightwood Editions Spring Launch the other day, I ran into a friend from Geist. We talked about the usual things, including how the writing was going.
This question comes up all the time when you talk to writers. There’s really no avoiding it. Even if you don’t ask the question, the answers seem to surface anyway. Most of the time, there’s anxiety surrounding the answer. Usually along the lines of : “I’m working on some stuff but not having any luck publishing it,” or “I haven’t been able to find the time to write recently,” or, less frequently, “I’m finding time to write and people are publishing that writing.” So when he asked me how the writing was going, I took a moment to think about it. 1) I had been writing recently. 2) People have published that writing. On paper, those things are great. But then I thought for a moment about how that was possible. I had been pretty busy at work lately. I’ve been traveling almost constantly. I have a mild to severe hockey addiction. How was I finding the time to write and publish?
My answer, almost immediately, was that my writing process was exceptionally easy to accomplish when I wasn’t feeling creative. This is one of those things that most writers like to talk about. How do you harness that creative energy and turn it into writing? Do you write at the same time every day? Do you write when inspiration strikes you? Do you have to have 3.5 cups of coffee and and the right amount of sunlight before you can produce? Do you have to rent a remote cabin somewhere in Saskatchewan in order to write? For each writer, these processes tend to be wildly different. And for most, it’s difficult to reproduce the exact circumstances in which they, at one point, felt inspired. Because creativity is unpredictable.
So I’ve been writing conceptual poetry lately, and the majority of that kind of writing only requires that special kind of creativity once or twice during the process. When I wrote The Place of Scraps, the concept required me to begin writing in an unusual way. I would read through some of Marius Barbeau’s book Totem Poles until I found a passage that I liked. Then I would transcribe that passage into an InDesign file. Then I would erase certain words or phrases until something clicked. That was it. That was my process. Sure, the entire concept for the book required that spark of creativity, but everything that followed just required me to adhere to the guidelines I made for myself.
Sometimes I felt like a robot. Or a manual labourer. The process wasn’t glamorous and it certainly challenged the archetype of the “writer.” But I wasn’t interested in being a romantic ideal. I was just interested in getting published and getting people to read my work. And isn’t that what we’re all working towards anyway? How does it matter how you get there?
The other thing that I’ve always believed about being a productive writer is that you have to be well read. Most people will tell you that you have to read widely and voraciously. And I’ve understood that to mean that you have to at least read all the stuff in your genre. When I said earlier that I loved poetry’s brevity, I literally meant that I like how short books of poetry are. Yes. They are shortest. And I love that it only takes an hour or two to read most contemporary books of poetry.
Whenever I talk to writers that are interested in fiction, I always wonder how much they actually read. Mostly, I wonder how they can possibly read through all of the cool novels that get published. Personally, I try to avoid most long novels because of their intimidating length. I want to read them. I really do. But after a few hundred pages I’ve usually lost interest and have a bunch of other books that need to be read. So I move on. But with poetry, I don’t lose interest. The book is over before I even have the chance to get bored. Naturally, it’s much easier for me to be well read in poetry.
So with a process that doesn’t require any sustained creativity and effective reading habits, I feel like being a writer is much more manageable. What do you think? Are there any particular processes that work well for you?
So it’s been a while. How’s it going? Contrary to popular belief, I am still alive and doing things. It’s just that most of those things are traveling and sleeping and working. I am still writing and publishing, though. I even have proof! Earlier this year, The Capilano Review published one of my poems in their Narrative issue, and then asked me to be a contributor for a web folio. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but I was excited to accept.The idea was to create an open dialogue between writers. And you can read what we said to each other right here.
The other really cool thing that happened recently was Above/Ground Press. A few months ago, I was one of the winners of the Short Grain contest that runs annually, and rob mclennan, who was the contest judge, asked me afterwards for a chapbook manuscript. Almost miraculously, I had been working on small chapbook-sized manuscript called Scientia (one of the poems from that series is featured in TCR‘s narrative issue). I submitted the manuscript to him, and he liked it enough to publish it. You can buy it here if you’d like.
Another awesome thing that happened recently was Elaine Woo, fellow poet and friend, tagging me for a Blog Tour called The Next Big Thing. The idea, as far as I understand it, is that a whole bunch of writers all sit down and answer questions about what they’re up to. My answers are below:
What is the working title of your book?
When I was working on the book, it wasn’t called anything. It was just a project that I was passionate about that I hoped would go somewhere. The final title of the book is The Place of Scraps.
Where did the idea come from?
I feel like this is actually a really difficult question to answer. I got the preliminary idea for the book in 2007 when I became interested in learning more about my First Nations ancestry. Since I didn’t know the Aboriginal side of my family, I tried to learn about my history the only way I knew how: the library. I read book after book about the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest, but the book that interested me the most was one called Totem Poles by Marius Barbeau. I liked this book because he wrote about my ancestral Nisga’a Nation, and this was the first time I had read anything that directly referenced Nisga’a history.
At the time, I was in the habit of writing short stories, so I tried to write a few short stories that referenced the new history I was learning. Unfortunately, this approach didn’t work for me. The stories that I wrote weren’t very lively. It was pretty clear that I was more interested in the subject matter than the actual crafting of a story.
I moved on. I tried to write other things. But, somewhere in the back of my mind, I still felt compelled to write about this history. So I tried writing some non-fiction about it. Which was also a disaster. I found it so difficult to pull out the important pieces and then to make it relevant to me. I kept asking myself: why am I writing this now? Am I adding anything of value?
So I stopped again. Only to start exploring these themes again through poetry. And after writing numerous lyrical, free verse poems on Nisga’a culture and history, I realized that this was a bust too. There was something about the subject matter that was impenetrable. Something that I was missing. But I couldn’t figure out what.
Finally, after an extended period of escalating frustrations, I accidentally wrote an erasure poem. I took the book Totem Poles by Marius Barbeau, and began erasing pieces of it. The process, which has been successful for many other writers, helped me to see what I was missing and the whole book grew out of that moment.
What genre does your book fall under?
The Place of Scraps is a collection of poetry. You might call it a collection of long poems (the shortest poem is 5 pages while the longest is over 20 pages). Or you might call it erasure poetry. Or you might call it avant-garde poetry. Or experimental poetry. Or conceptual poetry. Or a book-length poem. Or a novel in verse. Or you may just call it poetry.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie?
I don’t think anybody really adapts works of conceptual poetry into movies. But they should. And, since I feel that way, I will suggest a few names for actors that could portray the aging, white ethnographer Marius Barbeau–
Keanu Reeves: for his impressive, permanent stunned expression
Anthony Hopkins: for his beard-growing abilities and excellent eye-narrowing skills
Tantoo Cardinal: for her actual acting talent and because it’s the 21st century
What is a one sentence synopsis of your book?
This is such a difficult sentence to write. To be honest, I don’t know how to write this sentence about my own work. But I’ve gotten a few blurbs back from fellow poets who feel strongly about The Place of Scraps.
““The Place of Scraps by Jordan Abel is a brave, creative, perceptive text that operates by breaking, exposing, and inverting the assumptions of poetry and place, piece-by-piece.”
–Wayde Compton author of After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Neither. Wait. What? Talonbooks will be publishing The Place of Scraps this fall. And I didn’t sell the book through an agent. Do poets have agents? I personally submitted the manuscript to Talon.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It was probably about 4 or 5 years since I had the first idea until I had a finished product. But the erasure poetry draft took about 10 months to complete.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
A friend of mine recently recommended that I read a book call Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip. It’s a book of poetry about the captain of the slave ship Zong who ordered that some 150 Africans be murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance monies. While the content of Zong! is clearly different from The Place of Scraps, the aesthetics and the writing process share a few commonalities. Zong! was written entirely using erasure methodology.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
What else about your book might pique the readers interest?
I’ve been using an introductory paragraph to get people interested in this book for a while now. But, when I was talking to Ray Hsu the other day about it, I realized that this introduction (minus the last sentence that references the speaker), could just as easily be for a book of non-fiction instead of a book of poetry. Which is something that definitely piques my interest and is another quality that is shared with Zong!
“The Place of Scraps is about the early 20th century anthropologist Marius Barbeau who conducted extensive research on the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, including my ancestral Nisga’a Nation. Barbeau conducted this research with the impression that Aboriginal culture was rapidly disintegrating and he attempted to preserve Aboriginal culture at all costs. Among his methods of preservation, Barbeau purchased potlatch items and totem poles from struggling First Nations people in order to sell them to museums. Unfortunately, while Barbeau assumed he was saving Aboriginal culture from disappearing, he actually played a role in dismantling those cultures internally. The Place of Scraps primarily revolves around the divergence between Barbeau’s intentions and the aftermath of his actions. But the manuscript also explores my relationship to Barbeau’s research as the speaker of the poems begins to discover that he is much more connected to Barbeau’s actions than he originally suspected.”
Good news! It’s February! Well, that’s kind of good news. The Place of Scraps is in production and fall feels closer than ever. Which, right now, still feels kind of unbelievable. I’ve got a couple of events on the horizon that I’m looking forward to. I’ll be reading at Poetic Justice on April 14th, 2013. I’ll also be on a panel and doing a reading at the 23rd Annual Virginia Woolf Conference in June. And, at some point in March, I’m hoping to have a launch party for Scientia! I’m also looking forward to reading/listening to submissions from the Sound Issue of Poetry Is Dead that I’m guest editing!
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So I’ve lived in Vancouver for almost four years now. And I’d like to think that I’ve come to accept this city for all that it is. I’ve grown accustomed to the taste of rain in my coffee. I’ve gotten used to the perpetual cloud coverage. I’m easily convinced that really cold temperatures can occur above zero. And, I’m pretty sure, Vancouver has a fantastic poetry scene. For the most part, I’m never surprised when I find reinforcing examples. But on Friday night, when I ended up at Mashed Poetics #13, I was surprised as fuck that I had never been to Mashed Poetics before. Which, as it turned out, was easily one of the most innovative and jubilant poetry events I’d ever been to.
For those of you who don’t know, Mashed Poetics asks a number of poets to write new work in response to a song from an album. Then the band plays the album from start to finish while the poets read their responses in between. The album, of course, is different every time, and they’ve had some pretty diverse choices in the past: Led Zeppelin / IV, No Doubt / Tragic Kingdom, Beastie Boys / Licensed to Ill, Prince / Purple Rain and the list goes on.
Before the event, I was skeptical. I had taken a glance at the set list (14 songs, 14 poets), and I was genuinely worried that this event might last all night:
Fortunate Sonya – “Spiderwebs”
Ivan Penaluna – “Excuse Me Mr.”
Timothy Shay – “Just a Girl”
Julie C. Peters – “Happy Now”
RC Weslowski – “Different People”
Daniela Elza – “Hey You”
Susan Cormier – “The Climb”
Enrico Renz – “Sixteen”
Leah Horlick – “Sunday Morning”
Ben Rawluk – “Don’t Speak”
Kyle Mallinson – “You Can Do It”
Shannon Rayne – “World Go Round”
Lee Cannon-Browne – “End it on This”
Sebastien Wen – “Tragic Kingdom”
Tragic Kingdom alone would take an hour to play through. So once you factor in another 5 minutes per poet, an intermission halfway through and the banter in between, the total running time for this event becomes more like 3 hours. And, from personal experience, 3 hour poetry readings tend to be excruciating. In fact, prior to Mashed Poetics #13, I was convinced that an ideal poetry reading would be a maximum of twenty minutes for all of the readers combined, and that the rest of the night would be devoted to small talk and debauchery. I might have even been inclined to think that a literary event–the collision of booze and authors–may not necessarily require a reading portion of the night.
But Mashed Poetics worked. The band (aptly called The Different People) was spectacular. And the poets all engaged with No Doubt on multiple, often hilarious, levels. Although, the element that really seemed to tie the evening together was the host and creator: RC Weslowski. His passion for bringing together poetry and cover songs was clearly evident and thankfully infectious. Before I knew it, the evening was drawing to a close and I had been so absorbed that I barely noticed the time.
Thank you to Shannon Rayne, Ben Rawluk and Leah Horlick: your friendship(s) definitely played a role a getting me to come out in the first place. The whole event gave made me this buoyed sense of confidence in Vancouver’s already vigorous poetry scene. And, in the end, made me wonder if there were any other amazing poetry events that I was missing out on.
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