Monday, January 16, 2006

a brief note on the other side of the mouth

The poems that make up the manuscript (in progress) of variations: plunder verse, book three of the other side of the mouth, came out of a conversation with Toronto poet Gregory Betts. During a visit he made to Ottawa, the two of us sat hours at Pubwell's Restaurant on Preston Street and talked about a project he was working on, that he called "plunder verse." To write a poem using only the words from someone else's poem, he said, and only in that order. He had already done it a couple of times, with pieces that appeared in the Calgary journal filling Station, among other places. The result of that conversation was that he would write up his concept as an essay for us to consider for the subsequent issue of our online journal (which, of course, we immediately published). The result, that I almost immediately went home and started writing, to see where the project would lead.

I've been working on a series of more deliberate works as "response" texts for the past few years, after so many poems and books come out of so many other poems and books. Alberta writer Robert Kroetsch has always said that writing is a conversation, and Toronto writer David W. McFadden suggested once that books come out of books. In previous collections, I've written pieces that have come, slyly, out of other works, writing names and quotes and legions of source materials. Why not push it more deliberately? How many different ways are there to involve a "response" work (while being aware of the fact that all poems could be considered "response" works). In the other side of the mouth (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2003), I wrote one hundred pages of short, quick poems, ten each from ten different poetry collections, alluding and collapsing phrases as pure electrical leaps. I was working to write more intuitively, outside of what my poems had already been doing for some time, working in opposition to the carve, carve, carve of twenty or thirty drafts of the short lyric I had been writing for years. As Fred Wah wrote of his ongoing series, Music at the Heart of Thinking (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1987), "a critical practice that sees language as the true practice of thought." In his brief into to the collection that made up the first of his own ongoing series of intuitive/response texts (a number of which respond to visual art), Wah wrote of drunken tai chi, of learning to have a control over the moves even with a lack of control; to let the unpredictability take over, and thus make him a more formidable opponent. A poem should not always know where it is going; but the writer should have the skill at least to direct it, or at least, keep it out of trouble.

The manuscript of the second book of "the other side of the mouth," apertures, works a version of George Bowering's collection Curious (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1974), in which he wrote poems for other poets. In each of my pieces, I am trying to write about things belonging to poets whose work I admire and enjoy, while trying to incorporate aspects of their writing style (with varying degrees of success). Between poets and their stuff; is there a difference? By the time the series is finished (I'm aiming for roughly one hundred and twenty pieces), I would almost consider it as much as a list of recommended reading as just about anything, working through Canadian and American poets both. I'm up to about eighty pieces so far, writing poems about the "stuff" of Stan Rogal, Robert Creeley, Anne Carson, Margaret Christakos, Meredith Quartermain, Victor Coleman, Nelson Ball, Stephanie Bolster, Dennis Cooley, Bev Daurio, Susan Elmslie, William Hawkins, Robert Kroetsch, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Cole Swensen, Fred Wah, Gwendolyn Guth, Fanny Howe. Watching the direct result of writing completely feeding other writing.

The poems in variations: plunder verse (the third volume in "the other side of the mouth") work more than poems based on other poems, but poems written from the inside of influence. It is one thing to write a poem based on the insides of a longer poem by Barry McKinnon, but what about writing five pieces from that? Or fifteen? The challenge, then, was to write pieces that could live by themselves, but still be completely different from each other. I've picked a number of texts by Canadian poets, one per author, to plunder, writing my own poem within theirs; my rule, I can only use the words in the original poem, and only use them in the order in which they appear in the original text. I can neither add nor re-order. For me, the interesting thing isn't whether or not I can write one successful poem out of another one, but if I can write five, or fifteen successful poems out of a singular text, trying to make them different enough and interesting enough that they are worth looking at side by side.

What becomes interesting through the process of "plunder" is seeing the threads that emerge through the original piece, stripped away to reveal something new within the piece, put there deliberately or otherwise, and even contradict the original poem, all the time while using the original flesh of the poem to rebuild. It has become (hopefully) something new.

from apertures
Dennis Cooley's permission
Gerry Gilbert's bicycle
Phil Hall's Ontario
Jay MillAr’s adventure stories
Rachel Zucker’s working note
Louis Zukofsky's alphabet

from variations: plunder verse
George Bowering’s “Do Sink,” variation one - six
Barry McKinnon’s “pages from a prairie journal,” variation two + three
Meredith Quartermain’s “I Canadian dream of English,” variation three
Victor Coleman's "Eulogistics," variation two
Mark Cochrane's "Dumbhead," variation three

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