KARL JIRGENS, B.A. Hons (Toronto), M.A., Ph.D. (Distinction) (York), is a specialist in contemporary literature with a focus on Canadian. He is the author of Bill Bissett and His Works (ECW), Christopher Dewdney and His Works (ECW), Strappado (Coach House Press), and A Measure of Time (Mercury Press) and has edited a book on Canadian painter, Jack Bush (Coach House) and another on poet, Christopher Dewdney (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). His scholarly articles on postmodern/ postcolonial literature appear in international journals such as La Revista Canaria de Etudio Ingleses (Spain), Q/W/E/R/T/Y (France), Open Letter (Canada), and World Literature Today (USA). He wrote the entry on Jacques Lacan for the Dictionary of Literary Biography edition on Twentieth Century European Cultural Theorists. His fiction and poetry appear in Canadian journals such as The Tamarack Review, Only Paper Today, Impulse, Descant, The Journal of Canadian Fiction, Inter, Filling Station, and internationally in The Ontario Review (USA), Tyuonyi (USA), UNIverse (Germany), Essex (USA), the International Symposia of Concrete & Visual Poetry (Australia), and Offerte Speciale (Italy), among others. His fictional works have been anthologized by Coach House Press, Black Moss Press, and Mercury Press. Jirgens is a grand-master of the martial art of Tae Kwon Do. His theatre / performance works have been presented nationally and internationally including at the Ultimatum Fest in Montreal and at the INTER-Festival in Quebec City. Karl Jirgens has edited Rampike, the international literary journal of post-modern art and writing, since 1979, and he is currently Head of the Department of English Language, Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor (Canada).
1 - How did your first book change your life?
Before I answer that question, I’d like to say that you're doing great work with this interview series and it is energy like this that is really fundamental to the grass roots of writing in Canada. One time when I interviewed Clark Blaise he said to me that it's through independent editors and small presses that good stuff like this happens. Unless someone like you has the gumption to get the info out there, it remains half-submerged. So, kudos to you and thanks for doing this series!
As for how my first book changed my life, the answer is "modestly." I had some strong reviews in the Globe and Mail, Books in Canada, Quill & Quire, the usual places. All very affirmative. Sales for Strappado (Coach House) were good, but collections of short stories don’t really make or break careers, especially in Canada. Still, it put me on the map and I was able to tour around and do readings across the country, and that was great fun, thanks largely to the Canada Council for the Arts.
2 - How long have you lived in Windsor, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I’ve only been working at the University of Windsor for 4 years now. I’m the Head of the English and Creative Writing department. Before that I had a teaching gig up in Sault Ste. Marie with Laurentian University, and before that I taught at Guelph U, York U and University of Toronto. I was one of the literary denizens of Toronto, where I was born and raised, and where I lived most of my misspent youth.
3 - Where does a poem/piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I like to conceive of an over-riding concept for a book. I’ve been working primarily in short fiction but like to link up stories in suites so that they can be read in a series and still make sense, kind of like an Aleph (as Borges called it). That is, my stories are different facets offering related perspectives onto a primary topic. I like to think of them as “novel” collections of short stories (pun intended). In Strappado I was interested in the periodical chart of valences, atomic structures of atoms, and the elements as they permeate quotidian life. In A Measure for Time (Mercury Press), the common element was time as it affects our lives. That book had one central character recurring through the suite of stories. I’ve also written scholarly studies of other authors including bill bissett and Christopher Dewdney (ECW Press). Their biographies, the critical responses to their writing, and their literary works themselves become the focus. I’ve also edited some books including one on Canadian painter Jack Bush. I studied at the Ontario College of Art and have a strong sense of visual art. Actually, I began Rampike at OCAD. On the other hand, sometimes I’ll produce individual chapbooks which become conceptual works of art where, the concept, medium, execution, and subject are all inter-related to the scope and manner in which the book is produced. One of these chapbooks includes my Shirt Cantata which is an encomium on the aesthetics of a variety of shirts and employs the lexis of sartoria. Or, another chapbook, titled Vortext, involves a series of words spinning out of an actual physical hole punched in the middle of the publication. As one flips through the pages, words spin out in ever greater volume. It is about centripetal and centrifugal linguistic movements. These latter approaches are connected to the conceptual art movement, but I like to think that the words themselves sustain reader engagement as well. So, for me, concept and structure need to be integrated. That’s why I initially published Rampike magazine in its tall format (6 inches wide by 17 inches tall) because it permitted long hunks of text to be read without interruption. And it fit neatly on the back of a toilet seat in one’s private “library.” But recently the major chains refused that format claiming it was too difficult to handle so they forced me to switch to a more conventional shape or they’d refuse to carry it. In many ways business and creativity can find themselves at odds. I guess one of the challenges facing any artist is to resolve that oddity.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Definitely part of the creative process. My texts, including my short fictions have a performative edge. For example, my short story “Watch. Watching.” (recently, anthologized in The Closets of Time edited by Richard Truhlar and Bev Daurio, Mercury Press), is based on the way we become our own fictions through the interventions of memory distortion and time. When I present that piece, I offer a minimalist performative edge in the form of a stop watch connected to the microphone as a read. The watch stops three seconds after the narrative stops. Simple, but effective. It was a big hit at the Wilfrid Laurier Poetry Festival, last fall. My recent critical writing is related to inter-media performance which is an area that I worked in for years and continue to develop. I’ve done inter-media performance pieces at major international festivals such as the Ultimatum Fest in Montreal and the on-going INTER Fest in Quebec City. I’ve also done shows in other Canadian cities including my former home town of Toronto, as well as in the U.S. For example, one piece (“Performance for Solo Rider” is based on the last chapter of A Measure of Time and incorporates elements such as a rider on a stationary bicycle, semaphore, second performer executing choreographed martial art movements, rapid changes of costume, plus television imagery, slide imagery of the R34 Dirigible crossing a crescent moon, audio-tape narration, whistling water-kettle on a hot-plate and coffee pot with Melitta filter. It helps that I hold an advanced black belt in martial arts when executing the physical movements. The performance inter-relates the flux of anti-matter particles in the universe, to the Brady-cardial response and the act of making a cup of coffee, featuring audio-taped tour-de-force language play integrated as a satire on the nostalgia associated with commodity culture. I like to work with electronic media in some of my linguistically oriented performance events. I’ve also collaborated with musicians, dancers and visual artists, most recently to create a piece on the Equinox with the In-Fuse inter-media music and performance group. We presented that collaborative piece on the evening of the autumnal Equinox in Windsor.
5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Well, for me the main question that has always mattered is that of the medium of writing itself. Co-related to this, I have a strong sense of literary form and structure going back to ancient world cultures (Greco-Roman, Nordic, Asian, etc), with reference to the integration of myth and form. But, I am more interested in writing as a medium. In that sense, I’m coming out of a tradition that aligns itself, in modern times, with movements such as Dadaism, the Bauhaus, or Abstract Expressionism, or Conceptual Art. Conceptual Art in particular has strong resonances for me. I’m quite aware of the various avant-garde movements of the past century or so, including ’Pataphysics, Futurism, Cubism, Surrealism, Constructivism, Vorticism, and later movements such as Black Mountain, the Automatistes, Fluxus, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Toronto Research Group (Nichol/McCaffery) Oulipist, but for me most of them are still looking at the same basic question which McLuhan expressed as, “the medium is the message.” So, I like the fact that thinkers like Bakhtin consider the novel, for example, as an infinitely expandable form with endless possibilities. When I worked with McLuhan and later on, interviewed thinkers such as Derrida and Kristeva for Rampike I was noted how much the medium itself remained as the question that most interested me. I like the work of performance related writers such as Robert Lepage, but I am equally impressed with those who are exploring the limits of visual constructions on the page, such as Fernando Aguiar, Reed Altemus, Christian Burgaud, or Carol Stetser among others, or audio compositions by masters such Bob Cobbing, Henri Chopin, or more recently, Jaap Blonk, or Paul Dutton. Conceptual writers such as Christian Bök, Kenny Goldsmith, Darren Wershler-Henry, are interesting to me. But, I also love post-modern fictions that explore the limits of how a story can be told. Along this latter tangent, albeit in a more conventional but sophisticated and subtle ways, earlier authors such as Gertrude Stein, Sheila Watson, Rudy Wiebe and Nicole Brossard have considered many of these sorts of questions. The question for me involves a precise integration of what you’re saying with how you’re saying it. Subject and structure synergized. I like things that cross borders, that bend genres, that open up the space somehow. I guess it’s better to show than tell, in this regard. I really like inter-media expression with a strong conceptual factor, but there has to be something in it that engages the audience too, something that fascinates. My question to myself is, how to integrate all of that stuff into a synchronized statement?
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both, I guess, but it depends on the editor. Some are quite wonderful and sensitive.
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
Both. It is easier in that nowadays I think I know more about what I’m doing, but harder because now that I think I know what I’m doing, I’m a lot tougher on what I allow to get into the public eye. I guess, it is important to take chances on the one hand, but on the other hand to keep an open creative flow happening. It’s a pretty tough balance – kind of like walking the sine-wave shaped line between the “yin” and the “yang” on the ancient Chinese symbol. As a grandmaster in the martial-arts, I have learned that the sine-wave path involves a fine sense of balance in the mental, physical and spiritual dimensions, and has been variously called the “dragon’s path,” or “the way of the warrior” or the “do.” So, there is a Zen like aspect to the creative process.
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
The last time was not the last time, but it was when the pear trees in my backyard dropped crisp golden orbs onto the waiting autumn lawn.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Hmm. You mean like, “Never wisen up a sucker, never give a sucker an even break and you can’t cheat an honest man?” I guess I’d say;
“To thine own self be true, but, if you can’t exactly be true, then make up a good excuse and try for weekend visits with flowers and maybe a good bottle of shiraz.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’ve had pretty good success in fiction, poetry, and performance. Each has its own peculiar requirements, and requires different forms of discipline and attention. I generally work the other way around. I begin with an idea, and then I ask myself which medium it might be best suited for, and if the medium happens to be writing, then I next ask which form it is best suited for (i.e.; poetry, performance, fiction, etc.). In the past, I’ve also had success in creating video-art, sculpture, visual art, graphics, and so on. So, the form of the expression often depends on what fits the concept.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I find that I move in irregular patterns ranging from routine to non-routine. Sometimes I’ll get in a flow where I work for a certain number of hours a day on a project and can sustain that for up to a year or so. Other times, I’ll have a burst of energy and work day and night until the initial draft is done (that sometimes happens when I’m working on a short story). Other times, I’ll work in bits and pieces, or simply accumulate ideas until I hit the next critical mass when there is another outpouring. But, I find it important to listen when my unconscious starts speaking to me. If I don’t listen, then the unconscious gets frustrated and grumpy and becomes inconsistent in cooking up new ideas.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
You mean apart from the usual “sex and drugs and rock and roll?” Well, there’s the old trick of writing about the writing block itself. That usually works for most people. Rest, exercise, and good health, are important. Uninterrupted sleep is important if one is stressed out. Travel or time away is also very good. But, I figure either you’ve got it or you don’t. If not, then wait. Why force it? What’s the big rush in producing mediocre works just because one feels under some imagined pressure to do so. When hungry eat. When tired sleep. If the creativity is there, then spill the wine, if not, then hang a fire, or make up your own list of clichés to see if they’ll lead to some archetype.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
I’ll let the critics answer that one. Both had very good reviews. But to be precise, the first book (Strappado, Coach House) is 91 pages long and has a black cover and features the periodical valence chart for Zinc on the cover as a visual pun (because I used “zee ink to write zee book”). And the first book of fiction was written before the second book of fiction. And the second book of fiction (A Measure of Time, Mercury Press) is one centimeter taller, but exactly the same width, although it is 158 pages long and has a blue and red and white cover with a flying fish on it (which I drew myself and am rather proud of), and has a higher list price, although the first book, which is now out of print might be worth more by now, because it is a collector’s item. But I also wrote a couple of books in between which have non-descript grayish-beige covers and were published by ECW Press and were also fine books. And Strappado is dead-pan funny, while A Measure of Time has a trippy kind of postmodern insouciance, but the book I’m working on now! Well, just ask me about that after it comes out!
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
David is right of course and is part of a long tradition of thinkers who have discovered this important truth including Aristotle, Horace, Longinus, and more recently, T.S. Eliot, Mikhail Bakhtin, Northrop Frye, and Jean François Lyotard, among many others. I like the sciences, nuclear physics and quantum mechanics, fractal theory, chaos theory, and studies in human perception. Related to all of this are co-related movements in the visual arts such as conceptual art, or movements in music including jazz. I’m also influenced by Zen Buddhism as well as Aboriginal or First Nations world views, particularly Ojibwe perceptions of nature which recognize the planet, including the water, rocks, air as being sacred and “alive” in a very real sense. I guess it was Toynbee who spoke of the undifferentiated unity of any metaphysical experience, and it is interesting, that nuclear physicists are talking about roughly the same thing that ancient mystics have recognized for millennia, and that is that all of space-time may be a simultaneous singularity.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I like to look at advertising, politics, environmental issues, pop culture, advertising, garbage, recent developments in science, world history throughout many periods, pretty much everything that’s out there, really. If something seizes on my imagination, then I like to respond to it.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Finish this interview. Oh, but by the time you read this it’ll be done. So, then I’ll have to think of something else that I haven’t done. Maybe that will be to think of an answer this question. Oh, but by then I’ll have done that too. I think I’d like to play mini-putt golf with the Dalai Llama if he gave me a decent handicap and it was a nice day. Oops. Played mini-put with the DL the day after I sent in this interview in to you. Tough question. Hmm.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Architect; but it’s really the same thing.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
In grade 3, my teacher, Mrs. Danelchenko, said that until I finished my writing assignment, I couldn’t go home.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Well, rob, of course, there’s your recent novel, White (Mercury). I’ve also been reading Nicole Brossard’s latest book Picture Theory (Guernica) translated by Barbara Godard. That book is a partial response to the theoretical views of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Brossard is brilliant in her command of structure and language and the translation is quite excellent. Oh, and as for a recent greatest film, well, I don’t know if “great” is the best modifier, but, does Pirates of the Carribean III count? The crab and maelstrom scenes are quite something. But, apart from pop-culture, I was struck by Big Bad Love which is a superb low-budget work of art about a struggling writer. Quite marvelous.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A novel on the Cold War. Can’t say much about it, or it’ll jinx it. I can say that it will have an ironic form that may make readers cry at some parts and laugh out loud in others. In fact, I’ve got to get back to that right now. Thanks for this opportunity, rob!