Jordan Abel is a Nisga'a writer currently residing in Vancouver. He has a BA from the University of Alberta and a MFA from the University of British Columbia. Abel is an editor for Poetry Is Dead magazine and a former editor for PRISM international and Geist. Abel's conceptual poetry engages with the representation of Indigenous peoples in Anthropology through the poetic technique of erasure. He has been described as “a master carver of the page” who passes the work of sculpture along to the reader “who reads, and rereads, in three dimensions.” His work has been published in many journals and magazines across Canada, including CV2, The Capilano Review, Prairie Fire, dANDdelion, Grain, Broken Pencil, EVENT, and Canadian Literature. His chapbooks have been published by above/ground press and JackPine Press, and his first book, The Place of Scraps, was recently published by Talonbooks.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I thought about this question for a while before I realized that it’s too soon for me to know how The Place of Scraps has changed my life. I’m sure that the book will have a lasting impact on my creative career, but since it was just released in September, I’ll have to wait to see what comes of it.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think I came to poetry last, actually. I spent a lot of time writing non-fiction and fiction before I ever attempted to write poetry. I think the transition happened mostly because I was curious about what I was capable of. When I originally began writing The Place of Scraps, I was under the impression that the book would be a work of historical fiction. But as I continued to write, I realized that that particular genre of writing wasn’t capturing the essence of the story I wanted to tell. Shortly after that, I switched gears and began writing non-fiction, but that too fell short of my expectations. After a while, I started to write some lyric poetry that seemed to approximate the kind of work I wanted to do, but I still wasn’t quite there. I turned to erasure poetry soon afterwards, and that genre seemed to suit the work perfectly.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Depends on the project. I started writing The Place of Scraps in 2008 and ended up with a final draft in 2011. So that project took me about 3 years. When I wrote Injun, my second book, I went from the idea to the final draft in about 6 months. My next project, which is currently untitled, has been going for a few months and I’m not anywhere close to the end.
I think I went through 5 full drafts of The Place of Scraps, and each draft ended up looking quite different. Although the core of the text remained more or less untouched. Since that was my first book, I was fairly sure that my first draft wouldn’t be of publishable quality, which turned out to be true. The first draft had numerous issues and really didn’t resemble the book that I wanted to publish. So I kept drafting until I had something that I felt I could put my name behind.
Injun was a really strange book to write. I wrote the first part in about 3 weeks and then I got stuck. I tried out a lot of stuff for the subsequent sections of that book, but nothing seemed to fit with the first part. About five months later, after numerous failed attempts, I finally figured out what the rest of the book needed to be. And from there I was done within the next week or two.
4 - Where does a poem 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?
All my writing begins with found text. I get inspiration from text that exists elsewhere. Sometimes those texts are literary. Sometimes those texts are pulp. Sometimes those texts are entomological. Sometimes those texts are ethnographical.
A few years ago, I made a promise to myself—to exclusively work with found text as a primary component of my writing. I made this decision because I wanted to see if it was sustainable. So far it is.
At the time, I was very aware of other writers who were similarly interested in found text. Kenneth Goldsmith comes to mind. I really like Goldsmith’s work. I’m fairly sure that I’ve thought about each project that he has created. But I am very aware that he doesn’t have a traditional readership. Goldsmith himself has addressed this, and it makes a lot of sense to me. He’s more interested in getting people to think about his books and less interested in getting people to read them.
My work doesn’t follow the same trajectory. The conceptual components are there in The Place of Scraps and Injun, but both books are meant to be read.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings are essential to my understanding of poetics. For those of you who have read The Place of Scraps, you’ll notice that there are a number of sections in that book that appear to be difficult to read in a traditional way. When I first began writing this book, I was confronted by this problem. At the time, I was in a creative writing class at UBC, and my instructor, Rhea Tregebov, would ask us to read the pieces that we submitted for the workshop. When we would get to my piece, everyone would kind of come to an understanding that this poetry couldn’t necessarily be read. Or at least not all of it could be read. Perhaps there is some truth in that. But I was determined to find a way to read this work. Eventually, I found some equipment that is usually used by musicians and I started using it in my performances. Usually I use a Boss DD-7 (a digital delay pedal) and a Boss RC-30 (a loop station) in combination with either a laptop or my iPhone. I tend to run my voice through the loop station first and then feed it into the digital delay. But I’ve also changed that up whenever it felt necessary. These processes have helped me to understand my work better, and have informed the writing process as well.
6 - 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?My writing often begins with conceptual questions and, hopefully, results in answers. I’m sure that theoretical questions can be asked of my work, but I’m not usually the one asking them. For me, I’m hoping that the questions that I’m asking are revealed through the form of the work that I create. I’m hoping that the reading process will involve readers in such a way that they are able to ask the same questions that I am, and that they will arrive at similar conclusions.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I’m not sure about writers in general. I suspect that that group as a whole will always have diverging interests and roles. For me, I’m interested in engaging with the contemporary perceptions of Indigenous peoples. Which more or less makes me a writer of political and cultural commentary. Almost all of my work deals with the representations of Indigenous peoples in one way or another. I’m not necessarily interested in being a didactic writer, but I am definitely interested in being illuminating.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. Definitely essential. Although most of my work hasn’t gone through substantive edits with an editor (this is usually a process that I do myself), I find having an editor that I trust to have an exceptional impact on my writing. There are always parts of my writing that I have simply seen too many times, that I am too close to, and that’s where an editor really shines.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best piece of advice that I’ve ever heard was a collaborative effort with a bunch of writer friends. We were all trying to think of advice we’ve heard and good writing practices that have been passed down. We wrote everything on a white board and by the end we synopsized everything into the following: “Write things. Do things. Know people.”
After a couple of years, I still feel that this holds up. The ideas are pretty simple, but they work. Always keep writing. Be active in your community. Make as many real connections with people as you can. Good things will follow.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (text to visual poems)? What do you see as the appeal?
Right now, it’s a fairly smooth transition. But when I was first introducing some of the more complicated visual elements to The Place of Scraps, I felt as though I had stopped the act of writing entirely and was now in another creative realm. Since then, the processes have come together in a more integrated way.
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?
When I am the most productive, my writing routine usually starts with me waking up naturally at about 9am, and putting on coffee. By about 9:45am, I am at my computer and either reading over what I’ve written the days before, or starting in on something. I usually continue on for another 3 or 4 hours. I would do this about 5 days a week (Monday to Friday). Right now, I haven’t been all that creatively productive. Partly because I haven’t had the time to get into a good routine. I’m mostly writing whenever I’ve got a few spare minutes.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
All of my current writing has been process based and has always started with found text. I’ve done this partly to avoid writing stalls or writing blocks. The really nice thing about writing this way is that there is always a next step to take with your writing. For example, when I was writing The Place of Scraps, each piece started with a passage that was subsequently erased. To begin writing a new piece, I would pick up the book Totem Poles by Marius Barbeau and read. I would read until I found a passage that interested me. I would then write out that passage in InDesign. Then I would cut and paste that passage over the next 4 to 8 pages and start erasing pieces of it. If I liked what I erased, I would keep that page. If I didn’t like what I erased, I would scrap that page. For me, process-based writing was an extremely effective way to keep writing without every hitting that wall. That being said, I did run into a few obstacles even while using this process. In that case, I would usually get away from the writing for a while and go for a walk or sleep on it or do something to take my mind off it. When I came back to it, I would usually have come up with a solution.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
I can definitely relate to McFadden’s perspective. That being said, I am probably influenced by all things simultaneously. I read a lot of books. I listen to a lot of music. I watch a lot of movies. I play a lot of video games. I currently spend way too much time in a post-secondary administrative setting. I suspect all of those things influence how I write and how I think.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Whenever I’m reading, I’m usually inspired in one way or another to write. But there is a short list of books that have been exceptionally important to me either as a reader or during my development as a writer:
Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip
Fractal Economies by derek beaulieu
Hooked by Carolyn Smart
Eunoia by Christian Bök
Nox by Anne Carson
The Others Raisd in Me by Gregory Betts
Prismatic Publics edited by Kate Eichhorn and Heather Milne
Day by Kenneth Goldsmith
Undark by Sandy Pool
Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer
I Don’t Feel So Good by Elizabeth Bachinsky
Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon
Forage by Rita Wong
Woman’s World by Graham Rawle
Rebuild by Sachiko Murakami
A Humument by Tom Phillips
Furious by Erin Mouré
Repeater by Andrew McEwan
Children of Air India by Renée Sarojini Saklikar
Æthel by Donato Mancini
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to teach. I’d like to continue to write books. I’d like to engage with projects that I find challenging. I’d like to read books that haven’t been written yet.
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?
I still think it would be a lot of fun to be an astronaut.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think I wanted to write because I always loved books. Ever since I was a kid I always loved books. So that’s probably why I started writing.
When I wrote The Place of Scraps, I was interested in illuminating a moment in Aboriginal history and in my own personal history. I wanted to write this book because it hadn’t been written before and I was in a good position to write it.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last amazing book I read was Decomp by Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott. I highly recommend it.
The last great film I saw . . . I watched Spring Breakers on my laptop in a hotel room in Bella Coola. I was mesmerized.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently at the beginning stages of a longer project that utilizes a single public domain novel as a primary source. However, it’s a bit too early to talk about the full details. At this stage in the project lifespan, it could go somewhere or it could not.
My next book, Injun, is ready to go and will be published in Spring 2015 by Talonbooks, and JackPine Press will be publishing part of the book as a chapbook later this year.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;