Monday, December 19, 2005

a note on the poetry of Stan Rogal

In Toronto writer Stan Rogal's ninth collection of poetry, Fabulous Freaks, (Wolsak & Wynn, 2005) he works the poem as collage through writing about the nature of celebrity. Starting from an innocent enough beginning, Rogal tears through the ugly truths (whatever they might be) of writing from such a beautiful place. In the first line of the first poem, "Haunts," he writes "Which craft bends such strange ambition?" (p 13), referencing a number of writers, text and bad jokes (in a poem dedicated to Toronto poet Heather Cadsby, writing "Whatever cads be on this heathered moor"). His willingness and fearlessness to use other forms is impressive, with each collection becoming its own individual project, or series of projects. For some reason, Stan Rogal is one of those writers who never seems to get enough credit for what he does, whether his plays, novels, short stories or poetry collections, one after another after another. Does the volume of such merely build up immunities? In a review of Stan Rogal's In Search of the Emerald City (Seraphim, 2004) in This Magazine (March 2005), Chris Chambers wrote:

"The prolific writer persistently demands what is and will always be highly valuable to readers: time. And if prolific writers value time differently than slowpokes, should we not then assume they value words--the tool of their craft--differently also?

Some writers are fast. Stan Rogal is one of these. The poet/playwright/fictioneer published his eighth collection of poems (his 13th book) last fall. In Search of the Emerald City (Seraphim Editions) is a sequence of 50 untitled poems that manage to spin Rimbaud and van Gogh through the kaleidoscope of The Wizard of Oz. In these punning, poignant, playfully allusive lyric poems, Rogal juggles various themes (going home, growing up, being exiled, going nuts, missing parts, giving up, talent being squandered/abandoned/unrecognized) and bizarre narrative turns (schizophrenia, suicide, asylums, ear slicing, leg losing, cancer) from the true lives of his principals. He smoothly goes about his business, introducing his characters and themes, buffering them with quest tropes from The Wizard of Oz and then loosening up and playing them off each other until some of these poems positively chime with the accretion."

Interspersed with visual collage works, by Rogal as well as collaboratively with Jacquie Jacobs, who was the other half of his collaborative (sub rosa) (Wolsak & Wynn, 2003), Rogal works image against image, and body against body, and letting the poetry come out through the collusion of smashed contrast. Rogal's best writing comes from both the collusion and the writing through myth-making, as in this fragment, the first part of the poem "ONCE UPON A TIME" (p 45), that begins:

Let's begin at the beginning: Once upon a time,
Say. Once upon a time there is a child.
There is a child & there is a journey
(as there is always a child & a journey in such cases).
There is a wood, or an ocean, or a desert.
At any level, a place, where bread crumbs have a snowball's
chance
& Grails remain uninvented.
Hell, it whispers. There is a howl in the wilderness
that threatens a guise of claws, fur, fangs
& smoky breath, set to boil young brains
Ecstatic.

Rogal manages to take what is familiar and completely twist it, moving it around so it becomes something completely other, but in such a way that the reader has remained through the journey. Consider previous works of Rogal's, and his fascination with such cultural icons as Marilyn Monroe and The Wizard of Oz, from references scattered throughout his first collection, Sweet Betsy from Pike (Wolsak & Wynn, 1992) to his Wizard of Oz long poem, In Search of the Emerald City (a much earlier version was published as a chapbook by above/ground press in 1996; it was reworked extensively for the Seraphim edition). His collection The Imaginary Museum (ECW Press) is based on Mallarmé's idea that everyone has "un musée imaginaire" in his head, holding both masterpieces and velvet paintings of Elvis. Other collections, such as (sub rosa) and Lines of Embarkation (Coach House Books), riff off ideas from the outside, becoming texts of reaction, a text responding to something other (as someone once suggested, what all texts really are, in the end). A self-proclaimed “lusty collection,” in (sub rosa), Rogal worked a collaboration, writing a series of poems in reaction to a series of paintings by artist (and partner) Jacquie Jacobs. Going outside writing into visual art is certainly not a new thing, with Stephanie Bolster and Fred Wah being only recent examples using art as a trigger, but the breadth of Rogal’s interest, from science, philosophy, writing and pop culture, brings in a whole other range of ideas and experiences into his poems. His collection Lines of Embarkation (Coach House Books) riffed off ideas from the Douglas R. Hofstaedter book Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, much in the same way George Bowering’s Delayed Mercy (Coach House Press, 1986) riffed off lines from other writers’ works, from other lines, phrases, ideas, etcetera.

A starting point as well, like predecessors Bowering and Judith Fitzgerald, Rogal allows the language to move through itself, both intellectually and musically moving and working through its own ends. With an ongoing influence by the open-ended form pushed by San Francisco poet Jack Spicer, Lines of Embarkation was a book touching on Achilles, Scylla and Charybolis, Gogol, biology and Mars constructs, it seemed fitting that it would begin with the Leonard B. Merger quote, “The world is a complex, continuous, single event.” and going through a framework not only for the collection as a singular object constructed out of fragments, but Rogal’s poetry as a whole, breaking down into individual collections, yet continuous. It reads as a continuation of the bpNichol mantra illustrated by the open-ended Martyrology, that the text connects, even if only on the basis that it is all written by the same hand. So many of his collections shape and are shaped.

From that collection to this new one, both illustrated with Rogal’s own artwork, intensifies the collage aspect of his poetry, taking bits, jumps, fits and starts from other parts, weaving them into his own. Moving from John Berryman, Jack Spicer, Stanley Cooperman (the late poet and professor at Simon Fraser who taught Rogal), Richard Brautigan and others, they read like threads that have moved through all of Rogal's poetry so far, reaching back as far as the mind can see. Saying, if you want to understand me, go here. In an "author comment" for his collection Personations (Exile Editions, 2001) on the League of Canadian Poets poetry spoken here page, Rogal wrote:

"My work tends towards an attempt to deal with grand ideas or issues, though set within a very personal arena. My first collection of poems, Sweet Betsy From Pike, dealt pretty much with ecology and environment. My second collection, The Imaginary Museum, looked at Art. My third book, Personations, centred around the notion of 'maleness' and can one be a well-rounded, caring, sensitive, intelligent human being and still be a man in the sense of maintaining an identity separate from woman. My fourth book, Lines of Embarkation used science as a stepping off point for developing poems. My fifth book, Geometry of the Odd dipped into chaos theory and my next book, Sub Rosa, will offer various interpretations of a group of eight paintings.

Some singular influences on my poetry (in no particular order) include: Jack Spicer, Marjorie Welish, John Berryman, Richard Brautigan, Judith Fitzgerald, Arthur Rimbaud, Kenneth Patchen, Stanley Cooperman, Michael J. Yates, Viktor Scklovsky and Anne Sexton. Add to this the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, certain Surrealists, the letters of Lorine Niedecker/Louis Zukofsky, the literary theory course I took at York University.

Through it all, I imbue the work with various discourses, from fairy tale to myth to science to art to academia to street vernacular and so on, all in an effort to collapse time and space in order to make everything appear alive and lively here and now. Obviously, some of this comes from my background as an actor and director, which may explain my love of the present-tense verb. In all of this I'm certainly not alone, though it makes for a seemingly tight crowd at times.

Some call my poetry modern, others post-modern, some call it lyric, others call it language; some see much of it as stream-of-consciousness, others read it as tight and well-thought out; some see it as imagistic, others as idea oriented; some see it as wildly subjective, others as coldly objective. This I perceive as a good things and wouldn't disagree with any one's interpretation. I'm happy that someone reads it and gets something out of it. Overall, I write poetry because I get a kick out of it and it gives me an opportunity (a way) to explore and experience the world through language."

In a recent interview he echoed the sentiment, where he said:

"Yeah, I do think things out a fair amount and try to make each book different in some way. In fact, within the books themselves I consciously try to offer variations, whether in style or voice, though clinging somewhat to a particular theme. Part of this is because I read too many books that sound the same all the way through or read like the same poem or story and this tends to bore me. I tend to play with voices in the poems as well as with line length. My short stories tend to genre-jump, moving from naturalism to noir to magic realism and so on. I like ‘playing’ and it keeps me — the writer — interested. I trust that others find it interesting, though the mainstream generally likes (prefers, demands) a quick easy label. My first novel was filmic/noir, my second a pseudo writer’s journal with a thin narrative (which no reviewer seemed to pick up on), my third (unpublished) is an epistolary novel in female voice, I have a collection of linked short stories coming out in the Fall, the novel I’m working on now is much more loose and stream-of-consciousness but around a specific plot line. New short stories are much more absurd/magic realism and poems around the themes of freaks and monsters.

A lot of this has to do with what I’m reading or watching at a particular time or simply an accumulation. Plays this year run from performance of a noir piece about a serial killer to a comedy with songs about Bertolt Brecht to a Beckett-like piece and will end in August with a frenetic dark comedy in a Futurist vein. The whole shift to keep me amused more than anything else, but also wanting to try certain established things and re-work them into something else. I guess, the whole collage metaphor (more obvious in the poems and plays) is a big thing for me.

Also thinking about a Country-Western play. We’ll see if I can keep it up amid the lack of notoriety and funds. Great reviews for recent play, which is nice and tends to keep me pumped."

The last section of Fabulous Freaks, "The Celebrity Rag: Opà!," focuses more heavily on the myths of celebrity, writing an eighteen page poem that even includes at the end, a "Cast of Characters (In Order of Appearance)," including Miles Davis, William Hearst, Clark Kent/Superman, George Bowering, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Saddam Hussein, George Bush, Sonny Bono, Tom Waits, Christopher Reeve, Karla Holmolka, Paul Bernardo, Barbara Gowdy, Catherine Zita-Jones, Britney Spears, Mike Myers and Avril Lavigne. As Rogal writes as brief introduction, "This is an interactive piece in which celebrity names are encrypted into the poems as homonyms. There are also further clues to assist in the uncovering. See how many you can 'dig up'." (p 69).

Shilling down by the boxcars manages barely enough
to shoulder fortune's wheel against the fleece. Argot or
any dimly coined titanic hit hard & sunk amid the gambol.

Much hubris grants scant pleasure, seems, all hugger muggery
gone limp at the lip as light breaks & sirens sound off.

About as funny as a dam's antler, to watch your noble dream go
tits up from the fallout: fart jokes & further gross contaminate
leeching land, sea & air for lack of … je ne sais quoi … cultivation?

What unholy concord that dives & flashes
oozes ohs borne on the bloodied wings of beheaded bats.

How jazz this holy coil that never breaks a cool blue sweat? Even
caught half-undressed in the elevator fails to catch: what better way
to hold a Frenchman's liquor than by the ears? "Fish gotta swim …"

Not so grand turn of the century or slick coated candy, this M'n'M
squarely hits the heat on the nail -- "Ow! Yo, muthafugga …" (p 76)

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