Saturday, December 12, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Frank Davey

Frank Davey first hit the national radar in 1961, when he was one of the five founders the poetry newsletter Tish, being its managing editor from 1961 to 1963. In 1965 he founded Open Letter, a journal focused on Canadian literary theory and poetics, which he continues to edit. From 1973 to 1996 he was a member of the editorial board of Coach House Press, where between 1974 and 1988 he edited approximately one-quarter of the titles published. With Barbara Godard, he co-edited the Coach House Press Quebec Translations series. With Fred Wah, he founded and edited the world’s first e-journal, Swift Current, 1985-1999. He presently edits the New Canadian Criticism series for Talonbooks.

Davey is the author of 25 books of poetry, including The Abbotsford Guide to India (1986) Cultural Mischief (1996), and Back to the War (2005) and 12 books of literary criticism and cultural theory, including Post-National Arguments: The Politics of the Anglophone-Canadian Novel Since 1967 (U of Toronto Press, 1993), Canadian Literary Power (NeWest, 1994), and Karla’s Web: A Cultural Examination of the Mahaffy-French Murders (Penguin, 1994). Talonbooks will be publishing his new poetry volume Bardey Google in spring 2010.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book was published by the Tish
eds and its supporters in 1962 – Bowering arranged to have the typesetting and printing done by the newspaper he’d worked for in his hometown of Oliver. Warren Tallman wrote the intro. There were a lot of good people taking me seriously – counting on me, I suppose – which for me intensified the interweaving of my life with that of a literary community and my sense that I had responsibilities to it as well as to myself. The book was also one of only 11 books of poetry, I believe, that were published in Canada that year, and so it got numerous reviews which helped me map the national poetry scene, as well as marking my own small presence on it. Reaney wrote something about my typewriter appearing to have written the poems.

Your probably standard question here about how my recent work compares to my previous is in my case a large one since I have quite a bit of ‘previous’ stuff to compare to. So to avoid writing a book for you, I’ll just compare my current work to what I was writing in 1962. It’s a lot less musical – I was attempting what Duncan called “tone-leading” back then – looking for phonemic repetitions to show the way to the next line. The self-reflexivity is different – back then it rested on phonemics, now it rests on different levels of discourse. I am still a serial writer – but my seriality today is more conceptual and less linked to the personal or the lyric moment. Back then it was a way to try to transcend the lyric and to locate connections that contextualized what might otherwise be mere self-expression. How does it feel different? – it feels more like what I do, and what I want to do, whereas back then it could feel like a compulsion. I would write rather than sleep, worried that might ‘lose’ the poem, whereas now I feel confident that if I write some notes I will be able to write much the same poem in the morning, and possibly a more interesting one..

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

Poetry was good way to meet young women. It was social, whereas fiction wasn’t. You could go to a party and read one of your poems and get quick responses. If you tried that with a novel, everyone would be gone before you were finished. Poets talked about their work, circulated poems to each other in draft. Fiction writers seemed solitary and didn’t want people to know what they were working on until they could find a publisher. Although I didn’t really ‘come to poetry first.’ In the 50s I was writing mostly fiction and non-fiction, and some poetry, but by 1959 I was writing mostly poetry. But in the mid-50s I was solitary – no one else in my village appeared to want to write seriously. But when I got to UBC in 57 I was immediately in a social literary scene – with
Carol Bolt, Gladys Hindmarch, Betty Lambert and with a few years Bowering, Kearns, Marlatt, Wah, Judy Copithorne, John Newlove, Roy Kiyooka ...

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?

I still follow Olson’s advice to
Ed Dorn, to try to get to know more about a thing or event or time than anyone else, and make that the ground of your poem. It was sobering advice to a young buck writer who had been overly exposed to the spontaneous-overflow-of-powerful-feelings theory of poetry that Canadian public schools tended to endorse. But in fact the poets I admired did know a ton about certain things – John Donne about theology, Pratt about things like the Titanic, Dudek about Renaissance architecture, Duncan about the history of the Enlightenment, Olson about the history of Gloucester MA. So while parts of one of my writing projects might come quickly, the overall project can involve months or years of research. I wrote The Clallam in a short intense period – a week or so – but that writing was preceding by several months of research, including a trip to BC to read the handwritten transcript of the coroner’s inquest into the ship’s sinking. My current ‘Empire’ project on the Raj began with research into the history of the postcard in 1986 and has grown so that my shelf of books and articles on British India is now almost a metre long.

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?

Y’know, if I happen to write a short poem that seems unrelated to any project, I immediately assume that it must be signaling another project. I assume that it has implications for more writing, so I look for the discursive possibilities it might be opening, the images, histories, and referents that it may be pointing to. I have a small series that started some years ago with my overhearing a
Nelly Furtado’s “I’m like a bird” over the sound system of big box store, and that continued with my accidentally hearing other women vocalists in other contexts – my hitting the wrong button, say, on my truck’s radio. Since I don’t regularly listen to, or seek out, such music, this is a genuine serial poem, that might grow by only one section in a year. I assume that these will become a chapbook, or a ‘short long poem,’ if I live long enough.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Hmmmm, I still find readings that function as exchanges or conversations very rewarding to participate in – just as I did back in 1959. But being an audience member of a poetry reading doesn’t necessarily interest me. I enjoy hearing and reading the work of writers I can learn from – or ‘steal’ from – so I am selective about what readings I attend.

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?

Funny question – an adult who hasn’t reflected theoretically on poetics and poetry, or hasn’t a theory of what poetry aspires to, shouldn’t be writing poems, imo. The questions I have been looking into since The Clallam in 1972 have been ones about how things are represented in language, and about the paradox of how one can represent in poetic language the inevitable imprecisions and deceptions of the Lacanian symbolic.
Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy have an unintentionally amusing passage in their book Writing in our Time where they lament that much literature has been “legitimate symbolic violence” – but in fact all writing is symbolic violence, legitimate to someone – including their own, and including the present sentence. As citizens, we become accustomed to making our way among the sturm und drang of discursive foray – often, unfortunately, by espousing one school of violence over the others. Poetry, with its plurisignative power, its ability to sustain multiple discourses, and to allow the writer to act without dissolving ambiguities, should enable the illumination of such violence even though it cannot be removed from it.

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?

“The writer,” rob? I don’t think you can generalize. A lot of writers make careers for themselves by writing things the general culture is happy to read. I’m a writer who likes to give readers difficult works, or to have them read things that they would not have thought they would be happy to read. What has been my role in the general culture? – to disturb its pieties and sanctimoniousses – as in Mr and Mrs GG, or its banal and dead-end perceptions as in Karla’s Web, or Cultural Mischief, to expand what it can experience as poetry in The Abbotsford Guide to India or Postcard Translations. This isn’t just épater les bourgois – although I suppose there’s a good deal of that in my account of the dismally bourgeois
Adrienne Clarkson – it’s an attempt to create a larger, more diverse, and more adventurous bourgeois.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

If you publish with small presses, you rarely have an editor. bp was the best poetry editor I have encountered, but my relationship with him was mostly casual. Except for his work
on my 1980 selected poems, none of my poetry publications have been seriously edited. My best editing experience was with Smaro Kamboureli and her editing for NeWest of my Canadian Literary Power; the process generated new writing which became valuable parts of the book. The usefulness of the relationship rests on the extent to which the editor shares the field of knowledge that you’ve written the book within. My early editing experiences, such as when publishing Earle Birney with Copp Clark, were sometimes bad; that editor didn’t understand much of what I was writing about, or the critical viewpoint I had developed, and so instead of helping me clarify things wanted to substitute banalities. However, I’ve had competent, knowledgeable editors for most of my non-poetry publications with commercial presses – Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster, Karla’s Web, How Linda Died, Mr and Mrs GG – editors who have done the best they could to make the book the one I had imagined. And allowed me to imagine them as my ideal audience. I appreciated that. Hey, nothing I like better than talking about own work and so it was sometimes sad to have the editing process end.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Well,. bpNichol used to advise me to promote myself more by publishing more regularly. That’s easy to do if you are producing a lot of short works, but more difficult if you are working in longer forms. Karis Shearer advises me get a larger internet presence. Unfortunately, I tend to get distracted by writing new poems from creating internet pages. I wish the Canada Council would give me a website manager. Robert Creeley advised me back in 1970 to take more risks – and y’know, if you Google the words “Creeley” and “risk” you get 5,690 hits, and if you Google “Frank Davey” and “risk” you get 1,680 – which at 3.5 to 1 is about the same as the proportion between hits you get when you Google “
Robert Creeley” (198,000) and then “Frank Davey”(56,700). I thought Bob was offering good advice, and it looks as if I am perceived as having followed it. Although risk is always relative – it can be a risk to play it safe. Or to stay with the same woman (which itself might not be “safe”). It might be a risk not to venture into another genre. However, in writing I have preferred to risk not playing it safe. I think that may have cost me – my writing is difficult to represent because it can’t be typecast. I have tended to move on after each book and write something quite different from the ones before. .

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to creative non-fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

The appeal? Hmmm ... more that sense of responsibility that I mentioned at the beginning. Since I was able to practice genres other than poetry, and to reach audiences that poetry didn’t, I had a responsibility to practice them. I had a responsibility to my generation of writers to write books such as From There to Here – I could do it, and who else could or was going to? I could write a book such as Reading ‘KIM’ Right – I thought I had a responsibility to the culture that was making my writing life possible to ‘give back’ by writing it. Some of these books of literary criticism and cultural criticism were also ways of encouraging readers to experience poetic structures without reading poems. I’m thinking of the metacritical passages that playfully begin most of the Mr and Mrs GG chapters, or the way my essays on Hodgins and on postmodernism in
Reading Canadian Reading are both structured like long poems – or like musical compositions.

So, how easy has it been to move between genres – pretty easy, because I’ve always assumed that I was a poet who sometimes wrote non-fiction or literary prose, and assumed – as time went by – that I could write these in the same way that I wrote poems – with the same play with structure and similar abrupt shifts in discursive levels. I wanted to write essays that would be interesting as essays long after interest in their subject matter had waned. Curiously, it has often been the mainstream press reviewers of my work that have noticed these aspects of my writing – not the literary critics. Of course, most of the latter write convention-bound prose.

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?

Nah, I don’t keep a routine, but I do wander down to my computer on the lower floor most mornings around 9 am, if I’m home, and check my e-mail, check the bbc, globe, and guardian websites, and reflect on what I might want to do – edit or typeset the pending OL issue, work on OL billing or shipping, or look at eBay for usable visual images, work on my ‘Empire’ or ‘Recalling Canada’ series, or work on an essay I’ve promised someone. Many days I draw up a list of things I need to do that day – bathe one of my dogs, mail some Ols, water the plants on my patio, buy paper or paper clips or dog food, read a set of proofs. If I’m travelling – and I often go away for a week or weekend in my travel trailer – I take my laptop to which I’ve downloaded things I need to work on – such as this interview. I usually don’t have internet, unless I luck into it. I guess my rule is that I do something constructive every day, even if that’s only grinding the nails of one of my dogs. I tend to get bored if I’m not doing something constructive. Today I had a Canada Council survey on my to-do list, some body work I’m doing on my truck, getting a haircut, purchasing a photograph of dead bodies from the 1923 Tokyo earthquake for my new ‘corpse’ series.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

It doesn’t get stalled. I may get distracted from some projects by my work on others. I usually have 3-4 book projects underway at the same time, and not all of them get completed, but they could have been. If someone were to come to me saying we need you to complete such-and-such by this date, I’d get it done. (I recall writing
Reading ‘KIM’ Right in about a week, and Karla’s Web in around seven weeks.) I have a book mostly finished on Margaret Atwood, but I’m probably not going to complete it because I am bored by it, relative to my interest in other projects. I have a collection of essays that I delivered as papers in Europe, some of which I published there, with each essay prefaced by several pages of recollection and contextualization. Titled “The Spanish Lectures.” It’s ready for publication, but one publisher who would like to do it needs SSHRC funding and wants me to write new material for it to increase the proportion of previously unpublished text – an expansion which would ruin the concept. And I’ve been lazy about looking for another publisher. I have a small chapbook that I just completed titled “Digital Knowledge” – haven’t started looking for a publisher for that. I have a series of 60-70 visual/textual poems in colour titled “Empire,” and a smaller series titled “Recalling Canada,” that I am slowly expanding hoping that colour printing technology will allow inexpensive publication by the time I finish. I have another visual/textual series – the one I just mentioned – that works from visual images of human corpses. No shortage of projects.

13 - What did your favourite teacher teach you?

Probably to take myself and my possibilities seriously, and to refine my aspirations. I had a number of ‘favorite teachers’.

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 think
Northrop Frye said that first– that books come from books. I guess that makes David a Frygian poet. Frye was referring to how texts such as the Illiad and Odyssey, and The Bible (which of course he wrote about as “the great code”) have structured European culture’s understandings of history and humanity, including those of individuals who have never read these texts. In Frye’s early work this always looked to me like a closed system. I have preferred Derrida’s pronouncement that we can’t get outside of language – i.e. that everything that we experience is mediated through language, or Kristeva’s modification of Lacan, that in poetic language, and dance, and music, one can experience something outside of the Lacanian Symbolic, something she called the “semiotic.”

But OK – you were using the word “book” here in a less complicated way. I do tend to hear my poems as musical as well as linguistic structures, with lines sometimes interweaving in a fugal way, or ‘counterpointing’ with, or riffing off each other, or to think of the structure of a longer work as moving through speeds and densities the way a symphonic work might. But this is not something I try to bring to a reader’s attention (poetry readers are not necessarily classical music or jazz listeners) – I’m happy to have these aspects read as discursive shifts, or to have them experienced unconsciously. Visual art – yes, I’ve paid a lot of attention to visual art, and have worked at poems as translations of visual art – particularly in Capitalistic Affection! which translates North American comic strips of the 1940s and 50s and Postcard Translations. It was
McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride and Barthes’ Empire of Signs, Mythologies and The Fashion System which pushed me to seeing these other ‘systems’ of representation as related to the ‘book’ one, and then the work of bpNichol with the links he made among the comic strip, visual poetry, the fumetti, etc, and that of Greg Curnoe, who was moving in a slightly different direction among found objects, sculpture, painting, the comic strip, and painted words. The latter strategy was a brilliant way of contextualizing discourse – painting a sentence so that it is objectified, put on display, and removed from the circuit (but not the history) of communication. I’ve published two essays about Curnoe’s “lettered” works.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I do attend to what the writers I grew up with are doing – Bowering,
Marlatt, Wah – probably assuming that the writing questions that they are dealing with are often going to be similar to the ones I encounter. I keep in touch with Bowering and Kearns – they are the ones I’m most likely to visit. I used to be in close touch with Wah, but he seems to have been preoccupied with new projects now that he’s retired and in Vancouver. He probably thinks much the same about me! I tend to read Canadian writers much more than others – because again I find that they are more likely to be creating ways of writing that are useful to me than are ones in more distant cultures. I read the work of Peter Jaeger regularly, Stephen Cain, Sina Queyras, Christian Bök, Jeff Derksen.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

You mean besides win a Nobel or visit the moon. I’d like to have gallery exhibitions of my current visual/textual poems – the ones I am producing as 22" x 17" limited-edition colour prints.

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?

Those aren’t identical questions, are they. I’d like to have been a visual artist – a painter, photographer, or sculptor or some combination thereof. Recently I’ve been to exhibitions of work by
Bernard Quentin, Louise Bourgeois, Man Ray, and Annette Messenger and been very envious of the visual/textual possibilities that they were able to explore. But that’s a late recognition. At 17 I knew nothing about conceptual art – in Abbotsford schools art was drearily representational – it wasn’t until I saw a Shadbolt exhibition at UBC that I began to think of other kinds of art as possible to a Canadian.

What would I have ended up being if not a writer? Hard to say – the year before we founded Tish I applied to CUSO to go and work in
Sarawak – luckily, I guess, I wasn’t accepted. In high school my grades in maths and science were as strong as they were in English, French, and German. But because of extra language courses I’d completed, and a loophole in the regulations which allowed one to write the government final exam in a Grade 12 course you hadn’t taken, I managed to graduate a year early by writing final exams and winning a small entry scholarship to UBC – but without any Grade 12 math or science credits. Again that closed a doorway that had appeared open.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Probably that I could, and that I enjoyed doing it, and that in the longer term it seemed to work as a life course. I don’t think I ever consciously chose writing – I just found myself doing it with some success ever since winning a $50 prize in a BC essay contest when I was 13. What you are good at is usually the easiest way forward. Although I must have also had a kind of backwoods curiosity about literature and writers. I grew up in Abbotsford, which was then a small farming community about a 2 hr drive from Vancouver. But 3/4 of an hour south was the small US city of Bellingham, which had been prosperous at the turn of the century, and down by the docks had a number of second-hand stores stocked with Victorian lamps and tables and Chinoiserie and books. When I was 12 or 13 I used to bring back armloads of volumes by Scott,
Eliot, Thackeray, Byron, Burns, Tennyson, Dumas, Irving, Stevenson from these stores – often leather-bound – that I was buying for ten or fifteen cents each. In uptown Bellingham I was also securing large parts of the Everyman library for $1.25 a copy – the works of Donne, Keats, Shelley, Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I still have most of them, although I found out later that they weren’t very good editions. My parents used to go down for a weekend to sample Christian Brothers varietal wines and do some cross-border shopping for camping gear and clothes you couldn’t get in Canada. I brought back books. And a pair of elaborately carved 19th-century Chinese red soapstone bookends. On the rare occasions I got to Vancouver on the old Pacific Stage bus, I would do similar shopping in the second-hand stores on Pender Street, and in the People’s Cooperative Bookstore, where I bought new Soviet hardback editions in translation of Turgenev, Chekov, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky for around a dollar each. I have no idea now how I heard of these. Maybe from the Britannica set I had been given in 1949. Maybe from reading De Maupassant in a French class.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’ve read a lot of good books, and seen some interesting films. But I don’t think there’s been a great book or a great film recently. Of course “great” for me means that it’s something I wish I’d created or that moved me to create. Probably the last great film I saw was Camille Claudel. The last great book
Derrida's Limited Inc.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Damn, I’ve already answered that.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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