Colin Smith’s second book of poems is 8x8x7 (San Francisco: Krupskaya, 2008). Latest is Multiple Bippies (North Vancouver: CUE Books, 2014), a republishing of two out-of-print titles, plus some uncollected prose yapping about poetry.
1. How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It — Multiple Poses, Vancouver: Tsunami Editions, 1997 (though not actually emerged until spring ’98; long out of print) — mostly or merely convinced me I wasn’t a complete lame-ass at this poetry stuff. That book represents ten years of destroying previous work, generating anew, rethinking refeeling regrowing toward a different, Language-based poetics. Which was preceded by fifteen years of being a very prolific, substantively meagre Lyric poet with a poor ear and a snide sense of humour.
Now the ear is cacophonous and the humour’s deliberately vile!
Recent work — Carbonated Bippies!, Vancouver: Nomados Literary Publishers, 2012 (also out of print, ridiculously enough) — is partly my attempt to recapitulate the disavowed Lyric, but by making of it an icky formalism.
2. How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
(But I’ve always thought and felt that poetry was non-fiction! Creative non-fiction. Didn’t both Melvil Dewey and Charles Bernstein plump for that?)
I came to poetry simultaneously with making 8mm silent movies and writing horror fiction.
I was emotionally drawn to it without knowing why.
There’s still something ineffable about poetry to me. It can be mischievous, mysterious, flexible, anarchic. Any day I wholly apprehend what it does or upon it losing those qualities will be the day I likely stop writing poems.
That impulse to make movies is long gone, without regret. Same for the horror stories, although it’s very fair to say that most of my poems are in essence that, “transcribed” into broken-plot, poetic takes.
“Brains!” ejaculates zombie capitalism. “The political economy did this to me” cries the dying patient.
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?
“Copious notes” is a phrase that rings a big gong. My basic unit of composition is the line. Which can be a single word. I’m always scribbling quickly to no particular order. (This fully unleashes the hounds of inspiration and evades the potentates of censorship.) Adding the lines to a permanent stack of pages. Quick lines, slow poems.
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?
Rarely do I know that I’m working on a book. It’s more like one old poem-foot before the next old poem-foot, soldier, selah. The material for the poems comes from that motherlode of single lines I accumulate from daily writing. I get (in pukka) a conceptual arc or (in common yammering) a lightbulb for something that might make an interesting or exciting text, then start collating lines from the wad that speak to and against it. Lines get rewritten, new lines pop up, lines get shifted around, some of what I think are my better lines get cut, then Un Viola!, poem.
I don’t write a poem as much as edit one into being.
5. Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy giving readings, although they make me deeply nervous. Which I figure should be the case, part of the human comedy.
More to the point is public readings as part of our social process. No actual public without people in a room, perpetrating live text. This may be heresy, but I consider poetry readings to be television. Aaaiiiii! Well, they’re my television, anyway (I live without standard toys and furniture). I prefer noisier readings, though there’s a lot to be said for the quiet of responsive listening. Poetry shouldn’t resemble a religious service. We need no Church of Poetry idolatry.
Now I’ll contradict myself by saying I also believe that Bill Hicks quip: “Watching TV is like taking black spray paint to your third eye.”
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?
No theoretical concerns whatsoever. I’m not that bright when it comes to theory and I’m in thrall to my kitbag of horrid obsessions (power, war, money, sex, pain, death) and I’m devoted to creating a high-octane reading experience for people and I’m not interested in hacking out cultural recipe cards. I try to complicate answers rather than solve any questions. I have a questing sensibility and I want that doing whatever throughout a poem. “Botches? We don’t feed no stinking ….”
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?
Ideally, the writer should be a bisexual hermaphrodite. A witness, a testifier, a historian, a saboteur, an agent devoted to destroying the normative. A living-room comic and a bedroom doctor.
8. Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both. It’s humbling though necessary to realize that it’s fatuous, risky, arrogant, and self-sabotaging to consider your own sentience an infallible god; that you need help; that you need an outside perspective; that you yourself can’t be that outsider. Best to seek assistance.
9. What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Make it weirder.” The incredible Kevin Davies (The Golden Age of Paraphernalia, among others) goes around proselytizing that. To the degree that he will ever proselytize anything!
This was something I learned from years of being his friend, briefly in Toronto and then longer in Vancouver (he’s lived predominantly in New York since 1992). What I believe he means is that one should be brave and take chances in text and not homogenize them into safe or simple objects with a forced or false single point of view. Make them richer, make them stranger.
10. 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 wake at dawn (or earlier, if lucky or unfortunate). Harvest the nightmares. Put the coffee on. Drink it (two cups, max). Maintain the dream-state of a silent apartment. Read other people’s poetry for an hour. Write poetry for another hour. Then Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” Then into the quotidian roar.
Needles to say, when trying to get a poem made, batches of long hours have to happen. Scheduled whenever practical.
11. When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I let it get stalled. There’s no virtue in rushing or forcing anything. I’ve learned that over a goodly spell of bitter years! You just wreck the text if you try.
12. What fragrance reminds you of home?
Notwithstanding that my sense of home is largely prosthetic … My mother’s cigarette smoke.
13. 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?
14. What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
15. What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
Live in a democracy (as opposed to In Capitalism).
16. 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?
Maybe I would have run away with a circus. The classical “geek” job might have suited me best.
Or maybe that would have been unnecessary. Could be that the circus has always already surrounded us and is now most certainly the Panopticon.
17. What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
We need language. We are language. Why not work with the primal stuff? And, on a practical level, it’s the most flexible, portable, and materially cheap art form.
18. What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I resist completely even the notion of Great Books. I find that thinking in those terms at all is a shortcut to ending up with sexist, classist, and racist Top Tens, as well as canonical reifications.
I prefer to consider and revisit the “merely interesting”!
I read a fair bit and my tastes are pretty catholic. I’ll restrict my picks to recent Canadian poetry in the more Language-y or conceptual parts of the spectrum. (Which will exclude a lot.)
To anyone looking for adventure, I strongly recommend Sandra Ridley’s Post-Apothecary and Christine McNair’s Conflict. Both these books are emotionally hot and brave, marbled with darkness, tonally and syntactically complex.
I’m always happy to revisit the planets constituted by Donato Mancini’s Buffet World and Louis Cabri’s Poetryworld. Their conceptual rigours, bold politics, and anarchic humours are exemplary. (See also new books by these fine fellows: Posh Lust by Cabri and Loitersack by Mancini.)
Speaking of anarchy, NDN word-warrior Annharte’s Indigena Awry is a critically important and gloriously troublesome feast. Often woundingly funny and very moving. (See also her more recent book of essays, AKA Inendagosekwe.)
Jonathan Ball’s The Politics of Knives trucks in a more pixilated blackness and crueler humour than his previous, Clockfire, which is saying a lot!
Roy Miki’s Mannequin Rising might be his most affable book yet, as well as his most difficult. Go figure. Most dystopian, and funniest.
Cecily Nicholson’s Triage deploys a stunningly elliptical, pulverized syntax to theatricalize, internalize, and confront the crises in and of capitalism. Very impressive! It’s a humane muttering in service of a permanent rebellion, and demands slow reading.
Roewan Crowe’s Quivering Land is a significant, liberatory queering of the Western. A protean text (prose? poetry? both? say what?) complicated by bleakness and lavishness. Crowe is also a visual artist, and this book has to be one of the more gorgeous objects in contemporary trade book production. Includes reproductions of hand-cut paper images by Paul Robles.
Jeff Derksen’s The Vestiges is fabulously necessary. It’s a sober and often witheringly witty examination of the Permanent Neoliberal Crisis we’re all living in. Long poems; the parenthetical shifted into the relative city square of things; lots of hot, centripetal action.
Catriona Strang’s first solo book in about twenty years (she being more inclined to collaborate with the late Nancy Shaw) is Corked, and it is a gorgeous riot. Outraged female life and labour in neo(bruta)liberal Vanhattan BC HarperLand. Poetically and sonically exact; satirically geologic. Ponk rawk, wiped memory, a sensible sadness. “Dear Strang, You are so not yoga [cackle].”
Trish Salah’s work is a big new love for me. Her Lyric Sexology, Vol. 1 is a thrilling swirl of poetic field work on gender construction from an exquisitely smart trans perspective. Language spirals through itself thickly, and there’s a sardonic, camp humour happening, too. “I didn’t mean to become an I.” “I am counting the kinds of impossible / No one ever is”.
With Janey’s Arcadia, Rachel Zolf has gifted us with an acidic and coruscating calling out of the permanent colonialism and devolved racism against Kanata’s indigenous peoples. It is a beautiful (and occasionally blackly funny) fury. I hope it helps destroy Canada into a just formation.
The densely rippled sonics happening throughout Natalie Simpson’s Thrum are, not simply, thrilling! “Poetics of hop and pop.” A book of abundance.
Over thirty years and several books, Colin Browne has been working up his slantwise, scholarly, and underhandedly irreverent take on the Lyric tradition to an increasing sophistication and oddness. Thus: The Properties.
o w n is a unique book. Three authors — a rawlings, Heather Hermant, and Chris Turnbull — are yoked together by their ecological concerns. Styles here are wide-ranging, though — rawlings contributes a play that would be impossible to mount, while Hermant and Turnbull have image-text pieces coming from very different sentiences and poetics. Fascinating!
Nikki Reimer’s Downverse is such a dark read, O god! She’s fond of procedural sculpting toward rich, overdetermined textures. Subject matter is often harrowing — economic and political violence and injustice. There are a lot of trolls in this book. Hideous socialscapes of Vancouver and Calgary. Cultural horrors. Anthracite wit. So much “inappropriate” fun, yum!
With Un/inhabited, Jordan Abel has rejigged a text dump of ninety-one Westerns — using techniques of erasure, cartography, and extraction — into a righteous reverse engineering that enables us to look accurately at Canada as a colonialist entity. As much a piece of visual art as poetry, this book is baffling, moving, and bleakly funny in all the good ways.
The (to my mind) much overdue emergence of Lary Timewell with a big book, posthumous spectacle nodes. (There’s a shorter one out, too: the ubiquitous gaze of che.)
The complicated historical takedown or mixtape that is Paul Zits’s Massacre Street is quite interesting. Unreliable and unlocatable narrators, erm, “rule.” (Along similar topical and tactical lines, Dilys Leman’s The Winter Count.)
Mercedes Eng’s Mercenary English and Roger Farr’s MEANS offer, respectively, properly enraged and antically disinhibiting takes on the dark matter of some political “social”s (torture paradigms, money loops) too many of us are trapped in.
Kristian Enright’s madly optimistic Sonar. Erín Moure’s passionate The Unmemntioable. The luscious contrivance that is Lesley Trites’s echoic mimic.
Elizabeth Bachinsky’s I Don’t Feel So Good has several “something about”s about it. Jennifer Still’s Girlwood is a complicated ha’nt.
The plangent, furious, and terrifying dystopia (world-class size) that is Sachiko Murakami’s Rebuild. The alchemical zaniness that is Ken Fox’s Azmud.
A couple of minimalist texts I enjoyed very much are Chantal Neveu’s Coït (translated by Angela Carr) and Mark Goldstein’s Form of Forms.
Speaking of making more with less, a production entity yclept Intercopy has perpetrated a worthy insanity by vastly reducing Georges Bataille’s novel Saccades into a sparse poem obsessed with liquids. Yow!, it’s funny and serious.
Sina Queyras’s astounding (and wonkily funny!) essay on grief, M × T. Jen Currin’s School wends through the bent theology that is life — surrealism on a pogo stick; lots of wry emotion.
For those interested in how technology is changing our worlds and how social-media devices are affecting the ways we communicate, Jason Christie’s Unknown Actor and Margaret Christakos’s Multitudes are similar yet different takes on the matter. Both, however, stand as droll and disturbing.
Claire Lacey’s Twin Tongues is a sharp investigation of language imperialisms. Starring a crow named Jasper, a white teacher’s aide named English, the ideolect of Tok Pisin, and Papua New Guinea.
The transmutation-by-subtraction effects of Alex Leslie’s The things I heard about you give these prose-poems a weird charm and anarchic wobble.
The broken-Lyric-bendy-Anti-Lyric contemplations of rob mclennan’s Glengarry.
We must not flinch from the comprehensive unease happening in Rita Wong’s political ode to water, undercurrent.
Anything else? Yes.
Some wonderful books of deeply off-kilter humour: kevin mcpherson eckhoff’s easy peasy; Alice Burdick’s Holler; Pearl Pirie’s Thirsts; Jon Paul Fiorentino’s Needs Improvement; Charles Noble’s The Kindness Colder Than the Elements; Beatriz Hausner’s Enter the Raccoon; Jay MillAr’s Timely Irreverence; [N]athan [D]ueck’s he’ll; Emma Healey’s Begin with the End in Mind; David McGimpsey’s Li’l Bastard; and Kathryn Mockler’s The Purpose Pitch (caution: this one includes a ghastly poem about rape).
Twelve chapbooks I care to tout: Edward Byrne’s translations of Louise Labé, Sonnets; Michael Barnholden’s The Regina Monologues: So(cial safety)nnets; Reg Johanson’s Mortify; Robert Manery’s Richter-Rauzer Variations; Fenn Stewart’s An OK Organ Man; Marilyn Irwin’s flicker; Stephen Cain’s Zoom; Jen Currin’s The Ends; Christine Leclerc’s Oilywood; Lissa Wolsak’s Of Beings Alone: The Eigenface; Brian Dedora’s Two at High Noon; and Christine Stewart’s The Odes.
Finally, I’ll swerve off the editorial path I set at the beginning of answering this question (oh, you expected me to be consistent, did you?) to recommend Clint Burnham’s The Only Poetry That Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing and Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. Not many books like these two. Not enough of their ilk, either.
Last kick-ass film? That’s way easier to answer. I’ll give you my last two: Michael Haneke’s Amour and Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter.
19. What are you currently working on?
A chapbook-length manuscript of poems for Lary Bremner’s obvious epiphanies press. These’ll be more intimate in tone and address than what I most often do (which is a large motivation for writing them). Although I doubt I can ever truly duck the hideous Public Service Announcement UnVoice that I tend to use, these are all dedicated to actual people and have a homier slant to them.
Am also working on a longish poem called “Quear.” Nuff said.