Franco Cortese is an experimental poet living in Thorold, Ontario. His poetry won the 2020 UNESCO / Brock University Sustainability Poetry Prize, was longlisted for the 2019 CBC Poetry Prize and has appeared in Literary Review of Canada, The Malahat Review, Canadian Literature, The Capilano Review, filling Station, ditch, and others. He has chapbooks out through above/ground press, no press, nOIR:Z, Simulacrum Press, Trainwreck Press, Gap Riot Press, The Blasted Tree and Anstruther Press, with others forthcoming from Timglaset, Hesterglock Press, and Serif of Nottingham. His full-length poetic debut, Lip, is forthcoming from Penteract Press in 2021.
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?
Well, this question found a fortuitous slice of the-river-me in time, because my first chapbook (aeiou, published by derek beaulieu's no press in August 2018) and my first book Lip, illustrated by bill bissett and forthcoming from Penteract this month (and available for pre-order now!: https://penteractpress.com/store/lip-franco-cortese) are two ends of the same circle, and the publicational start and end of the same project, gestating for 3+ years and now birthpanging its way to worlding, sickly, beautiful and dirgelike.
The chapbook felt like an entry into a wondrous world of crazed kinfellows. A housewarming. Small press is a very beautiful, welcoming, playful place, and it’s where vergeminded poetry should want to be. It’s poetic experimentation’s prime real estate. It’s where I’d like to live, where I’ll likely die. It’s a good thought, not a bad one.
Meanwhile, the forthcoming publication of Lip feels very culmative. It’s a simultaneous birth and death. The thing is out of my hands now, and I can’t change it anymore. After having been a fifth limb for 3+ years, all of a sudden it’s done and gone. That’s both jubilant and frightening, and how it needs to be.
It’s also become a very special book, near the end. It’s got touches and timestamps of close friends, and even an icon or two: cover title text by Sacha Archer, a table of contents by Gary Barwin, a visuopoetic contribution to the backmatter by derek beaulieu, and 20 original illustrations by bill bissett, who made and mailed me all these drawings in dialogue with the work, which are appearing in the world for the first time via the vehicle of the book. It’s strange and beautiful to see a book that’s been a very constant presence in one’s life for several years suddenly become more itself in a comparative instant by outside hands.
The extended project, and its definitively dissolutional culmination in Lip, is an experiment in lipogrammatic limit cases, presenting densely multilingual lipogramatic and palindromic poems composed exclusively of words, borrowed from a variety of languages, consisting only of vowels (and in its most limit-case moments, multilingual poems consisting of only a single letter).
What stories can be told, what moments excavated, what rivers frozen and what ideas bestilled through the use of words made entirely of vowels, or entirely of consonants, or, indeed, poems consisting of a single invariant letter or glyph, like its central suite of poems does? It's hopeless, insane and beautiful questions like these that compel me forward, and that make the book both possible and actual.
Lip makes these kinds of questions possible by transposing and transgressing lingual borders, borrowing from dozens upon dozens of different languages, finding phonic and sonic oddities within the world’s myriad tongues that share some invariant aspect of form, and bringing them together, putting them in dialogue with one another, in order to create poems that, for example, are exclusively composed of vowels, or exclusively made up of consonants, as well as other primal and minimalist fragments of language , and different recombinant shards of lettoral atoms – two and three letter combinations of vowels and consonants, etc.
Lip takes these forms of compositional and structural omission and constraint and uses it to map real world forms of constraint and omission on the broken frontiers of history, culture, ecology and economy, dictating not only the fundamental ontogenic and ontologic units of the poems, or what they are permitted to be (the use of certain letters, or certain invariant aspects of form on the level of the word), but also how they are permitted to be organized and communitize amongst each other, AKA, organizational constraint, such as the multilingual lipogramatic palindrome or the “emop” (poems consisting of words that share some invariant aspect of form on the level of the word, arranged in alphabetical order). In doing this, it’s my hope that the book speaks to themes and concepts that are both timely and timeless, encircling aspects of humanity that are evertrue: love, sex, death, theft, identity, war, empire etc.
In some ways the book is also an experiment in anti-translation, in the sense that there’s no actual translation taking place. I’ve used the verbatim literal English translations, or at times the technical and grammatical definitions of its poems constituent words, in composing each multilingual poem’s English counterpart. The ontological grammar of the book treats the words composing its poems to some extent as sovereign beings, and except for a very select few instances documented in the book’s notes, takes them exactly as they’ve been found, without synonymizing or editorializing them. In fact, the book synonymizes exactly one word (using “to piss” in place of “to urinate” for the sonorism as well as the impertinence).
It’s a project that not only revels in the beautifully ontogenic nature of language, but also one that attempts to interrogate the darker, ontologically prescriptive characteristics and potential uses of language as well, like the nature of the definition, the inherently insidious nature of lists and registers, the ills of tils, etc.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Glib but true, poetry found me, rather than the other way around. In the sense that I began writing and publishing poetry before I really read (or found a love for reading) poetry. I became drawn to it as the headiest edge where language splinters and where words are their most meltpearly and waxlike. Being a linguic machine (as all minds-in-universe are, necessarily), the attraction to language at its most anomalous, self-reflecxtive, and possiblational seemed like the most natural thing in the word. At the time (my late teens, I think), I was doing other things, and embroiled in other forms of intellectual work and play. Some science, a lot of philosophy, and some vagabond scholaring. Poetry is where I went to break (not just the sense of leisure, but also in the sense of fouling apart; of cracking oneself open and, halfdying, reveling in the starsplint shards).
I fell in love with (but hadn't yet read; not really) Finnegans Wake (which will always be more poetry than novel to me), which likely revealed this anomalous hallmark of language to me - that words can be plasticized, ectomized, and Frankensteined into worlds. This is probably the insidious spore that started it all. Hard to be sure; it's all ghostly mirrors-in-mirrors to me now (memory being the persistence of decay in the flensing lense of time), and like most of the frictions spectrating my inner haunt, more motheaten poem than statue, however ozymandaic.
When I decided to re-enter the world of poetry in 2017, I was fortunate enough to find several warm and welcoming guides and hosts close to home. By coincidence, two of my favourite poets happen to live and work within a 20-minute drive of my home: Gregory Betts and Adam Dickinson. I sought each of them out and cornered them, brandishing my crinkled envelope of manuscriptural sheaves, craze-eyed with animal tremor.
I found in each of them a generous and vigilant Virgil to my Dante, full of friendship and informal mentorship (I say informal because I haven't actually studied under them formally; in poetry, as in all else, I remain uninstitutionally trainéd). They've both given me more than my due of generous feedback on my ongoing projects, indulged my hermetic concerns and alchemical ravings, opened many warm doors, and tipped me off to the best local poetry shindigs both public and private. I remain deeply indebted to both of them, and cherish their friendships.
Poetry also lost me for a while, after it found me. There was a good few years after really getting into it where I didn’t write, or even read, any poetry. I was off doing other awfully burdensome and weighty things, trying to change the world for the better, as I had been before poetry (B.P.) and after poetry (A.P.), when it first found me. That foray (return, really) didn’t break me – the gleam and spirit is still there – but it did tire me.
All this isn’t to say that I don’t think poetry is important; for me it is vitally - even deathly - important. But in a different way. It’s not going to change human worlds, or affect very many human lives, but it pushes, breaks-anew, changes and innovates language in small, isolated, largely unseen but undeniably and factually existent (i.e., real) ways. It changes Plato’s world, not ours, and is more akin to the brightforge thunderpeal of a manmade rift in quantum spacetime, or the fleeting creation of a new subatomic particle, than a breakthrough in cancer treatment, or a cheap way to desalinate water. Its innovation, and it’s real, and fundamental, and has the potential to impact (however immaterially) those who chance a glance before it vaporizes, but it’s not going to make things better. And that’s okay, I think.
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?
When I do poetry, I try to make it do what poetry does best: plasticize meaning at the borders of language. If I had to define poetry, I’d have to say that it’s words at their most. “Their most what?” is the right response to that statement, and precisely the point. Words at their most what.
Poetry finds, and makes, meaning in misreading. It’s its most elevatory and revelatory quality. It’s what makes it it, and what makes it worth it. Its power and draw likes in its generative ambiguity, and a thing whose power lies less in its lexic and semantic qualities as in its semiotics – not what it means, but the shifting interplay between authorial intent and reader interpretation. A poem is a thing that revels in its gaps, its ethers, and its simultaneous superposition of meanings, whose power and fundament of being is in what it’s not saying, or what it’s almost saying, or almost not saying.
else, I’m trying to make it new, as the famous poundcake once spake. What
experiments can I conduct that brings language to a brink no one else has
frontiered before? What can be said there? What spaces and places can be sung
for the fist time or revoiced there? These are the things I’m after.
For the most part, the majority of projects I cultivate lead themselves. I thrust myself into some overlooked nook of language, some combinatory or translatory suburb of the worlds inside words, and I explore, forage, and try to make space to allow things to make and reveal themselves. Often this takes the form of constrained lexicons – finding some invariant aspect of form that serves as walls for words, and limits the actual inventory of words I’m able to work with. A pinnacling example would be Lip, soon to become my very first book (and, by association, the first two chapbooks I had out in the world: aeiou through derek beaulieau's No Press in 2018, and uoiea, through your own above/ground press in 2019).
Other byways of my poetic practice try to vivisect possibilities of language by smashing it across the hard edge of our present technological moment, forcing (or allowing) meaning by using our many hypermodern artefacts to cut into language, letting it bleed the wons and zheroes lurking inside.
This is the world of technopoetry, which I would define as poetry which uses distinctly or emblematically modern technologies as part of its procedural or compositional process in such a way as to at least part of authorial agency into those technologies themselves.
At its best, technopoetry is ideally suited to use these very technologies to interrogate, document or vivisect our current technological moment, using omnipresent tools of hypermodern crisis to produce art from artifice.
I'm thinking here of projects like those encapsulated by my recent chapbooks no mỡ, no mo, no mò (nOIR:Z 2020), tú cu nǔ sù yù mù (Trainwreck Press 2020), and gó go gó (The Blasted Tree 2020), which use a densely multilingual lipogram as a starting point and, in the words of Kyle Flemmer, subjecting it to "various methods of manual and automated translation - including verbatim, machine, and text-to-image procedures, pull[ing] a seemingly nonsensical text through a series of sense-making operations, forging surprising new poems with each iteration." , as well as projects like Bark Ode, a chapbook that I had out last year through your own above/round press that uses a random, blind and somewhat violent gesture of the body (random, fast typing, as if in frustration or desperation) as the raw input for Google Translate, forcing an ever-present staple of our technological moment to interpret worldess, dumb, blind and violent bodily vestures as language.
Poetry's all translation anyway, whether you know, or like it, or not. ... Throughout all the projects at play in my poetic practice, however, is the idea of finding an unexcavated corner of language, living there for a bit, and trying to force something out of it that is both emblematically human and utterly alien, and truer for it, acting as a host for language to speak itself. I'm just a poet, which for the majority of my projects to date is less author than a kind of curator, editor, or space. The poetry is itself, and I try not to get too much in the way of that.
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?
God, none. Unless you find one that you feel fits, in which case good on you. Society usually needs to be the artist’s bane for anything to work in the first place, but maybe that’s an opinion tied up with my own ideational and aesthetic preferences.
It’s funny (in a hellish, Divine Comedy sort of way), however, thinking of the role of poetry today, rather than writing and writers more generally. I’ve already said above what I think poetry is at its best – a portal into the living void on the empty sides of glyphs, fuller than any sky, ready and ample to be applebitten and firstcontacted. But its role, well. It’s dying. This isn’t to say that it’s not more vibrantly alive inside itself in certain nooks and crannies than its ever been before – this is true. But no one reads it. You need to sell less copies of poetry to be a bestseller than any other genre – fiction, nonfiction, period-piece gothwestern Shrek erotica, you name it. And I can’t find a wealthy aristocratic patron for the life of me.
This is a fairly far fall from what it used to be (and the words already feel sheepish and clownlike in my mouth, despite their sooth), given that poetry started out as the thing that founded cultures. When you think about it for a moment, I think it's pretty clear that poetry was created as a very practical tool to make myth (cosmological, existential and moral narratives) more memorable and memorizable. The vehicle for soothing animal fear of death and the black maw of the night sky, for providing scary stories to deter social chaos amid rampant self-interest, and for keeping power, wealth and influence siloed where the last guy found it. A viral envelope to make otherfunctional stories more transmissible and recombinant. An expressly operant machine for founding civilizations, for cruxsake!
And now? Don’t ask me. I’m a poet, and can’t be trusted.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Sometimes difficult when there are fundamental rifts in terms of what the thing is, and wherefore the poem is, but on the vast whole net-beneficial. The overwhelming majority of editorial experiences I’ve had have made the thing better (and more often than not have editorialized macrostructurally, in terms of the order of poems and composition of poems, rather than the composition of poems – wait a minute…).
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Learn to find joy in seconds.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
As you might be able to tell, whenever I’m writing in a form or venue that allows it, my prose consistently devolves into poetry. Just look at any one of my various chapbooks’ afterwords. I can’t help myself. It’s a problem.
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?
None, whatsoever. Not by choice, but necessity. I find it hard enough to find time between a full-time dayjob and a bustling, burgeoning (but never burdening) family. I carve out minutes wherever I can, and it's almost always a halfguilty thing, but I can stay away. It thins me, existentially, if I do, and it always feels like an RSVP with death, sans chess.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When a project gets stalled I turn to another one. Time is way too scarce, and poetry much too important to my addiction-to-identity, to admit defeat in the face of flatlines. Luckily, I usually have too many projects on the go at a given time, and some substantial fraction of them often involve somatic deadweight procedural steps in them, and the necessity to do a lot of rote dredgework to familiarize myself with the landscape of a given project's nook in language. Often this involves the collection and curation (e.g, organization and classification) of some strangely inventory of words (some constrained lexicon), gathered by hand into a daunting, sprawling, biblic carcass of an encycloplegic thousand score-odd document. Lip was this, for a long time.
Anyweigh, what this means is that when the authorial ghost running my cordyceptic meatsack of a body-in-time tires, I can turn off, drop out, and cycle through these pressureless, vacant spaces, digging and dirtpiling grist for present and future millstones.
Other times I'm lazier, and I shuck off completely, go watch some Shakespeare and melt in sleepy sudz, or revel and gasp in the beauteous stacked singularities of time with my wife and son. These usually prove more effective, and rejuvenating.
My wife’s skin, and my son’s hair.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Writings, plenty. So very many of my small press contemporaries, who I won’t name because I’m going to forget to mention a lot of them, unfairly. However, writers themselves are more important both for my work and my life outside of work than writings. I find poetic friendships quite important to the existential endurance demanded by poetry, which involves hard work for little gain, shackled to the whethered rind of a dying genre. I’ve already mentioned a few, I think (Gregory Betts, Adam Dickinson, etc.). In my first life as a poet, before the intermission, I found this in longtime friend and exceptional poet Jacob Braun, who's working on one dusie of a manuscript right now (and who actually introduced me to Adam Dickinson once, in another life, both figuratively and physically, although I think neither Adam nor I remember it now). I still do, with Jake. These days, I find myself spending a lot of time with Sacha Archer (a brilliant if half-broken savant-guardist, whose friendship I cherish with raugged, mansome love), and find rejuvenating consort in a number of others (I’d be remiss not to mention Anthony Etherin and Gary Barwin here).
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 really don’t know. I feel as though I’d be lost without it. I suppose I’d go back to what I was doing before, and during the intermission. Namely, blindly and fledgingly foraging in the rompic headlands of science.
Much like poetry, I have no formal training in the sciences (or the humanities, for that matter), but I did manage to teach myself a whole lot of science in my early twenties – enough to write up and publish a conceptual therapy idea I worked on over a period of roughly three years: Induced Cell Turnover (see here and here Subsequently, that paper found a few sympathetic ears, which scored me a gig working on a bunch of other cool projects and papers with a great band of scientists.
A selection, for anyone who might be interested (who am I kidding?):
Most of these are in the realm of the biology of aging and biogerontology, but an exception is a paper that I was lead author on which offered a roadmap of existing and proposed approaches for enhancing radioresistance (protection from radiation) for the purposes of space exploration and colonization: Vive la radiorésistance!: converging research in radiobiology and biogerontology to enhance human radioresistance for deep space exploration and colonization.
That project was probably the most fun, for a few reasons. Science, and scientific papers in particular, are almost always satisfying in the end, but they can be such long and stultifying slogs. This one was very (ahem) exploratory, which was a very nice change of pace at the time.
It also had a whole slew of authors (from NASA Ames Research Center, Environmental and Radiation Health Sciences Directorate at Health Canada, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, Belgian Nuclear Research Centre, Oxford University, Boston University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Lethbridge, Ghent University, and on and on), 30 or more of them I think, and working on something with that many hands in the pot was really fun.
I also got to work with an awfully nice feller named Dmitry Klokov (a research scientist at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories) on a theoretical framework that uses a genetic and endocrine-mediated feedback circuit to essentially make my coming-of-age therapy idea (Induced Cell Turnover) adaptive to radiation exposure. Now that was a dusie – many moving parts (involving “the use of a radiation-responsive promoter that drives expression of a synthetic or a recombinant transcription factor that binds very specifically to a synthetic promoter that up-regulates a pro-apoptotic factor, wherein the radiation responsive promoter also control the transcription of an endocrine factor which activates and/or upregulates SCS or hPSC endogenous and/or synthetic or translational factors controlling SCS and hPSC proliferation and mobilization in a targeted manner (such that each distinct tissue-specific SCS and hPSC population is equipped with a specific promoter correlating with a distinct synthetic or translational endocrine agent)…”). That was nice, revisiting that idea after a few years to see how it might be made anew, for a different purpose.
The majority of them, however, were much more straightforward. Which is fine, if less compositionally fun.
And, indeed, often the ones with the greatest actual potential impact are the ones that are the least fun to make, the least exploratory, and the most straightforward. For example, I’m fairly certain that that my most lasting contribution to the field will turn out to be the project in which I served as one of five authors behind a partially-successful proposal to the World Health Organization during ICD-11 (the last round of revisions to their International Classification of Diseases system) that resulted in the WHO adding a new “extension code” for “ageing-related” (the official definition of which I helped write – which very much satisfied the poet in me), XT9T, which can be appended to existing and new diseases within the system. The ICD basically sets the standard for other specific nations’ drug regulatory bodies for what conditions are officially classified as diseases (if you’re looking to develop a drug or therapy that treats something, that something needs to be officially classified as a disease), and the WHO only updates it once every few decades (the last update was 1994). What we did there was bring the biological process of aging closer to being classified as a disease than anyone has before. In practice, this amounts to providing real financial incentive for drug makers to develop therapies for aging and age-related diseases, by having a regulatory peghole to place it in, so that they have the go-ahead to develop therapies targeting it. While only partially successful, it was still a big win.
Now, while I taught myself the science expressly to develop that first idea (Induced Cell Turnover) and publish that paper, as a pragmatic and starkly functional tool toward that end, in the hopes that someone adepter than me could take it and do something with it, I ended up very much falling in love with science along the way. It’s incredible. I mean, forget about the human organism (or any other for that matter), but even just the cell. My god. Myriads of nested universes. The strangest, most improbable, beautifully alien thing in the entire universe. So much stranger than the strangest Rube Goldberg fiction you could envision. And it takes a fair bit of slogging and fundamental gathering to really understand the vast complexity of it in its true and sheer enormity, but once you get there, its like drinking with god. It’s truly astounding.
Anywho, probably that. But I’d much rather do poetry, honestly.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
There are a good half-dozen ideas I crafted and worked on for a long while a long while ago, which I was never able to push past the finish lie (i.e., publication). Mostly conceptual therapy proposals – a few preventive cancer therapies and so called “pre-emptory “ cancer therapies (essentially, biotechnological and or SynBio constructs that are intended to make cancer more treatable if and when it occurs), a unique method of multiplex targeted drug delivery that allows for more precise delivery of drugs (according to multiple cell or tissue-specific markers – e.g., gene profiles rather than individual expressed genes, etc. I still believe these ideas have merit, and I’d like to find the time (and energy, will and determination) to formalize them further, write them up and push them off into the world for other people to have a chance at picking them up and carrying them home, like I did for my first one (Induced Cell Turnover).
Being unpublished, existent only in my own skull and boxes of papers, they weigh on me, like errant ghosts. Ideas can do that. I feel a fair amount of guilt having let them rot for the past few years, and I’d like to at the very least dust them off and ship them out, if not to give them a standing chance at finding some scientific artisan to try them out or elaborate them further, then at the very least to stop them from Hamlet’s-fathering me so often.
All this lamentation probably sounds very indulgent and vain, but it’s true. There are other, less practical and functional ideas that I worked on and left likewise waysided (a few possibly novel ideas in the realm of evolutionary theory and evolutionary biology; a theory of freewill that attempts to undercut the fundamental impasse of causal determinism via the fact that the brain is a semiotic machine [which is what it is to be/signify what it isn’t] thus making it in some sense a causally-exclusive system with recursive partial overlap with the mutually causally-exclusive system of the scientifically determinate physical world, because the metaphysics of signs is a different thing than the metaphysics of atoms; etc. etc.), which weigh on me none because they have little to no capacity to actually help people, or improve anything.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m definitely the wrong person to be asking. I mean, I’m barley even myself, for the most part. How the hell should I know?
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Issa’s Moth (book), and Carboy (film). Both by Sacha Archer, both unpublished. The cannibal joys of toodeep friendships with shifty, broken poets (as all are, I think). Wouldn’t trade it (©reddit bedamned).
20 - What are you currently working on?
Right now I’m embroiled in a project within the realm of technopoetry that’s completely kicking my ass because, for reasons of thematic and conceptual convergence, it requires me to complete certain sections of it within the bounds of seasonal time. Given the project’s scope, it was a monumentally foolhardy declaration, and I’m already failing. But, because the project is about the climate crisis, and other forms of modern brash (the omnipresent threat of human omnicide, the vacant existentiality of consumerism and globalism, the fact that we’re still embroiled in limbic holywars despite having gone to the moon, having sent robots to Mars, and having spelled out acronyms with atoms, etc.), that failure is only fitting, I think. What can I say, and what can I do? A poet’s gotta poet.