Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In Conversation with Jocko Benoit, Author of Standoff Terrain

Share |
Author Photo

Jocko Benoit’s book Standoff Terrain is one of Frontenac House's Dektet 2010 books, for which the editors were bill bissett, George Elliott Clarke, and Alice Major. Each poem in Standoff Terrain begins with a quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and deals with relationships in varying states of decay. The speaker is frank and often disarmingly (pardon the pun) humble.

AH: What drew you to Sun Tzu's The Art of War? Were you thinking of love poetry when you came to his text or did you read his text and think it would be a great way to reframe love poetry?

JB: I was in residence for grad school and played a lot of lengthy strategy board games. One of the guys in our informal circle picked up a copy of The Art of War, half hoping he would get some ideas to help him win more (any) games. I flipped through it and eventually bought a pocket-sized version. Flipping though it at a bus stop one day, I realized how much of it seemed to apply to my relationship problems at the time. Things took off from there. Originally, I used lines from the book as springboards for new poems. Later I tended to write the poems first and then think of which quotes best suited them.

AH: The opening poem, "Scoping", which imagines the beloved as enemy territory, reminded me of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 [“My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun;/ Coral is far more red than her lips' red"]. Could you talk a bit about texts that inspired your work, either positively (wanting to work with) or negatively (wanting to work against) for Standoff Terrain?

JB: I thought of that poem after I started working on this book. It had the same irreverence and tone that I wanted in my poems and so it was certainly a model. But at the time I was very conscious of how strongly I was influenced by John Donne's Songs & Sonnets. It had the tone and scope that I was aiming for. I had come across a poem by Roger McGough a couple of years earlier which detailed a sexual encounter as a military manouever, and that was in the back of my mind for sure. Later, I read some Ovid whose love poems are full of pettiness and jealousy. And I also read some Edna St. Vincent Millay whose love poems are full of cynicism and resignation and the need for distance. Blend them all together and you get a drink that's heavier on the bitter than the sweet.

Love Among the Unemployed

Generals are assistants of the nation. When their assistance is complete, the country is strong.
When their assistance is defective, the country is weak.
~ Sun Tzu

Women haloed by summer dresses
Or walking in minimalist bikini tops -
This is as close to love as I'll get
While out of work. I feel like a peasant
Watching the parade of beauty's might.
I used to believe love could strike anywhere,
Could subsist on meagre promises and provisions,
But now I know it's a lot more mercenary –
Camping near waterholes of status, money or power.

These days I can't afford dates, can't afford
More than a coffee and a few hours
Of cheap talk. Government statistics
Should define a romantic line somewhere
Just above the line for poverty.
Anyone below it would be considered unable
To begin a relationship (for purely financial reasons).
The numbers would depress even statisticians.

Maybe I'd qualify for U.I. (Unloved Insurance)
And I could have hugs sent to me every two weeks
Although it would require fewer weeks
Of former loving to qualify for compensation,
And I'd get sick of that woman calling me
Now and again asking, "And have you been actively
Looking for love?" But it's not easy to find love
When everyone, including me, keeps pulling back,
Saving up for some big romance that might pull us
Out of this hidden depression.

-from the collection Standoff Terrain, Frontenac House, 2010

AH: Could you talk about the speaker(s) in Standoff Terrain? Is it fair to say that many of the poems share the same or similar speaker? One of the qualities that make me say the speaker is often the same is that he is often self-critical, or at least able to see his shortcomings as though they were someone else's. For instance, in "Love Among the Unemployed", the opening lines say, "Women haloed by summer dresses/ Or walking in minimalist bikini tops-/ This is as close to love as I'll get/ While out of work". What allows for this distanced self-appraisal and what are some of the gains and losses associated with it?

JB: There are several narrators in the poems. Sometimes I might begin a poem assuming it's about me, but by the end the "I" has become someone else. This happens, for example, in "Love and Literacy" where the narrator morphs into someone who might possibly be a noir version of Cupid himself. (The poem was inspired somewhat by Golden Earring's "Twilight Zone.") But, yes, the poor schnook narrator is mostly me. As for the distance I maintain from my own experience, it's a matter for me of creating an interesting poem and that means making myself into a character. The advantages are that I don't have to stick to the facts of a situation and can create someone who is either me or a hybrid version of me. But this also means that I have to sacrifice the "noble poet" pose and let myself look as pathetic as the other characters. This can backfire - if your reader doesn't like the narrator they might not like the poems.

Several years ago Tony Hoagland wrote a great piece about the need for poets to be petty, "Negative Capability: How To Talk Mean and Influence People,"[] and his narrator is not afraid to go out on socially inappropriate limbs. That essay could have been a primer for my collection if he'd written it while I was working on the book.

AH: Could you talk a bit about where “Love among the Unemployed” came from and how the Sun Tzu quote fits in with the poem. For instance, the unemployed are clearly not the "Generals" mentioned in the quote. To what extent are they the ones making the country weak? The idea about Unloved Insurance is very funny and the woman calling and asking "And have you been actively looking/ for love" is very funny. I imagine it being a crowd pleaser at readings.

JB: Thanks. Glad the humour still works, and that line does seem to get a consistent chuckle at readings. The poem happened early on in the genesis of the collection. I had in mind from the start that the lover is the general, so in fact the generals here are the unemployed. The implication is that that they are only as good as the love they have supporting them. A silly "generalization," I know. But I've always believed that social assistance is not a great evil, and maybe if we paid more attention to the amount of caring (not care) that people received we might be better off as a whole. Then, of course, there's the play on "depression" at the end of the poem, implying a tie between the economic and the psychological. Naturally, as a poet growing up in and summering in Cape Breton during my university years, I had a fair bit of experience being unemployed.

Maybe it's that point and the humour in the poem that make it one of the more commented on in the book. One editor who turned down the book asked if she could post the poem on her bulletin board. It's the humour that makes this work, though. When I strip the poem down and say what it's about, it seems almost comically preachy. More and more I use humour as a way to conceal my deeply rooted didacticism.

AH: You write short stories and screenplays as well as poetry. When you sit down to write something, do you know what genre it will end up being? Is there ever a turning point where a poem gets long and becomes a short story or a short story has a lot of dialogue and becomes a screenplay, for instance?

JB: What happens more often is that I'll flesh out an idea in one form and the idea will nag at me in the following weeks as if there were more I could do. For example, "Love and Literacy" hints at a Cupid who's lost his memory. Well, that little idea became my third screenplay, Bessie's Personal Hitman. And another poem alludes to Genghis Khan and how he flirted with Taoism near the end of life but then rejected it. That became a one-act play, "Genghis Khan Meets the Tao." The bigger challenge for me these days is to figure out how I can do something involving both poetry and photography, but the two forms seem to keep taking me in different directions. Overall, I'm only really frustrated that I can't work at each of these things full time and be poet, screenwriter, SF writer and photographer all at once.

AH: Could you talk about the Stroll of Poets (a href="" target="_blank">, in Edmonton, who the members were/ are, where the name came from? Did it begin as a writing workshop meeting on a regular basis and evolve from there? I see from the website they have a weekly reading series. That is quite frequent and suggests and active group of members.

JB: I wasn't there when a handful of people created the Stroll in 1990. Some or all of them knew each other from a writing group, I think. They all felt that the spoken poem was important and they wanted to create a one-day reading event that would feature all the writers who wanted to appear. (And this was before slams and performance poetry were a big deal.) The format was to use the coffee shops, bookstores and various other venues on and near Whyte Avenue (including a car dealership) and have a handful of poets read at each place every hour to be replaced by another set, for a total of, in later years, over a hundred poets reading over the course of the afternoon while poets and audience members strolled from one venue to the next. I found out about the first Stroll of Poets day just in time to get on the list and never looked back. It was the best reading scene I've ever been part of, encompassing academic poets, ex-academic poets, and poets wandering in seemingly off the street. Doug Elves, one of the founders, was for quite a while the main driving engine for the Stroll, and there were poets as diverse as Alice Major, Doug Barbour, Bert Almon and many others over the years. It was egalitarian in that everyone had equal reading time, and there was also a 12 Days of Poetry event, featuring poets selected from the annual Stroll anthology. Of course, something that inclusive eventually had to transform into various other groups with more specific interests and so the Stroll is now the weekly reading series while there is also The Raving Poets, The Olive magazine and series, and the annual poetry festival spearheaded by Alice. Someday I hope literary historians look back at this seminal time when the Stroll brought together such a varied cast of characters and let them cross-fertilize and go on to fame and glory.

AH: The impact of the economy on affairs of the heart is often at issue either overtly or covertly in ST. For instance, in "Uphill Struggle" : "Some nights she forgets I'm just a poet/ And loves me with a strength she normally reserves/ To move men with more mountainous ambitions." In the next stanza "Doctors, lawyers, engineers are the only professional ranks/ She salutes". Could you talk about the constraints of economy on love relationships and to what extent that was a "thesis" or "theme" (for lack of better words) of ST? The speaker is mostly resigned to the superficiality of his love interests. I really like the world weary tone that results. Would you like to address that a bit as well?

JB: From early on in my personal de-romantification I began to realize that as much as I'd hoped that attraction and love were democratic and egalitarian, they were all about surfaces (or maybe I'm the one who's all about surfaces), and money was part of the equation. As much as our attitudes toward the genders has changed over the last several decades, being a man without money is still a liability in the world of romance and even love. Mind you, if a guy has a great attitude that can take a him far. But I didn't have that, and I was usually broke and, as a poet, I intended to remain mostly broke. I remember one woman I met who, after learning I'd been out of work for a year, said that it must have been hard not being able to date during all that time. And of course my mother's advice haunted me too - get the job first and the women will take care of themselves. So, just as this thread has run through my dating life, it runs through the collection.

And I think it's important to highlight the narrator's own superficiality in the poems. He is willing to accept a lot just to be in a relationship, in a way somewhat reminiscent of Ovid in his love poems. And the world weariness is the result of losing faith in romantic love and realizing that this is as good as love gets for him, given his abilities and dispositions. Maybe the tone has come from reading one too many articles on anthropology and how mates choose each other. For example, one article I read on speed dating showed that men and women alike could provide all the qualities they were looking for in a mate before a speed date session, but the most accurate predictor of who they chose was looks. And other studies have consistently shown that most of us choose mates who are close to us in terms of socioeconomic status, beliefs, ethnicity, and so on. The marriage of opposites is a great motif for movies, but it doesn't track so often in real life.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Angela Hibbs

Angela Hibbs's second collection of poetry, Wanton, came out with Insomniac Press in the Fall of 2009. With Sachiko Murakami, she co-hosts Pivot at the Press Club.

Go to Angela Hibbs’s Author Page