Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Theme and Production: Guriel, Lista, Wells, et al.

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Some of the more observant among you have discovered in recent weeks that I’m something of a hack. As a hack, I can really only allow myself to use the same half-dozen blogs and news sites when doing research on potential blog topics. Enter pan-Canadian poet Zachariah Wells and his blog Career-Limiting Moves which hosts both a link to an interview with poet Jason Guriel, and a really interesting tete-a-tete thereafter between Wells and the young poet Michael Lista.

The Guriel interview, if you don’t want to read it, touches on all the usual survey-interview points but the most interesting stuff is front-loaded. The interviewer (the awesomely named Jason Rotstein) pitches a soft one to start but Guriel manages to make aesthetic-controversy hay with it nonetheless. The gist of his answer is that he has lost interest in writing “poetry” and is focussing his energy on “the poem”. His first collection, Technicoloured, had a common topic, namely film and (by extension) popular culture. His new one is Pure Product and it’s notable for a few things, including coming in it at the bare flyweight minimum of 48 pages, and being a return for the poet to looking at each poem as an individual project, unbothered by thematic concerns. To put it bluntly: the poems are what matters, the book is just what’s holding them together.

I recommend reading the interview but, even more so, reading through the argument Wells and Lista have about Guriel’s idea. Lista takes offence to the assumption behind Guriel’s words that each individual poem in a thematic collection suffers in some way from its inherent co-dependence on its brethren in the rest of the collection. Michael Lista, for the record, is neck-deep in a manuscript that’s thematic in almost every way possible, but he’s also a smart guy who can hold high esteem for Pure Product while simultaneously taking issue with Guriel’s statement, and arguing with Wells on the breadth or limitations of the idea.

Two things, for the record. One, I agree with Lista completely. And two, this is the only conversation about contemporary poetry I can well and truly jump into without any forced passion. This is the one that matters. In this poetic world of genre and subgenre and formalism v. lyricism and expressionism v. intellectualism, it’s conversations like this one where we find the only theoretical distinction between poets that can actually help them in writing their work.

I would argue that the question we should be asking about an individual poet is this: What is the atomistic, indivisible unit of measure for their work? Is it the phoneme, the sound? The word? The phrase? The line? The stanza or graph? The poem? The sequence of linked poems? The book? Or the lifelong collection of books? There are major figures in the history of English Language poetry who’ve hung their hats at every hook on this wall. At one end there are the poets who’ve built their work from the elemental slivers of our language, from a world far below sense or even language, from sound itself. Here you’ll find the radical sound poets and some formalists as well. Zach Wells claims to be a part of this group during his argument with Lista, though I’m not sure if I see it. His poems, at their best, are too thoughtful and concerned with communication to have not avoided sacrificing some part of this radical beginning.

Most poets are likely near the middle of the spectrum. Ironically, the contemporary form we look at as often the most cohesive (the long poem) is more often written around a basal unit far smaller than the book. Look at something like Dionne Brand’s Inventory, high on my list of favourite books of the decade. It’s a single poem, but a multitude of expressions. And it’s these individual observations, these phrases, that are the unbreakable core of the poem. You could move them around, change their order, and deflate the whole in some way, sure, but the theme of the book would remain consistent. Therefore, the book isn’t indivisible, it’s as much a pure product as Guriel’s.

I admit that I arrive at this discussion, like Lista, as someone who is presently working on a thematic collection, and I also cop to having started to map out the book around the same time I started writing its first poems. Because I find myself doing things like writing to the needs of the collection, and removing perfectly good poems because they are outliers to the book’s central idea, I see myself now as a poet for whom the book is the central idea. I’m willing to guess that, more or less, Michael Lista feels the same way. And at various times in their careers, so did poets as otherwise unrelated as Michael Ondaatje, David W. McFadden, Mary Dalton, and Robert Bringhurst.

There are even poets who look beyond that and see their life’s work as the indivisible “product” of their creative output. The most obvious example is someone like Walt Whitman, who spent his years constantly editing and shaping a single book (Leaves of Grass, high on my list of favourite books of any decade). He added poems, removed some, rewrote others, and advanced this single volume piece by piece until he was no longer and only the book remained behind.

The reason I look at this distinction as more than academic is because it helped me immensely in those panicky months new poets have once book #1 is on the shelves and plans for any future books seem distant on the horizon. The irony in all this is that every time Guriel makes a public statement about the lack of a theme in Pure Product, he’s furthering unthematicness as the central theme of the book. A friend of mine responded to that statement yesterday by asking me, “Isn’t that like saying not collecting stamps is a hobby?” I would argue that it’s not the same, when you are making the unthematicness the primary talking point of your promotional material, and putting out a book with the title (just to continue the analogy a bit), “Hey Look Everyone, this Book Contains no Stamps!”

This is a similar effect to what followed the publication of Kevin Connolly’s last collection, Revolver. Like Pure Product, Revolver set out to be thematically neutral, while admitting that as these were poems written by the same brain in the same general timeframe, this wasn’t possible. I guess the difference between the two books is that the playfulness of Revolver (remember that misleading Table of Contents?) sets unthematicness up as a kind of doomed game, while Guriel is taking things a little more seriously. Forgive me for basing such an assumption on a couple of interview answers, and, of course, a reading of the books. But, from the point of view of an author, we tend to define a book’s theme as “the thing we cared the most about while writing it”. Even though I understand Guriel was writing poems first, and a collection second, when he first saw the poems begin to gel into a possible collection, I wonder what he started to think about next?

Ending on an unanswerable question,

1 comment

Update: Zach Wells has responded to this post over at his blog, Career-Limiting Moves. It's a pretty good response, all in all, despite a lengthy tangent on the root of the etymology of the word "radish" (not making this up, go see for yourself-> http://zachariahwells.blogspot... )

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.

Jacob McArthur Mooney

Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of the acclaimed collection of poems The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) as well as an upcoming second collection from the same publisher.

Go to Jacob McArthur Mooney’s Author Page