This interview was conducted over email from July 2002 to September 2003.
STOP AND GO TO SLOW
The world wakes as one
Boxed by boors
Bottles bang in the boot
A sinister semaphore
To get to the ’Shore
Past Futurism of ’67
Megalomania of Mayor Metro
Lucky ’til Lawrence
As sanguinary as Seneca
How about Hector
Ing as transitive
From S&G to: S.
One's Gehenna, one’s own
Not the idle hour
Drive like Dukes
Puma on port
Paxil in passim
Cutoffs to conclusion
rob mclennan: I’m interested in the collaborations you’ve been embarking on lately, Double Helix with Jay MillAr, and that piece “Even” with Jesse Huisken. After two collections of your own, what has been the impetus to start working collaboratively?
Stephen Cain: I’d say I’ve always been interested in collaboration; early influences were the Surrealists and all their experiments with ego restriction and unusual juxtapositions that resulted in Magnetic Fields, the exquisite corpses, and much, much more. But also an admiration for the Toronto Research Group, as well as Nichol’s collaborations with McCaffery, Barbara Caruso, the Horsemen, Ellie Nichol, Brian Dedora, and many others.
So the desire was there, but finding people to work with has been the problem. When I lived in Kingston, there was absolutely no one who shared the same interests as me, and when I came to Toronto I was the new kid and didn’t have the “status” to approach those writers I liked and ask them to work with me. So it’s taken seven years, and two books, for collaborating to happen.
But there are also many other factors that allow or prevent collaboration. It’s a matter of trust, that the person you’re working with knows what you’re about, and that you like their work as well. And then it’s finding a project and framework you agree with, and then the time when you’re both free to put the energy into it.
The two projects you mention are actually two separate ones. The first, Double Helix, was conceived with Jay MillAr and executed over email during the year I returned to live in Kingston. It’s a complete book of over 100 prose poems, ready to go at any time.
The second, “Even,” is part of what I conceive to be a larger-scale enterprise called Collusions. I want to collaborate on 10 different sequences with 10 different people — and all under different constraints.
So, “Even” was with Jesse Huisken; [a,r] [s’c] was with a. rawlings, and has just come out with housepress. Four more are under way — with Christian Bök, Jay MillAr, bill kennedy and Sharon Harris. Four more are in the planning stages.
All seem to be done over email. I would like to try at least a couple with the person actually in the room and see what would happen then.
rob: Obviously the resulting work will be different than the work of the individuals when it’s a collaboration. Do you notice any shifts in your own individual work because of a collaboration?
Stephen: As with working with constraint, there is a shift of focus and a stretching of one’s normative writing style, but I think my individual voice is still recognizable. Not that I necessarily want it to be — others have commented that I’ve collaborated with people who write in a similar style, or at least have similar literary influences and interests. I guess the challenge would be to work with somebody radically different and in perhaps a non-email process or a state where responses were more immediate.
In the case of Double Helix, though, because it was such a long process with so many poems, I think our voices did merge and we took on characteristics of each other. I began to write more like Jay, and he like me. With some pieces it would probably be hard to distinguish authorship, which was one of the goals of doing it in the first place.
rob: In [a,r][s’c], your collaboration with a. rawlings, you play again with popular music references as titles and considerations — Radiohead, Tori Amos and Coldplay — as you (singularly) have done in other work included in both your trade collections. What is it about the construction of writing on pop bands, pop albums and other things, like film, that attract you?
Stephen: Some of the answer to your question can be found in my poetics statement in Side/lines: a new canadian poetics (Insomniac Press. Toronto, 2002.), but there are a few ways I could go with this question, as there are many things that attract me to writing about/through/around music.
The first I suppose is my desire to unite “high” literary genres with “popular” forms — the academy with the street, the pop with the canon, and so on. Popular music (and film for that matter) provides a space for that intersection. I don’t think I’m alone in this enterprise: Kenny Goldsmith uses pop music as a site and source for some of his conceptual art, and you can see it in other poets like Wade Compton or even Paul Muldoon. But it also goes back further. Joyce’s novels are filled with references not only to traditional Irish ballads and folk songs, but also the popular music of his time.
The Joyce example also provides a second interest. That by using popular culture you risk being “dated,” but, at the same time, in a few years this also adds a level of hermeticism, or, better stated: in a contemporary context, pop culture references connect with a larger body and readership, or provide a foothold for some of the more difficult linguistic experiments. Later, however, these references serve as stumbling blocks, as the popular reference becomes forgotten, and the writing, thus, becomes more disjunctive and thus foregrounds its process and temporal limitations.
I also think that many poets want to be, or have wanted to be, musicians/rock stars. I have a classical music background, wrote music criticism in university, and have remained obsessed with popular music far beyond adolescence, but have never played in a band. Writing about music is one way to link my two interests and respond creatively — it allows me to actually “write” music (through rhythm, sound effect and other poetic devices).
Finally, I think many poets throughout history have looked to other media to find inspiration and form for their own practice. Certainly, visual art has always been a popular choice, and architecture is becoming one right now. From Swift to the Beats and beyond . . . in fact it’s actually harder to think of poets who don’t utilize music in their art than do.
The two pieces you mention work on different principles, not the least being collaboration versus solo composition. Circa Diem responds to CDs using the lyrics and music, but also the album artwork, to play off spontaneously. The constraint with this piece, however, was that the composition time for each paragraph is the length of an individual track on the album. I’d put on track one, write “spontaneously” for the length of the track, then when the next one started go on to the next. In this way I was actually “jamming” with the album; it was akin to the idea of taking a number of bars to solo with in jazz. You’re free to a certain extent, but also constrained.
[a,r][s’c] (or AIR SICK as we pronounced it when we read it last week) works a bit on that principle but was also more like a surrealist game. We’d choose CDs that we knew we both had, and get the other to play them while they were composing. Each section was written in isolation, then sent back over email with a suggestion for the next CD to play. What sort of writing would emerge under the “same” aural stimulus? Also like surrealism, the writing that did arise is more stream-of-consciousness, which adds to my final attraction to music: that I believe that popular music, which becomes so ingrained in individuals during a certain time period, but also to many other individuals in many parts of the world, can also illustrate aspects of Jung’s collective unconscious. Really, what’s the effect of thousands of people, in thousands of different locations and living conditions, listening to the same words and music daily? Doesn’t this constitute a community beyond the physical? And do we start dreaming the same?
rob: In a recent interview in Existere, you talked about writing pieces in multiples of 10, such as the series “Pscycles” and “Decimation” that eventually merged to form a large part of Torontology. Is this a strict rule, or loose guideline?
Stephen: I suppose it’s more a habit than a rule or a guideline — and there’s no particular reason for it in my aesthetic, as there is in Nichol's use of the base-8 number system. I’ve just found, like constraint, it’s a way to push myself and stretch the limits of a sequence. That is, if I’m writing a poetic sequence, I find I can usually write five to seven poems in that style or subject, but to write three or more after that is quite hard. However, it is often the pieces that come in that last push that are the best, or else suggest new possibilities. Lately, in my new manuscript, American Standard/ Canada Dry, I’ve used 10 not only as the number of poems in a sequence, but also in lineation and word count.
You might also notice that not all of my sequences have 10 parts to them. Most of the time they were composed with 10 components, but then the weaker pieces were edited out. That process is, of course, akin to the root meaning of "decimation"– that 1 of every 10 soldiers in a Roman legion were killed as a form of martial punishment.
rob: From what little I’ve seen of your post-Torontology work, it seems to be a Canadian voice self-consciously referencing American pop. What is the theory behind the new work, and the need to make a work that references a separation between the two countries?
Stephen: The new manuscript, American Standard/ Canada Dry, explores the relationship between these two nations through both pop and literary cultures. As might be expected it’s my most overtly political work to date — not merely in content but in form as well. It’s still constraint-based, but in more subtle ways; the term “Canada Dry” is, after all, an Oulipian technique in which the pieces appear to be written under a constraint but are actually “freely” composed.
Some sections are travelogues through the northern United States, others are mock histories of Canada. The lead poem is a Howl-styled rant in response to the increasing militarism and unilateralism of our southern neighbour. One thing that has increased, however, is the reference to Canadian literary culture.
A friend recently pointed out to me that, in my reworking of the long modernist poem in the “Pscycles” section of Torontology, my subject of critique is the American and British canon. That is, I don’t really interrogate my Canadian influences, even though I try to locate my imagined topography in Toronto. Consequently, in the new work I explicitly interrogate Canadian literature culture from the 19th century to the present in both the English and French traditions.
It’s pretty close to being finished; all that remains is to complete two sequences that parody the discourse of anthologizing in the U.S. and Canada — “The Blasted Mine” and “In the American Me,” which problematize the reading of “The Blasted Pine” and “In the American Tree,” respectively, from an idiosyncratic perspective.
rob: Considering your recent paper on Raymond Souster’s Toronto at the modernist symposium at the University of Ottawa, this is obviously something you’ve thought about. How do you see your imagined topography of Toronto?
Stephen: I think I’m still thinking about it. Part of the reason I wanted to investigate Souster was to see how modernists represented Toronto, and how my view might differ beyond obvious temporal disparity.
Some beginnings can be found in the opening and closing sequences in Torontology, as well as some of the “Pscycles” and “Prison Tattoos,” but it’s fairly subtle. The book’s title was meant to be read as parodic, and I’m amazed that many have taken it as literal. Perhaps the cover image didn’t help, but to me it’s a critique of the image of the city as much as it is an aestheticization of it.
What I greatly admire are those Toronto writers who can really capture the spirit of the city through their own idiosyncratic view and in an original voice. Not too many, it seems to me, have been able to do it adequately. The best is probably Nichol in Book 5 of The Martyrology, but I’d also put selected poems by people like Jay MillAr and Peter McPhee in there too. Of course, as we’ve discussed before, Lynn Crosbie’s “Alphabet City” is an incredible invocation of Toronto through her own personal history and psychogeography.
Other than that, I hope I’ve added a bit to the literature “of” Toronto and, if I ever get around to writing it, I plan to structure my first novel around various locations in the city.
rob: I know it’s been a consideration in my own work as well, the geographies of Vancouver through Daphne Marlatt and George Bowering, Andrew Suknaski’s Wood Mountain, and Leonard Cohen’s Montreal. Even Michael Redhill did a version of the same for Toronto in his last book, which was more factual than myth making. How are you approaching the same, in what you do, between fact and the creation of the city as myth? Is it all meant to be ironic? And what is the difference between writing Toronto versus writing Canada/the U.S.?
Stephen: Although I am interested in mythology — particularly the juxtaposition of Classical mythology with poststructuralist literary terminology — it’s mostly in an ironic way. I have no interest in mythologizing the city of Toronto. Myth is for the ancient, static civilizations — Byzantium, Sodom, Rome, Utopia, and the like. As I believe Toronto is a postmodern space, I’m interested in observing and commenting on the flux and mutability of the city.
So, yeah, for the most part it’s always tinged with irony — when talking about nationalism, regionalism, or even identity, it’s the only way I can feel comfortable. These ideologies are too powerful, even too dangerous to approach earnestly — that way lies fascism and xenophobia. But irony can construct as well as critique.
The difference between writing Canada/the U.S. versus Toronto/Canada? Well, I guess, in the case of the Toronto, it often stands as a synecdoche for Canada, something that I hopefully dismantle (again, Torontology is ironic). As for the first binary, I’ve tried to work that through in the new book — exploring the literature, politics, history and geography of the two nations with varying degrees of skepticism and admiration.
rob: You told a great story a while back, of discovering bpNichol and Steve McCaffery on television when you were young. Could you talk about what they were doing and what effect it had on you?
Stephen: Okay. I always thought that this was a false memory, but apparently it actually happened. Don’t know if I can tell it effectively, but the basic idea is that when I was quite young, perhaps seven or eight, I remember watching Ripley’s Believe it or Not on television — in the Toronto area it came on on Sunday nights after Disney — and on this particular show I remember watching this segment where these two hairy, hippie-looking guys were walking through the woods and chanting nonsense to each other. Then the voice of god narration came on over and, in that sinister voice, the narrator said: “Believe it or not, these men are poets.” Then cut to these four guys singing and screaming at each other on some rooftop.
It made an indelible impression and years later, in high school, I started investigating sound poetry in the hopes of finding what this crazy shit was about, and I lucked out on finding recordings and information on the Four Horsemen, which seemed to match my memory. And I started doing my own stuff, eventually getting into concrete and the rest through Nichol and McCaffery.
Maybe 10 years later, when I moved to Toronto and met the surviving Horsemen, I worked up the courage to ask Paul Dutton whether they ever did a Ripley’s episode and he confirmed it, as well as commenting on the irritation the group felt in doing the television piece. But that’s Paul.
The connection to all this is Jed Rasula, currently a professor in Georgia, but long a participant in avant-garde poetry and publishing, who one summer worked for Ripley’s and got the Horsemen on the show. I actually studied with Jed at Queen’s, but didn’t realize he’d been involved with the show at the time. He would go on to write Imagining Language with McCaffery.
Anyway, that took too long, but the upshot is that if I had never seen that episode I wonder whether I would have ever embarked on the journey I have, and whether avant-garde poetics would have ever influenced me. Happy accidents, I suppose.
rob: You referenced earlier your year in Kingston. Did the (slight) shift in geography alter your writing considerations?
Stephen: The main product to come out of the year in Kingston was Double Helix. Jay and I had discussed collaborating, but it probably wouldn’t have emerged so quickly and at such length unless we were emailing each other in that manner and in relative isolation from each other. A lot of my impressions of the city and that community are in the text.
Speaking of community, it was good to get away from the machinations of Toronto for that time and experience other literary societies. Forming a friendship with Steve Heighton, who was my neighbour that year, was certainly worth the move alone. Also, Tim Conley and the Queen’s grad community was a fruitful and happy exchange. All this seems particularly resonant to me now, as I’ve become extremely disillusioned with the Toronto scene for personal reasons that I won’t get into. As much as I’ve been a cheerleader for Toronto in the past, the Kingston experience reminds me that there’s a world beyond the hypocrites and manipulators that can be found in hog town.
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