Jason Dewinitz: Conversation ending with a poem

LH: Jason, thanks for agreeing to this little dialogue. I want to start by saying how much I enjoyed Greenboathouse, not only the beautiful chapbooks, but the website itself. There is a big gap in Canadian poetry now that your site is inactive. It was one of the few sites that one could click on and find consistently intriguing work and positive energy. I know you have your reasons for moving on from the web venture, but I wonder if you can comment on the experience of the web, internet publishing, and whether or not you see anything dynamic happening online now.

JD: When I started Greenboathouse Books I had absolutely no experience with publishing. In terms of production, for the most part I was simply hacking together things with paper and staples, embarrassing attempts that left me entirely unsatisfied. The web, on the other hand, was a relatively simple and inexpensive media to learn and utilize. Sitting in a quiet room and tinkering with code fit my temperament, and I found the maze of late-90s html intriguing.

I was also going through an intense feeding stage with Canadian writing and I just couldn’t seem to get enough of it. A shift seemed to be taking place then towards a more crafted, form-driven poetry, and yet it was simultaneously exploring content that I found far more interesting because it was working with a looser understanding of meaning and meaning creation. The poststructural notion of disparate reference systems was becoming ingrained in contemporary writing (whether the authors knew it or not), and these new webs of understanding were resulting in some very unconventional and often surprising work. This sort of stuff was ideal for the web, and from a purely means-of-production position, the web was where I was able to work at the time.

Thus, while producing the Greenboathouse Reading Series in Vernon every summer, I had a fairly steady flow of new writing coming my way in the form of visiting writer from across the country. I was also keen to look in on as many literary events as I could, and, at about the same time, I was also going to school, first in Victoria, then Edmonton, and then touring a book, so I was coming in contact with some very intriguing people cranking out really intriguing work.

The result of this was first the Greenboathouse Poetry Archive (on the website) – along with the evolving series of chapbooks from Greenboathouse Books – and eventually the Variant Project, which Aaron Peck and I came up with to see what a random group of writers might do with a single thematic referent. Again, the web was ideal for this project as the reader could jump from one poem to another, quickly, and explore a variety of investigations of a given topic, which is what the web is all about.

All of this was a lot of fun, and I was also working freelance designing websites for a variety of clients, so, again, from a Marxist point of view, the economics of working as a freelance designer was keeping me involved with the web, and thus at least some of my creative energies were thriving there.

During this time, however, I was also falling in love with fine-press books, and I began to realize that this was the direction I wanted to move in, and away from the web. The reading series and the website did, it seems, serve a sort of community purpose, and I’m glad they’ve done so, but after half a decade, these projects were becoming repetitive from a personal-creative position, and thus were no longer challenging me.

I realized that it was time for a fairly significant change. My book design interests were beginning to take solid shape, and thus the activity of the Greenboathouse website began to slow. I have no regrets about this, because around the same time all kinds of other, similar things were popping up. The blogging world was beginning to take off, with BookNinja, Lemon Hound, Poetics.ca, and dozens of other contemporary lit sites popping up, offering a more interactive environment to look at new writing; each of these has taken on-line Canadian poetics much further than the Greenboathouse site ever did, and it’s great to see these sites cranking out the discussion. Facebook has allowed for the creation of book clubs and small-press publishing groups, and all of this is creating a new literary community that, ironically, I find myself shying away from more and more.

LH: Greenboathouse won several design awards, not surprisingly. One of which I believe was for a chapbook of mine in fact. Or, rather a chapbook that contained my work because clearly the artifact was your brainchild. If I recall, the dialogue around that chapbook went on for a year or so, with several intricate proofs following discussions on design etc. I mention this because clearly you have a sense of work ethic combined with an intense perfectionism. Can you comment on how difficult that process is to maintain, and how you think chapbooks of this quality fair in the publishing world.

JD: Again, as above, I’m not particularly concerned with how the books fair in the publishing world. In fact, the publishing world is a rather disparaging place, and, frankly, I don’t really want much to do with it. Which isn’t to say there aren’t folks out there hammering away with very good intentions, but that the economics of publishing make it nearly impossible to maintain any kind of good intention. Most of the books we read in Canada – that is, the objects we hold in our hands – can hardly be called books. They’re usually cranked out by someone in-house who has little or no design or typographic background, and everything is deadline-based and economics-ruled. Publishing is a business, after all.

That said, there are a handful of publishers working hard to push back. Gaspereau has been very successful at combining quality writing with quality book production, Coach House and Anansi still put out a nice book (although not the books they each once made), Pedlar is doing very nice work, Nightwood (with Carleton Wilson’s help) have put out some solid books, and Jay Millar (Book Thug) has taken the leap from micro-press to trade. But, for the most part, the technical and economic realities of trade publishing are just too demanding to do anything all that interesting. I don’t mean this to sound like a complaint, it’s just the way it is. If you want books in as many hands as possible, to get the work out there, it becomes about money, and, to my mind, money is antithetical to quality when it comes to books.

To actually answer the question, though, the print runs have always been small with Greenboathouse titles, and thus most of the books are sold before the project is even released. Sometimes it takes a bit of time, but they move – mainly, I think, to folks who have picked up our books before, or have heard about them from friends. I’m not all that keen on promoting, or selling for that matter. I end up giving half of the books away. Once I’m finished making a run, my main interest is the next project, so what happens to those already made is relatively incidental. This might sound like I don’t care if anyone reads the books, which isn’t the case at all. As I said, they sell and are given away, and I like to think (guided by feedback) that the people who wind up with them take them as a breath of fresh air. They’ve been small, humble, but nurtured slowly and with care, and I do hope they feel good in the hand while being enjoyed for what the writers have put up for offer.

As for maintaining a combined productive urge and a slowing perfectionism, the two seem to maintain each other. Every book is a challenge, and, honestly, I usually have no idea what the thing will become. If I did, I wouldn’t bother. It’s the mild panic with each project that I enjoy, the risks, the potential blunders, and the crisp moment when it comes together. It’s very similar to writing, I suppose, but lately I’m enjoying this more than writing. Perfectionism certainly doesn’t have a lot to do with it: there’s no such thing, of course, but I do suppose I try to find the right way to get something done. Of course, the challenge and risk has recently been taken up about 100 notches with the shift to hand-set letterpress production. Which leads to your next question.

LH: You are moving on to bigger and better things. Will we see a resurgence of your online presence in tandum with your new venture?

JD: There’s a new site developed, almost finished actually (to be launched early in the new year), but it won’t involve much in terms of on-line publishing. The site is massively expanded, but focused far more on the fine-press world: plenty of information about letterpress printing, a growing photo gallery documenting the setting-up of the print shop, type specimens of all of the metal faces in the cabinets, etc., etc. But between teaching, freelancing, and production, I just don’t have the time anymore to keep an ongoing web project running. Reading on the web has never been something I’ve enjoyed anyway; like most, I think, I want something made of paper in my hands if I’m going to sit back to read.

LH: In terms of your own sense of poetics, I notice that you are a poet not engaged in a specific school of thought, but rather a ranging attention to aesthetic and intelligent inquiry. Do you see a place where this kind of discussion about poetry is fostered in Canada?

JD: Interesting phrase: “where this kind of discussion about poetry is fostered…” As though such a discussion requires “fostering.” Hmm. Anyway. Where do I see such discussion taking place? Your site, of course. Actual conversations with other writers, one on one. I don’t really know what’s going on in the academic or lit. scenes these days; I gave most of that up after my MA. I’d had enough. Enough of talking about things. Makes me think of that Pound quote: “What is the use of talking! / And there is no end of talking— / there is no end of things in the heart.” I love the double take on that, but, for the most part, I prefer the angle that speaks to the uselessness of talking (yeesh). Barry McKinnon had this great book in the 70s called I Wanted to Say Something, and in college I wrote a paper on it called “I Wanted to Say Nothing.” While I suppose I might still be called a writer, I’m drawn more and more to this idea of saying nothing. Who the hell am I to say much of anything? And, for better or worse (most likely for the worse), I find myself less and less interested in what any particular “scene” has to say. It’s mainly self-aggrandizing and/or bitching about other camps anyway. Blah, blah, blah.

LH: You recently began teaching at the Okanagan College. I love your pedagogical statement. Particularly the idea of “finding a balance between various literary conventions (including the mechanics and structure of writing) and a critical approach largely rooted in hermeneutics.” Looking back at my own experience in creative writing classes I realize that no one was talking about poetry as a way of engaging intellectually, or as a continuation of reading and thinking. To think of craft, for example, or voice, as the crux of a poetic journey, seems stilted. Is your pedagogical position based on your experience in the classroom, or in your own thinking/working and community thinking?

JD: Again, this is somewhat personal and biased, but I find myself really quite uninterested in what an author is attempting to do, because quite often when I ask authors about their work, they clearly weren’t aware of half of what they were doing anyway. The text is the thing, right? And I appreciate it and am fascinated by it for what it is: a strange matrix of letterforms on a page that construct a certain kind of meaning one moment to one person, and something quite different in and to the next. The poststructural slate-cleaning struck me as a wonderful kind of freedom (although I’ve seen it cause some pretty serious panic in others), because it helped to kick ego a bit further down the hole. If there’s no truth, there’s no need to seek it, and there’s certainly no reason to inflict it on others, whether it’s “the” truth or some kind of misguided “personal” truth. And so, I’ve become more and more interested in how meaning is created, rather than whatever the particular meaning might be. This, of course, also feeds my interest in typography, and it certainly guides my pedagogical approach, not only in teaching English, but also creative writing and design.

LH: The question of poetic camps keeps coming up in various ways for me these days. For my own part, I have never been able to be part of a school of anything, or a posse of anything. Nor could I figure out why one might want to secure oneself to one way of thinking about, or approaching poetry, or anything for that matter. Recently it occurs to me that one reason might simply be a matter of having support for one’s opinions, a constant stream of reassurance that one is on the right track (or helpful nudging of one along a particular track). Tempting as that is, I prefer to set my own course, and I refuse to choose sides in these poetry wars (to the extent that one can *not* choose sides…). I sense you have a similar experience and wonder if refusing the dominant discourse of one’s time necessarily makes one prone to being a loner, or an outsider, and if so, whether this is a positive experience.

JD: I’m right with you on this (which is a bit funny, given the topic). The thing is, I killed myself from 17 to my mid-20s trying to figure something out, and by my mid-20s it became fairly clear that there was no figuring it out. It’s all a big shit-show, really, and, to me, when writing becomes an attempt to edify a reader, I get queasy. Scenes do the same thing, or try to. They have a tendency to become agenda driven, and perhaps that is, as you suggest, simply about validation. But validation is all ego, just ego in disguise. Most of the ‘scenes’ I’ve come across have something they want to privilege, hence the group formation to champion a given cause, and in turn to pump up one’s own sense of worth. But isn’t the point to both recognize that all causes are groundless, and to move towards a cause-less exploration? What kind of exploration can there be if it’s limited by a cause? There’s so bloody much I don’t know, and this enormous gap will, I know, keep me busy, too busy to sit in one camp shouting slogans. And so one whittles it down, I suppose, and focuses on the things that provide a sense of personal challenge and reward. And then it’s time to move on.

For my part, this movement has led more and more to a pursuit of something really quite ridiculous: setting metal type by hand, one letter at a time. A good lamp, the CBC, and a few hours of this and I’m really quite happy. Kevin (McPherson) comes by sometimes, and we talk about type and books and other things, and we work while we talk, and it is in the doing that we connect. But, for the most part, I’m less and less inclined towards group activities these days.

So, to answer your question (finally), I have no idea if being a loner is necessary to resisting a common (that is, bland, widely-held – I’m not big on the notion of ‘dominant’) discourse, but it probably helps. I just can’t seem to shake the idea I’ve had since I was 15 that if lots of folks dig it, it must be crap. And that goes for literary trends and movements too.

LH: Is there someone you are reading right now that is exciting you? And on the matter of reading, how do you approach that as a writer? I’m thinking of the tendency toward intertextual readings. Who we read simultaneously can have such an impact on our reading and writing.

JD: For the last couple of years I’ve been reading non-fiction almost exclusively, in particular books on books, typography, the history of printing, etc. This has turned into a bit of a fixation, scouring ABE for rare titles and staying up late reading pages that stink of dust and damp. Such books, however, wouldn’t make for interesting discussion here, but I’ll mention that I’ve been especially drawn to books on Nicholas Jenson and the early Venetian printers of the 15th century. Aside from this stuff, I’m reading bits & pieces here and there: things that come into Greenboathouse (including recent manuscripts from Jan Zwicky & Robert Bringhurst), other things I find at used stores, chapbooks from a variety of very small fine presses, etc. I can’t remember the last time I read a book of poetry or fiction from start to finish, but I tend to have a half dozen books on the go at any given moment. At the moment I’m reading 3 different translations of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, as I’m planning to print an edition in a couple of years. It was a pivotal book for me in my late teens, inflicting considerable psychological damage, but I’m wrapped up in the idea of setting it by hand, perhaps as a way of exorcising it. I don’t know if this speaks to your comment regarding intertexual readings, but this mixture fits with my temperament, in that I tend to have a lot on the go most of the time, and mixing texts this way both informs and inscribes each page I’m looking at, just as my various activities do the same. I suppose one could make some sort of comment about multiplicity or juxtaposition or the always shifting poststructural matrix of language and meaning, but at the end of the day it just makes for a more interesting experience while breathing.

LH: Is it possible to end this interview with a poem from you?

Perhaps it’s better that your night vision is getting worse;
that you can’t tell if the road is giving way to a slow decline
or leading you to the edge of a cliff.

Perhaps the deer you see at the last second as the car passes
had meant to conceal themselves; not interested in
your prying glance, your inflicted romanticism.

Perhaps the moon, distracting you repeatedly
thinking it an oncoming car – one headlight burnt out,
the other cracked – is trying to tell you something.

The twist in your stomach is not from the coffee after dinner,
the rush to get back to Sundre before
1am, the flashing signs
warning of animal crossings up the 22 past

It is not that you can’t see where you’re going.
That uncertainties threaten disaster. It is not that an animal
might lift its head, turn to your rushing headlong, and devour you.

Maybe it’s that you are returning,
again, to what you’d thought, at last,
you’d left for good and all.

Jason Dewinetz is a writer, publisher, graphic designer & typographer originally from, and now living back in the Okanagan Valley. The author of The Gift of a Good Knife (Outlaw Editions), In Theory (above/ground press), and moving to the clear (NeWest Press), Jason‘s poetry and fiction have appeared in literary anthologies & journals across Canada including Grain, Prairie Fire, PRISM International, The Pottersfield Portfolio and Descant.

With Michael O’Driscoll he is also the co-author of A Bibliography of the Black Sparrow Press Archive, a detailed catalogue of the University of Alberta’s collection of the Black Sparrow Press’ first 94 publications.

A past instructor at the University of Victoria (Publication Design), and currently at Okanagan College (English/Creative Writing/Publication Design), Jason is also the founding editor, publisher & designer of Greenboathouse Press, a small letterpress shop publishing limited edition chapbooks by writers from across Canada. Jason‘s design for Greenboathouse has brought in multiple consecutive Alcuin Award for Excellence in Book Design in Canada, and in 2008 he served as one of three judges for this national competition.

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