In Conversation: Sina Queyras & Adam Dickinson

LH: I can’t think of a more extreme follow up to Kingdom, Phylum, but looking at Kingdom, Phylum again I thought, well, actually this kind of makes sense. Particularly given the work you did on the Regreen anthology in the interim. Can you tell me why polymers?

AD: The relationship between poetry and science has definitely been a continuing focus in my work. There is so much cultural authority invested in science as an arbiter of what is true and important that—at the risk of being overly prescriptive—I think there is a need for artists to really engage with science, inhabit its methodologies and signifying frameworks in order to expose the contingencies that lurk there and offer ways of re-conceptualizing and expanding the conversations around many of the issues that scientific discourse and research raise. Why polymers? As giant molecules made of numerous repeating parts, polymers constitute the chemical language of plastic. Plastic is everywhere. Not just in obvious places (around the necks of waterfowl, or languishing immortally in landfills and lakes), but in not-so-obvious places, like personal care products, clothing, and food. The toxicity of plastics is such that it can interfere with the human endocrine system, mimicking hormones and rewriting the body’s biochemical messages. In biosemiotic terms, therefore, plastic can be seen as a form of writing. Polymers are also the basis for all kinds of necessary biological forms (proteins, skin, hair, DNA, etc). I was intrigued by this overlap between the synthetic and the natural, between writing and rewriting, between the metaphorical and the literal, and between the god-like creation of new matter and the hellish consequences of things that refuse to decompose. It also occurred to me that polymers might lend themselves nicely to poetic experimentation because of their intrinsic basis in repeated forms. When I started researching, I began to see polymers all over the place in language and rhetoric (anaphora, polysyndeton, puns), as well as in social and cultural behaviours (fashions, memes, obsessions). I wanted to devise a project in which I could imagine poetry performing an experiment to expose these cultural polymers. I felt that doing so might help broaden the conversation around plastic and pollution; it might help us think of plastic as more than simply the result of some social pathology. We might also see plastic as an expression of contingent polymeric formations intrinsic to ostensibly diverse and accretive human activities (especially as they are practiced in Western petroleum culture). The scary and yet potentially liberating fact of any disease or crisis is the revelation that it partakes of the very procedures, substances, and patterns that signify elsewhere in entirely different and seemingly innocuous registers. This was part of the reason why I got so interested in polymers. Also, like poetry, polymers exist at the imaginative limits of their mediums; this seemed to me like a site for productive, pataphysical play.

LH: Do you see The Polymers as pastoral? Eco-critical? Eco-poetic? In conversation with the long list of books recently exploring the foment of climate change and poetics?  

AD: I definitely see The Polymers as participating in the practice of ecopoetics. I was at the inaugural Conference on Ecopoetics this past February at UC Berkeley and I presented some of my polymers on a panel with an amazing group of artists that included a.rawlings, Jonathan Skinner, Kathleen Brown, and Erin Robinsong. In that particular session we defined  ecopoetics “as a kind of field laboratory attentive to collaborative networks and nodes of discursive, molecular, acoustic, and geophysical relation, cultivating the edges between differing approaches to expanded frames of biological and cultural signification.” In other words, I see ecopoetics as ecocriticism, as a kind of environmental activism practiced using the resources of poetry and poetics rather than simply traditional academic scholarship. Such alternative methods are essential for the ecological diversity of problem solving and critical thinking. The environmental crisis is also a crisis of the imagination, Lawrence Buell reminds us. In addition to more conventional (but necessary) analytic methods, we also need to explore the abductive possibilities of poetic thinking and the consequences of poetic experimentation, which I think of as being complementary to scientific forms of research.

LH: The mix of forms in this book is intriguing. Were you working in the long poem tradition–the Canadian long poem in particular–or were you thinking of this as more of a conceptual project, or both?

AD: I conceived of the book as a conceptual project from the very beginning inasmuch it presents an imaginary solution to the problem of identifying cultural polymers. What do they look like? What are they composed of? In addition to incorporating research into reiterations and accretions of various sorts (such as financial credit, hoaxes, and political movements), I also conducted site-specific research as a means of generating some of the pieces. For example, I stood in line at tourist attractions recording found-texts from conversations around me as I continuously circulated through line-ups without ever getting on the ride, or entering the exhibit. I joined Facebook and other online clubs in order to further polymerize my life. My aim was to re-imagine the structure of polymers (their chain-like dynamics) in terms of their cultural and linguistic analogues. As a result, I made use of poetic forms like the anagram, collage, and other appropriation and procedure-based methods (these various constraints—some more rigorous than others—are all outlined at the back of the book in the “Materials and Methods” section). It’s interesting that you mention the long poem tradition. I didn’t set out initially to write a long poem; however, the idea did occur to me as the book began to take shape. I suppose some of the documentary impulses (Livesay) or generic interplay (Kamboureli) of the Canadian long poem are present in the work given my application of the formal and compositional strategies I’ve just talked about. However, the book is really an attempt to recreate chemical structures in poetry. The fact that a long poem might be said to have emerged says more about the way polymers materialize in language and writing.

LH: Why do the poem titles all start with either an H or C? Is this some strand of DNA? 

AD: Each section (except the last one) is organized according to the chemical formulas for the most common plastic resins: Polyester (1), Polyethylene (2,4), Polyvinyl Chloride (3), Polypropylene (5), and Polystyrene (6). The poems attempt to map the social expression of these resins, replacing each constituent atom with a specific behaviour or phenomena. The poem titles beginning C, Cl, H, or O occur in the same frequency that the carbon, chlorine, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms appear in the various chemical formulas for the monomers and repeat units associated with each plastic. Consequently, of the 59 poems required by this compositional constraint, there are numerous titles that begin with H (29) and C (25).

1_Polyester In terms of your question about DNA: I do borrow from the language of genetics in the “Cellophane” prefatory section by characterizing the book as an attempt to “sequence” the seven principal synthetic resins that predominate in Western petroleum culture. My aim here is to underscore the tension between essence and surface, between the way in which plastic makes us constantly reckon with superficialities (malleability and disposability) even as it presupposes a mode of existence dependent on deeply entrenched convictions (the power of petroleum, the power of perpetual invention). I think of plastic as a highly volatile semiotic surface. Not only is it capable of signifying innumerable manufactured characteristics, but it is also constantly subject to the re-signifying forces of the consuming (or non-consuming) public. In many ways the industry lost control of plastic’s identity back in the 1960s (remember that line from The Graduate?). There are very few plastics that have retained their individual uniqueness (Teflon and nylon are examples) and even fewer that have retained positive cultural associations. Plastic, in its myriad of surfaces, often serves as an imaginary solution to the problem of reproducing natural textures (think of the hyperreality of fake wood and faux fur). However, as I have mentioned, plastic can also interfere in toxic ways with the intrinsic messaging of biological bodies. The rewriting of the chemical formulas in the book is a deliberately skewed appropriation of traditional chemical analysis in order to, I hope, reframe and expand the semiotic implications of plastic as an influence on and expression of polymeric formations in the way we write and rewrite our lives and the world around us.

 LH: It’s an interesting visual element, you notice very quickly and wanting to link informs the way one reads. Did you find that it aided the work? changed the depth of the poems? Some of them have a Flarf-like quality to them, and yet they have that lyric sincerity as well. I suppose the best poems–even the best Flarf–are skirting this. I can see your aim to underscore the tension between “essence and surface” as you say, but did this also add or enable a kind of personal presence in the poem? A matter of what’s at stake?

AD: I wanted the poems to have complex tonal textures. I wanted them—like my understanding of plastic—to court both sincerity and insincerity. There are obvious overlaps with the focus on what Joshua Clover calls “junkspeech” in flarf and the ersatz nature of plastic (both as material pollution and as disposable culture). In Flarfy terms, Google’s auto-complete struck me as an oddly relevant analogue to the functional groups in chemistry like esters and phenyls that attach to polymers and give them their distinctive characteristics. For all of its obvious artificiality (in part because of it), I find plastic to be a kind of lyric material (Roland Barthes includes it in the hierarchy of poetic substances as a “disgraced material”). Plastic products are, if not well-wrought urns, smooth-skinned shortcuts to an idealism we haven’t fully thought through. There are indeed moments of personal presence in the poems (my wedding vows are reproduced at one point; my daughter’s baby toys are there—family is one of the most pervasive cultural polymers we have); however, this personal presence is not a coherent or discrete subject, but a membranous body of porous and reflective surfaces, a composite written by and into the polymeric formations of various social predicaments. From my perspective, the book is playful, but it is also sincere in taking its strange science project seriously and in its associated commitment to investigating the chain-links of such personal matters as intimacy, memory, desire, and pollution.

LH: The book is gorgeous–and again, in another way that feels uniquely Canadian with the illustrations (Dewdney comes to mind obviously). Did you do the illustrations yourself? Were they part of your vision from the outset?

AD: Given the fact that the book presents itself as a science project, it was important for me to have many of the accouterments of the science textbook. I imagined a significant role for images from the very beginning. Moreover, polymers lend themselves quite beautifully to visual representation. All of the images in the book were designed by me with the assistance of a chemist. I wanted to make sure that I had the science right, so I consulted with an expert in the field. The only place I took any serious liberties was with the section divider images. Here, for the purposes of each section’s table of contents, I had to devise a way of making sure I represented all the hydrogen atoms (which are normally not shown). In the spirit of plasticity, this took some rule bending. For the most part, the rest of the images are scientifically accurate. The majority of the visual poems scattered throughout the book are actual substances with titles that re-contextualize them in what I hope are interesting and unexpected ways.

Image 3, CHE GUEVARA Spandex (2)

The visual components to the poems in the final section of the book were particularly challenging because they involved an attempt to produce imaginary polymers that could potentially exist. I wanted to see if I could find the repeating chemical units at the heart of some controversial, culturally influential texts that have been subjected to their own forms of historical repetition and obsession. I chose Darwin’s The Origin of Species and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The images I came up with are all functional molecules—they could be real.  In fact, I did my best to determine what sorts of properties these chemicals might have based on the nature of their composition. It took a long time to find experimental methods that produced results that worked for me. I have to say, my publisher, House of Anansi, was extremely supportive and accommodating when it came to design issues associated with this book.

POLYFEDERALSILOXANE, 17-(4-ethylhexyl)-13-(4-ethyl-3-propylhexyl)-5-heptyl-1,1,1,3,5,7,9,11,11,13,15,15,17,19,19,19-(heptadecamethyl)-3-(2-nonanyl)-9-(1-phenylpropan-2-yl)decasiloxane

LH: It’s really, really gorgeous. I love the images, the mash up of high and low, of Darwin and the charter, but also as you say, the strands of DNA in our lives, the way the text seems to highlight the underbelly of our daily consumptions–something I have attempted to do in my last few books as well. I hope we can run a pdf that can show just how important the visual element is, though I think that in fact the materiality (the physical book) is as important as the visual in this case. Can you conceive of the book/poems in an online venue or is the actual physical fact of the book the most complete representation?

AD: The Polymers already exists as a PDF through Anansi’s website, but this format simply reproduces it as a digital document. I can definitely conceive of the book in an online venue, but it would have to be one that re-imagines the whole structure, melts it down like a thermoplastic and reorganizes it in ways that exploit the polymeric formations already inherent in the Web. Perhaps it could be available in variously sorted versions (by word-length, by frequency of coordinating conjunction, by alphabetized instances of fraudulence); perhaps cleverly employed hyperlinks might permit deliberate cross-linking between poems in ways that reflect attributes in synthetic polymers such as vulcanization. The image-poems could be handled more elaborately online, allowing for colourful, complex diagrams, complete with movements emphasizing their 3D stereochemistry. Nonetheless, there are certain advantages to the codex form. It participates in the material world of objects as a physical manifestation of plastic (especially the inserted translucent page) and paper (which is a cellulose polymer). Moreover, the codex form instigates a sequential polymer-like movement through the text as a whole. Having said all of this, the project was always a book in my mind from the very beginning. I spent a lot of time playing among the material constraints of that particular imaginative medium. I wanted to make a piece of art that realized the whole book.

LH: I’m also wondering how you perform the poems and if this was something you thought about before or while composing. If so can you tell us a little about the process? Who was your model? What kind of audience are you imagining for the poems and how would they most likely encounter? Or, what would be your ideal mode of encounter? Also, is there anything online we can post or link to of you reading/performing?

AD: In terms of composition, I thought a lot about research-based poetics, especially ones with a slightly scientific bent. I thought about how writers like Lisa Robertson reframe the essay and site-report as investigative strategies into uncovering the natural histories of civic surfaces; I paid close attention to Robert Kocik’s speculations about poetry’s potential for influencing genetic inheritance; I approached Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation as a literary work of ethnobotany. Erin Mouré, Erin Knight, Brenda Hillman, Christian Bök, Ken Babstock, Christopher Dewdney, and Harryette Mullen were among many other writers who influenced me as I was writing and thinking about this project. I always compose with sound and performance in mind by constantly reading poems aloud and occasionally recording and playing them back. My public performance of the work is very much in keeping, I like to think, with the scientific dimension of the book. I treat my readings (with varying degrees of subtlety and irony) as research presentations (for non-specialist audiences), complete with diagrams and molecular images (I use computer projections, but I also had posters made for a really geeky, science-fair feel). I have been playing with the persona of the scientist during readings. This is partly tongue-in-cheek, but also partly serious given my conviction that poetry, as I mentioned earlier, is a complementary form of scientific research. Some of my readings have been recorded, and even filmed, but I have not yet seen them, and I don’t yet have access to them. My ideal mode of encounter, actually, would be a guerrilla reading staged at a major chemistry conference; let’s say the annual conference for the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English.

LH: Given all the recent discussion on line that seems bent on dividing lyric and conceptual modes, can you offer some commentary on how you have worked toward your current poetics? I mean, it seems to me that The Polymers is in itself a kind of poetic statement, but perhaps you might speak to that.

AD: I’m glad you think of The Polymers as a kind of poetics statement; I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what “polymer poetics” might be, which is a phrase that appears nowhere in the book but often occurred to me as an organizing principle. I deliberately set about to write something that combined conceptual and lyrical elements. I did this because I see plastic, as I mentioned earlier, as a lyric material, as integral to Barthe’s taxonomy of traditional poetic substances. I also see pataphysics, which was my way into thinking about science and literature, as fundamentally engaged with conceptual art and conceptual writing. Kenneth Goldsmith’s work, for instance, is most interesting to me as a series of pataphysical exercises in controlling for variables of signification. I see Soliloquy, for example, as a fascinating science experiment that controls for an unexpected but highly revealing perspective on the ecology of signs that surround and constitute an emergent subject. It’s a simple, but elegant experiment. I love the phatic language in Soliloquy, the way the narrative of a day is always mediated by the refracting surfaces of the city. As an “information manager,” the poet becomes, for Goldsmith, a version of an environmental scientist at work collecting and filtering in order to reveal the membrane structures that determine how information from and about the environment is channeled and interpreted. I have an article that explores some of these ideas about Goldsmith, ecopoetics, and pataphysics in the recent book Time in Time: Short Poems, Long Poems, and the Rhetoric of North American Avant-Gardism, 1963-2008, edited by J.Mark Smith (McGill-Queen’s UP). I readily admit that my engagement with conceptual writing in The Polymers is rather “impure” (in the terms of Place and Fitterman), which is to say there are many examples of rule-breaking and editorial intervention. I felt that because plastic is such a ubiquitous and malleable substance that I wanted the poems to be varied and flexible as well. I wanted to take relevant techniques from conceptual writing (procedural poetics, appropriation, the capacity to radically reframe environments of signification) and merge them with relevant aspects of lyric poetics (metaphorical play, revelation, paratactic narratives). With this book I became most interested in exploring a kind of alchemical or synthetic poetics that combines aspects from various camps without declaring the supremacy of one over the other. I admire your essay “Lyric Conceptualism, A Manifesto In Progress” because it argues for this middle way based on inclusion rather than exclusion. I wanted to try something I hadn’t done before with The Polymers. I gave myself permission to steal or reproduce whatever poetic resources I felt were relevant to the social resins I was trying to synthesize. After all, polymers are accretive substances based on repetition and recombination. They were writing me even as I was writing them.

You can find two poems from The Polymers on an earlier Lemon Hound post.
See Rachael Wyatt’s smart review of The Polymers here.

Adam Dickinson
’s poems have appeared in literary journals and anthologies in Canada and internationally. His collection Kingdom, Phylum was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. He teaches at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.