SQ: You’ve been writing poetry for many years–I first heard about you in glowing terms back in 1999 or so–and yet you’ve just published your second book. Is there a reticence about poetry and poetics, a rigorous poetic practice, a diverse writing life or a combination? Or something else?
SB: I took a long time to send a manuscript out. One of my teachers at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Brenda Hillman, used to tell us to wait eight years after we graduated to publish a first book. But even before Iowa my approach was to actively not think about publishing and just write poems. In the meantime I tried to expose myself to a wide spectrum of aesthetic approaches, styles, poetic practices. Some of the educational institutions I attended were conservative; others were super open. Along the way I started working on different kinds of poems—prompted in some cases by the tenor of the classes, schools, fellow students. Iowa was aesthetically diverse: the program was so big you had a Noah’s Ark of literary camps. It felt like there was room to do whatever I wanted. At Stanford my so-called “experimental” poems were met with silence, which isn’t all that fun or interesting week after week. So I started writing a more discursive, plainspoken verse I knew people would actually discuss in workshop. I kept writing the more adventurous poems as well but would alternate what I turned in: one week I’d workshop a mainstream lyric, another week I’d bring in a strange little piece.
Also, I was writing other sets of poems that fell outside these two “aesthetic poles.” For instance, for a time I was living on an island of the North east coast of Brazil, in the state of Bahia, as an artist in residence, trying to finish what would become my first book, Ceiling of Sticks. For one month I got up every morning and spent all day in my steaming hot studio, writing terrible poems. I couldn’t seem to write anything strong enough to complete the manuscript. Then a mosquito bit me and I contracted Dengue fever and lay in my room in a hammock draped with gauzy mosquito netting, sweating and hallucinating in the tropical heat. A doctor came to check on me and all he said was, You have Dengue Fever. As he was leaving I asked him what I could do about it. He paused at the door and said, If you start hemorrhaging in your brain and you can get on a motorcycle and come to the clinic the next village over, we will give you an IV. I asked him what a cure and he said, There’s no cure, either you’ll live or you’ll die. And then he left.
Ten days later I woke from my fever dream, feeling totally fine and walked straight to my studio and wrote five poems in short succession. It was like turning on a faucet. The poems were totally different from anything I’d ever written. This pace continued for three weeks until I had written an entirely different manuscript from the one I had arrived in Brazil intending to finish. A few of those poems made it into Congotronic.
Fernando Pessoa is a hero of mine for his heteronyms: the different pseudonyms he wrote under, each with his own personality and very different aesthetics, e.g. the poet who wrote like a Portuguese Walt Whitman. Back then, if I had possessed any foresight I would have published my varied kinds of poems in magazines under different names. But I didn’t figure out that I was creating such distinct spaces in poetry until I’d published many of the poems of different aesthetic styles under my own name. It was too late to create a distinct literary personae.
Also, I am very fond of using emulation to figure out how a poet I’m really into accomplishes some technique or effect. Through emulation I’ve embraced and absorbed many influences and have been able to expand my poetic toolbox.
Additionally, when I was starting out, I watched many of my friends rush to publish books and when their books came out nothing happened except that they then tried to get jobs as professors in universities. I wanted to hold off on all that for a while longer. In the meantime I tried to cobble together a life with grant money, residencies, fellowships, part-time teaching, starting and running businesses, and a bunch of other things that involved travel and filmmaking, because I wanted to try to live in the world in a full way, or as fully as I could. Though I was still in a sense living in some proximity to institutions, I was trying not to become institutional in my thinking.
Strange to say maybe but another factor is a certain shyness, a distrust of the whole lust to publish, a discomfort with publishing’s supposed allure. It seemed to me that everyone—my friends and other young poets I read—was trying to write “books” rather than poems. They all had book-length projects, with a theme linking their poems. That seemed completely dreary and for me, unsustainable—I couldn’t imagine being able to stay interested in such a confining structure.
Early on, a teacher encouraged me to just get out there and publish and not care too much, to learn book to book, but then I met Al Purdy, just before he died. This was at his home in Sydney, B.C. I was interviewing him for my undergrad newspaper – or maybe it was a journalism assignment? – and he talked about first books and said that he regretted his early work so much that he still went around to bookstores in every town he visited – and he was a poet who read all over Canada and around the world – and he’d ask the booksellers if they carried his work – I recall him laughing that mostly no one recognized him and how awkward it was when they did, the poet asking about his own work and so on – and Purdy said that if a store had any copies of his early work (I don’t remember if it was his first or second book) he would buy them all and burn them. That didn’t sound like a way I wanted to live.
I liked the poets who were careful about their work and precise about what they collected into book form. Further I’ve always preferred slim volumes of poetry rather than thick books where half the poems seem like drunken first thoughts written down while sitting on the toilet. In the end I did wait eight years until sending a manuscript out to publishing competitions. And I am glad I waited. If I live to be eighty years old I don’t think I’ll be embarrassed by my first book. As a side benefit, not caring about publishing for so long allowed me to wander around in poetry and make a lot of work because I happened to be interested in it at that moment, rather than because I thought it was strategic or fit in with a larger project.
SQ: I really love the book. It feels very contemporary, very familiar, and yet very much its own thing both in terms of poetic concerns, and style. Flagelliforms in particular. Can you tell me about the compositional practice there?
SB: Thank you very much for your kind words about Congotronic. The “Flagelliforms” were something I started a long time ago. I knew it was going to be a serial poem. In a class at Iowa we read Berryman’s Dream Songs and I was struck by the way he wrote in “blackface” in an openly minstrel way and I noticed we never really discussed that part of his work, the casually racist part. In the same class we read a bunch of Paul Celan and Hoderlein and Emily Dickinson and I began wondering what it would be like to talk back to Berryman in the voice of a person of colour, a person of multiple races, a shattered Celan-esque figure who invented inside the language another language. Plus I was reading Pound’s Cantos and Zukofsky’s “A” and Olson’s “Maximus Poems” and someone gave me Nathaniel Mackey’s ongoing serial poem and I thought, maybe I can just get wild with the thought and feeling of a blues-tinged sensibility: incorporate some Middle Passage references and narrative strands. And I wanted a foundation in myth to guide one of the main figures who emerged in the series, so I used the West African myth of Sundiata but imagined him as a person from the future-past, an African Mad Max, i.e. the original Road Warrior. All of this unfolded over many years, though. It wasn’t mapped out or planned from the start at all. As an example, early in the process of composition I was searching for a new sound and I seem to remember applying the OULIPIAN “N+7” procedure to some Robert Frost poems as a way to generate new linguistic registers. Those experiments didn’t survive but they did help me to break into another set of sounds I liked and used for some of the Fleagelliform “voicings.” Actually I’ve written a lot more Flagelliforms than appear in Congotronic. The ones that made it into that book did so because my editor felt they conversed with each other well with Congotronic’s non-Flagelliform poems.
SQ: Why Gilbert Ryle? These are so much fun, and yet not Steinian in their play, a kind of logic at play? I don’t know Ryle, so I’m appreciating them without the full benefit of his ideas, but it seems to me there is some kind of collision going on here. Maybe the argument being played out in equations within the poems lines?
SB: Well I read some Gilbert Ryle, a great British Empiricist philosopher, right after reading Descartes. The Ryle essay I read was a direct rebuttal of Descartes’s ideas. And as you may have noticed there’s a poem in Congotronic directly informed by Descartes’ Meditations. So there’s a kind of poetic-philosophical call and response going on in my book. Also, at the time I started those pieces I was living at a friend’s place in a cabin in the Shenandoah mountains in Virginia. My friend was a witch, like a real witch and I was probably trying to counter all the mysticism in the house by reading philosophy. Ryle struck me as kind of severe and humourless. And I started imagining what would happen if he wrote novellas. Then I started doing some homophonic translations for Lorca and Jimenez and I took some of that language and tried to write some poems as though they were Ryle’s; so some of the titles refer to statements he makes, pronouncements. Then I went to the MacDowell Artist Colony for a couple months and met some eccentric artists there; spending concentrated time with them in a focused environment helped the Ryle poems. I recall being in the wintery New Hampshire woods made me want to write stripped down poems, short things, with music as a determining factor, both in terms of the sonic textures of the words and also in the writing process. I mean I was quite literally writing them while listening to the same small number of free jazz songs, by the great saxophonist Albert Ayler and the great pianist Cecil Taylor. More and more – and this has extended into my filmmaking too – I’m interested in creating things that feel like music or painting or sculpture, in that reading my poems or watching my films or hearing the poems should feel like an experience that can’t really be described adequately, the way it is hard to really describe and summarize music or paintings or sculptures. I want the poems to be an experience in language, on the page and in the ear.
SQ: One more career question: I see you’ve also achieved the kind of track record of writing residencies that most mortals (and almost all Canadian poets) dream of. It looks like divine intervention, but I’m sure it was a lot of work and strategizing as well as exhausting in a way–would you recommend this path?
SB: Unsurprisingly, it takes a lot of work to make time to make your art. OK so assuming that to even be in the running to get the grants and the fellowships you have to be reasonably good at what you do–fine but of course that’s not enough: lots of people are good at what they do too and so the competition is insane. What this means is you have to be continually applying to things, while trying to get even better at what you do and if you aren’t careful you will find yourself applying so much that you’ll begin to feel more like a bureaucrat than an artist. If you don’t mind living with a high degree of uncertainty, living by your wits as it were, hustling, always on the grind, then I would say, this could be a path to take. In reality though, for most people I don’t think it is the right way to go. Most folks like to know where their next pay cheque is coming from!
I have never thought of poetry or writing in general as related to a “career.” I was just trying to survive. Perhaps to my detriment, I have not actually been involved in careerist practices regarding poetry, e.g. I only attended my first Associated Writing Programs Conference three years ago.
The fellowships and grants and all that was my attempt to have as much time as possible to write. When I started out I knew following this path would mean I was not going to have any money. At all. Ever. But I figured that if I was able to be smart about how I lived, I could maybe eek out some sort of quasi-bohemian existence. There were no immediate role models for how to do this within my family so I read a lot of biographies of artists and athletes and scientists, seekers of all kinds – basically anyone who had set out to try to do something singular. This “research” really helped me navigate a way through because I realized the obstacles I faced were actually part of the deal and that others before me had overcome far greater hurdles.
Really all I wanted was the time to do my own work, which involved both learning whatever interested me in no particular order and writing in all kinds of genres and making films. And this life has allowed me some time to write a lot and make movies. I used the rest of the time to read widely, to get up to speed on what had happened in cinema by watching a ton of films (as I did not grow up watching TV or seeing many movies), to see as much painting and sculpture as possible, to listen to a wide swath of music, to travel and live in many different cities and countries. I guess it worked on some level. We’ll see where things go. I say this all now like it was planned—but it wasn’t.
I would tell anyone applying for all the stuff that’s out there, you have to decide what specific grants and fellowships you want and keep applying for them and working on your stuff and not caring when people reject you. You need to have a stupid faith in yourself and the work you are doing, even when all the signs are that nobody else thinks your work is compelling. A strange optimism or a deep vortex of denial—who’s to say what that’s about. Cheesy as it may sound, persistence seems to be the key.
SQ: Do I have to ask how your Canadianness plays out in the poems and/or career or are we beyond that moment? I kind of think the latter, but I suppose I’ve asked it now.
SB: Yeah, I think your instinct is probably correct: you don’t have to ask me that. What’s interesting to me about your question is the phrase “are we beyond that moment?” I wonder what that means. Does it mean that I have transcended/transgressed categories, boundaries or is it a reference to some aspect of what I do in my artistic life?
I do feel and have always felt Canadian. And what that means undoubtedly involves the usual platitudes. I think there was something about growing up in a family of travelers, a family that lived in different countries and was itself made up of multiple nationalities, races, ethnicities, and so on – that seemed to me to be very Canadian. Perhaps this is because I have always associated Canada and Canadians with a certain inquisitive internationalism, an outward-looking curiosity about the world. Also, I have always felt like and been, an outsider. To absolutely generalize – I think there’s a certain quality of the “onlooker” or “spectator” that is part of being a Canadian. This quality of “watching” probably goes along with being from any smaller, peripheral nation: we’re looking to the centres, at what the empires are doing. Then again I have always felt like a citizen of several nations, so maybe that cancels out everything I just said. Apparently, like anyone, I contain multitudes, contradictions and some platitudes, as well.
SQ: It’s more than a month after the fact of our conversation, and now you’ve been nominated for The Griffin Prize, which your early mentor, Brenda Hillman, won last year. Congratulations. How does it feel?
SB: It feels awesome. The news took me completely by surprise. I was in Minneapolis when I heard about it, having gone there a week before the Associated Writing Programs Conference was to start, to finish rewrites on a script with my screenwriting partner, Ilya Simakov, who lives and teaches there. I was sitting in the student union building at the university where Ilya teaches, waiting to meet with another person who was cutting together a trailer for the new film and I opened my laptop to do some work, i.e. check facebook – and I saw like fifty little red notification symbols. I thought, this must be bad news, someone must have died or something so I didn’t click on the notifications. Instead I got on twitter where I found another insanely high number of notifications. By then I was certain that there must be some horrible news lying in wait. I closed the laptop. It took some minutes of walking around the cafeteria before curiosity got the better of me and I finally clicked on the notifications and saw what was up.
At first I felt overwhelmed, I wanted to weep and then I thought, no you can’t cry around all these people. So I got up and wandered the building in a haze, trying to find the exit, for I was supposed to be meeting with the trailer editor in an editing suite in the film department which was in a neighbouring building. Even for a person in their right mind, the building that houses the film department would be confusing; for a person in shock, the place was unnavigable. I just kept walking around and around the empty hallways completely lost.
Eventually Ilya found me and brought me to the editing suite. I told them what had happened and we sat down to watch the cut of the trailer. When the editor asked me what I thought about the trailer I said, Right now my response to everything you say is going to be, “I love it. It’s awesome.”
Then Ruth from the Griffin prize called to tell me she had phoned my parents’ house looking for me and had told my mom the news. Ruth said my mom was very excited, and kept laughing and exclaiming over and over, Where are my glasses?! I need to write this down! Ruth was very calm about it all and suggested my mother have a seat, take a moment and then put on a kettle to boil for a cup of tea.
As the day wore on I felt a wide variety of emotions. I felt joy of course, but also flashes of anger and spikes of sadness, and so on, cycling round and round. As I sat with the feelings I tried to understand where they were coming from — like why would I be angry at such good news? I realized I had been suppressing a lot of feelings surrounding the multi-year odyssey the book went through as it made the rounds with publishers, the months and sometimes years it sat in the hands of different editors at different publishers who ultimately said, It is too different from your first book, or the time it was accepted for publication and then the press decided to stop publishing poetry altogether and the time editors just straight out said No. I thought back to the people who had been harshly dismissive about the individual poems and those who had not supported me as an artist, in other works, I was thinking about “the haters.”
The sadness came from thinking back to all the people I’d known while writing the book, specicially those with whom I am no longer close; I thought of the inevitable sacrifices an artist or anyone with a singular passion makes, the relationships that change and die along the way.
I also recall feeling a mixture of relief and terror. Prior to the nomination, Congotronic had received several good reviews but it didn’t seem like many people were reading it. I had resigned myself to believing the book would fade away. Now, with the Griffin, I knew more people would read it. The relief part I came to understand as an obvious response to the knowledge that because of the nomination the book would not die. The terror part of the equation came from recognizing just how much of this stuff, the fate of your book for example, is out of your hands, and realizing that things could just have easily gone the other way. It is scary to contemplate how much of your life as an artist – in terms of how your work is received – is beyond your control.
SQ: I love what you recall Hillman saying, about waiting eight years to publish a first book, and I share some of your anxieties about early work. There is always so much energy spent around this, so early on—I have had several undergraduates publish first books for example, and with presses that are connected to their professors. My students say they feel enormous pressure to publish, and often seem to say yes to the first offer. In other words, they publish far too soon. Poetry, more than any other art form it seems to me, is so horizontal, one can go a number of years just trying to pull enough strands together to have a firm footing for a first book. Do you think prizes like the Griffin have the potential to signal a different order of “early book”?
SB: I don’t think I understand the question – specifically, “the potential to signal a different order of early book.”
When I was in graduate school and amongst my friends, it wasn’t automatic that one would become professionalized as a writer. Sure there was the business of poetry or “po-biz” as it is called but we were in school precisely to get away from the perceived pressures to publish or get a teaching job or whatever. I do think that the growth of the industry around writing in general has normalized this notion in younger writers that they have to publish early and win prizes and get fellowships and get a coveted teaching job—when the sad fact is there aren’t any teaching jobs, and the prizes and fellowships are rare and one can make a far better living doing things other than teaching.
I just try to write one line and follow that one with another. There’s nothing harder than trying to write good line after good line. Of course “good” is a nebulous term and I’m being simplistic here, but I hope you get what I mean. You write a line that you hope has energy and feeling and thought and singing and you hope that it surprises even you, the writer, and then those lines accumulate, and eventually, with some luck, you have a poem. And after many many poems, you can maybe cull them and assemble a manuscript and then you send it out to publishers and publishing competitions and maybe someone likes it enough to make it into a book. There’s no reason to think about poetry as some sort of career. It’s poetry! It’s not like there’s any money involved. It’s not like the stakes are high: it isn’t life and death or that someone’s fate will be determined by your writing a poem or not writing a poem (at least in most cases). But in that smallness there’s a great freedom. True freedom to do whatever you want. That, for me, is the way to approach the writing of poems. I mean it is so hard to write poems and it takes a long time to feel like you have some tools to work with, a collection of techniques to match the vision you have for your work so that you can accomplish what you set out to do in a poem, that to rush to publish just seems foolish. As I said earlier, it isn’t like publishing a book of poems is going to change your life in any substantial way.
Shane Book’s first poetry collection, Ceiling of Sticks was published in 2010 by the University of Nebraska Press and won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award and was a Poetry Society of America “New Poet” Selection. Prior to the book’s publication, excerpts from Ceiling of Sticks won The Malahat Review Long Poem Prize and a National Magazine Award. His second collection, Congotronic, is a 2014 Kuhl House Poets Series Selection, published in the U.S. by the University of Iowa Press and in Canada by House of Anansi Press. Excerpts from Congotronic were selected for inclusion in The Best American Experimental Writing. Congotronic was recently named to the shortlist for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize. Book’s other honours include a New York Times Fellowship, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and fellowships to the Telluride Film Festival and the Flaherty Film Seminar. His poems have been published in over seventy magazines and twenty anthologies, including Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets and The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry. He is also a filmmaker whose work has been awarded numerous jury prizes and screenwriting awards at film festivals around the world and has played on television on three continents. He was educated at the University of Western Ontario; the University of Victoria; New York University; Temple University; the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow. You can find two poems from Congotronic here.