Friday, April 30, 2010

Pure Play

He is one of the most interesting poets to emerge in Canada in years. Winner of Poetry Magazine’s Frederick Bock Prize and Poetry's 2009 Editors Prize for Reviewing, Toronto’s Jason Guriel is author of two books of poetry, Technicolored (Exile Editions, 2006) and Pure Product (Signal, 2009). This week I asked him what he tries to achieve in his poems, who he writes for and about his feelings around “negative” reviewing.

DK: Pure Product is a very short book of poems, which suggests you were being very selective in your choice of poems. Is that so, and what prompted the book?

JG: I would like to be able to say I was “very selective” in my “choice of poems.” But, really, I just don’t write a lot of poems. So I have to work with what I come up with. Even now, a year after Pure Product, I’m still tinkering with leftover scraps that predate Pure Product, some of which were considered for the book and rejected. The one new poem I have forthcoming is a reject which stuck around and, because the cupboard is bare, got sent out to a magazine and, lucky for it, got accepted; got a shot at a second life. In other words, Pure Product had no choice but to be, as you say, “very short.” But a lack of productivity isn’t ultimately a bad thing. Most new books of poems are way too long.

What prompted Pure Product was Signal Editions’ offering to publish it. The book didn’t quite exist when the offer was made; it was just some poems lying around, unbeknownst to Signal. Signal liked what it’d seen of my work in magazines and was generous enough to reach out. I gathered together what I had on-hand and then wrote some more poems. When it came time to assemble the ms, I spread out the poems on the living room floor. Over the course of an hour or two, I figured out a sensible order – on the off-chance someone ever decides to read the book front to back.

DK: I know you’ve said you had no agenda for Pure Product as a whole, but poems like “Shopping Cart, Abandoned on Front Lawn” suggest a connection to Williams and the preoccupation with “getting things right” through sharp hard images. Does that link exist for you in the book?

JG: Well, the book takes its title from Williams’ lines “The pure products of America / go crazy,”which very nearly provided an epigraph for the book. There’s also a poem in Pure Product called “Thinginess.” So yes, Williams is definitely in there, lurking around the edges. But I had no planned design, and had the book been called Money Is Also a Kind of Music, which it very nearly was, you would probably be asking me about Wallace Stevens! Frost is another important, if less obvious, influence on Pure Product. He might even be more important to the book than Williams.

I want to add that I’m not rabidly anti-agenda – or arc, or concept – as some might think. But I have grown tired of books that are overly determined by some novel subject matter or structuring principle. My tiredness, of course, doesn’t preclude the possibility that worthwhile books of poetry, structured by predetermined arcs, are being written. I’m tired of a trend is all. But I do think that most poets would be better off focusing on getting individual poems right.

DK: A related notion is that poems can or should be self-contained, autonomous wholes, separate from biography, history or culture. Is that something you believe and work towards?

JG: When I’m composing a poem, I like to believe in the Romantic tableau of the authorial genius who transcends – placid and unchanging – the churning forces of history, biology, and economics; the authorial genius who brings off “self-contained, autonomous wholes.” But when I’m not writing a poem, I’m pretty sympathetic to Barthes’ thing about how “it is language which speaks, not the author.”

DK: I’m struck by how playful and fun your poems are, but outside of a brief reference to your father you don’t reveal much about yourself. Is that deliberate? Do you imagine yourself writing more personally in the future?

JG: Thanks. I do want the poems to be playful and fun. And it is deliberate, the not revealing much about myself. I don’t imagine writing more personally in the future. This would be fun for no one.

DK: What do you like and don’t like about Canadian poetry? Are there things Canadian poets might pay attention to in British or American poetry?

JG: Some small, surly part of me, slouching at the back of the seminar, wants to raise its hand and ask, “So, like, what is Canadian poetry?” But the other, more adult part of myself, which accepts the premise of your reasonable question, just doesn’t know how to answer it. I will say that it’s probably true that most Canadian poets used to pay too little attention to what was going on beyond the border. But fortunately this seems to have changed a bit. Canada’s best poets, like Eric Ormsby, appear to pay more than enough attention to a larger literary tradition.

DK: The formalist poet Tim Steele told me when he writes a poem he has in mind his wife, his extended family, his friends, and “a community of fellow poets I particularly admire.” Who do you write for? For readers? For yourself? Other poets?

JG: Well, let me answer your question with a sports metaphor. The first duty of a professional baseball player is not to hit homerun balls – or even to hit balls at all. It’s to field his position, a task which is neither sexy nor easy but absolutely integral to the success of a team. I like to think that my first duty as a writer – one which is self-imposed, of course – is to do the unsexy work of addressing and entertaining the intelligent general reader. I’m not talking about being ‘accessible’ in the sneered-at meaning of the word; nor is it as easy as it might sound, piquing the interest of this mythic figure I have in mind. It certainly doesn’t matter that the mythic figure is mythic; I write in the futile hope that she will one day turn up and want to read a poem. And if I can capture the attention of this reader, then I can capture the attention of anyone. One doesn’t really need to address other poets who will all too easily know what one is up to and give one the benefit of the doubt and maybe even buy one’s book at a launch out of professional courtesy; I think one is better served pretending to address and entertain the intelligent general reader, as John Updike seemed to do. She’s a harder sell, harder than any poet. And she’s certainly no pushover. So to win her attention would really mean something, would really say something about one’s work.

DK: Who do you read? Who's influenced you the most in poetic style and use of language?

JG: In terms of daily reading, I’m a devotee of Slate. I especially admire Stephen Metcalf’s recent pieces on A Separate Peace and the band The Replacements. Troy Patterson, Slate’s television critic, is so brilliant one wants to dim one’s screen or, at least, turn away in despair of ever writing sentences as witty as his. Dana Stevens, Slate’s film critic, is always worth at least a skim and usually more.

I like Hendrik Hertzberg on politics and the tag team of Anthony Lane and David Denby on movies. The other critics, who round out the back pages of The New Yorker, comprise a pretty sturdy phalanx, too.

Lately, in terms of reviewers of books, I’ve enjoyed Michael Hofmann (His book Behind the Lines, Faber and Faber, 2001 is terrific), Clive James and William Logan. I’m learning to love William Bronk’s essays. Ange Mlinko is interesting, too. I have no all-time favourite, though. My desert island’s a crowded, raucous bit of turf. Randall Jarrell mans the conch shell – though lately I’ve been thinking of giving the job to the late great Tom Disch.

In terms of poets, I’m pumped to read Christian Wiman’s forthcoming book Every Riven Thing (FSG 2010). If his recent poems in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New Criterion are any indication, this book is going to be something. I’ve also been admiring the poems of Don Coles and John Updike. I rather like Robyn Sarah’s Pause for Breath (Biblioasis 2009), which seems to have been ignored. Zach Wells’ book, Track and Trace (Biblioasis 2009), was pretty good, too.

In terms of recent influences, Kay Ryan has meant a lot. I would say, in the awful parlance of our times, that her example has given me permission to try to be the sort of poet I’ve always wanted to be: a specialist in short, sharp poems that never absolve themselves of the hard, maybe even paradoxical work of being both challenging and clear; poems that kowtow to no arc. She would hate to hear this, I’m sure.

DK: Is there a single poem, either yours or someone else’s, that you would consider to be a complete poem?

JG: Sure. Here’s one by the lovely New York poet Samuel Menashe:

Forever and a Day

No more than that
Dead cat shall I
Escape the corpse
I kept in shape
For the day off
Immortals take

This poem strikes me as complete. Here’s great another one, same poet:


Dusk of the year
Nightfalling leaves
More than we knew
Abounded on trees
We now see through

DK: These days poets have many more opportunities to publish their work, apply for grants, submit their poems for awards etc than in the past. I think these things pose an enormous distraction from the writing of actual poetry. Is this unfair? How important are these things for you?

JG: Well, I’m not aggressively anti-grant; it’s good money if you can get it. But I’m lazy when it comes to the getting of it (which isn’t to say I couldn’t use it). And yet I do think my laziness is probably a blessing. That is, I do think a poet’s time is better served writing a poem or a review as opposed to filling out some pdf. (In fact, her time is probably best served reading – and not necessarily a poem.) So I think what you say is fair enough. In an age of excesses, it’s good to be a bit sluggish.

DK: You were criticized by Poetry Magazine readers for your stance on “negative” reviews. Are there limits to writing negatively about the work of other poets? Does it ever worry you that you’re opening yourself up for unwarranted negative reviews of your own poetry?

JG: Okay, the small, surly part of me, at the back of the seminar, wants to raise its hand and take gentle issue with the wording of your question. The piece to which I assume you’re referring, “Going Negative,” doesn’t ultimately champion something called a ‘negative review’ or some process of “writing negatively,” as so many seem to think. I’m not saying one should wear a brambly crown of scribbled lines, like a sour character in a comic strip. Rather, the piece defends the sort of necessarily sceptical review which should be the norm but which comes to find itself damned when some other person, however well-meaning, decides to describe it as ‘negative.’ Some readers of “Going Negative” appear to have gotten hung up on the title of the piece and the bit where I suggest that “negativity…needs to be the poetry reviewer’s natural posture.” But the piece – it’s just a preface to some reviews, really – actually goes on to question the usefulness of the adjective ‘negative’ and to elaborate a slightly more nuanced – and even optimistic! – position than the one which has been assigned to me in blogs and, of all places, the introduction to The Best American Poetry 2009.

So let me rephrase your otherwise fine question ever so slightly: what are the limits to writing with necessary scepticism about the work of other poets? Well, one might make an enemy of a person in a position of power – a judge of some prize, say. But one wasn’t likely going to win the prize, anyway. One will find, at the end of a life of cautious kowtowing, with little to show for, that one was better off being honest. Now, one doesn’t want to be destructive for its own sake; but burning bridges, if they’re the right bridges, can generate heat, even light. And they can build new connections, drawing by their very glow the sort of lovely, independent-minded reader who has been lost at sea, desperate for someone, anyone, to send a signal and confirm his or her gut-level suspicion about an overly-laurelled poet. When I was younger, it was a great relief to come across certain critics who were – and are! – frequently stuck with the label ‘negative’ reviewer. They made me feel a little less alone, these critics; and they made me feel a little less crazy for, say, not appreciating some awful Canadian poet whom I suspected others were overvaluing.

I’ll add that in rare cases one might be too hard on a deserving book and later come to regret one’s review of it. So that’s another limit to writing with a certain scepticism. But I’m pretty sure this is as mythic a phenomenon as the yeti. If I regret any of my reviews, they’re the ones in which I was too generous.

As for your other question, I’m not too worried about my work drawing “unwarranted negative reviews.” A person who’s moved to review my poetry because he’s misread a position of mine (or thinks I’ve gone out of my way to wound one of his friends) is a person who leapfrogs to troubling conclusions. He’s the sort of reviewer who wouldn’t have had much of worth to say about my poetry had he been presented with it blind. He’s loyal to poets, but not to poetry, and certainly not to readers. Anyway, as Kay Ryan has said, poems need to get used to surviving on their own. If mine are any good, they’ll eventually find a readership, no matter how hard I’ve made it for them. If they aren’t, they won’t.

DK: Are you working on a third book of poems? Any poems coming out in magazines that we should watch for?

JG: Not really. As I’ve said, I’ve mostly been tinkering with scraps. I’ve got the one poem forthcoming in Parnassus. I’ve also got a review-essay coming in Parnassus and another one coming in Poetry.
For my review of Jason Guriel's Pure Product see "Interviews and Reviews" in the right hand column.
Just a reminder, folks, that I have agreed to stand up in front of Victoria City Council on May 13 to read a poem. The object is not to read a poem about cities necessarily, but about life. So that’s where you come in. Suggest a poem that reminds us about life, in whatever form it takes, the ground of our being or of our landscape, and I’ll read it May 13.

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