Interview: Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts’, The Obvious Flap, is a clever and evocative collection of experimental poetry. Published by BookThug, Gregory Betts and co-author Gary Barwin’s book resonates with BookThug’s longstanding commitment “to an ongoing conversation about the possibilities of what literature is, or could be.”

The Obvious Flap explores the very constructs in which literature is bound and unbound. Betts most recently published Boycott in 2014. He is a poet, editor, scholar and professor, as well as both the Director for the Centre of Canadian Studies and the Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence at Brock University.

How did you start out as a writer? How has your craft or method of writing changed since then?

I began writing poems in earnest when I was a teenager, inspired by Neil Young’s song Thrasher. The song paralyzed me with its combination of direct earnestness and abstract imagery. I wrote the lyrics out by hand and taped them to my bedroom wall. Then I typed them out and taped those to the wall. My own writing followed shortly afterwards, unleashed by the possibility of writing I gained from Thrasher. I began studying the lyrics of other songs by Bob Dylan, Robert Hunter, and David Bowie.  By the time I discovered Alan Ginsberg and George Bowering, I was already reading with an eye on technique and affect, and thinking about how I was writing and could do more. All of those early poems were not for anybody but myself. My writing style shifted dramatically when I realized, many years later, that poetry can also have an audience.

What was the planning process like for a poem like “The Obvious Flap”? Was there a clear beginning and a clear place you wanted to go?

“The Obvious Flap” began with a series of experiments that Gary Barwin and I passed back and forth to each other. We kept editing one piece in particular, adding more and more lines until those broke off into new poems. It evolved very quickly and organically. There was no plan until we had a full manuscript was complete and then we went back and edited. The beginning of the book was the idea that language was weird and wonderful.

In “Similines II” it’s written “don’t let them/ brand me” and in “3.”, “so it goes/ logos like death.” “So it goes,” alludes to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five; how did his writing influence this piece? What inspired this idea of branding and logos?

Vonnegut’s disturbing humour, his unstable sense of reality, his attention to the way violence can dislodge somebody from consensual reality are all things that influence everything I write. Logos are the most stable and pervasive elements of our contemporary environment. Logos, however, is also the Greek word for “the word” and for reason/rationality. I do believe that a too-rational society leads to violence by ignoring the mystical notion of the value of life. Most of my writing stages resistance of some form or another to capitalism and rationalism.

“Deadwood” is an erasure poem claiming “I am a residue of semantic noise” the erasure becoming that “residue.” How did you create the following visual reproductions of this statement?

The images were all produced on a computer using Photoshop.

At the back of the book is a definition of chora, quoting Plato’s Is it intended for the reader to come to an understanding of what chora is, and then to be confirmed by this definition? Why at the back and not the beginning?

Because of the way that books are made in set numbers of pages, we ended up with a few blanks at the end. Our publisher invited us to fill those pages with other work. We chose, instead, to have a glossary of one term. We immediately liked its echo of the meaning of the term, by being both obviously inside the text and incomprehensibly outside of it.

Do you prefer to have your poems read or heard? For this book which do you find is a clearer presentation of your intended experience?

I’m a page poet, without question, who loves to hear my poems re-imagined in performance. I have little interest in my “intended experience.” I believe that the strongest poems work in many different contexts and settings.

What is it like to try to publish experimental poetry?

Publishing in Canada is easy, especially if you are open to online publications. What is difficult, however, is having your work read and read by the right people. The experimental poetry community is a tiny subset of poets, who are a tiny subset of authors, who are a tiny subset of the general population. Once you connect with the right community for your poetry (whether experimental or not), publishing opportunities abound.

On BookThug’s website they say that manuscripts are evaluated for their “artistic merit and ability to continue the ‘conversation’ about experimental literature,” where were you entering into that conversation with The Obvious Flap? Who were the authors you were responding to, or having conversation with, apart from of course Gary Barwin?

The Obvious Flap began with an essay we both read by Mark Truscott on the nature of aesthetics and poetics. Gary and I debated it, and ended up shuffling it around. I preferred an essay by Angela Rawlings. The whole gambit of The Obvious Flap began when we started collaging those two essays together. It was, then, literally a book that grew out of a conversation about experimental literature. In terms of what we wanted to say, I wanted to protest softwood lumber and Casa Loma’s chilling nipply aesthetics. Gary was firmly opposed to the horizon and the prospect of black wing birds.

On the back cover, “musical” is the first word to describe The Obvious Flap. I understand that Gary Barwin is a musician, are you as well? How did music influence this book?

I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a musician, as I lack the depth of musical knowledge Dr. Barwin (a PhD in music) obviously possesses, but I perform in bands and sing songs around the campfire all summer. My latest band was a Death Metal improvisational sound poetry troupe called The Shiteaters. We only had one gig before we broke up, playing in the sewers of downtown St. Catharines. You could only attend the concert by leaning down to the sewer grates throughout the city and listening.

Including potential future works, by yourself and others, where do you think experimental poetry is headed next? How did this book influence “This is Importance” and “Boycott”?

Obvious future directions include increased exploration of the digital world, increased attention to the anthropocene, and, in Canada, the ongoing implications of settler colonialism and Canadian culpability to cultural genocide. This importance is my love letter to my students whose errors sometimes transport me directly into poetry. I believe in the importance of errors. “Boycott” is my attempt to reconcile the language of global protest movements with my inherent set of privileges. Every bit of space on earth is contested territory.

As Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies as well as the Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence, how has your research into Canadian culture impacted your creative work?

Honestly, it hasn’t had an impact on my creative work except to slow it down. Running an academic unit takes a lot of time and energy and I look forward to the moment after (which begins July 2017). That said, I was able to help organize a number of conferences at Brock University that brought an incredible number of amazing authors to the city.

What would you say to encourage a young writer looking to get into experimental poetry or contemporary Canadian literature?

Read! Read! Read! Read the old stuff (start with everything bpNichol ever wrote), read the new stuff (go read everything Lisa Robertson ever wrote). Buy magazines, go to literary readings, and get involved in the exchange of ideas. You cannot participate in the literary conversation if you don’t know what anybody is talking about. Get involved!


Eli Willms is an undergraduate student in the Creative Writing Program at Brock University. He currently lives, writes, reads and brews his own beer in the Niagara Region. Eli is an ambitious writer of creative non-fiction, fiction, poetry and the occasional ale recipe.

This interview was originally written as an assignment for Natalee Caple as part of the Brock University Creative Writing Program.




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