A short interview with Andy Weaver

Andy Weaver has published two books of poetry, Were the bees (NeWest, 2005) and Gangson (NeWest, 2011), and a recent chapbook, Concatenations, through above/ground press. He teaches contemporary poetry and poetics and York University in Toronto. His third book of poetry, this, appears this fall through Chaudiere Books.

What was the original impulse for this?

I’ve been working and thinking a lot on theories of the sublime in relation to contemporary poetry. Specifically, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years working through Jean-François Lyotard’s theorizations of the immanent sublime. Basically, the sublime is something we can encounter or think of, but we can’t present an example of it to our minds—“the present moment” is one that Lyotard thinks about a lot. this is an attempt to work through “this-ness” in the sense of an immanent sublime; something we know exists, but something we can never really understand. So, I was trying to think about this-ness, not in the sense of “this present” or “this idea,” but “this this,” whatever that might be, and how that idea could be represented and worked through in language.

Your work has been increasingly geared toward an exploration towards language itself. Why do you think this is, and who have your models been? I know you’ve spoken of earlier influences such as Mina Loy and Robert Duncan, for example.

Yes, there’s definitely been a growing focus toward investigating language as language in my work. I don’t know that there’s a simple answer for why. My scholarly work has moved more in that direction, and there always seems to be a direct link between my creative and scholarly interests. I guess it’s just what has captured my attention. Certainly, a lot of the people I’ve been reading over the last ten years or so have elements of investigating or highlighting language as language. Robert Duncan is a good example of that, though he’s also very careful not to go down the rabbit hole, so to speak. All of the Black Mountain writers walk that line, and they all work as influences in different ways, especially Duncan and Creeley. John Cage is also central. Daphne Marlatt and Fred Wah are both important to me, because they receive but also work to modify that Black Mountain influence. Erín Mouré’s work, especially how she manages to reinvent herself as a writer, is always in my mind. And I tend to spend a lot of time reading work by Harryette Mullen, Juliana Spahr, Lisa Robertson, Susan Howe, and Robert Kroetsch. I’m probably forgetting a lot of names. I’ve been reading a lot of H. D. and Charles Reznikoff over the last year or two, though I don’t know that they will directly influence my writing. I’ve read a fair amount of Language Poetry in the past, and they were really important to me when I was writing were the bees and gangson, but they weren’t direct influences on this. Adam Dickinson is a close friend and essential sounding board for me, and I love reading his work. That’s a wide-ranging list, but I think they all share an interest in the workings of language itself, though not always to the same degree or in the same ways.

Your list includes a number of poets who utilize and engage with theory throughout their poetry, from the more overt poem-essay by Spahr, Moure and Robertson, to far more subtle explorations. Separate to your specifically scholarly works, where do you feel your writing fits along the nebulous spectrum of the poem-essay, and what do you feel your work can bring to larger conversations on form?

I don’t think of my work as very essayistic, but I do think my work is very idea driven—I guess it shares that with a lot of poem-essays. I’ve been reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is absolutely astonishing. That book maneuvers the divide between poem and essay in a way I can’t. Phil Hall’s Killdeer exists at that divide, too, though in a very different way. I think a poem-essay tends to work through ideas in the body of the poem, in a meditative way—it documents the process of working through an idea. My work tends, I think, to enact a thought, but with little meditation in the poem itself. The work of meditating on an idea is something that happens outside the poem for me, and the poem works as a process of enacting a thought, rather than meditating on a thought.

As for the conversation on form, I don’t know that I have anything very new to offer. Robert Duncan always referred to himself as a derivative poet, by which he meant that he was an amalgamation of the poets who influenced him; Duncan is very much the central influence on my writing and thinking, but—as he did—I try to adapt and string together different, sometimes seemingly incompatible influences. So, I try to write in a way that acknowledges the work of those writers who have influenced me: Black Mountain, TISH, Language, while being open to outliers (A. R. Ammons, for instance, or H.D., Charles Reznikoff, Mouré, or even someone very stylistically different, like Alden Nowlan). I like to think that my form is an amalgamation of those different elements; along with whatever idiosyncratic aspects I might bring to the mixture.

I think one of the things that often frustrate me about more conventionally lyric poems is that they’re written as though they don’t have a form, or as though form is a natural, secondary concern to the content. I tend to like poetry that is consciously very aware that writing a poem is a very formal activity, one based in artifice. In my mind, there’s nothing natural about writing a poem.

I’ve always been curious about your attachment to Robert Duncan. What is it about his “writing and thinking” that has so deeply influenced your own?

I have a lot of favourite poets, but Duncan really does stand above the rest for me, and he has since I first encountered his work in the late 1990s. I think he had one of the great ears of the century—his work is beautifully crafted at the level of sound and rhythm. But there are a lot of poets with great ears out there, and lots that write interesting stuff. I think I always return to Duncan because his politics and his aesthetics are so rich, and they generally agree with mine. I feel that I write as a derivative poet in the same sense that Duncan always stated he was a derivative poet—meaning that he wrote by reading, he wrote by engaging with other texts. I love how he views the world as an organically interrelated whole, and how his notion of rime plays with that. Politically, I love his anarchism and his arguments against hierarchies. I love how he argues that syncretism, the gathering together of disparate ideas, beliefs, and elements, is the basis for writing and a basis for ethics. I love that Duncan always viewed aesthetics as political. So, his writing gives permission to engage with the world on physical, textual, ethical, etc., levels in a way I find extremely productive.

Having said all of that, Duncan had a strong mythical/spiritual side that doesn’t really agree with my worldview. I sometime get a bit lost or uninterested by his writing when he moves firmly into those elements. But I generally try to remain engaged with his writing even then and work to struggle through to see what engaged him about those elements. I think that challenge is a big part of why I love Duncan: for all of the things I love about his work, there are still elements that I really don’t agree with, and that mixture always intrigues me.

The work I’ve seen of yours since the appearance of Gangson (2011), including this and Concatenations (above/ground press, 2014), have engaged more obviously with sound, meaning and visual play, resulting in pieces that look far less like traditional “poems” than the work in your first two books. What might have prompted this shift in structure, or was it always on the horizon?

One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about since Gangson is the role of artifice in poetry. Some writers want to downplay it in favor of a more “natural” expression, but throughout this I wanted to emphasize artifice in many ways, and sound and visual play was a major part of that. Emphasizing artifice was important to the work because the book focuses on such an abstract construct: this-ness. The work is an attempt to imagine this-ness, which for me is tied up intricately with the presentation of presentation itself. In order to try to imagine this-ness, it’s important to defamiliarize it as much as possible. We live inside the “this” and so we can never really conceptualize it; all we can offer ourselves are examples of what different this-nesses (different present moments) were once those this-nesses have past. We can’t truly understand an experience or moment while we’re inside it, so this-ness is always something we’re retroactively working to understand—but we can’t experience a moment from the outside, so crucial information of each moment is impossible to regain when we’re trying to understand it. The information we have of past moments is all artificial (it’s memory of information, or it’s imposed information based on other experiences, etc., but it’s not the information itself), and so artifice is necessary in the work in order to emphasize that all attempts to present this-ness are necessarily artificial. For example, “Concatenations” (one section of this) is a series of 26 poems, each made up of 26 alphabetical words, each poem starting with a different letter. The challenge is to say something while dealing with the artifice of language—but that artifice is always there; there’s nothing natural about language, and the poems are just more obviously artificial. The spacing on the page, where words are placed according to visual rules (certain letters on certain lines order the writing by lining up vertically), is just another example of artifice structuring our thought and expression.

Image SMSMS (SMS Mediated Sublime), Maurizio Bolognini, 2000-2006

rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

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