Stephen Collis is the author of four books of poetry, Mine (New Star 2001), Anarchive (New Star 2005), which was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, The Commons (Talonbooks 2008)—the latter two forming parts of the on-going “Barricades Project”—and his latest work On the Material (Talonbooks 2010). Noted for his analyses of affinities between twentieth century poets, he has lectured widely on poetics and done numerous readings in Canada and the U.S. It is with great pleasure that I present the following extended interview with Stephen Collis which took place over email:
In a 2007 interview for rob mclennan you said that one of the main theoretical questions behind your writing was “What resources remain—in language—from the history of liberation movements and class struggles?” How do you see your latest book, “On the Material”, as an answer to that question?
Stephen Collis: I don’t know that On the Material is an answer to this question. At the time I said that I was thinking more about what I call “The Barricades Project”—a sequence of works which do indeed take this up directly, and which includes Anarchive (2005) and The Commons (2008), and several other books that are in-process. But it does nevertheless come up in On the Material (which I wanted, for the most part, to seem more contemporary, less immersed in history, as my other books were or tend to be). One of the “4×4”s is titled “The Infernal Quixote,” which is the title of a novel written by Charles Lucas shortly after the French Revolution. I think the poem also uses William Godwin, whose response to the Revolution was a little more positive than Lucas’s. The poem embeds a bit of an “argument” between those two (“chains” or “change”). Then a poem like “The Ark of Resistance” takes up—if not so much the language of that tradition—at least its iconography (Parisians in liberty caps, the reference to Delacroix’s “Lady Liberty Leading the People,” etc.). I think I’m always interested in how far I can take direct and often (uncomfortably) sincere/idealistic expressions of political sentiment and still make poetry out of them—that is, still use them “with my ear,” hear them as sounds worth listening to. It’s so easy—in almost any corner of our culture (popular media, learned intellectual circles)—to dismiss this language and that rhetorical tradition. But it’s near the heart of poetry to me—Blake and Shelley and Whitman and that whole call to (the imagination’s) arms and common cause.
“On the Material” is an efficiently sublime title that reaches back to a sense of the classical but also brings us into the present experience of holding a book of poetry in our hands. Throughout the book there’s a dazzling collection of allusions and guests, from Aristaeus, the god of bee-keeping, to Zizeck, the Elvis/Sylvester the Cat of Critical Theory. How did you go about organizing and incorporating such a wealth of references into your poetry?
Stephen Collis: I tend to think of poetry as a conversation—one I’m having with my peers, and all those dead poets and artists and philosophers from the past. So where we might mark a work as being “after” so and so, or where we might see an “allusion” to such and such a work—or, to shift genres, where one work might “sample” another—I see a conversation, and thus an exploration of the “social.”
There was nothing methodical about this in On the Material—at least not initially. For example, I wanted to write about the startling and sudden death of bees all over the world in 2007 or 08, and stumbled upon a reproduction of a statue of Aristaeus mourning his bees (a classical theme seemingly popular in 19th century France). Or I was in Philadelphia, and saw Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Ilium, and wanted to write about that (perplexed as I was by his statement that his paintings were a response to—specifically—Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad). So on and so forth.
With the long sequence, “4×4,” I wrote the first few poems on a trip to California. The form was accidental, but right away I recognized that it was a highly reproducible form—like a sonnet—and I started calling them 4x4s and thinking of them as poems I would write while travelling. On that same trip I bought a copy of Ted Berrigan’s Collected Poems, and was really enjoying his long sequence of “Sonnets.” I started to quote him. So then quoting other poets—sampling their work as I travelled through books as well as through physical space—also became part of the process or practice of writing the “4×4” poems.
I’ve always seen the path to writing as leading through reading, “through words of others,” as Susan Howe says. I think in each book I write I do that in a slightly different way. (In The Commons, for instance, where most of the words “belong” to someone else, this is very buried, very much erased, for the most part; in On the Material it’s a little more on the surface, available.) To write a poem is to tend “the commons” of language, to listen to and speak to the “shared.”
Wordsworth found the sublime in the Lake District and most people thought, “Sure, trees, mountains, beauty, a poem no problem.” Your collection begins with a quote from David Harvey, a social theorist with a profound interest in Marxist ideas, and your poems proceed to incorporate economic concepts in a very robust way, but the move from economics to poetry is not an obvious one. Could you talk about your process of turning economics into poetry?
Stephen Collis: The Economic Sublime! We’ll have to start a new school.
Poetry is thinking—a mode of thought—at least that’s how I approach it. Early lessons have really stuck: Pound’s image as “an intellectual and emotional complex”—not either thought or feeling, but both at once; or Fred Wah’s “music at the heart of thinking.” (If a poem is just intellect—sometimes conceptual poems come out this way—or just emotion—like a confessional lyric—it’s usually of less interest to me; it might be a brilliant poem, and I might enjoy it immensely, but for some reason it’s not a poem I’m too interested in writing.) So poetry is sound/thought. A dialectic of those two. Economics is just another approach, another way of thinking about the world. It provides a discourse and a lexicon. You can find music in all forms of language—my ear just happens to be attuned to socio-economic discourse (some of the time, anyhow). I find both explanatory power in thinkers coming out of the Marxist tradition (like Harvey), as well as a music I find pleasing (poems in upcoming parts of “The Barricades Project” contain a lot of Harvey!). They also lay down a challenge for cultural production: we seem to lack imagination around solutions/alternatives to current structures/problems—‘hey you poets/novelists/artists,’ I can here them calling, ‘imagine us a different world.’ If it were only so simple! I don’t think poetry is great for solutions, ultimately, but what it is good at is expressing political affects (like solidarity, social dismay/anguish, hope, rage). And—via its compression and parataxis—it’s also good at bundling problems up and presenting them—especially in their ambiguity and contradictions. The crazy disconnections that, when we look at them, we have to shake our heads and say ‘Really? Do we want this world?’
The only form of resistance
But it costs so much
And those gulls falling from
Trailing contrail spires
Would make a lovely poem
I could travel half a continent
To read it to you
In an air-conditioned room
Is there a specific type of “you” in an air-conditioned room? In other words, while writing On the Material did you have an audience in mind?
Stephen Collis: I don’t think I typically had a specific audience in mind—but at certain intersections I certainly did, like in this poem. At times I’m addressing my avant garde peers (to sort of say, again, ‘Really? Is this what we’re in this for?’). I wrote these poems while travelling, and most of that travelling was to do readings or poetry talks. So this poem addresses the poetry audience. It’s such a small exchange—a poet or two, 20 or 30 people in a small room somewhere. And I’m using all the resources of contemporary capitalism—my income, air travel, hotel rooms, etc.—so we can do this? Seems a bit excessive. I guess it’s just a moment of recognizing complicity, and irony, and how we are all caught up in this vast mechanism. I could choose not to travel, not to give readings. But I like to. And I think the people I interact with get something of value out of it (I hope so anyway). So we’re stuck. But we’re always stuck like this today—in our jobs, in everything we do which sometimes has disastrous side effects. Our world is one of consequences and side-effects.
The first third of On the Material is called 4X4 and features a wide range of cars and parts of cars.
Looking out the window I will
SUV all over this tarmac world
Fog lights on suburban gladiator grill
Crunch of rock under tire
When did you first think of driving a car into a poem? What were the discoveries that you made along the way?
Stephen Collis: It’s probably Jeff Derksen’s fault (Transnational Muscle Cars)! Actually, I’d never thought of it before really. But the 4×4 form suggested the vehicle, then I couldn’t resist it. The metaphor was so easy—late capitalism as a joy ride. I had to insist the publisher not put a truck on the cover! But I come from a very car-oriented family. My father always had old British sports cars he was trying to make work. And my brothers—if not me—inherited this machanic urge. And “booney bashing”—driving wrecklessly along overgrown logging roads in a truck—was a big part of growing up on Vancouver Island.
I think we like meeting everyday (material!) things like cars and trucks in poems. I would hate for those to be the only things in poems—but it’s good they are there. When I read some of these poems around Northern BC this spring, I was a little nervous. You have a different relationship to a 4×4 if you live where there’s snow on the ground 4 or 5 months of the year. But people still seemed to like the poems. There’s sort of a “narrative” structure to the “4×4” sequence. It begins with the 2008 crash and that pervasive feeling that “we’re fucked”—moves up down and across the continent on its joy-ride through decay and collapse—then winds up on a lyrical and romantically revolutionary note—abandoning gas guzzling trucks for an “ark of resistance.” So what did I discover along the way? Pull over! And maybe put your queer shoulder to some other wheel.
Baudelaire, Rilke, or Shelley. Who do you think would make the best drinking buddy?
Stephen Collis: Whew—tough. Baudelaire would be depressing, but he’d really, seriously drink. Rilke’s too angelic. Good for a walk by the sea—but drinking? I don’t think so. Shelley would party, I’m sure, though he can be a little pretentious. Hmm. I guess I’ll go with Shelley—but we stay out of boats.
There’s a nice strain of humour that runs through the poems in your collection. From messing around with Rolling Stones songs, (“Goodbye Ruby Super Tuesday”) to remixing John Ashbury (“tennis court oaf”), there’s a great propensity to play. From conception to completion, how do you maintain play and humour in a poem?
Stephen Collis: Probably it’s a matter of listening and watching for the puns—just like listening for sound—and letting them come if they do. I’ve “tried” to write “funny” poems, and failed miserably. Some people can do this. I think in recent years too many people have tried too hard to do this. But if it comes, it comes. It’s another way of thinking with and through the poem—“truth as laughter,” was Robin Blaser’s phrase. Don’t go overboard. But if the next line is a pun, sometimes that’s a good thing.
“On the Material” is built out of some very important questions: “Is making itself / the problem? How did we go from / meeting our needs to / excess and waste?” “Fighters forget – are we for or against freedom?” “Is this poem helping at all?” Have you had opportunities to discuss these questions with readers? Are there any answers that have stood out?
Stephen Collis: I haven’t discussed these specific questions with readers—usually the discussions are more general. The questions are rhetorical—I don’t expect answers. But I think it’s important we ask (big/difficult/abstract) questions. Maybe it’s more about modeling: I’m hoping readers will feel enabled to ask whatever “big” questions they might be pondering. The key is that the “world as it is” isn’t assumed to be absolute, or irreversible, or beyond question and doubt.
I’ve found the rhetorical in poetry—especially the direct address (apostrophe)—crucial—for a poetic politics. Poetry’s lyric heritage enables this projection of an abstract addressee. For me, that addressee is always a hypothetical everyone, or, alternatively, a hypothetical “ground control” or “global head quarters.” Powerlessness is a nasty business we all have to suffer through—we don’t know where to go to complain /protest most of the time (think capitalism as Kafkaesque Castle)—so via the lyrical address I can project that castle, or that mob milling outside the castle. It’s a social lyric address. If I got a direct response to one of these rhetorical questions/addresses, well, we’d really be getting somewhere!
In the last section of your book there is a series of homophonic translations of Rilke’s poems.
Book of moods
Music’s icon I
Conoclastic steel its
Power is linking its
Rose absolves trees
I was wondering if you could tell us about the process of editing a homophonic poem compared to other forms. Does it go through as many revisions? Is it filtered through the same editing process?
Stephen Collis: I’ve said a fair bit about sound here. When you’re doing a homophonic translation, everything becomes sound, and you’re focusing very microscopically—on the phoneme. It goes something like this: you say the original line or phrase, over and over, trying to get the sound right; you start trying words—or even just phonemes, syllables—that reproduce the sound, but mean something or form recognizable words in the language you’re translating into. This can be quite painstaking, and of course it’s impossible to come up with an exact, sonic, echo—just like it’s impossible to make an exact, literal translation. I’m no purist in any sense of the word—don’t believe at all in purity—so when I’m editing a homophonic translation afterwards, I might start monkeying around with it, changing things, forgetting that it had its source in another poem, another language. So I’d say yes, the editing process can be much like any other poem for me. I derive poems through all sorts of procedures (including that old procedure of just-making-it-up-on-the-fly, or writing-what-I-really-think-and-feel); once there’s a text there I start shaping, listening, cutting, adding, moving things around.