His piece “one week” appears in the third issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the extended prose piece “one week.” How did it originate?
A: I was invited by Richard Harrison to be a part of the “Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” project with a pair of readings, one in 2011 and one this last spring. Mutanabbi Street is the historic center of Baghdad bookselling, a street filled with bookstores and outdoor book stalls. A car bomb exploded and killed 26 people on Mutanabbi Street on March 5, 2007, decimating this cultural hub. For the 2nd reading I composed a new piece that applies the ideas of conceptual writing. This piece consists solely of press releases outlining the deaths in Iraq during the week that Al-Mutanabbi street was bombed.
Q: Have you utilized this kind of flarf-esque structure before? What do you see as the effect of a piece such as this?
A: Well, I don’t think that “one week” is a flarf poem in the slightest, it works along more Conceptual frameworks. Flarf poetry is written with an eye to what wikipedia says are “rejected conventional standards of quality and explored subject matter and tonality not typically considered appropriate for poetry.” Flarf poems are written to be intentionally corrosive, cute, or cloyingly wacky. “one week” on the other hand is closer to conceptualism whereby it scrapes the internet for language and then presents it back without filter—a means of presenting daily language in a way which draws attention to its poetics—there’s nothing cute or cloying about the reporting coming from Iraq.
Q: Given that such a conceptual framework, as the back cover of Please, No More Poetry: The Poetry of derek beaulieu (2013) suggests, “challenges the very idea of reading,” I wonder about how such a piece is considered in various contexts. For example: an audience in an art gallery reading such a piece on the wall might be more open to its conceptual frameworks, but even a highly-literate literary audience reading the same piece in a poetry journal is still subject to a narrower view. Is part of the purpose of the piece to simply challenge the idea of what “poem” is currently considered?
A: I wouldn’t say that the purpose of the piece is solely to challenge our expectations of poetry, no. That said, Conceptual and Concrete poetry both challenge our reading habits. My friend Christian Bök jibes that the reason why so much text art is unsuccessful is that people don’t like to read standing up. I think that in a lot of ways the reading that we do most often occurs standing up—standing on public transit, walking down the street, waiting in line—and that poetry can only benefit from engaging with this new reading spaces.
Q: Have you composed any other pieces along the lines of “one week”?
A: Yes, for the most part it’s the same strategy I used for the majority of How to Write (Talonbooks, 2010). The internet provides an unending source of material, it’s just a matter of where to look and how to choose.
Q: I’ve always had the impression that you predominantly worked on larger projects. What happens with the small one-offs you create in-between, or are they eventually to be part of something larger as well? I’m curious, too, about the piece “from Extispicium” in the uncollected section of Please, No More Poetry. Was it also constructed using a similar strategy?
A: In addition to larger projects like flatland, Local Colour and The Newspaper, I always have smaller pieces on the go in various stages. Those poems are sometimes occasional and sometimes are incorporated in to larger sequences, depends on the piece. Extispicium is a long-term project that combines personal narrative with harvested testimony and phrases from survivors of abuse and bullying.
Q: I’m intrigued at the political engagement of “one week” and the social engagement of Extispicium, elements I haven’t been aware of in your prior work. Is this a relatively new element you’ve been exploring, or simply one that’s more overt? What do you consider, if any, the social responsibilities of art? Or does it live at the level of honest engagement?
A: Conceptual writing (and Concrete poetry) is often dismissed as apolitical. I think that it is, in fact, highly charged within a political awareness of subjectivity, ownership, theft and formulations of the commons. Rob Fitterman’s No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself (Ugly Duckling, 2014) is a perfect example—in it Fitterman has crafted a deeply intimate, deeply personal, lyrical longpoem crated entirely from phrases and confessions he scraped from chatboards and internet postings. Subjectivity and ownership—poetic property—are charged spaces. I would say that my work has continuous engagement with the politics of reading and theft.
Q: As a writer, publisher, editor and critic, you are extremely engaged with a variety of practitioners of Conceptual writing as well as concrete and visual poetries across Canada and across the globe. Who would you consider are the current writers that should be receiving more attention? What emerging writers would you recommend we watch out for?
A: I strongly recommend the emerging poets who have been featured in 89+ / POETRY WILL BE MADE BY ALL especially #girlproblems by Victoria Braun and Space Administration by Ken Hunt ... and there’s a tonne more in that great, foreword-thinking series…