Sunday, February 10, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is the author of If Language and Haikube, and has edited books of poetry by Lawren Harris, W.W.E. Ross, and Raymond Knister. He has been publishing since '99, when his first poems appeared in a small housepress anthology of translations of translations of bpNichol's translations of Apollinaire's translations. He has published a half-dozen chapbooks, a string of broadsides, and various one-off projects, including sound poetry, visual art, web/digital art, and more. His stories, critical writing, and reviews have appeared in journals across Canada and beyond. Born in Vancouver, he currently lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he teaches Canadian and Avant-Garde literature at Brock University. His work appears in the anthologies Shift & Switch, Outside Voices, Exact Fare Only, Read York, Collected Sex, and TTbpN2: a Tribute to bpNichol.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Like a lot of people, I've been making hand-made books, chapbooks, and 'ephemera' for most of my life, so the question of which book counts as first is somewhat arbitrary. The real first would probably be the staple-bound book of sonnets I wrote to a daisy I was compelled to mow by my family when I was about 9. The book helped me to assuage my guilty, tormented soul. The relief, however, only lasted until my first girlfriend dumped me in grade six.

The first book with an ISBN, however, has made it easier to connect with writers and fellow travellers across broader geographical distances. It's not a secret club, but the book becomes a kind of shorthand for a broader aesthetic that people either dig or duck.

2 - How long have you lived in St. Catharines, and how does geography, if atall, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

St. Catharines and I have lived together for a year and a half, but we're still coming to terms. It hasn't appeared in my work, but it hasn't interfered all that much either. I call it a truce with a potential for a general eventual thaw. Some things I doubt/hope I will never come to terms with. This is a city that mocks pedestrians, recoils from cyclists, pities those who would try to use the public transit system. The downtown core is perfectly ringed by big box stores that I call the Grey Belt. The belt pulls tighter constantly, popping urban essentials out into the grey zone -- the downtown general hospital, for instance, just relocated to the other side of a Walmart parking lot. St. Cats lost many rounds with the globo-capital machine but there are underground streams and pockets of resistance that I've been enjoying discovering -- still, everything here comes out slightly skewed, and the city gets giddy at the chance for new and bigger roadways. Recently, a band of hipster urban activists argued theatrically for more downtown parking as a way to revitalize the city. They weren't being ironic. As in many places, people seek to tweak what they have rather than rethink from scratch.Here there be drive-thrus.

I suppose for me geography isn't disconnected from race and gender, politics or economics or technology. Language and writing parenthesize them all, all we know, and there is certainly lots to talk about. As Martin Heidegger wrote, language is the house of being, in which all of it resides,-- constantly impacting, impacted, and impactful.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a 'book' from the very beginning?

I let each project try and assume its most natural form. Sometimes that means a book-length project, sometimes (and more often) a chapbook sized nugget or smaller. Sometimes writing is best served as ephemera, and I have lots of little one-off projects. Sparklers and fireworks. A lot of what I write isn't meant for publication at all -- just trying to see what would happen if.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

For me, the best thing about public readings is the chance to find something new -- in my own work, sure, occasionally, but mostly in what other writers are doing. I go to readings to find new books or to learn new entrance points into books and authors that I've already read. Really eye-bulging moments happen, but they are admittedly rare. There are special disappointments that come from readings, too: more often then not, good performances make for terrible pages, and vice-versa. The economics of Canadian publishing insists that authors deliver and perform their works, even if their writing or aesthetics are ill suited to the task. Recently, Bob Snider read at the reading series I run here in town and, barely a page into his new book, wasn't happy with how he was connecting with the crowd. He stopped reading and pulled out his guitar and instantly had the audience wrapped around his finger. Most authors can't do that; and indeed, most authors make little to no effort to entertain or connect to their audience -- which is perhaps the reason most literary readings are free or nominal; certainly the reason they are a marginal cultural activity. Consistently, beyond the rare chance of discovery in a performance, the most effective and interesting parts of a reading happen when the PA system is off and the crowd has dwindled to a handful of cultic practitioners; but those moments would happen less frequently between strangers from the tribe without the focalizing event -- let alone the funding to move people between the cities and towns.

In a smaller urban centre, though, readings are even more important. It's kind of like the news -- a window into things for those who find themselves a little adjacent to the world.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kindsof questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

The word 'theory' comes from 'a view' and 'to see.' I like to look and see. I hope for a nice view.

Current questions: I'm constantly looking for new ways not to mean, I mean, to stumble upon, to find through error, to creatively misread; I'm interested especially in the moments when, in reading, walking, or talking, something outre, uncanny pops up; I'm interested in how that, a fleeting, unintended gem can appear without being invited. I suppose this sounds like the Automatic writing methods of last century, or even found texts of the mid-century, but I'm more interested in sculpting and staging those moments of creative misreadings than in letting go throughout the production of the art. You have to look hard to see well.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I have very little experience working with editors on my own writing, certainly little enough to comment. Jay MillAr [see his 12 or 20 here] made a good call to remove unnecessary visual texts placed between the anagrams of If Language. He was right -- so, thanks Jay.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Right now, my biggest problem is book finishing. I have no less than 8 works in progress in every direction I can manage.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

Right before the core.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Morley Callaghan said the writer is one who watches and sees. Margaret Atwood said the writer is the one who writes. John Lennox once told me to write something every day, even -- especially -- if it's not intended to be the final, finished product.

As a grandiose motto, slogan, or bumper sticker, I probably aspire to Blake's axiom more than anything else: 'Every word and every letter is studied, and put into its place. All are necessary to each other.'

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical/editorial work)? What do you see as the appeal?

While I like the separation of genres, I view them more as opportunities to push my writing and thoughts in new directions. I've published poems (lyrics, constraint, formal/traditional, visual, shaped, sound, LANGUAGE, flarf, haiku, occasional, devotional, and so on), stories (fiction and non-fiction), essays, journalism, manifestos, walking tours, letters to the editor, introductions, afterwords, reviews, biography, conscious plagiarisms (see plunderverse for details) and much more. My writing attempts to respond to the inner necessity of a particular piece. As I see it, my job is to transport each bauble I discover to somewhere, anywhere else; just far enough that it becomes self-animated. Every project is different, whereas genre looks for samenesses.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I don't have a routine, and I have no evidence that routine is helpful for my writing. I write on napkins just as easily as laptops. I have voice recorders, and I have used a pay phone to call in a poem composed while walking and left it on an answering machine knowing I wouldn't have a chance to write it down before it disappeared. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, and I've even woken up to discover a (disappointing, admittedly,) poem written while asleep. I wrote a short story on the top of a BC mountain, just above the mosquito line. I wrote another story in a vacant squash court below Winnipeg -- just beneath the mosquito line. Perhaps if my schedule were more regular I would solve the problem identified in question 7.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Judging by the boxes of works in progress, this has never been a problem that affects me. If I don't feel like writing, I don't write, or just jot down notes, thoughts, random passages. I play guitar, go to the pub whatever, reread John Barlow emails. I'm not hung up on production, but I do get swept away by it.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

My most recent book project on the shelves is an edition of Lawren Harris' urban poetry and prose. It builds from work I've done before on Canadian modernists and avant-gardists, and international writing and art at the time. Of the book projects on the go, the one I am closest to finishing builds from my work on plunderverse which was started back in 99. These project both build from long trajectories of ideas that have been brewing and stewing for over a decade. As a point of similarity, though one is critical and the other creative, they both exhibit and explore my relationship as reader to other writers and writings.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art? & 15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I once went to an energy therapist who located my energy centre about six feet above my body. She told me that I probably wasn't a very good gardener. I'm not.

I like to pursue ideas, and revel in the realization of tightly composed, highly original conceptual projects. This happens in all of the worlds of art, though not all of the time. I work in literature, but I find most things that I read boring or indulgent or decadent. I love a good book -- recent highlights include Freud's The Future of an Illusion, Voaden's Four Plays of Our Time, The Rubaiyat of Amar Khavyyam, and Israel Zingwall's Italian Fantasies -- but no more or less than a good film, meal, song, canvas, urban design, or pretty much anything that requires creativity and thus invites the possibility of an avant-garde transformation. People say that avant-gardism is a non-concept, a bland synonym for innovation. To me, the term is worth pursuing from its original sense (although I'm no militarist) in that avant-garde art is seeking to transform and change the world in which it is made -- is seeking to bring a general populace into a realigned consciousness or space. I'm always interested in artists whose work attempts (most often to fail) this kind of ambition: from Breton to Bok, Borduas to Brand.

Poets are a poem's way of making other poems. I'm interested in the gap moments, when books, poems, language, letters reveal in flashes a capricious structure and the dim glimmer of where outside might be. If I was more paranoid, and I'm close to it, I'd see poets engaged in a battle with Dewdney's language-virus.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Spend a year way over yonder in the Yukon and learn the minor key.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

If I could no longer make things, I'd be happy running a cafe, a bookstore, a restaurant, a bar. My great-great Grandfather used to operate the train from Dundas, Ontario to Hamilton, Ontario, loading the bags, selling the tickets, driving the train and refueling all by himself. I could do that.

I used to spend days upon days researching various inventions (floating cars, solar-powered tanning beds, magnetic trains) that I would draw up in blue-prints and pass to my father, who was an engineer, so I suppose I have a little bit of inventive-engineering in me. In truth, though, I don't think I could last and be happy in any job with strict hours. Regular even ridiculous hours are fine, but they need to be randomly distributed. But if my cynicism ever reaches the point of no return, I'll probably go into politics.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I never realized there was an off switch.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book, really great book, I read was Boccaccio's The Decameron. The last great film was The Saddest Music in the World.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Overarching direction: I continue to pursue the possibilities of creative misreading (as potential antidote to uncreative writing). Specific manifestations: as mentioned above, I'm just finishing up a plunderverse project that I've been working on for years; I'm editing an edition of Canada's first avant-gardist, Bertram Brooker's manifestos, stories, and essays; I've got a novel in its fourth rewrite; I'm collaborating with Toronto DJ Kent Foran, doing plunderphonic cut-ups and mixes of some of my poems; I'm co-editing PRECIPICe with Adam Dickinson [see his 12 or 20 questions here]; I've just finished a first draft of a collaborative book of poetry with Gary Barwin [see his 12 or 20 questions here]; I'm co-organizing with Catherine Heard a night to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the publication of Refus Global and the ongoing influence of Surrealism in Canada; various essays on the go in various states of array and disarray; and to talk about ongoing lesser projects would require mining the notes and scribbles and messages I've left for myself buried, half-buried, coherent and not.

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