Tuesday, October 16, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Donato Mancini

Toronto-born, Hamilton-raised, and Vancouver-resident Donato Mancini is a writer, visual artist and polymath whose individual and/or collaborative works have been exhibited in Canada, the United States, Cuba, Finland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. He has written extensively about music and contributed more than 600 articles to http://www.allclassical.com/ from 2001 to 2004. His poetry has been published in such magazines as Matrix, Broken Pencil, Vallum, Grain, W, Rampike, and Queen Street Quarterly. Mancini has published eight chapbooks; his first full-length book is Ligatures (New Star 2005), and his second, Æthel (New Star) is but weeks old.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

Mainly, it's just led me to meet many people I wouldn't have met otherwise. Young poets probably expect more from a first book than they get.

2 - How long have you lived in Vancouver, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I moved to Vancouver in 2001, having shifted for 5 years between Victoria, BC and Burlington, Ontario. It would be impossible for me to articulate the effect of geography per se, but I'm sure I would have written very differently if I had stayed in Ontario. The social context - the "baggage" if you will - is quite different in every city. Unless you're completely insensitive to the other writing that has been done in the city, and the social politics of the city, those things will affect what you do and why you do it. Race and gender, like class, inflect everything poets write, at all times - disavowals of this basic principle by certain poets notwithstanding. However, gender actually is one of many topical concerns in my new book Æthel - as suggested in the androgyneity of the title. Early on, I remember being told that my writing was "boyish", an observation I didn't understand at the time. Later, I understood it better (and very differently) in terms of how concrete poetry is tied to modernism, and specifically in terms of the genderedness of modernism. Modernism was plagued with heroic machismo right to the end. Concrete poetry, because of its implicit ties with modernism, has the social and stylistic stigma of being a boys' pastime, like collecting Hockey-cards. This in spite of the many women who work, and have worked, so brilliantly in concrete. So when I write a line like "Semicolons Sap and Impurify Our Precious Narrative Fluids" I'm addressing (humorously, I hope) the frequently masculinist context of modernism, which concrete poetry always evokes. (Remember Jackson "Jack the Dripper" Pollock - a man who was said to "paint with his penis" - and remember General Jack D. Ripper in Dr Strangelove.) In that line I'm both admitting my implicatedness in the context, while rejecting it as an framework. I dislike intensely the tough guy stances men still take over questions of literary style and position. Getting back to Vancouver as an influence, one of the first things I noticed about KSW-related writers is that most of them rejected the modernistic cultural heroism that still energised certain figures in the male wing of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E project. At KSW, vanguard heroism was (in most cases) dropped in favour a sociality both more conscious of its implicatedness, and more anarchic in its cultural stance. (Neither did the KSW ever allow the modes of textuality they picked up from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E to become retro-fitted as mere "style", without an attendant social dialectic.) Thus, while retaining the critical force of the project, KSW helped me think of "inventive" poetry (as Bernstein would say), in terms other than an "avant-garde" and all the ugly business the term entails as a spatial, military, and cultural metaphor.

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?

My writing always begins with a problem or an observation. It's rarely a problem of a production biography, such as "wouldn't it be neat if I were to write a _____?", but some issue that fascinates, or annoys me - usually both. The spark (or "precious particle") can come any time at all, but it often comes while either reading, writing, doodling, thinking, daydreaming, or night-dreaming. Developing those ideas is a different thing altogether. I've given my process names before, but I'm not sure if they'll be helpful for anyone else. The imperfectly synonymous terms are "recursive questioning" and "negative iteration". Making poetry in the 21st century is a forbidding prospect partly because poets can do practically anything they want to do. (The few taboos that still constrain North American poetry, much more than contemporary art, are weakening. You can see proof of this in the growing acceptance of trans-disciplinary poetics.) Rather than a problem of inspiration, then, this creates a crisis of plenitude. A core artistic puzzle for poets today is how to eliminate possibilities, not how to discover new ones. So the process I sometimes name "recursive questioning" or "negative iteration" is basically a negative feedback loop, if you can imagine a feedback loop that steadily consumes/eliminates the feedback. Sometimes this questioning is where a piece of mine begins, more often it's part of an interrogation strategy I use after the piece has begun. It helps me work through the ramifications of every potential decision. Through negative iteration, I block out a sequence of refusals, to determine what the work will not do, and I manoeuvre it towards its final form.

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

I love listening to good poetry readings. Sometimes even when I find the poetry sneezeable I still enjoy hearing it read aloud. My feel for Vancouver as a place (cultural site, and geographical place) is bound up with my memories of the recordings in the KSW audio archive - those voices, those imaginary rooms, haunt my Vancouver.

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

I think you should be careful about how you phrase this question. Poetry is not really about providing, or even discovering, answers as such. Poetry can be productively compared to science in some ways, but unlike science it doesn't advance by hypothesis, test, conclusion, etc, towards building a determinate body of knowledge. In that sense, science does seek and answer questions; poetry absolutely does not. Poetry is a discourse, a conversation, a practice, a praxis. As Gwendolyn MacEwen said, it is "a total profession". So the "theoretical concerns" a poet has are completely embedded in the work. The concerns are actually indistinguishable from the work, they aren't "behind" it, or driving it. I think that the social functions of poetry and theory are very similar, so it's a profound mistake to suggest that the two should be, or even can be, kept in separate cultural drawers. There's a misconception (or deliberate obfuscation) not only that theory "ruins" poetry (by killing the buzz of The Poetic), but that any poet who draws from theory is only using poetry to demonstrate preconceived theoretical principles. (Contemporary artists are lucky they aren't subjected to this humiliation anymore) It's as if the poem is only a tool of a pedagogy, a rabbit-out-of-hat magic trick / object-lesson. I mean, it infantilises poetry. So the problem I have with the form of your question is that, although I know you don't subscribe to it yourself, your language sustains that imaginary separation. Even when artists think that their work is didactic, there is always tremendous leakage, spill, and overflow of meaning that undermines the most literal messages a writer could write. The "general economy" of language (as Steve McCaffery's calls language's constant oversignification) means the work is always implicated in many more "theoretical concerns" than the mind can hold.

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

I constantly show friends my work as it develops. Their responses and spontaneous reactions are essential to my process. An adage I fully believe is: "Books are written by communities."

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

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

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

Paraphrasing something John Cage's dad said to him: "If someone says "can't", that shows you what to do." Like Cage, I never heard that as Tony Robbins-type power-talk, but as a perfectly reasonable, sobering instruction.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

Often when I write, I experience a minor crisis. It might just be that I can feel my own mortality winding around me as I age, but it usually feels like everything is at stake. I'm confronted with an opportunity at each outing that will never be repeated, and so I'm forced to consider everything I could learn from the process, everything that might be said, everything that the writing could do. It's not a rehearsal, as they say. So, while I'm not someone who tries to own all the meanings of his work, I do feel I have to "own up" to as many of its potential implications as I can. Any poetics today must, like it or not, bear all the weight of history, and the horrors of contemporaneity, whether it bears them lightly or heavily. Thinking through these implications is a major part of what's laborious in writing. In these senses, my critical work and my poetic work are in direct dialogue. The dialogue is what keeps both of them moving, changing, improving. You see, my critical-poetic work is always in dialogue with the social, even when it seems most aesthetic.

Now, to flip your question, let me reiterate (after George Bowering) that "genre" isn't the issue here, except that poetry risks becoming a mere genre when readers and writers have expectations of it that are too specific. When the "poetic experience", the "particular magic of poetry", the "poetry buzz" or whatever, is too recognisable (if not articulable), poets start writing "poetry", or "creative writing". Readers then come to expect a certain kind of bump from it, and poetry becomes a mere genre. What characterises genre literature is that the writer-reader contract contains very specific clauses. A reader's pleasure, in that case, derives largely from slight variations in how the writer fulfils very specific expectations. Ready analogies can be found in music, with the Blues or Baroque music. Listeners know exactly where they are, and largely what to expect, after only a few notes. The pleasure is in the teasing play with the tensions of expectation. Poetry-readers should not be enticed to recognise The Poetic so easily. When they can or do, "poetry" becomes merely one of many fine luxury goods merchants have on offer, like apricot jam, or red wine. It becomes a genre. Poetry loses its criticality, loses its social pertinence, loses its power.

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 can't tell if I have a routine. I probably have a lot of habits, if not routines. When I'm writing, I'm not watching myself write, so the place in my life where my writing happens is (necessarily) a blind zone. What I can say is that I binge whenever some time opens up - for a few days in a row I'll spend most of my waking hours at the desk.

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

I just do something else, and return to the stalled work later. Sometimes a piece will hang around for years before I can finish it. Sometimes I lose interest and just let it go. There are enough other things to write, read, think and experience that I don't overvalue every one of my efforts.

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

My last book was published on Friday, today is Monday. It will be months before I can answer this question.

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?

My writing comes out of a triangulation of music, contemporary art and social critique. Music not so much as sound, but as structure and temporality; contemporary art not so much as visuality, but as concept, practice, mood, and value; social critique as the core of any significant poetics today.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

My friend Rolf Maurer and I agree that a poetry collection is like a record collection. That is to say, consumable cultural products like popular fiction, movies, and light non-fiction are mainly set up on the assumption that the consumer will read or watch the product only once. Therefore, the work has to have the potential of full disclosure on the first encounter. Hence, it has to be direct, clear, simple, etc. With a poetry collection, I think, a reader like a music-lover instead develops a very intimate relationship. You keep books around to re-read as often as moods take you, and different moods lead you to different parts of your shelf.

I'm not going to give a list of my faves, but I can say that almost every book to which I've formed a longterm attachment also took me a long time to learn to read. My eventual favourites often completely baffled me at first, including easy-readin' writers like David W. McFadden, whose humour was so alien to me that I had to become a different person before I could even read him. Bafflement, puzzlement, difference, strangeness, unfamiliarity - rather than scaring me away, they stir my curiosity and invite longterm engagement. In reading poetry, and in teaching poetry, I think that this is the principle that should always be emphasised. Poetry is not a consumable. The primary imperative of poetry as a life practice is not in reading (first encounter, first impressions) but in re-reading.

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

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?

I had to decide at a certain point whether to spend most of my time composing music or writing texts. For at least 6 years I really thought I was going to be a composer-poet like Guillaume de Machaut (1300 - 1377), Giacinto Scelsi (1905 - 1988) or John Cage. When I looked back, in 2003, and realised that I hadn't composed any music in almost 3 years, I also realised that I probably wouldn’t be composing music in the future. I still have ideas for compositions, and I still hear music in my dreams that I don't have the time (or skill, usually) to write down. As a kid I wanted to be either an underwater cinematographer, a field biologist in Africa, or an actor - but I also wrote radio plays, stories and graphic novellas (i.e. Godzilla vs The Octobazardi).

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

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

I'm a student at the moment, so I've been reading a lot, a lot of it has been amazing. A very recent book of poetry I'm going to keep is Clint Burnham's Rental Van. There is also a wonderful book from 1995 called Free Exchange, which is a long a conversation between sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and the German-American artist Hans Haacke. Haacke's artistic strategies wouldn't work well in the poetry world, but his attitudes, and his courage are inspiring. For example, on the question of democratic consensus, Haacke says something that has direct bearing on literary cultures, with all our prizes, our institutions, our celebrities, etc: "A democratic society must promote critical thinking, including a constant critique of itself. Without it, democracy will not survive." A kind of uneasy non-consensual democracy is vital in cultural practices like poetry. Or, on art and implicatedness, and the propagandistic nature of art, Haacke says: "Whether artists like it or not, artworks are always ideological tokens, even when they don't serve identifiable clients by name. As tokens of power and symbolic capital … they play a political role. … It strikes me that insisting on the 'form' or the 'message' constitutes a sort of separatism. Both are politically charged. Speaking of the propaganda aspect of all art, I would like to add that the meaning and impact of a given object are not fixed for all eternity depend on the context in which one sees them."

20 - What are you currently working on?

An M.A. thesis. I'm surveying reviews of postmodern poetry in Canada since 1961 (when the first national review of TISH was published in the Canadian Forum), as a way of approaching problems of literary ideology. I'm studying how certain recurrent tropes, metaphors and figures of thought, such as craft, intelligibility, verity, and Canadianness, shape the arguments, and the extent to which these determine reviewers' responses. Cognitive science has shown us (as popularised in the work of George Lakoff) that language is infused with metaphor. Metaphor is both something that we consciously deploy - i.e. saying "candied pork is heaven on your fork" - and something so embedded in syntax and vocabulary that we're usually not aware that we're being metaphorical at all. In the latter case, you might say that instead of using metaphor, our metaphors use us. Language speaks us, so it goes. That is the specific aspect of Canadian literary ideology that I'm studying. I hope to learn a lot about what the basic Canadian conception of The Poetic actually is, and how/why the postmodern in Canadian poetry has often been positioned as an insult to that concept.

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