Interview by Rob Taylor
“ginsberg and kissinger argue in a late-night supermarket bomb bay, or, political power comes through the barrel of a sunflower” by Mariner Janes
political satire became obselete when kissinger
was awarded the nobel peace prize.
what thots i had of you, henry kissinger, for i
walked under an atomic sky in silent alleys
with a headache self-conscious, looking at the angry moon.
in my angry fatigues, and shopping for images,
i went into the neon supermarket, dreaming of your conspiracies!
what obfuscations, what pomegranates! whole nuclear families
shopping at night! aisles full of chilean dictators! mercenaries in the
avocadoes, hand grenades in the tomatoes! and you, allende, what
were you doing down by the bananas?
i saw you, kissinger, hateful, lonely old bastard,
poking among the corpses in the refrigerator, and eyeing
the cambodian grocery boys.
i heard you asking questions of each: who killed capitalists?
what price human life? are you my antichrist?
i wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cruise missiles
following you, and followed in my imagination by the c.i.a.
where are we going, kissinger? the doors close in
an hour. where does your gun point tonight?
(i touch your ears and dream of our fight in the
supermarket and feel forlorn)
will we stroll dreaming of the lost america of love,
past green tanks in driveways, home to our oval office?
ah, dear horn-rims, lonely old assassin,
what america did you have when charon quit poling his ferry
and you got out on the smoking aisles and stood watching
the floor of the supermarket yawn wide, and
the watermelon bombs disappear into the black sky beneath?
from The Monument Cycles
Reprinted with permission.
Mariner Janes’ first book of poems, The Monument Cycles (Talonbooks), published in April 2013, was a decade in the making. Many of the poems in the book – a deep consideration of place, grounded in Vancouver’s monuments and the sights and stories of the city’s Downtown Eastside – were written in the early 2000s.
That said, Janes wasn’t twiddling his thumbs during the intervening decade. He was writing, of course, but he was also busy building a life, a family, and a career. Janes works in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) with the Portland Hotel Society (which, among other things, manages the InSite supervised injection program) as the coordinator of their Mobile Needle Exchange.
True to his slow-cooking form, my interview with Janes (whom I’ve known since our undergraduate days at Simon Fraser University, when he was writing some of the earliest poems in The Monument Cycles) took eight months of slow, intermittent correspondence. In it, we talk about monuments, bombs, writing on the DTES, and the positives and negatives of slow-cooking your book. Both interview and book were very much worth the wait. I hope you enjoy!
Two recurring themes I see in The Monument Cycles are the DTES (“it the shangri-la”, for example) and the the nuclear bomb (“a homemade sunrise”). Are these two themes very separate in your mind, or do you see them as connected in some way? If so, how?
I can see them in both lights, really. They are, of course, quite disparate in most ways, but the binding idea between them is the concept of oblivion, of devastation, of loss, and overwhelming grief. Anyone who has lived or worked in the DTES bears witness to the difficult nature of the lives of people living there and struggling with trauma, addiction and/or mental illness, and I think that there are certainly some ties between the core issues of both. I think that at its heart, the DTES is a strong, vibrant community, made up of people who are urgently aware of their humanity, and I can only imagine that the pilots of the Enola Gay must have struggled with issues of grief, humanity, and loss before (and after) the bomb was dropped.
The first four poems of The Monument Cycles are set aside in their own section, “face to face with history”, while the rest of the book is gathered in one longer section entitled “the geography of memory”. Could you talk a bit about the two sections? Why was it important to you to group the “face to face with history” poems together at the front?
The sections are grouped in a way that addresses the particular “questions” of the poems… that is to say, they are writing towards (and sometimes away from) a history grounded in place, in the visual standing in for memory. The poems in the first are an attempt to actually do what monuments themselves propose – which is to put us “face to face” with history, to force our eye/memory/thought towards the event or person encapsulated therein. The second section works towards an understanding of how these physical objects, located in space and time, fit (or don’t) into the city both as a concept and a real place that we move in and through.
Continuing with your themes of physical objects and Vancouver as a “real place”, The Monument Cycles either directly or indirectly references a number of Vancouver monuments. Do you think The Monument Cycles would be read differently by someone not familiar with Vancouver and its monuments? Why or why not?
I think of course the book would be a different experience for a non-Vancouver native. However, part of the central aim still stands – to force reconsideration of the purpose of monuments, to question why we build these things in the first place. This is, I hope, a question for any city, for any mind. Even those very familiar with the monuments in question (“angelic deference”, for example, is written towards the “Angel of Victory” outside Waterfront Station) will hopefully look at them differently, perhaps more critically, or at least with more curiosity and attention.
The Monument Cycles contains a number of poems titled “experiment in form #__”, with the “numbers” ranging from 44 to 723. Did you number them chronologically, as you wrote them (and therefore, have you written over 700 of them?!), or are you doing something else with the numbering? As you’ve experimented with form, have you found certain forms more successful or interesting to you than others?
They are numbered chronologically – although it doesn’t feel like I’ve written that many! Lots of them are pure throwaways, because, true to “experiments” in the scientific sense, many of them don’t work! The series began as an attempt to push myself/my writing style/head/focus away from things that I would “normally” point towards, and focus instead on techniques/styles that I found compelling but perhaps difficult. Some worked, some didn’t. Hopefully I only crammed the ones that worked into the book!
I like that idea. A little nod to all the failures that go into the writing of one successful poem. So often I feel casual readers don’t appreciate how many poems have to be written and discarded before the “book worthy” poems come along. It’s like this much larger ghost-book that the author sees hovering behind their book, but no one else detects. With your numbering system you make that plain to people. Very cool.
Continuing on the theme of your experiments and play, a number of your poems contain some kind of verbal trick or joke or punning – I’m thinking here of things like pain and wastings (main and hastings) and angry fatigues (army fatigues). Do you find this conflicts with the serious subject matter of your poems? Compliments it? What effect are you aiming for this wordplay to have on the reader?
I think this really reflects my personality in some senses – though I hate to get tangled in the author/artifact web. I’m one of those horrible punsters – I embarrass even my small children – but I think that there is a very real and serious value in deconstructing the “serious” and the “real” (a term we don’t have space to discuss here) and finding the edges of humour in them. It’s a way of coming to an understanding of things that may conflict with our values or our way of seeing/interpreting/comprehension. As Pinter famously said, “The more acute the experience the less articulate its expression”, a statement that has affected me profoundly in terms of writing the world around me. I hope only that it may jar, disturb, knock off the pace of things enough to create a small disconnect that points out the absurd, the strange, the humorous, in things we take for granted.
I recognize a number of poems in The Monument Cycles from our days together at Simon Fraser University in the early 2000s, including “ginsberg and kissinger…”. How far back do some of the poems in The Monument Cycles go? How recently were the newest ones written? How did you feel mixing them into the book alongside the newer ones?
The oldest poems in the book indeed go back to 2003, but the newest were written shortly before the manuscript was submitted, so the book inadvertently became a selection of poems from across a rather wide expanse. This was an interesting process – because of course over that period my writing had changed a bit. I stopped shying away from the local-political, and also declared a stalemate in a mental war I’d been having with myself. So the process of selecting what fit into the book alongside the pieces that had been written expressly for it was a curious and difficult one. Thanks to great editors, publishers and the patience of those around me, I feel it came out well.
Can you speak a bit more about that “mental war” and how you resolved it? Did it lead to changes in your writing style?
I think it did change my writing style rather significantly. As I mentioned above, although I’d been thinking about the local-political and the neighbourhood that I had been working in, I struggled (almost) endlessly around issues of exploitation. I wanted to talk about the DTES, I wanted to tell some stories, shoot out some currents of questions and concerns, but I also wanted people that I know in that neighbourhood to have a voice. It’s a very cliché thing to say, but it’s all too often that voices from that ‘hood are drowned out in a sea of academic discourse, intrusive journalism or photography, and the chorus of developers, business owners and new residents that don’t want those voices heard. I fought with my conscience, my fear of exploiting people, but in the end decided that the methodology and spirit behind the poems should win. It’s not something I’ve ever stopped struggling with, but it has certainly changed the way I write, the way I think.
Considering that a good amount of the material in The Monument Cycles has been around for a number of years, what finally drove you to put the book out now?
I’ve wanted to put a book out for ages, but didn’t think that I had enough good material for it. It took the convincing of friends and editors to change that. I’m glad they did. I feel like the book is a journal of my struggles around writing. Hopefully it makes for an interesting read as it arcs across its various ages and trajectories.
In your bio at the back of your book it mentions that in your future work you aim “to incorporate the multitude of voices [you] encounter” in the DTES. Clearly in poems like “in the shangri-la” and “tents on the tracks…” you are trying out different approaches to including polyvocality in your poems. Do you plan to continue with those approaches? Take things in a new direction? Do you have a particular project in mind for book number two?
I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to stop using those techniques. I find that the idea of letting other voices direct/take over/manipulate the text is a good way for me to produce writing that accomplishes the aims I have for it. “in the shangri-la” riffs off of Gwendolyn Brooks’ great poem “In the Mecca”, and leaps from voice to voice and from different rooms in a fictional hotel.
I like what this technique allows – there is both a freedom and a movement in it. At the same time, I’d like to think I’ll always be trying out new forms, new directions.
For book two I’d like to start looking at the body. I’m fascinated with what somebody called “non-poetic language” in poems, such as medical terminology or industrial construction slang, and though I wouldn’t be the first to write about it, I’ve started writing a lot about blood, organs, naming, ancestry… I’ll let you know when I’ve got it all figured out!
While we’re waiting for Mariner to let us know about Book #2, you can pick up a copy of The Monument Cycles from your local bookstore, or from the Talonbooks website.
You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.