Interview by Rob Taylor
Sugar Transformed by the Sun – Paul Vermeersch
… Whatever can
be destroyed is going to be destroyed. Patience, patience.
Hate what needs to be hated. All is finished. All’s completed.
—A. F. Moritz
Skin. An eye. An ulcer. Whatever can bleed will be torn
by the nail or the knife. Matter that ripens, that rots,
will be cuisine for the grubs. If it can burn, be it paper,
or muscle, or coal, it will be ash when the sun swells
and reddens, taking the inner planets into its bloom
when the apparatus falters. Whatever can be destroyed
with a look, with a glance, will stand before the basilisk,
the Gorgon, or the cockatrice, and will petrify as when
the heat escapes, all at once, from a face, from a forest,
and is swapped with layers of many-coloured silica.
Whatever can be lied about, will. I have forgotten you.
This sentence is going to be destroyed. And the nail too.
And the knife. And the grub. And the sun as well will
corrode and get dull and pass into a fizzled, brown lump.
All of this is to say even a mountain is fragile, even one
that came from the bottom of the world, that came by inches,
by eons, that rose over India, and was worn. Patience,
patience. The erosion of Eliki, of New Orleans, will be repeated.
Even the Earth, at intervals, must miscarry. And what to do
in the interim but revel in the soft tissue? To conduct the blood
inaudibly to our extremities in the revelling. To taste the spit
in our mouths. Burn through the calories. Savour the injury.
Hate what needs to be hated. Fracture, cancer, lesion, and virus.
Though a virus might be taught to sing like a wren, become
the darling instrument on which we play our message:
Dear reader, all was beautiful. All was sugar transformed
by the sun. All was teeming in the seas. All was admired
while we could admire it. All is finished. All’s completed.
Tell Them I Said Something
(ECW Press, 2014).
Reprinted with permission.
I’ve long admired Paul’s writing and t-shirt selection, so I jumped at the chance to interview him when his latest collection, Don’t Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something, was released last Fall from ECW Press. Goodness, it’s quite a book. Apocalyptic in its concerns, Don’t Let It End… gets at its big questions through poems written within various formal restraints (glosas, erasure poems, found poems, and more).
The biggest of its questions, though, seems to originate outside the book itself. In the Ted Hughes poem “Gog“, which inspires the opening section of Don’t Let It End…, the speaker asks, “What was my error?” Vermeersch’s book takes off from that moment, that question: the error committed, the apocalypse upon us (or, at least, inevitable). Throughout Don’t Let It End… we are always looking back, probing, searching, for the root cause of the mistake.
The answer seems to come a few lines later in “Gog”:
“I do not look at the rocks and trees, I am frightened of what they see”
The error was made because we were too afraid to look at the world, and at what we were doing. But now, Vermeersch insists, he will look, and we are invited to look with him. To sift through the rubble and see the error that was there all along.
Knowing the apocalypse would soon be upon us, Paul and I struck up a quick correspondence, and here – a mere six months later – I present you with the rapturous results.
– Rob Taylor
Don’t Let It End… is composed of six discrete sections, each quite distinct from the next and usually bound by a different set of formal restraints. That said, they are all very much linked by their shared apocalyptic concerns. Could you speak a bit about how the book came together? Did you have a few of these chapbook-length sections and then think that maybe there was a book in there, or did you think of this as a book-length project from the start?
I had just finished my previous book, The Reinvention of the Human Hand, which was very much concerned with the past, with human origins and evolution. Looking ahead to a new project, I wanted to do something I’d never done before, so I started experimenting with forms and techniques that I’d never really used before: centos, erasures, things like that. A lot of my first attempts went straight into the scrap heap, but initially I was happy just to play with these new toys and see how the parts fit together. As things started to take shape, though, I knew I was going to need something to hold the poems together. Since my last book was concerned with origins, it made sense that I should now consider endings, extinctions. Soon, I had this image of a ruined city, a city of texts, and instead of shattered buildings, the rubble was the scattered fragments of poems, stories, and such. It was my job to fit the fragments back together, to build something new. The post-apocalyptic theme for the book grew directly out of that image.
Writing in found forms (Jordan Abel, Mary Dalton, etc. etc.) and writing on apocalyptic subject matter (Jacqueline Turner, Al Rempel, etc.) are both popular in Canadian poetry right now. Do you think there is a link between the two, some common source or driver? Is there a common source you hoped to tap into by bringing the two together in your book?
All these forms of found poetry have lately been marshalled under the umbrella of conceptual writing, and a lot of the rhetoric concerning conceptual poetics, especially from those with a vested interest in promoting it, is apocalyptic by nature, as it tends to prophesize (or proselytize) the inevitable extinction of written art, like uncreative writing’s admonition that “there’s no longer a need for new writing,” or what have you. Perhaps it’s just aggressive marketing to promote one kind of writing by declaring the rest obsolete, but it does fit nicely with the analogy of writing in found forms as rebuilding a ruined city — and yes, some of the writing in my book, especially the cento sequence “Rubble,” comes out of that concept. So there’s definitely a connection between found forms and the theme of apocalypse, but it’s more a matter of interpretation than anything intrinsic in found writing itself. Instead of apocalyptic themes, found writing can be genitive, liminal, transformative or mythic—whatever you want. The thematic application is only limited by the imagination of the author.
For years I’ve been tinkering with the idea of sonnet glosas (14 lines, 4 lines of quotes), trying them here and there, working my way towards a set structure I could work with going forward. So I was both excited and somewhat disappointed to see, in section four of your book (and demonstrated above in “Sugar Transformed by the Sun”), that you’d beaten me to it! Did you come up with the form on your own, or did you first encounter it elsewhere? Did you, by any chance, steal it from my dreams? What drew you to these hybrid/shortened glosas as opposed to the standard forty-line versions, and what have you found to be the strengths and weaknesses of the form compared to the standard version?
I had been working on some of these glosas at the same time I was editing Catherine Graham’s book Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects for Wolsak & Wynn [Editor’s note: read our recent interview with Graham here]. Catherine’s book was a real education in the possibilities of the glosa form for me. That manuscript was more traditional in its early stages, but the more she worked on it, the further she got from “the rules” of the form. Catherine really responded to that freedom, and she created all these gorgeous mutated glosas. I was inspired with her successes to see what I could with it, so my own glosa variations came directly from the experience of editing her book.
And a little bit from my dreams, right? Right! Ok, moving on… Thinking of your past books, in what ways do you feel this is in keeping with them, and in what ways do you think it’s a new endeavour? Did you feel like writing this book involved stepping out of your comfort zone?
Because I started out consciously trying to do new things, I knew was stepping out of my comfort zone, but I was always concerned with staying true to my voice, or my aesthetic, or whatever you wish to call it. I wanted to build on what I’ve done, not abandon it. So, while this was a new way of writing for me, what I wrote is still very much in the continuum of my work. I’m not interested in repeating myself, of course, but I’m not interested in experiment for experiment’s sake, or novelty for novelty’s sake. I am always willing to try new procedures, but I am mostly concerned with the poem that results. No matter how it gets written, the poem itself needs to be satisfying, or the experiment was a failure. My aim was to put new tools in my toolbox, not reinvent the wheel.
In presenting this book to the world (sending the poems to magazines, soliciting the manuscript to publishers, reading the poems at launches, etc.) have you found that the more obviously “found” poems have been received differently from the others? Have you found this book to be received differently than your previous ones? If so, how? Have you gained any insights into how more experimental writing is received in our country?
I was actually quite nervous about how this book was going to be received. I had all these questions. Were people who liked The Reinvention of the Human Hand going to be disappointed if this book was too radical a departure? Was the book experimental enough to appeal to aficionados of more avant garde writing? In the end, though, I don’t think these questions really mattered. Several people have remarked how different this book is compared to my earlier work, so perhaps I have gained some insight on what it’s like to defy expectations. I think people like to be surprised, and readers who expected a certain kind of book from me were surprised by this one. As far as I can tell, the people who really liked Reinvention have stayed with me, and I seem to have attracted new readers who are looking for something more formally innovative. If anything, it looks like putting out a more “experimental” book may have broadened my readership.
But I don’t actually think this is useful information for me, creatively speaking. It doesn’t point me in a direction for my next project. If people enjoy this book or that book, there are too many variables to say why exactly, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable assuming it’s because the writing is more or less experimental or more or less lyrical. That seems too much like brand loyalty to me. I like to think readers are more sophisticated than that. We just have to write what feels right, and hope that readers will respond to it.
Don’t Let It End…, in its taking on of such a range of forms, brought to mind the work of a great number of other poets. Ted Hughes, obviously, for the first section, “Magog”, and names like Dalton, P.K. Page, Michael Lista, Suzanne Buffam, Jonathan Ball, all came to my mind at various times. Did you have major influences (poems, books, authors) for each of the sections?
Obviously Hughes and Page had an influence on parts of this book, and British poets like Peter Redgrove and Geoffrey Hill had an influence on it, I think. Maybe not in overt ways. But perhaps what you are getting at is an impulse to wrestle with one’s influences as a way of addressing, or even including, the past, the poetic tradition or history that most compels or repels or propels us, as poets, to make poetry instead of, say, architecture or music. The poetics of repurposing, recycling, salvage and collage – at first glance it can seem radical or subversive, but often, I think it can reflect a desire to pay homage or to situate the work within a tradition. This is certainly the case with the glosa, which began as a form of poetic tribute in the 15th century Spanish court, or the cento, which started in second-century Rome and seems a creative cousin to the painterly practice of copying the masters’ works in order to perfect their techniques. The current trend seems to focus on subversive interpretations of the practice like creative plagiarism, but there are also a profound implications of traditionalism in reusing or repurposing a text, or elements of a text. It provides a work a direct connection to its poetic parentage, its creative DNA.
In reading the fifth section of your book, “On the Reintegration of Disintegrated Texts: A Manual for Survival”, which contains wild ideas for poems and writing projects (such as “Starting with the person nearest you, and then the next person and so on, type out the names of every living person on earth. // Call it “Roster””), took me straight to Kenneth Goldsmith’s line on conceptual poetry:
“The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable.”
Do you think this section of your book is in agreement with Goldsmith’s statement? If so, how? If not, how is it pushing against it?
I don’t think my manual for survivors is in agreement with Goldsmith’s statement for one simple reason: it’s meant to be read. In fact, I had written about half of it when I realized its similarity to Darren Wershler’s The Tapeworm Foundry. Both are a list of more-or-less impossible, or at least improbable, writing projects. I reread Darren’s book, which I highly recommend, to make sure I wasn’t doing exactly what he had already done. To my relief, I wasn’t. My sequence began as a parody of uncreative writing, but as with many things that self-satirize, the parody ends up looking a lot like its target. What’s left is tongue-in-cheek artifact of my thinking process on the subject. But no, I haven’t signed on to the movement; I still want to read and to write books that are meant to be read.
More generally, how do you feel about talking about the structure of your poems ahead of/instead of the content of them? Obviously concept and content are bound together, but do you worry that the full value of individual poems is somehow diminished by talking about them as structures or ideas or themes, instead of singular poems?
To me it’s like talking about the skeleton without talking about the flesh. The living animal in motion will always be more interesting to me.
Be sure to grab a copy of Don’t Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something before it’s too late! You can do so from your local bookstore, or from the ECW Press website or, if you wish to hasten the apocalypse, Amazon.
You can read more of PRISM poetry editor Rob Taylor’s interviews here.