Home > Interviews > Letting Your Inner Dude Out: An Interview with Kevin Spenst

Former PRISM poetry editor Rob Taylor sat down with Kevin Spenst, whose debut poetry collection Jabbering with Bing Bong was published in Spring 2015 by Anvil Press. 

Death Star Trash Compactor – Kevin Spenst

When Luke, Han and Leah shout for joy,
the droids think they’re in agony. In grade six
I was dumbfounded by Saudi Arabia. How
many grains of sand? How much past and present?
We learn something; it’s barreled into words,
shipped off. My room in Lumsden has a crack
down one wall. Saskatchewan is shifting. Everyone
is coming for oil. I know about OPEC and the Star
Wars marketing of plastic toys. Decades crushed
together. I want to squeeze you in. My new love,
so far away. Your ex-boyfriends compiled into
one rockabilly wannabe with songs about smashing
the rebellion of women who want to be more than
a pinup on a bicep. You quip like Han. I flutter
like Leah. Is there no Empire we cannot escape?

from Jabbering with Bing Bong
(Anvil Press, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.
Up to date on your child’s learning? Kevin is.
And he’s stolen their glasses.

You’re known for your live performances, which are often so enthusiastic they make Christian Bök sound like Napoleon Dynamite on Nyquil (feel free to compare here). At many points in reading Jabbering with Bing Bong, it was hard for me not to hear your voice galloping along, bellowing out the lines. It some ways that doesn’t seem unreasonable, as your attention to rhythm, pacing and rhyme are clearly written into the poems themselves, and not simply part of the performance – but it does make me wonder how this book would “sound” to someone unacquainted with your readings. How do you feel about your book being out in the world without you there providing the audio?

There are a number of gearshifts through Jabbering with Bing Bong. While the first section consists of Jackpine sonnets, the style moves from lyric to mashups of prayers with TV theme songs to L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E-L-I-T-E experiments in sonic association. (There’s no jump from Napoleon Dynamite to Christian Bök but that might be in some future book.) I hope that through these different RPMs, the reader is inspired to let his or her imagination cut loose (or put his or her imaginative pedal to the metal). In an alternate reality, I can easily imagine myself selling Jabbering door to door, pitching the book with a half hour lesson on how to speak in funny voices. I would minister to shut-ins on the importance of projection and stoned video-gamers on the value of letting your inner Dude out. Really, it’s all in the stance that you take. What sounds come from what postures? What if your bong could talk?

All this is to say that, yes, I’m a bit of a control freak. There’s a fascinating little ficcione by Robert Szend about a man who divides into two every time he’s confronted with a decision. While I am still in that stunned state of having a book in the world, the control freak part of me would like to divide for every copy of my book so that I could read it to each and every one of my readers. (Which isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination if we put this in terms of poetry book sales.) I’m open enough to allow for whatever interpretation they want so long as they hear the book in my voice. I don’t know how all those other Kevins would survive in the world though. Vancouver’s expensive enough for the first version.

Kevin lecturing on the importance of projection.
(“The Biology of Belief”, from Jabbering with Bing Bong)

Now you’ve got me wondering how you learned to let your inner Dude out, and get your bong to talk… Could you speak about the development of your performance and writing styles? Did one come first, informing and shaping the other, or did they develop in tandem?

516eELgJpIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_After “jean jacket or mac?” the next tough decision I had to make in grade eight was between art and acting. I chose the acting route and that made all the difference through my high school years. It helped release and stretch all the characters and voices in my imagination. After graduating from SFU in English Literature I moved to Vancouver, next door to a theater student who encouraged me to audition for a play at the Jericho Arts center. I ended up acting for five years in various productions around town and it allowed me to explore literature from the inside. Instead of analyzing Stoppard’s lines in search of some thesis, I was embodying the character of Rosencrantz. The first poems that I wrote in 2006 and 2007 were very rooted in a dramatis persona, a voice that controlled the content.

These days, a poem might start from a phrase in my head as I bike to work or a line in response to something I’m reading. As I tease out more language, a distinct voice might emerge, but usually it comes from the performance side of reading. Being in front of a bunch of people produces a lot of performative zap and my muscle memory wrenches me into acting mode. That’s where I’ve discovered the “outerwear” of the poems. One might say that when you read a poem silently to yourself it’s naked, but when it’s read out loud it’s dressed in a parka or a minister’s suit. So, here we end at the beginning: T.S. Eliot in a jean jacket or mac?

Ah, the eternal question. Speaking of beginnings, the first section of Jabbering with Bing Bong, “Nonesuch Surrey” – most of which was first published in your chapbooks Surrey Sonnets (Jackpine Press, 2014) and Pray Goodbye (Alfred Gustav Press, 2013) – is a series of loose sonnets (sonnets in shape and length, if not in rhyme scheme and metre). The sections that follow feature more loose sonnets, prose poems, and poems with consistent stanza lengths. Then, near the end of the book, comes one of its strongest and most formally creative, “Spaces”, which uses looping thematic repetition (a “thought rhyme” of sorts, in well-masked quatrains) to drill down into its subject matter.

All of this speaks to an interest you appear to have in the controlled (dare I say “restrained”?) use of space on the page, which seems to bump up against your free-wheeling performances (and often-free-wheeling subject matter). Could you speak a bit about your interest in, and resistance to, formal or traditional (looking and/or sounding) poetry?

Behind the scenes, my poetry might be seen as tradition-bound in that my work often begins in a feeling or metaphor. A feeling is often a hazy hunch that some idea or image is nearby. A metaphor gives shape to this intuition. This morning, for example, on my ride to work, I realized that I spend too much time in a vulnerable state at work. I’ve been teaching ESL for twenty years, but my feelings still fluctuate wildly from joy to despair. “I leave the door to my heart open all day long, which is just downright ridiculous and lazy,” were the words that came to mind. Metaphors speak to me in some very clear and helpful ways. There are more experimental writers who might equate metaphors with tea cosies, but they’re vital to me as an individual and writer.

“Spaces” got a lot of help from Ken Babstock who, when he heard me say, “The first time I took acid was to understand my dad,” suggested I write a poem with that as a first line. The chiasmic pattern grew out of the tension between memory as it is felt and as it is observed. The pattern also holds together the wildness of its subject matter: schizophrenia and drugs.

It seems to me that the form of any poem is itself a kind of buried metaphor. The compact space of a sonnet brings to mind the quick love poem (an extended pickup line) or some metaphysical argument by John Donne packed with wit. Any repetitive form (villanelle or pantoum) suggests a certain obsessiveness, a turning of words over and over in your mind. (“Spaces” is a kind of repetitive form in my mind.) You can work within the constraints of those forms or try to bust loose. Growing up on heavy-metal, punk rock, and then more experimental music, I’ve learned to enjoy the sound of building and smashing.

Hey now, that’s some pretty dismissive talk about tea cosies. You don’t want to fall afoul of Big Cosy, what with all them sharp knitting needles…

In “Nintendo 64” you describe a magic trick (involving an N64 and a VCR) the speaker pulls on his nephews was a “feat that secularized wonder” (p. 32). That line resonated for me – as a minister’s son who found himself drawn to poetry instead of the clergy – as speaking to much more than VCR tricks. Do you think there’s a connection between your religious upbringing and your current interest in poetry? Do you think of poetry as a “feat that secularizes wonder”?

ProfileImageEven before we articulate the wonders of the world, we’re stuck by the fact that language is an invisible technology that evolved out of our mouths. Wonders abound in every direction. In growing up in a church, I learned a language that expressed some of this awe, but in an organized religion’s more fundamental iteration, it’s blind to the gob-smacking wonders of something like evolution. In “Nintendo 64” I take “secularizes wonder” to mean that the VCR trick brings something amazing into my nephew’s ordinary world. It doesn’t flatten wonder, but makes it more available. Yes, poetry is a place open to all kinds of miraculous performances (or at least that’s what I aspire towards).

A good number of the poems in Jabbering with Bing Bong are set in, or reference, Lumsden (Saskatchewan) and the Sage Hill Writing Experience, which you attended on two occasions: clearly you were very productive during your stays! At the back of the book you thank all of the teachers and participants in both sessions, as well as a few of your teachers and fellow classmates at UBC, where you completed an MFA in Creative Writing. How did attending Sage Hill shape or transform your writing? How do you think this book would have been different if you hadn’t attended Sage Hill? And how did it compare with the UBC MFA program?

This book wouldn’t exist without my two stays at Sage Hill. Ken Babstock kicked off my sonnet spree and Don McKay led me towards Fenris wolf (a central character in the middle of Jabbering). I have them to thank for so much along with Phil Hall for helping to create such an open atmosphere. It felt like anything was possible. Also, the environment was astonishingly beautiful and allowed for the easy emergence of new ideas and approaches.

UBC was foundational. I had only been writing poetry for a couple of years when I got into the program. (Recently, reading at Salt Spring Island’s wonderful monthly series in their library, a friend in attendance suggested that I’d been writing poetry in the form of flash fiction from 2003 to 2007 and maybe he’s right, but I never thought of it in terms of any poetic tradition.) The first poem I heard at UBC was from Keith Malliard, who read us some John Berryman on the first day of poetry. At the end of the puzzling poem, Keith looked up and laughed, “I mean, what is this?!”

Jabbering with Bing Bong closes with a series of poems about your father, focused largely on his schizophrenia (“Incompletes”, “Spaces”, “Living on Borderblur”…). Knowing that you already have a book in the works for 2016 (Ignite, also from Anvil Press) entirely devoted to writing about your father, this left me wondering why these poems were in this book and not the next. How do these poems differ from what’s to come in 2016? And, more generally, what can we anticipate from your next book?

Jabbering is a kind of bildungsroman, a coming of poetic age and so in order to give a complete picture, I needed to include those poems about my father, but Ignite consists largely of poems written during my MFA at UBC and it’s more focused on my dad as a character, our relationship and schizophrenia itself. Rhea Tregebov, an amazingly big-hearted and brilliant thesis advisor, helped me gain access to medical records of his various stays at Riverview, which I explore through a variety of poetic strategies. With this next book, I have the double role of writer and advocate for mental health issues.

Help us overpopulate the world with Kevins by buying a copy of Jabbering with Bing Bong! You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the Anvil press website, or, if you want to be blind to the gob-smacking wonders of the world, from Amazon.

You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.