Home > Interviews > On the future, writing process, and “Don’t Be Interesting”: An Interview with Jacob McArthur Mooney

MooneyIf you haven’t picked up the latest issue of PRISM international and need another reason to, here’s an interview by Poetry Editor Dominique Bernier-Cormier in conversation with contributor Jacob McArthur Mooney. Mooney is is the editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2015, and the author of Folk (a finalist for the Trillium Book Award in Poetry and the Dylan Thomas Prize) and the forthcoming Don’t Be Interesting, from McClelland & Stewart/Penguin Random House. 

The second half of Don’t Be Interesting could be called “speculative”. The poems happen in a future called “The worldoff tomorrow,” which is like and unlike our own world. But speculation seems way too dry a word. Premonition? Extrapolation? Carnival-mirror-ization? What words would you use the describe the connection between “The worldoff tomorrow” and the world we live in?

All those words work for me, and I thank you for them. The idea of the future as something that lives on a like/unlike sort of “(un)canniness spectrum” speaks to me too. All told, there are probably more poems for an unrecognizable future in the second half, while the first is more interested in either historical futures or at least more recognizable present-day extrapolations.

The title poem is in the second section and consists of an attempt to document a bunch of life advice for my two-year-old son. It’s the most personal piece in a book that (generally) doesn’t focus too much on a lyrical “me”, as a creator-protagonist-speaker figure. The poem’s advice, because of the year we’re in and the scope of possible futures that year offers, needs to work for both a future that seems to extrapolate out of the past and present, one that would be recognizable to us in the now, and also a future that for all the usual ecological and political reasons isn’t recognizable, and doesn’t seem like an accounting of our (now-)known pasts. That’s the worldoff tomorrow, to me. Obviously it needs to be a fairly spartan poem to fit that bill.

So I would say that–both in its reality and in how we talk about it–the difference between today and the worldoff tomorrow is that we will be less equipped to see the latter as a product of histories and presents than we are the former.

Speaking of the (un)canniness spectrum–I think writing poetry is often like inventing new idioms. A good metaphor gives the same feeling as hearing an idiom from a different country/culture for the first time and thinking “Yes, of course, that’s exactly what bureaucracy/a thunderstorm/hunger is like!”

I even find myself using expressions from your book in the real world. The other day, I told someone I wouldn’t trade places with them “for all the track suits in Serbia!”. How much of your work is about creating new language, as opposed to manipulating old language? Is there even a difference?

Thanks Dominique, I think about your question in a couple of different ways. One of the tactics I love in contemporary poetry is work mimics the more comfortable patterns of human thought, but uses them as scaffolding to hold more unnatural or atypical ideas. This is a big part of stand-up comedy and it’s something poetry should borrow from more. Idiom makes for good scaffolding, and when someone like Ashbery recycles the “hell breaks loose” in “A Worldly Country” with “In short all hell broke loose that wide afternoon” something about the rhetorical normativity of “in short” and “hell breaking loose” makes the idea of the “wide afternoon” sound all the more surprising, as the poem seems to discover it, as this revolutionary idea that rolled naturally out of the language. Like it’s the punch line.

So I guess there isn’t a difference. I have a lot less patience as a reader for text that tries to make new language at the expense of remaking it–language as pure and asocial substrate–and in part I think this is attached to how I read poetry. By nature of lifestyle I don’t read sequestered away from the non-poetic, I read on the subway and on breaks from my job. I read surrounded by idiom and cliche and all the usual stuff of public language: from small talk to advertisement to technical text, so work that slides out of that blistered skin is always most attractive to me. Karen Solie does this well, too. In reverse sometimes. In “The Corners” (it’s in the new book) she pulls out of this layered, materials-heavy analysis of a laundromat with “No one can be alone like they can.” which is the kind of sentence you expect to see on a poster for a Romantic Comedy. But what makes the sentence stick with you is the work that set it up. That’s an unmaking and remaking of the language that appeals to me. A kind of reciprocal experimentation, where idioms are the metaphors that taught you how to metaphor. I like that.

I love that concept of “scaffolding to a punch line” in poetry. And I agree about borrowing techniques from stand-up. I’ve been watching improv lately, and I’ve learned a lot about moving in and out of scenes, forward and backwards in time, and about constantly (re)cycling language and images.

Your three poetry collections are more than collections of poems. There are organizational principles that aren’t only thematic and aesthetic, but also, to varying degrees, conceptual and narrative. It’s not as if someone had arbitrarily hacked off 5 years of Jacob McArthur Mooney’s poems and stuck them between two covers.

At what point does the concept of a book (if concept is the right word) appear in your creative process, and start informing the creation of individual poems? Does the “big” idea of the book and the more focused intentions of individual poems ever clash?

Yes, it seems like this is how I write books. I will say, both Almanac and Folk came from ideas I had in the back of my head since about the time I started seriously writing poems. I knew I had these two projects I wanted to put out there. Once done, I had all this work finished and these two books complete that, in different ways and to various degrees, I liked, but I still hadn’t begun to answer maybe a more important question which was, what kind of poet am I going to be? So this new one became an opportunity to explore that, and for much of its creation I was thinking of it as a straight collection of the “five years hacked off” variety. More and more though, and especially through the editorial process, the future-facing thematic elements came to assert themselves. So while for both of the first two collections the potential of a Book vs. Poem clash loomed, it never really came up with this one because the thematic sense is a lot more light-of-touch than the other two. I feel like this book is less-thematic still than either of them.

I’m not sure what kind of poet I am going to be, but at least this far into things I can let the poems lead the way and not feel like I’m writing to theme, as sometimes I’ve felt in the past.

Can you tell us a little bit about the poems you have in PRISM and where they came from?

Sure. In a lot of ways these are three of the “colder” poems in the book, in that they’re all very much set pieces that aren’t particularly interactive with other poems in the collection and they’re each pretty dark of heart.

The sonnetesque “Love Poem after Industrial Society and its Future” is basically a prayer for a long and happy marriage (which is to say, a long and happy life) filtered through transhumanism and The Unabomber Manifesto, as published by the NY Times and Washington Post back in 1995.

“The Specializationoff Labour” is about as close as I come in the book to breaking the rule above about poems leading the theme, it marries some of the semantic tics of the book together in one piece.

And the Leo X one is one of several poems that came out of travels in Europe, namely going to The Vatican (I’m an ex-altar boy and a lapsed Irish Catholic, so this shit is important to me) and seeing the Room of The Fire in the Borgo where Leo X (who was a Medici banker who bought the papacy despite not ever actually even being the priest) had his face painted onto the bodies of various other Pope Leos in scenes depicting their adventures. Another Leo, XIII, wrote Rerum Novarum and is my favourite pope. So there are a lot of Leos and when you go to The Vatican as a lapsed Catholic you are never more than two or three thoughts away from dwelling on the apocalypse so, there you are. An apocalyptic poem in the voice of Leo X, concerned with the adventures of various other Popes Leo, some historical and others future-fictional.

What a coincidence! Recently, I’ve been photoshopping my face onto photos of historical and future-fictional PRISM Poetry Editors…

Here’s a last question: if “Don’t Be Interesting” was a music album, how would you describe its sound/genre?

I don’t know how to answer this except by listing out the music I spent the most time listening to while writing it. The Mountain Goats surely lead the way, especially newer albums like All Eternals Deck and Life of the World to Come. John Darnielle appears in a couple of the book’s poems as a character or as source material. I’m trying to get a copy of Don’t be Interesting into his hands right now but it’s hard because I’m shy and I don’t want to scream at him on Twitter, which is my only current in. Beyond that, a lot of music composed for International Expositions and Worlds Fairs. Maybe Steven Sondheim’s Assassins musical score. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (which is the best album written in my lifetime, incidentally). This would make for jumbled album concept, but I could probably make you a fair mixtape.

Thanks, Jacob. f I ever see The Mountain Goats live, I promise to scream-out my favourite Mooney poetry lines between songs. 

Dominique Bernier-Cormier is a poet and non-fiction writer from Montréal. His poetry is forthcoming in The Malahat Review and BookThug’s BAfterC, and won an honourable mention in CV2‘s 2016 Young Buck Poetry Prize. He is currently enrolled in the MFA program at the University of British Columbia.