Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Dani Spinosa : Intersponse 1: Eric Schmaltz

Dani Spinosa
This first Intersponse is part of a series of interview responses I’m carrying out over the next few months with authors whose work I have stolen from to make the poems in my debut poetry collection, OO: Typewriter Poems (Invisible Publishing, 2020). The series is designed to probe further into the questions I’m asking in that book (and in the conversation between myself and Kate Siklosi that ends the collection), questions about literary appropriation and the politics therein, of the role of technology in the visual poetics, developments in visual literary forms, and, of course, of the importance of creative exchange and conversation. The following question and answer period with my friend and poetry comrade Eric Schmaltz took place over Zoom on Monday, 26 October 2020, but as Eric says throughout, this is just one node in a larger conversation that he and I have been having, and will keep having, as long as we’re both writing. I present it to you with much gratitude to Eric for his responses, to rob mclennan for the space, and to you for giving it a read.

Dani: Okay. Hi, Eric Schmaltz. Hi, I stole four of your lines. How does that make you feel?

Eric: How does it feel? I’m honored and flattered. I wasn't expecting it. I think of it as just one part of the long, excellent conversation that we've been having about experimental poetry for–– well, since we met.

Dani: Does it bother you at all though? Just taking your lines and not citing them and not saying what it's from. Just stealing, taking from your idea and then writing my own poem. I published it in my book. That does not bother you even a little?

Eric: I can see now that these are leading questions...

Dani: I'm sorry if it does…

Eric: No, no, no, no, it doesn't. I think you’re trying to tap into larger questions around appropriation, homage, and trust. I think one of the reasons why I'm not bothered by your decision is because we're friends and I trust you. But of course, I know what you’re getting at. This was okay by me, but the larger problem, of course, is when someone steals work with malicious intent or without malicious intent but a short-sightedness that inadvertently (or not) replicates oppressive and malicious structures. There is the problem, too, of how artists capitalize off what they steal––financially or culturally or whatever. I mean, sure, you might be capitalizing culturally, but when it comes to stealing my work, I’m happy to be a springboard for people I admire. I’m generally at ease about it.

Dani: Part of that may be what lines I stole from which of your works. Does that ease the feeling or make you less likely to be upset about that because ultimately you didn't write you didn't write write this, as in were struck by the muse of poetic inspiration and composed those lines. You didn't do that thing.

Eric: Well, when you’re struck by “the muse” doesn’t that mean those words belong to the muse anyhow? I don't know. You chose from “Babble” for one of the poems in OO. And I thought that was funny because, of course, I stole those words. Amazon.ca was my muse and I won’t be checking in with them to get permission. So, on the one hand, maybe I’m not bothered because they’re not my words, but I don’t think, in this case, I’d be bothered if you used any other poem from Surfaces.

Dani: Which I guess brings us very pretty fluidly to the other question that I wanted to ask. Are you a thief in your own poetry? And if so from whom or from what do you steal from the most?

Eric: Thinking about coming to a book like Surfaces … I’ve been attracted to different kinds of conceptual or appropriation-based writings for a long time and for different reasons. And, as I’ve developed as a writer and academic, I’ve learned a lot about that kind of writing. I’ve become more discerning; I’ve learned a lot about the politics of this work. And, I’ve also unlearned a lot in the process. Conceptual writing and appropriation-based writing are just one vector of the kind of experimental poetics I’ve been interested in for many years now.    

I think for Surfaces... the “people” I stole from the most were multinational corporations. The language for the poem that you cited, “Babble” is one example. “Babble” was constructed from Amazon product descriptions for writing devices like scanners, printers and other office things. “Assembly Line” steals the design of Ikea instruction manual.

And, when writing Surfaces, I was thinking a lot about the historical shifts in concrete poetics––from dirty to clean––and the kinds of ideologies that are inscribed in both of those methods. Does “clean concrete” really reify the aesthetics of advertising, capitalism, and consumerist logic? Does “dirty concrete” effectively resist that? Surfaces walks that line.

I also think Surfaces is a bit funny­­ and satirical at times. I mean, I even went as far as materializing the objects invented in “Assembly Line” with a 3D printer. The poem embraces the assembly line’s logic from start to finish (someone’s even offered to buy the full set, so it could have been transactional too).  

Dani: So it's like, it's like relatively low risk theft in that who you're stealing from are not going to be terribly bothered. Do you ever perhaps fear some kind of giant multi-national legal copyright retributions? I mean, do you worry about being sued?

Eric: No…

Dani: They don't care? You don't think they find your poetry book a threat?

Eric: I like to sometimes believe that language is just out there in the world and we can use it anytime (I also know the complexities of such naivety). But, if Canon wants to come after me for using a word they likely invented, like “jetintelligence,” then okay... sure. It lays bare the absurdity of it all. I don't know if I can unravel the problem you’re getting at in this conversation nor am I terribly interested in doing that. I'm more interested in posing the problem.

Dani: Good. Because I don't know how we would legally justify our work.

Eric: But I also don't think that I'm stealing in a way that is…

Dani: Yeah. It's stuff that's already freely available, freely accessible in the great plunderground of the internet. I don't know if you know this, but the other lines in the glosa I wrote for you are from are words that have the same number of letters as the words in your lines. And they're taken from the instruction manual for my typewriters. And I found it on that website that you sent me. So it's all like very Schmaltzy thing.

Eric: That's great. I didn't realize that the words matched in that way. I could tell that you were stealing from some kind of typewriter instruction manual.

Dani: Yeah, that website is really wonderful. think most of them are from the manual for my Smith Corona, which is the oldest of mine. So, in OO, I'm stealing from visual poetry. I wonder, do you think “Babble” is visual poetry? Is that a visual poem for you? A concrete poem even?

Eric: It definitely is. I am borrowing again. I specify that “Babble” comes “After Joseph Mosconi” and “After Steven Shearer,” two artists and writers from whom I borrow a design with centre-aligned, bold font. And I also use their strategies for, again, borrowing words and placing them in a new arrangement. I leaned into the visual component for “Babble” because that components adds a layer of meaning to the text. It’s a layer of meaning that, say, a 12-pt Times New Roman font won’t bring. For me, the layout and font highlight the visceral quality of language––technology, body, sound, and sight.

Dani: And you do read this poem a lot at readings. You know, I read this glosa to/for/about you for the first time for BookFest Windsor a couple of weeks ago, and it’s a strange feeling reading a poem like that because it did feel a bit like I was selling something. I felt like some kind of businessman. There’s something really strange about this language that feels not mine.

Eric: Yeah, the source language in “Babble” is meant to sell a product. I specifically chose words that have a distinct and noticeable texture to them. Words like “G-Tech” and “polymer”––all these words that really draw my attention to my mouth when I say them aloud: “SLEEK ROTATING MECHANICISM ZONE.” I wrote each line by reading aloud. I wanted the language to remind readers of the body, its presence in tissue, jaw, lungs, and tongue.

It is also part of this other question about marketing and language for writing devices. I think it's hilarious that they use language like that to sell pencils and pens.

Dani: I dunno. What is it selling? I like “Babble” so much because I think part of what it's doing is realizing what we're being sold with this language. Especially when you think about it like, you're not talking about a jet engine or something. You're talking about pens and paper and a printer and stuff. And it really showed me that language when I did it with a typewriter manual because the language for the typewriter manual is very much tactile in the way it talked about “fit” and “shaft” and it's using words like “handsome.” That's my favorite. Like, why are you describing the typewriter as handsome? The language is so, so different. “Sleek” I think sums that up for me, the difference between “handsome” and “sleek.”Also, the number one thing I'm working through with this glosa for/to/about you is counting, words that have the same number of letters. And that was my only guidance writing this. I sat there counting letters the whole time. Are you a letter counter in this poem or in Surfaces in general? How much does counting and letters as units factor into your work, if at all?

Eric: That's a great question. And, that meticulous counting job from Surfaces to your glosas is–– that's so lovely. That’s hard work!

How important is counting and numbers to me as a poet? Very, very important even though there aren’t very many words in the book to count. But, as a poet working with software like Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop–– Yes, those are creative tools, but there is a mathematical element to using them. I don’t typically make poems that are aligned with what Kyle Flemmer has called the “unholy mess.”

I really wanted to control every visual element of Surfaces. I spent a lot of time experimenting with the programs and learning them in my own way. A lot of the poems in Surfaces were made by snapping things into grids, paying attention to axes, playing with the margins, lining everything up just right.

I'm also not a trained graphic designer. So, I'm using these programs in my own way, following my own aesthetic compass until I fulfill some kind of feeling. That's it. It's counting pixels, counting the numbers on the rulers, adjusting the font size. I’m deeply satisfied by snapping things into grids. I find it all very meditative and therapeutic.

Dani: How do you know when it's right though? You say you get a feeling, that satisfies a feeling. How do you know?

Eric: Oh, it just feels good. In the same way that the poem snaps into place on the grid, there is a feeling somewhere in my body or brain that also snaps into place. That alignment is just right or that gap in the pattern is just where it needs to be. And that’s similar to how some poets will create poems out of pure sound. It's just a feeling.

Dani: So there, there is a kind of muse it's for, I mean, we were making fun of it a little bit, but there is a kind of external force of whatever it is. The thing of the poem itself that knows when it's assembled.

Eric: Yeah. I identify with experimental practices and I fall into those categories of the intellectual, seemingly logical, pixel-moving poet, but so many of my poems are just pursuant of ideas and those ideas always come with feelings.

Dani: I just have one more thing I want to say, which is kind of a sneak attack because I didn't tell you I was going to say this, but you're the only person who has two poems for them in OO, but you can't say what the other one is. And the only people who are in the know will know. This is not a question. It's just a thing. There are two poems for you because you're, I think I would say with the exception of Kate, who obviously is like the other half of me, you're the person in my life who has changed my writing the most. And I appreciate your influence and your time even doing this and all the looking at earlier drafts and helping and sharing resources. I hope to have honored your work in the way that I was intending. So thank you.

Eric: That's so sweet. Thank you––truly. You're important to me. Like I said, I think you and I are having a long conversation that doesn't stop here and hopefully won't stop anytime soon. I'm honored to be in conversation with you always.

Dani: Oh! That's so nice.





Eric Schmaltz is a Canadian poet and academic. He is the author of one book of poetry, Surfaces (2018). He was Guest Editor for the inaugural issue of Knife Fork Book’s literary magazine Not Your Best, which highlighted work by contemporary visual poets and text-artists. His creative work has appeared in periodicals such as The Berkeley Poetry Review, Jacket2, Arc Poetry, Vallum, The Capilano Review, and Lemon Hound and has been featured at festivals and in exhibitions in North America and Europe. 

Dani Spinosa is a poet and a scholar and an adjunct professor. She's a co-founding editor of Gap Riot Press, the Managing Editor of the Electronic Literature Directory, and the author of two books: OO: Typewriter Poems (Invisible Publishing, 2020) and Anarchists in the Academy (U of Alberta Press, 2018). You can find her online at www.genericpronoun.com


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