Friday, December 3, 2021

Jérôme Melançon : The Sense of the Experiment. On Catching Up On The Small Machine Talks Podcast





Out of the many things that shifted in my life during the pandemic, listening to podcasts is by far one of the most noticeable. I got quite deep into the podcasts that orbit around Revolutionary Left Radio, especially Kristin Ghodsee's AK-47, which is about the Russian political thinker, politician and diplomat Alexandra Kollontai. I discovered a whole way of seeing writing on Can't Lit (this podcast I had discovered earlier, but I fell down the stairs into it over the first year of the pandemic). And I had the chance to hear people discuss poetry - something I never really had the chance to do myself, for a series of bad reasons and understandable ones too – on The Small Machine Talks podcast.

Now I haven't listened to the whole thing from the start. As I was writing this piece, I did go and find the very first episode. The podcast had no name, but it already had its own life: a summary of poetry events attended by hosts Amanda Earl and a. m. kozack, discussion around small presses, a focus on Ottawa and an eye on the Toronto-Montreal axis, and a deep concern for the ethics of relating to one another as members of the poetry scene (here: how to behave at a book fair). Amanda leads, often in all kinds of directions, a. m. brings the discussion onto the agreed-upon track, all very playfully. The same spirit would continue through the years, as the co-hosts became and sounded more comfortable.

The podcast underwent a clear but undramatic transformation once Amanda Earl took on hosting duties by herself and changed the intro song. The cool, moody opening was replaced by a more heartfelt and vulnerable one (after having replaced the earlier typewriter noises). And directions already clearly indicated and paths trodden simply became the main orientations – the latest incarnation of the podcast an outgrowth of the life that was already brought into it. Since then, rather than covering the poetry scene in general, Amanda’s single-hosted Small Machine Talks has focused on what it was already doing as a result of its hosts’ temperaments, personalities, and values: creating community and focusing on marginalized groups as well as creative forms. Women of colour, queer people, and visual poetry practitioners have become the most frequent guests.

Now, I must admit that having first found out about the podcast, I focused for the most part on the interviews. While there are clearly agreed-upon and shared interview questions, the podcast inevitably falls into a more conversational style – always alternating between quite formal exchanges and entirely informal, allowing for in-depth reflections into poetry as well as revealing banter that eases guests into the unveiling of self that is asked of them. The style of interviewing means that the pendulum swings wide between dialogical tones, from spontaneity to five-year plans and back, giving some questions a jarring quality – to me as a listener at least, because the guests seem to already know the questions are coming.

As a result of focusing on the interviews, I can’t say much about the episodes led only by the host(s), although I see the three episodes around Experiment-O and visual poetry as masterful introductions that should be used in classrooms. In fact, one lasting effect of the podcast has been to give me the vocabulary to look at, experience, read, and think about visual poetry – first of all to take it seriously instead of dismissing it (because of a lack of understanding), but also to gain a sense of where it comes from and where it can take me. But I explicitly began listening to the podcast to hear people talk about poetry. I felt I didn’t have a sufficient grasp of the language around it, the grammar, the vocabulary – not the critical vocabulary, but the personal one, the tone, the diction. And as confinement took over my life, maybe I craved hearing, listening to people. I also hoped I could push my reflection on poetry further. Without needing to leave my house, attend events, change my schedule… it's a whole thing. And all that did happen.

So I take all that away from these conversations, as well as many discoveries (Rasiqra Revulva! Dominic Parisien! - and that’s only the most recent). But there’s another idea I discovered as I began writing this piece.

Talk often enough with one person and you'll eventually hear the same stories, the same theories. Listen closely, lovingly, and you'll notice the small differences, the deepening, the broadening, as they mix new words with the old, as they present the ideas for a different person, as a response to different work, different contexts. As she inserts her own concerns into her conversations, Amanda Earl offers a theory of writing that accounts for the body, emotions, perception (and synaesthesia), a desire for experimentation, sexual desire and sexual imagination, art, illness, and connection to others. The philosopher in me wants a treatise; the critical theorist and poet in me love the fragmented nature and the kindness that's possible in this sort of reflection on poetry and creation more broadly. Again, the pendulum swings wide, and it’s the movement that matters.

Of course, Amanda also writes statements that develop ideas further – even a very recent one, which begins with “Today I still care about,” indicating both continuity and change. Much of the themes of her reflections, and of the podcast itself, are present here, but, again, in a different combination, always in a personal, temporary guise. And in the same spirit as the podcast, we get what I might call slow theory (and dialogical theory), through desires, aspirations - which makes me wonder whether any theory is anything else, and wonder at the role intentionality plays in theorizing in general, given how clear their movement is as Amanda speaks of her own work. Everything is different when we get a chance to look at ideas in process and in dialogue rather than as static statements. This idea of theorizing through dialogue is also very well encapsulated in the first and second parts of an exchange with Imogen Reid.

As the same cluster of themes and experiences are brought up again and again through the podcast’s six seasons (so far), alongside others of course, and those of others, they take on an ever richer meaning. And so asemic writing comes up in reaction to a book cover, to typographical work, and in a more abstract manner in the context of an overview of experimental poetry. A traumatic, near-death experience offers renewed meaning as it is brought up over the course of several months and as a writing project around it cristallizes – I could feel the transformation in Amanda’s relationship to herself and her experience the more she wrote about it and shared it with others, and then spoke of it again in the podcast. Enthusiasm and excitement abound in diverging directions when speaking to Post Ghost Press’ Dessa Bayrock about unconventional editorial materials or with Resiqra Revulva about cephalopods. Growth and transformations become obvious for both hosts and their guest Klara Du Plessis as she returns for season 5 after having been a guest during season 2. And visual poetry in conversation with Dani Spinoza has seemingly little to do with Amanda's curation of Experiment-O, showing the range of a form of activity that can hardly be brought back to a single genre. Her work on Judith: Women Making Visual Poetry similarly comes up repeatedly, especially once it’s finished, because women’s work in this form of creative activity does indeed need to be brought up more often, and she devoted her own time and efforts to making that easier and also learned so much while putting it together.

And beyond these views and discussions, Amanda’s frequent mentions of the Vispo Bible project (look it up (nothing else comes up!) or look at this essay) give a sense of a shifting, evolving work that is promising to become one of the major creations in Canadian poetry, the equivalent of a series of long poems, something I’d perhaps place beside bp nichol’s Martyrology in terms of its ambition and daring (and of course the religious/non-religious metamorphosis, the saints). I can’t imagine publishing such a large project piece by piece, as it moves forward and evolves, and not being able to go back to change the beginning. There’s courage both in the undertaking and in the releasing of this major work. And there’s something beautifully vulnerable and brave in sharing this project, bringing it into conversation, throughout the seasons of the podcast, giving a sense of its evolution and being honest about the relationship to the instruments and software that make it possible and force its transformations.

And this is where Amanda Earl’s work as a poet and as a podcaster really dovetail (I’d bring in her work as publisher for AngelHousePress and as an editor and reader as well, but this piece is already long enough): there’s a refusal of the finite, of the limited, an acknowledgement of the unfinished business of living and writing and reading. It’s a simple offering, with a kind signoff preceded by notes of praise for her guests, showing love for what they shared with her and shared in their work. The theorization is ongoing; as you can see by now I’m not going to attempt a synthesis of my own, a study, a commentary. Instead I’m letting it work on me, work through me, bring me to other modes of expression for my own work and appreciation of the work of others. And expressing my gratefulness.





Jérôme Melançon writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His most recent poetry collection is En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He is also the author of a bilingual chapbook with above/ground press, Coup (2020), and of two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018) and a bunch of different attempts at figuring out human coexistence in journals and books nobody reads. He’s on Twitter and Instagram at @lethejerome and sometimes there’s poetry happening on the latter.

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