On a sunny day in the spring, doubly flanked by
mountains, over Zoom, Derek Beaulieu and I had the pleasure of talking about
his newest collection Surface Tension with Coach House Books. In this
interview, we discuss poetry as camaraderie, collaborating with photocopiers,
how to skirt the epiphanic synapse-building shore of experimentation and much
Sarah Burgoyne: I think I’d like to start with an unusual question—maybe a warm-up question—considering how Surface Tension is conversant with the language and imagery of advertising. What is the last “accidental poem” you have seen lately?
Derek Beaulieu: That’s a great way to start. For me, part of being a poet is being open to language’s surprises. Street scenes, and telephone poles are a frequent location of poetic surprise where the remnants of old band posters overlap with lost pet posters, and notices to guitar classes. The last time I was in Calgary (for a reading at Pages Books), I loved seeing how the layers of posters— some of which predate COVID, these ghostly images of what could have been—accumulate on bulletin boards. These are the spaces where we “look” but don’t often “read”, and being aware of our textual surroundings is a lovely poetic prompt.
SB: It’s interesting how a document (a forgotten one, on a telephone pole) can carry traces of a ghost-like past, or carve out a space for the possible made impossible—all the cancelled events due to the pandemic, being one. This feels like an unseen poem. There are definitely some ghostly traces in Surface Tension also— one element of the collection that struck me were the dedications and “in memoriams” to Bob Cobbing, Jennifer Pike Cobbing, Lawrence Upton and Jenni B. Baker. Obviously there are connections between the visual poetry in your work and the poetry and performance work of the authors you cited, but to directly call out their names in a gesture of respect and perhaps grief speaks to a poetry community that has stronger ties than influence… or expands the idea of influence, or paradigm, rather, to include loss and friendship. I know writing community is important to you and I wonder if you could speak more about the role of community in your work.
DB: In a lot of ways we know writing through their work, their publications and their presses – and once that cultural record is no longer active we have to make note of the contributions, the nodes, the conversations that the authors brought to our lives. Bob, Jennifer, and Lawrence were all vital poets, performers and publishers of Writers Forum, in the UK – and their work continues to astound and astonish me. All too often I find that ideas I wanted to pursue had already been attempted by those three decades before. While Writers Forum editions are hard to find, especially on this side of the ocean, they crafted the conversation. Jenni did the same - at a smaller scale—and she commissioned the “Kursiv” suite in Surface Tension. The book, like many of my books to date, is a record of my learning, my listening, and my exploring – what bpNichol called “an apprenticeship to language”—in dialogue with other poets, publishers and presses. For me poetry is conversation and camaraderie in solid form; it’s where we try things on and ask for impressions (“What do you think of these glasses? Does this shirt look funny on me?”); I write because I want to talk about writing with other readers, writers and publishers. You know: friends. Poetry is the form that those discussions take. Bob, Jennifer, Lawrence, Jenni are just a few examples of the folks with whom I’ve had these conversations and I miss their thinking.
SB: I think it was Fred Moten who said it’s sort of disingenuous when authors have to put their name on a book and that he wished he could put hundreds of names where the “author’s” name is supposed to be to draw in and draw attention to exactly what you’re saying. There are so many conversations (not just face to face, but eye to book, heart to telephone pole, etc.) that go into an “authored” work. Something that I see Surface Tension doing (that Cobbing’s, Upton’s, Baker’s work is also doing) is pushing the boundaries of what poetry can be. I’ve heard you say that you like to create within a space where it’s unclear whether what you’ve made is a poem or not. There’s a sort of electrical charge there—in what I see as an agnostic poetic space. People, in poetry especially, for some reason, are very quick to draw boundaries—to delineate what counts and what doesn’t count as a poem. It makes me think of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigation 499: boundaries can be drawn to delineate property, etc., but they can also be used as a game—to invite others to jump over, for example. In what ways do you see Surface Tension as pushing the boundaries and what do you see as the urgency of this type of game (if you see it as a game)?
DB: I don’t see how
it serves poetry to draw boundaries and reinforce definitions around form or
content. Sure, we could delineate,
but to what end? To keep some topics, techniques, writers, or perspectives out?
What good does that do? When I write I strive for surprise, for something I
didn’t know that I could do—if I ask myself “Is this a poem?” and am unsure of
the answer then I’ve challenged myself and hopefully the reader. I write to
enter “poems” into a dialogue, a debate, of “what is this?” “what do we do with
this?” Margaret Avison said that the best response to a poem is another poem,
and I believe that a successful poem—a successful question—requests a reply, a
conversation, a “what next?” so that we can all learn new boundaries, new edges
of thinking. Poetry is a big tent, there’s lots of room for exploration and
growth, discovery and debate, and I love the idea of the poetic conversation
generously supporting that growth.
I agree with Moten, poetry comes from conversation; the author is only one node in that exchange.
SB: Speaking of nodes, I’d love to know more about the intertextual elements of Surface Tension. We have the dedications and memoriams, but there are also allusions to 1970s advertising slogans (“You’re soaking in it”), judiciary language (“Performance Adjustment / Appeal Process”), an ancient dragon (“Fáfnir”), a martyred saint (“Euphemia”), to name a few! Do the visual poems begin in the imaginary of these allusions, or do the poems themselves beget their titles (or perhaps there is a completely different relationship between them)?
DB: Great question! As a child of the 70s my eyeballs see the world through the glasses of TV ad campaigns—like the Palmolive ads and Madge being convinced that dishwashing soap was also good for skincare, and the poems of Surface Tension are mostly created using Letraset, which was a graphic design tool—it makes sense to ground the poems in slogans and jingles, ads and posters … that said, “Fáfnir” is the name of the typeface used for the suite of poems bearing that name. Usually the titles are assigned afterwards, troubling little nodes and leftovers of conversations and the editorial process, like scraps on those telephone poles. When I craft these visual poems—by hand using Letraset—my aim is on symmetry, balance, and appearance; allowing the physical shape of the letters themselves to assert new ways of combining without my own editorial interference, thinking of Allen Ginsberg’s dictum “first thought, best thought”—the titles come later.
SB: I often think
poets (and writers in general) usually teeter on the edge of one of two
approaches: “first thought, best thought” or “writing is in the revisions.”
Like you, I prefer the Ginsberg approach, though of course he edited heavily,
also. I think what he meant was there’s a rawness or something very alive in
the “first thought” that is worth preserving or enhancing, at all costs.
I have a couple follow-up questions and I’m going to present both at once. The first has to do with advertising, which I keep coming back to. My favourite part of those Palmolive ads is when the women getting a manicure from Madge retract their hands (claw-like) in horror when she tells them “you’re soaking in it”—it being dish soap. I feel like poetry and commercialism share a similar relationship—the poet retracting in horror from the capitalist machine (“Moloch” as Ginsberg called it). But advertising, etymologically speaking, has nothing to do with commercialism (meaning, simply, “to turn toward” at its root). You write, “we can swerve the beauty away from the sales pitch” in Surface Tension, and it made me think of the Situationists taking over commercial space, replacing traditional ads with statements like “we demand games with great seriousness” or “protect me from what I want.” My first question is what do you think of poetry being co-opted by capitalism in terms of advertising campaigns? And… let’s say poets got to take over all billboards, commercials and online ads for one day… what could happen? What would you advertise? And is this what it means for concrete poetry to not, as you write, “solidify around power”?
DB: I think that the urge to revise is part of the poetic search for meaning—if the poet is trying to say something, then revising is the opportunity to hone the words to best convey that meaning, that purpose, to impart a specific intention. That works well if intention and meaning is your intent. That said, Surface Tension tries to avoid meaning anything at all in that tension between reading and looking, between intention and chance. I try to defer meaning and its associated questions - how do you read this? What does it mean? What does this sound like? – deferring those questions to the reader in favour of “what do you do with this?” or “how would you reply?”
One of my favourite poems (and this story may be apocryphal but i chose to believe it’s true), talking about advertising, is by Lew Welch, written when he was a writer at Foote, Cone & Belding:
I love the tension between the third and fourth line, the humour, the brevity and the wit. Advertising—“to turn towards”—is not that antithetical to poetry; it is the specific and concentrated use of language to impart a message, to create something memorable which incites action. Cool, and, what do we do with all this stuff we have, with all the TV, the ads, the commercials? That is our cultural milieu, to ignore it would be weird—I’d rather swim there and see how our poetry—our writing of the contemporary—gets stranger as a result. Capitalism eats everything in sight, poetry included—so how do we stick in its craw, how do we draw attention, how do we intercede in the language so it doesn’t just flow over us and consume? Let’s create a poetry which uses the discourse of today to do something weirder, it’s a sandbox, we can build there too.
Publishing, like it or not, has to include sales, profits, balance sheets—it has to include capitalism. Poets and publishers want to sell books. So create ad campaigns for art, for beauty, for poetry.
SB: I like to imagine in Scotland the “Raid” slogan starts with “Ye ugly, creepan, blastet wonner…” in honour of Robert Burns’ infamous louse.
I’m glad you brought up beauty because that is another preoccupation of the short essays interspersed in Surface Tension. Would you say Surface Tension is a manifesto? There are multiple calls to engage with beauty, not just to “swerve the beauty away from the sales pitch” but also “photocopiers don’t just reproduce invoices and documents, they introduce beauty and sway, noise and reverb” and “the logic of symmetries is a closed case of beauty.” There’s no doubt that Surface Tension is a very beautiful, elegant book. I would love to know more about your relationship to beauty in poetry.
DB: I mention in the acknowledgements that the statements about poetry which interweave the visual poems in Surface Tension are “gathered from across the Greek chorus of the Internet” which is just a fancy way of saying that i cut-and-pasted, swiped and repurposed commentary about advertising (making them about poetry) and poetry (making them about advertising), gathering up a variety of statements which, when taken together, could form a manifesto, yeah— but it’s a manifesto which sings out from websites and google. The statements are designed to be short and aphoristic—you know, like tweets—and to support thinking about poetry from a 21st-century point of view; allow it to be generative and permissive.
My vision of poetic beauty is grounded in those aphorisms, especially in Olson & Creeley’s thinking that “form is never more than an extension of content.” I’m excited by poetry which looks like what it is—it takes a form which is that and only that, which is so specifically the poem that it surprises and astonishes. I used to tell my students to imagine a map of everything that they think writing could be—the lakes of fiction, the plains of memoir, the mountains of graphic novels, the streams of sports writing, whatever—and then to walk to the edge of that map and take one more step. As traditional as it may be, I think that poetic beauty is the epiphany; the surprise, the “ah ha!”, the exclaimed “oh!” of recognizing the previously unrecognizable, of knowing that your mind has built a new synapse. I want to be surprised and, in turn, to surprise.
SB: Well said! I experienced that feeling—the rush of stepping off the shore I thought I knew—as the visual poems in Surface Tension suddenly became animate. A still image, poised and sober, would suddenly bloat or sway, dance, fly or flee or expand in a way that thrilled me. I loved also that this was, in a sense, collaborative work with a photocopier (a somewhat humble machine in the world of AI). I wonder if you could speak more about how you use the photocopier (I imagine a hand pressed on a page swerving it around the glass face while it’s being scanned by the horizontal eye of the machine), or how your visual poetic work has developed within Surface Tension. The last poem, “Dendrochronology,” becomes ecstatic—is what I’d call an epiphanic visual sequence, rendering the once recognizable totally other, strange and beautiful.
DB: Inspired by the work of Bob Cobbing and the late John Riddell, I tried to get out of my own way, release some of structure and control of my symmetrical Letraset-based visual poems—each of which look like little gears and watch-springs—and “collaborate” with a photocopier. There are several different techniques at play in Surface Tension: the book opens with highly symmetrical pieces, and then with “Appeal Process” and “Simple Symmetry” those poems are manipulated on the photocopier in exactly the way you imagine: poem face down on the platen with my hand on top moving the page in time with the copier’s scanning mechanism, creating a smeared and jagged image. Over and over again, looking for pieces which surprise, which seem startlingly nimble. What I was seeking was the moment where the photocopier seemed to assert a poem which I could not predict, an aleatory moment of technological collaboration.
“Dendrochronology”, on the other hand, is serial photocopier degeneration—each page is a manipulated photocopy of the page before; the image becomes increasingly manipulated and distanced from the original image until what remains more resembles tree rings and bark than letter forms and punctuation. The photocopier, trying to capture a moving image while also inserting the static and reverb of repeated copying, creates a “poem” which perhaps could be considered a response, a reading, a reply to my original. Without imparting a value judgement on the results, I allow the process of serial photocopying to lead to an unexpected result—which was startlingly organic.
SB: Very much so! I even thought I saw the face of Fáfnir on page 106 of “Dendrochronology.” Thank you so much for your time, Derek, and for your generous answers to my questions.
Derek Beaulieu is the author/editor of over twenty-five collections of poetry, prose, and criticism. His most recent volume of fiction, Silence, is forthcoming from Sweden’s Timglaset Books, his most recent volume of poetry, Surface Tension, was published by Toronto’s Coach House Books. Beaulieu has won multiple local and national awards for his teaching and dedication to students, the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal for this dedication to Albertan literature, and is the only graduate from the University of Calgary’s Department of English to receive the Faculty of Arts ‘Celebrated Alumni Award.’ Beaulieu holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Roehampton University, has served as poet laureate of both Calgary and Banff, and the Director of Literary Arts at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
Sarah Burgoyne is an experimental poet. Her second collection, Because the Sun, which thinks with and against Camus’ extensive notebooks and the iconic outlaw film Thelma & Louise, was published with Coach House Books in April 2021 and a finalist for the A.M. Klein Prize in Poetry. Her first collection Saint Twin (Mansfield: 2016) was also a finalist for the A.M. Klein Prize in Poetry (2016), awarded a prize from l'Académie de la vie littéraire (2017) and shortlisted for a Canadian ReLit Award. Other works have appeared in journals across Canada and the U.S., have been featured in scores by American composer J.P. Merz and have appeared with or alongside the visual art of Susanna Barlow, Jamie Macaulay and Joani Tremblay. She currently lives and writes in Montréal/Tiohtià:ke, in Canada.