canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Andrew Titus

Interview by Michael Lockett. February 2007


Michael Lockett: Something fun to lead with - can you comment on the significance of The Ramones – within the Sweet Mother Prophesy and personally?

Andrew Titus: The significance inside the text is the same as their significance personally. They are the turning point for my characters - coming around to their own sense of political, spiritual, cultural awareness - I would say the same for me. When I was 14, it was 1984 and that was the time when Heavy Metal was on the radio and bands like Twisted Sister were actually making a name for themselves. I fell into that but very quickly came around to hardcore and punk rock by attending shows here in Fredericton. My initiation was through The Ramones. The year that I wrote the book was the year that Joey Ramone retired (and then promptly proceeded to die the following year). The textual significance is the spirit of combined fun and rebellion. The Ramones represent youthfulness in punk rock where The Sex Pistols represent anger. That youthful, exuberant, fun-loving rebellion is where The Ramones come in. They were my introduction into punk rock and a huge transformative power in my life; I went into [punk] from fun as opposed to anger.

ML: Why, amidst the myriad musical forms progressing in the early 90s and late 80s, are the members of Sweet Mother Prophesy influenced almost exclusively by The Ramones?

AT: Well, each character is exuberant – more than anything else. Whether it’s exuberance in terms of pushing themselves towards the edge of experience or exuberance in pushing themselves to the edge of life and into destruction – there’s definitely that feel of strong energy that moves them forward… and again that idea of a light heartedness that results.

ML: What about the Californian punk resurgence of the late 80s/early 90s – what about Bad Religion or NOFX? Or Propagandhi from Canada?

AT: For the sake of the narrative, I wanted to give it a more historical context. It does two things: first, it gives the characters authenticity because they’re connected to the history of a cultural/musical movement; secondly, it allows for accessibility. Where you and I might know who NOFX and Propagandhi are – maybe other people don’t. The Ramones are much more of a cultural entity; they’re iconoclast and icons at the same time.

ML: In your abstract you mention punk rock’s obsession with semiotics. Does this semiotic preoccupation result from a sense of alienation and disgust with mainstream culture? Is it a kind of combat where the alienated try to alienate their alienators?

AT: It has something to do with that. One of the most significant indicators of Generation X is an awareness of symbols and their powers. When the term was first coined is was related to people being slackers; we’re actually a generation that’s extremely aware of what’s going on – in terms of advertising and media and how we’re being manipulated. As a result of being ingrained in the idea that symbols do actually generate meaning, and that meaning is part of the medium, we’re aware that the use and abuse of that medium definitely provides a certain non-verbal or even ineffable expression of cultural/ political/ musical intention. It’s very intentional; you’ve hit it right on the head, it’s attempting to alienate the alienators.

ML: Fighting symbols with symbols.

AT: Fighting symbols with symbols.

ML: Is nihilism a direct consequence of semiotic obsession? Is nihilism a realization of punk’s semiotic hypocrisy? By hypocrisy, I mean being exclusive because you’ve been excluded.

AT: It’s possible but I don’t like to presume that I know what’s going on with everyone else. But I think it’s true - the idea that society is not working for you, that most of the time it’s working against you, that people are telling you to do things you don’t necessarily want to do: that generates a certain kind of nihilism. I don’t mean that in the ‘newspaper’ sense, I mean a more philosophical nihilism direct from Nietzsche. Part of my project, as with all writers, is to not only entertain but also educate the reading public. 

I think Nietzsche and Buddhism are often misunderstood by this culture. I was trying to clarify some of that. Nihilism isn’t just the belief that everything sucks; it’s the philosophical position you come to as a result of understanding the symbols that surround you. When you realize ‘people are trying to manipulate me.’ […] And you descend. And great literature has reproduced this theme time and again. 

Probably the best example is Franz Kafka’s "The Metamorphosis". We all have that feeling; if you’re an intelligent, thinking person, you go through a period, usually during the late teens, where you descend into disbelief. You descend to disgust with your surroundings. When you reach the bottom the revelation comes and you rise back up to the top, it’s a hero’s cycle from Greek mythology. The rising is the completed nihilism, when you come around to your own meaning not the meaning given by teachers or politicians or business.

ML: What’s the difference between nihilism and good old fashioned depression or despair?

AT: I think depression and despair are characteristics of nihilism but they lack the encompassing cultural perspective. Depression is personal – only. Depression is exclusively personal: "I’m the only person feeling this pain". Nihilism is an encompassing pain – you and I, assuming we look from a similar place, will feel the same pain. We have to overcome it everyday; it’ll never go away. Depression, however, can come and go. And you can take drugs for depression but you can’t for nihilism. And that’s something the characters in the novel discover.

ML: Fittingly, the novel incorporates Hesse’s Siddartha in both inter-text and prop forms; however, Sweet Mother Prophesy’s despair and carnivalesque scenes seem more reminiscent of Steppenwolf; did you consider incorporating that text?

AT: I did. While I was writing it, I listened to The Ramones and AC/DC and The Sex Pistols almost non-stop and I sat with every work by Hesse and Nietzsche on my desk and a pop-up book of Bette Davis. I made references to them all the time – to the point where the narrative was becoming too large and I had to weed it out. So I just took chunks from Siddhartha, instead of taking a little bit from Steppenwolf, Demian, and Siddhartha. Siddhartha is also a nice fit because it’s almost the exact same length as Sweet Mother Prophesy.

ML: In your abstract you refer to Ondaatje’s Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Steffler’s Grey Islands. Aside from the multi-genre format, can you recall some specific themes or techniques you attempted to incorporate or progress or critique?

AT: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid absolutely knocked me down when I first read it. I considered writing something like that but I wanted to combine some bizarre genres. I wanted to write an ‘Everyman’ play but with marionettes – a puppet morality play. I also wanted to do a screenplay about environmental issues but in the genre of silent film. So I was combining genres in my head – things that were wildly disparate – and when I read The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, I thought "that is what I’m talking about". 

From Michael Ondaatje, I was trying to learn how to create a central narrative from disparate voices even when those voices are even a little crazy. […] I also wanted to incorporate a localized setting. John Steffler wrote about a localized setting but, before reading his novel, I had never even heard of the Grey Islands and I’ve live in the Maritimes for my whole life. It’s a great setting but I wanted an [accessible] setting – in a sense, similar to Salmon Rushdie’s technique – take a real place, with real street names, and real storefronts and drop the fictive narrative right into the middle of it. 

I was less concerned with history and more concerned with locality – not just Fredericton but St. John as well.

ML: The narrator’s ‘present’ meditative voice appears in poetic form. What was the basis for that decision? Why did you choose the free verse poetic over the prose poem or stream of consciousness?

AT: I had the great fortune to take a poetry workshop with Jan Zwicky one year before I started this project. Talk about a forceful intellect, Jan Zwicky’s mind is like a force of nature. It will blow you away/ or warm you like a beautiful summer day. But she will definitely force you to think - in particular, what is the nature of poetry and what is the nature of prose? Why do we choose one form over another? When we create a prose poem it’s interesting because we’re asking the reader to read it like a narrative but also to twist their mind to the [realm] of metaphor. That’s where great writers like Annie Dillard excel. I chose each section by asking myself "am I telling a story, am I creating an image, am I mining an experience, am I mining the imagination, is it beyond words, is it outside of words?" If it was outside of words, I used a photograph instead. During the novel’s most traumatic episode, instead of writing anything, I used three photographs.

ML: With regards to those photographs, and all the photos, can you comment on their cropping and intentional anonymity?

AT: I wanted the faces cut-off from the mouths up so the readers would be able to put themselves in that situation. If you look at photographs from the nose up all the expression comes out in their [eyes]. It’s terribly cliché, but the eyes are the window into the soul. You can look at eyes and decide "that’s a nice person", or "that’s a mean person", or "that’s a handsome person" but when you cut that part out, you end up with the less expressive aspects. I wanted to maintain that so the reader could connect.

ML: What are your theories concerning poetic line breaks, specifically within free verse?

AT: A friend of mine, Steve McOrmond, just released his first book of poetry; it’s called Lean Days and I encourage everyone to read it. Steve is a master of the line break. So let’s start at the beginning: each line should stand on its own, each line should connect to the line above and the line after. On the other hand, the stanza break represents a shift in thought, you’re leaving one thought behind and moving to the next one, which is still under the rubric of the title. And then there’s rhythm. I cut my teeth on rhythm with Public Enemy. Rhythm is so much a part of the meaning. Is your rhythm long? Do you have long, long lines like Tim Loburn, lines that testify the prairies? When I read his poetry, I feel like I’m running for this horizon that’s always running away from me.

So it’s not just asking you to think about the world in a different way but feel the world in a different way. Poetry that just lies on the page is boring for me. And that has everything to do with the line breaks. William Carlos Williams is another writer that has mastered the line break. You can feel the suspension from one line to the next.

ML: "On taking down an elm" appeared in Fiddlehead 227; the first, fourth, and fifth stanzas seem to echo the novel’s questions or resolution: "soothing words concerning health/ of the pack, and holy descriptions/ incanting gravity, and the horizon." and "recite stories of civilization’s rise/ from volcanic outpourings, and of/ the fall – how it hurts// only for a second" – are these stanzas echoing the novel’s theme’s of Buddhism and nihilism?

AT: Absolutely; these are my themes. Buddhism and nihilism, punk rock and jazz, they’ve been my themes for over 20 years. I’m still working through them and I don’t think I’ll ever let go of them.

ML: Great. Thank you for the interview. And thank you for the novel.

AT: Right on. Thank you.

Michael Lockett was born and raised in Ontario, studied Mathematics and English at Dalhousie University, and is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in English at the University of New Brunswick.







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