canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Jason Camlot

Jason Camlot's latest book of poems is Attention All Typewriters (DC Books, 2005). His previous poetry collections include, The Animal Library (DC Books, 2000), and a limited edition chapbook with illustrations by Canadian artist Betty Goodwin, entitled, Lines Crossed Out (Delirium Press, 2005). His poems and articles have appeared in such journals and anthologies as New American Writing, Court Green, Queen Street Quarterly, Rampike, Matrix, Poetry Nation (Véhicule), Book History, English Literary History, and Postmodern Culture. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, and teaches Victorian literature and culture at Concordia University in Montreal. 

Interview by Alessandro Porco (2005)


ALESSANDRO PORCO: An introduction is in order, Jason — the floor is yours…

JASON CAMLOT: I was born in Montreal, studied in Boston and California, and now I’m a professor at a University back in Montreal, where I teach Victorian Literature and Culture, among other things — and where I learn things, too. I’m a published poet, songwriter, scholar and occasional critic. I’m a husband of one and father of two amazing people (three amazing people in all, two little, one full grown). I’m a centerman (ice hockey), a bassist (in the garage band Puggy Hammer), and, for the past two years, the director of a graduate program in English. In the 1990s I released three compilations of songs in quick succession, O Glee (1994), Mr. Fedora (1995), and Letterbomb (1996). Then I got the teaching job. Some kind of reissue of songs from these compilations is slated for release with Urban Myth Records, but they’re having money problems at the moment, so that could take a while. My first collection of poems, The Animal Library (DC Books, 2000) was nominated for a Quebec Writer’s Federation poetry prize. I’ve published a chapbook that I’m proud of called Lines Crossed Out (Delirium Press, 2005) with illustrations by Canadian artist, Betty Goodwin. And my new book, Attention All Typewriters (DC Books, 2005) just hit the shelves.

AP: I would like to start with a discussion of the long poems in your new collection — particularly, "Bewildered" and "Daddy Lazarus." "Bewildered" might best be described as a drug-induced Safari through the last days of John Crowe Ransom’s mind circa 1974 at Kenyon College. There is in "Bewildered" — as there is in "Daddy Lazarus" — an "essayistic impulse," to borrow a phrase from critic David Herd (perhaps more practiced in the American tradition, from Pinsky to Ammons to Bernstein), woven into each respective poetic narrative: in the former, Ransom’s "Kantian formalism" is considered in relation to "the long poems, / the philosophical ones, / the epic ones, / the goofy poetic dramas, / the crass poetic narratives." In the latter, "Daddy Lazarus," the American confessional mode is considered, but again the "essayistic impulse," or the "philosophical" element is woven into a "goofy poetic drama" or "crass poetic narrative." Could you speak to your interest in the long poem as such, as well as in general?

JC: While I ‘love’ (meaning I have visceral, emotional/aesthetic affection for) short lyric poems and long poems, both, recently I have found I love long poems more, in part because I find they are less emotionally arrogant (from L. arrogāntem, assuming), and more exciting to me as a means of organizing complex fields of discourse and experience. The long poem (including the long poem as approached by the American poets you mention) is less satisfied with omission than a certain kind of short lyric poem (a short, epiphanic poem) is, and thus the long poem is less self satisfied. It is less satisfied with the idea that the self, or a significant experience attributed to the self, can be expressed in a successful way, and sometimes is skeptical that such an idea of self should be expressed at all. While a long (say, epic) poem may seem more ambitious (more arrogant, less modest) an endeavor than the short lyric poem — Paradise Lost was not a project born of a humble nature — the long poems I really love are the more recent ones, poems of significant length from, say, Wordsworth’s The Prelude (self-satisfied, yes, but positively messy) and Coleridge’s Rhyme and Christabel, through Schwartz’s Corliolanus and His Mother, Bishop’s Geography III (which I read as a long poem), Ammons’s Garbage, and Bernstein’s "Artifice as Absorption", etc., etc. The fact that the long poem is long may allow it to have greater shifts in tonal register, a wider range of intellectual and emotional association, the juxtaposition of radically diverse thematic elements in a manner that is still aesthetically interesting, and in a broader sense, to luxuriate more in the variegated (say, pied) possibilities of formal organization, rather than require the poet to approach form as a more singular solution to a predetermined emotional, intellectual, (even pedagogical) problem.

The long poems in Attention All Typewriters are conceived (as you suggest) within an American tradition of this kind of poem.  Like the eight new sections introduced by Lewis Lapham in Harper’s Magazine during the 1980s (Index—essentially an argumentative list of statistics, Readings, Forum, Essay, Report, Annotations, Criticism, and Revision), "each of them," as Lapham put it, "given over not only to different forms of writing but also to different orders of information," the use of form in the contemporary American long poem, I think, is employed with a mind to finding useful ways to organize very disparate orders of experience that cannot really be contained in an inherently discrete, shorter, lyric mode. While "the list" — a genre that is found at the core of both political economy (as double-entry bookkeeping, see Mary Poovey’s The History of the Modern Fact) and history (as annals, see Hayden White’s The Content of the Form) — informs much of the experimentation that appeals to me in recent American poetry (and in this sense, a text like the "Harper's Index" can be understood as a modernist poem that seems to have been revitalized, reengaged, democratized by statistics), probably the most significant ‘non-poetic genre’ that informs the contemporary (American) long poem, and that has influenced my own work with this form (as you point out), is the essay. There’s something approaching a fusion of the non-sequiter list and the factual essay in David Trinidad’s long prose poem from Plasticville, "Essay with Movable Parts." And much of Charles Bernstein’s poetry enacts characteristics of certain kinds of expository (and other modes of) discourse in order to reveal their artifice, usually because they have been too readily absorbed as natural. Throughout Bernstein’s oeuvre (both his poems and his essays) we find guerilla attacks upon the implicit conspiracy of the offices (i.e. The Office of the Registrar, The Ad Office) that push artifice as reality.

As for the specific poems from Attention All Typewriters that you mention, "Daddy Lazarus" is obviously trying to move through the possibilities of a certain (rather self-contained, and somewhat monological) mode of confessional lyric that I associate with Plath, towards a more historically inclusive, dialogical, essayistic, yet still formally integrated confessional mode that I associate with Whitman and, especially, Ginsberg. I do love both modes, but I’m exploring the possibilities of the latter in this poem. "Bewildered" represents my attempt to capture the pleasurable complexity of a young, aspiring poet who finds himself ‘under the influence’ of many convergent agents that would have existed in the mid 1970s at the poem’s locale, Kenyon College. The organizing speaker of the poem is under the influence of drugs, yes, but also of 1970s television programming, late 60s liberation politics, his goofy and intellectually distinct roommates, an energetic creative writing professor (modeled after REN Allen, who was teaching at Kenyon that year, having just come from Cornell where he studied with A.R. Ammons), and, of course, John Crowe Ransom, who died at Kenyon in that same year. The poem, as I meant it to work, at least, isn’t a reproof of Ransom’s Kantian formalism (so influential upon the new critical method of teaching poetry in America from the 1940s to the late 70s), so much as a heartfelt exploration of the status of his understanding of poetry as a formally contained moment of illumination, in the context of such wide and rich sources of influence. By representing Ransom, in his final months, alone in a room, watching television day and night (a biographical fact corroborated to me by two people who ‘looked in upon him’ that year), I have tried to get across Jack Spicer’s moving idea that a poem can’t live alone, any more than a person can. And, further, that not living alone, entails being okay with a heavy dose of chronic bewilderment.

AP: If the long-poem is, as you describe it, "less self-satisfied" and "more skeptical" of the self and experience than the lyric, this interestingly points to a drama I detect unfolding in your lyric poetry — especially, the section titled "Office Machines," which, in light of our discussion, however, I may need to rethink as a long-poem now too. But the paragrammatic punning in "The Wind Divider," or the anagrams in "Office Credo," or the typographic errors in "Lunch Receptionist Poems" and "Announcements From the Offices…" — such eruptive things (eruptive — that is, the language as "activity" bubbling over) are, I think, a linguistic dramatization of said skepticism, calling attention to "the very space of work" as one "filled like cryptic / crosswords, with interruption" and "cruel, passive- / aggression"; calling attention to "the conspiracy of the offices." This "drama," as I’ve called it, also locates itself on a larger thematic level too. Do you consider that a (somewhat) fair assessment? Andor could further discuss the original conception of "Office Machines"?

JC: I think you’re right to identify "Office Machines" as a section of short lyric poems, rather than as a long poem. If it is a long poem, it’s one that treats the impossibility of sustaining itself while under the constraints of institutional expectations and interruptions. These poems were begun a very long time ago, when I was actually working as an office assistant, and substitute lunchtime-receptionist. Unlike Frank O’Hara, who would leave the office to write his poems on his lunch break, I found myself writing poems while filling in at the reception desk for the official receptionist as she went for her lunch break. I had a big IBM Selectric typewriter (very fast) at my disposal, hidden from public view, and I decided, whenever I had a free moment, to attempt a short poem on the back side of the memo pad pages I was using to take messages. The rules: (a) no poem may be longer than a memo page, (b) if my train of thought is interrupted (as it often was, by the phone, by someone asking if I had a paper clip, if I had a stapler, if I had a garbage can) I must integrate the effects of interruption into the poem’s logic or procedure, (c) do not get ‘caught’ typing poems while on reception duty. I averaged about a poem a day, over the three-month period that I worked this job. Only a few of the original memo pad poems have made it into the collection, but they were certainly the basis of "Office Machines." Often, the original typewriter poems were about people I did not know, but observed from behind my desk day after day, and who became exotic, petty, ambitious, comical, lonely, lovely characters in my interim-receptionist fantasy world.

As an office receptionist, you are centrally placed, yet mostly invisible, because you are of no consequence to the world of work that surrounds you. So you are well positioned to observe. In between interruptions, I imagined the eruptions of the characters whose psychologies I was constructing, with the ultimate purpose of feeling like I was doing something worthwhile, for myself, as the saying goes. I was an anonymous character making anonymous characters of them. The office poems are in this sense ‘poems nearly anonymous.’ That is, while ‘expression’ is the staged occasion for these short poems, it is the conceit of the expressive self, the ‘fictitious personality’ that is being dramatized in the poems, not me. This may be understood as a dramatization of skepticism about self and experience, but I don’t really think of these poems as skeptical. They are to some extent satirical, and thus perhaps skeptical of a certain romantic conception of self-expressive lyric that approaches language as having a transparent correspondence with thought and feeling. Puns, anagrams, typos, imagined dyslexia, repressive linguistic gaffes and displacements are all fun ways of contesting such assumed transparency, but they also help the poems bubble over, as you put it, into what I hope becomes a new order of expressivity. The characters in these poems, speaking from controlling and oppressive institutional contexts, are attempting to express their anger and bewilderment about their situations (and thus gain some control for themselves), but find their language often takes control of them, and leads them to say more than they have intended. The "Office Machines" section is meant to celebrate the humorous, sometimes beautiful, and often profoundly meaningful corruptions of our most personal and precious intended meanings.

AP: Your closing comments above are reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s "remainder theory" — that which returns "to haunt the scientific object [langue] that excludes it." One of its defining principles, according to Lecercle, is that of disfunctionality, "when it is language, not me, that speaks, when language speaks through me, reducing me to the role of a mouthpiece. The consequence of this is that language is not necessarily, not even centrally, meant to allow the exchange of information." (This is all very interesting too, if one recalls John Crowe Ransom’s theory, as quoted in "Bewildered," that " ‘there is no / remainder’. No otoise surplussage.") With all that in mind, we fittingly arrive at one of my favourite poems in Attention All Typewriters, the playful "Language Monster," with its harrowing final lines of "I’ll dispossess the Language Monster / of his fertile tongue, // until an utter silence prospers / and all speaking is undone."

JC: You’re right, what I said above about meaningful corruptions of intended meaning is reminiscent of Lecercle, although I hadn’t thought of the connection until you brought it up. With his neat idea of "the remainder" Lecercle sees language as something fluid, opaque, and always subject to a kind of ‘intentional fallout’ that radiates from a hopeful communicator’s mouth. Language leaks other meaning, is inherently double (or treble, or…), playful, mis-communicative, wonderfully out of control. With language there is always the remainder promising (or threatening, depending on your disposition) to speak and mean on its own, despite you — You, supposed language-controller. Language thus also troubles any coherent sense of speaker or self that might be asserted by language, and literature (which is granted special status within Lecercle’s thinking) is a rich field through which the disfunctionality of language is explored, and the others contributing to oneself are discovered: "La vraie littérature n’est pas le lieu de revendication d’identité mais plutôt le lieu de contact faste avec l’altérité…" ("True literature isn’t the place where identity is reinforced, but rather the place of a happy encounter with alterity…"), he says in a recent interview. While I’m somewhat interested in how language (by disfunction) can reduce me to a mouthpiece, I’m especially interested in finding ways to communicate (with language and what I’m calling ‘language fallout’) the feelings coincident with this experience of being mouth-pieced, trump(et)ed, and muzzled (by language).

"Language Monster" and "In the Anger’s Chamber," a poem in my first book, The Animal Library, present speakers who have spoken their intimate, beloved interlocutors to death. They sing, and try to make sense of the effect of "the remainder" in the presence of their lovers’ remains. In such an imagined discursive context, language is a monster, conveniently rendered external to the speaking self — It wasn’t me, language did it. Fatalities are the inevitable consequence of an attempt to communicate with it (language), and the only way to peace is silence (i.e. remove the monster’s tongue). Of course, who knows what the speaker will do once he has that fertile tongue in his own possession. It’s as hard to shut up as it is to say what you mean. I should probably mention that both "Language Monster" and "Anger’s Chamber" are also songs that I sing. When performed, the affective content of the remainder’s violence is communicated not just by the words, but also by chords, melody, and other non-verbal vocalizations that communicate coincident anguish without words.

But that’s just one approach to the remainder. My poetry often explores intentional fallout in more playful, less dire ways. The remainder, in one sense, reveals our need for language to make simple sense, and the lengths we’ll go to have our sense, even where there is none (or, non). As Alice says upon hearing stanzas of the poem, "Jabberwocky": "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate." In The Philosophy of Nonsense, Lecercle quotes this passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, pointing out that "Jabberwocky" makes perfect (English) phonetic, morphological and syntactical, but not semantic sense. Sometimes, the first three are enough to make a moving or beautiful or intriguing or hilarious or disturbing poem. But soon the pragmatic reader, wanting to understand, to ‘get’ it, will look for more. In my opinion, that’s when the real fun begins; when the fact of language’s disfunctionality can be felt in relation to our common desire to make language work as a simple messenger of basic meaning. Or even as a rich (but ultimately successful) messenger of complex meaning.

Ransom’s theory of the Concrete Universal that you quote from above, is an example of the latter desire to have complex, sensuous details coincide so perfectly with a poem’s abstract logic that the Concrete (language) is used up completely in the service of the Universal or logical plan of the poem; used up so completely, in fact that that there is no remainder once language has put the poem’s plan into action. Where "there is no / remainder" comes from Ransom, "no otiose surplussage" is an unattributed quote from Walter Pater’s essay, "Style" (1888), in which he develops a theory that gives the stylist (writer) agency to assimilate language’s "foreignness" and its dangerous accidents of ulterior meaning, through a Flaubert-inspired concept of "ascêsis" or "refined usage," that is, by his ability to perform "the exclusions, or rejections, which nature demands." I guess one of the strange pleasures pursued in a poem like "Bewildered," and most of the shorter poem’s we’ve talked about, is that of hearing the excluded and rejected resonance make its own (unnatural, erroneous, yet also divine and true) demands upon nature.

AP: You alluded to the double-life of "Language Monster" as both poem (printed material; on the page) and "song" (an oral material; off the page). This double-life is, I imagine, of particular interest to you, as your current research interests include developing a critical-listening practice that foregrounds the "aural qualities of literature, but also […] the technologies by which the sounds of literature are made manifest." Could you discuss your current research further, and its connection to your poetry.

JC: This research project — working title, Documenting the Phonotext: Victorian Sound Recording and Its Legacy — comes out of my interest in eighteenth and nineteenth-century rhetorical theory and recitation. I begin by thinking about the rhetorical, reading, elocutionary and recitation culture that was in place at the time the phonograph was introduced (tin foil phonograph in 1877, Edison’s ‘perfected’ phonograph — the first commercially viable machine — in 1888). I then sketch out the range of imagined and actualized uses of this new technology vis-à-vis oral performance. The earliest spoken recordings — not for commercial use, but often made for promotional use — were in the genre of the testimonial, praising Edison for his great invention, and the technology for its powers of granting immortality to the speaker.

Another interesting (promotional) genre of early recordings is what I call the "phonograph poem" — poems written to be recited from the perspective of the phonograph, the talking machine speaking not just any self, in this case, but itself, and in its own voice. In these kinds of promotional recordings— as in all early talking records — we can hear a preserved performance of a generic and elocutionary model that already existed in nineteenth-century recitation book anthologies. The goal of recitation is often figured in these books as the act of removing "bad, artificial habits, and supplanting them by better." High literary works and dialect pieces were presented as equally necessary for the expansion of one’s range as a cultured elocutionist, the dialect exercises highlighting the potential purity of their opposite just as skips and unwanted noise sometimes acknowledged by early phonograph listeners ultimately (as Jonathan Sterne in his excellent book The Audible Past, notes) "indexed the possibility of perfect fidelity in reproduction."

All of the above comprises just a small part of the first chapter of a book that thinks about literary recordings in this vein from the late Victorian period to T.S. Eliot’s various recordings of The Waste Land, made in the 1930s and 40s (the 1946 Library of Congress recording being the best known). This research has had a huge influence on my poetry-writing. Some of what I’ve found in my research is present in my poetry at a thematic level — it has opened up a whole imagined world in which different (mostly archaic) technologies exist. In that world I imagine bodies engaged with these devices, and attempting to communicate with them, to project themselves through these analog acoustic machines. Placing a person in that world leads me to imagine different voices both at the level of ‘genre’ (i.e. what are the formal elements on the page of a wax cylinder recording made in 1888, what were the rhetorical rules that developed around early spoken recordings, public address announcements, telephone talk, etc.), and at the level of ‘grain’ (what is the voice of the phonograph, circa 1888, how did it sound, and how can that be delivered from the page). Poems from The Animal Library like "Phono Kit", "Kit Discovers Sound", "Family Kit" (a dialect-recording poem of sorts), and "…Crypto Kit…", are engaging with these kinds of imaginary scenarios.

AP: You are also currently co-editing English Poetry in Quebec / Quebec Poetry in English, an anthology which includes essays on such notable Montreal writers such as Louis Dudek, Peter Van Toorn, and David McGimpsey. Also included is David Solway’s polemic "Double Exile and Montreal English-Language Poetry," which claims for Montreal poets and poetry a "concentration of virtuosity." Such a correspondence, however, between place and poetic-value is impossible to prove. Such claims are suspect because there’s nothing native to, or inherent in, Montreal to account for such a "concentration" — that is to say, "double exile" is not a geo-political subject position unique to Montreal. (Solway’s claim is even more suspect upon consideration of those poets he identifies as composing such a "concentration of virtuosity.") What, then, is is the function of such an anthology?

JC: While there are a few previously published, polemical pieces along the lines of David Solway’s essay that you mention above, the original essays in this collection, Anglo-Québec Poetry, 1976-2006, are, for the most part, less interested in making a priori propositions about a correspondence between place and poetic value, than in exploring possible interpretive connections between place (or conceptions of place) and poetic practice, and in generating readings of actual poems in light of an array of linguistic and geo-political realities that inform life in Quebec. There has not been a collection of essays taking account of English language poetry in Quebec since John Glassco edited English Poetry in Quebec (1965), forty years ago. A lot has happened since then. In the mid-1950s, Louis Dudek could write with confidence about "the dominant role of Montreal as a center of activity and a source of new poetry" in Canada. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, the idea of a coherent post-1970s Anglo-Québec poetry community and tradition is blurred, or, rather, mediated by a series of public language events that include the tabling of several ‘official language’ bills (like Bill 22 and Bill 101) and their amendments, and two referenda (1980 and 1995) concerning the place of Quebec within (or without) the rest of Canada. It is mediated further by the loaded terminology used to characterize Quebec society, and even further by issues surrounding the status of English-speakers in Quebec. These are some of the broader, geo-political specificities that might be thought of in relation to particular poets, poetry activities, and poems.

For example, while a poem like Louis Dudek’s Atlantis enacts an anti-parochial, internationalist stance that may be attributed, in great part, to what he learned from Ezra Pound, and from European modernism in general, it is also interesting, I think, to read Dudek’s anti-provincialism in that poem, and his pragmatic conception of culture as an activity of small presses and aesthetic constellations alive in relation to each other, and in conflict, within the frame of the emergent francophone activism that was coincident with his fifty-year literary career in Quebec. One kind of reading does not preclude the other. Peter Van Toorn’s eighty-six "translation" poems in Mountain Tea (1984), and his approach to creative translation in general, can be considered in relation to politically-charged, Québecois conceptions of language as culturally constitutive. Erín Moure’s O Cidadán (2002), which intersects a word (citizen) with an othered semblance of itself so that it becomes "[a] word we recognize though we know not its language," creates an unsettled, "semantic pandemonium" out of a concept that official discourse (whether Canadian or Québecois political discourse) wants to settle, to mean harmoniously and quietly. And a poem like David McGimpsey’s "Où Est Queen Street?" (one of my favorites from Hamburger Valley, California [2001]) can be read as a piece that figures Grade-Nine detention time spent in the library as a late 1970s Anglo-Québec Bildung story. Such a local reading of a poem in a book like Hamburger Valley, California, that will more obviously be seen as a book about a "Canadian" (whatever that means) poet abroad, in "America" (whatever that means), is worth pursuing.

AP: Attention All Typewriters is by far the best book of poetry I’ve read thus far in 2005. Are you yourself pleased with the final product, both as it stands on its own and as a follow-up to The Animal Library? What are your hopes as it enters contemporary Canadian poetic culture?

JC: Thanks, Alex. Thanks so much. I am pleased with Attention All Typewriters, and I’m a bit surprised at the kind of book it turned out to be. I’m proud of this book because I think it hits a wide range of emotional registers, it works purposefully and playfully in a variety of poetic forms, and experiments even more than The Animal Library did with different kinds of narrative verse. This last fact probably makes my new book more obviously accessible to readers who don’t normally read a lot of poetry. As for my hopes for Attention All Typewriters: I hope that it is read, and enjoyed, and judged according to its own aspirations and merits. I hope it lives a fulfilling life, with much health and happiness, and the pleasures of many children and grandchildren. I wish it lots of mazel. Health is everything. I hope that it is read. I hope that some readers will love a poem here or there from the book the way I loved certain Beatles songs when I was twelve years old, and certain Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Smiths songs when I was twenty-two. That would be really cool. But that’s asking a lot, I know.

AP: Any final thoughts?

JC: Hopefully not final ones. I’ve already said more than I intended.









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