June 27, 2014
Kristen: Can you describe your editorial process for the selection of these works by bpNichol?
Stephen: As most of the works in the collection only exist in a single state, there wasn’t a lot of editorial comparisons between drafts and publications that I had to work through. Much of the labour was then transcribing and deciding how best to represent the work to the reader. I wanted the edition to be “friendly” to a general reader (i.e. not a lot of bibliographic details and textual annotations) but also useful to the serious scholar of Nichol’s work. Hence a lot of the bibliographic stuff was sectioned off in the appendix hopefully making the general reader’s initial “entrance” to the poems fairly welcoming. The major problem was how to make readers aware of the materiality of these sequences (for example: Nichol’s choice of font, paper stock, colored ink or paper, size of page, binding, and so on) as Nichol was extremely conscious of how the book-object generated meaning and was not merely a passive receptacle of the text. It would be impossible to replicate these texts ( which mostly appeared as discrete chapbooks) as they did originally, so the best I could do was describe some of their material features in the appendix and advise interested readers to seek out the originals. One compromise was the first sequence in the book, Cycles Etc., which is a scan of the original 7 Flowers Press edition (published by d.a.levy), which I believe shows how mimeo printing affects reading and reception through the density or lightness of textual imprinting.
Kristen: What was the biggest (or most surprising) personal challenge in orchestrating this collection?
Stephen: As a long time fan of Nichol’s work, and having been deeply influenced by him in my own writing, there was some difficulty in remaining objective in my assessment of his poetry. I do, however, think the introduction is successful in articulating various ways that one can read the sequences without being too restrictive. I still somewhat worry that the through-line that I established for reading his poems might be too linear and teleological for a poet who always stressed the fluidity of reading and interpretation and who sought to create works that offered “as many entrances and exits as are possible” for the reader.
Kristen: You describe the recurrent themes in the work: “the inability to communicate, the failure of language, depression and isolation, questions of the purpose of life and mortality, unfulfilled love, travel and exploration, and friendship” (8). Some of these themes themselves, though seemingly ineffable, bpNichol attempts to elucidate–even those themes that resist language itself. This question is two-part.
a) What are your thoughts on bpNichol’s process of narrating the seemingly unnarratable?
b) These themes are universally accessible. Can you speak to their resonance for a contemporary audience?
Stephen: I think the best poetry, in any mode, period, or nation, is always more suggestive than declarative. Nichol, perhaps more than most poets of his time, was also extremely interested in ambiguity and undecidability (as evidenced by his love of the pun or the paragram). In this early collection we see Nichol struggling with this inability to communicate empirically (his Modernist angst) but also reveling in it and appreciating the freedom that the play of signifiers allows (his proto-postmodernism). So on one hand he laments that communication is not direct and transparent, but at the same he seems to think it’s liberating as well.
In terms of the contemporary: I don’t think any of these linguistic issues have been resolved, and in fact, have probably intensified with an even more radical re-envisioning of subjectivity and persona as our digital selves emerge and are refashioned. But at the same time, I think Nichol’s evocation and re-examination of the aubade, the elegy, the metaphysical love conceit, the allegorical journey, and the nocturne, will speak to readers as long as humans live, grow up, fall in love, and pass away.
Kristen: This collection is a monumental undertaking. Did you intimately feel that you were compiling the life and development of an artist? You provide bpNichol’s words: “i am no longer the person i was when i wrote these” (25). To what degree did you feel you were trying to capture an artist in the creative process of becoming?
Stephen: Yes, as mentioned in the answer to question two, there is a tendency in collecting this work to posit a development, or a progression, in Nichol’s poetics. In some ways this approach is useful: Nichol was trying out different techniques and positing different questions that he was trying to answer in various ways, and working towards a larger architecture that would frame his work (that eventually became The Martyrology), but at the same time he was always suspicious of the concept of solving the problem definitively, of mastering a subject, and not only did he suggest his subjectivity was in flux, but that even the concepts of beginning and endings were suspect formations. So yes, maybe bp: becomings, would have been a better title than bp: beginnings…
Kristen: The text always seems to comes back to an idea of mourning/loss. To what degree do you feel that bp: beginnings functions as “some sort of liturgy” (50)?
Stephen: Many of the poems in the collection do seem to enact various rituals, some of which are liturgical, but others seem more secular: burning books, listening to the radio, rebuilding cabins, making tea. I guess the question is how much poetry qua poetry itself is liturgical: textual re-creations/ re-enactments of previous experiences aestheticized utilizing symbols and allegory. With Nichol, knowing his later interest in saints and Christianity, this reading is perhaps overdetermined, but we should also keep in mind his interest in such secular liturgies as psychoanalysis or sound poetry performance.
Kristen: Throughout various forms of literary publication (periodicals, magazines, books, etc), there is a perpetual struggle between image and text relations. How do you think bpNichol challenges or subverts the traditional image/text relations (especially with the section Eyes)? Do you think he provides a re-imagining of these definitions and the resultant relationship?
Stephen: At this early point in his career I believe Nichol saw concrete poetry as an “eye-cleaning” procedure. That is, it made the reader (and writer) aware of the materiality of words and letter forms, which could then be of use when approaching “trad” poetry. It was like exercises (or playing scales in a musical sense) which would build the necessary “muscles” to then re-visit and re-imagine lyric poems. I think he eventually gave up this conception and considered visual poetry of use and interest in its own right, and then almost immediately started to work to break down the distinction between the two tendencies and create a “borderblur” between concrete and lyric poetry. The sequences in bp: beginnings, I believe, demonstrates this movement from eye-exercises to the breaking down of divisions between forms.
The views expressed in this BookThug blog entry are held by the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of BookThug.
Kristen Smith received her Bachelors of Arts in English at Mount Allison University (Sackville, New Brunswick). In 2006, she was awarded the Graham Atlantic Writing Prize for her collection of poetry, Voices. Additionally, Kristen was selected as one of six poets internationally to participate in the Writing With Style program at the Banff Centre, Banff, AB (2012). In both her creative and her academic writing, Kristen explores themes of absence, nostalgia, and belonging. She currently studies at Ryerson University where she is completing a Master of Arts in Literatures of Modernity. Kristen lives in Toronto with her husband.