An obsessive perfectionist, Samuel Andreyev inhabits several worlds: he writes in English while living in France; he is an internationally known composer, performer, and teacher; and he is an experimental poet who documents words, phrases, and rhetorical devices while staying true to the fundamental tools of classical poetry.
A 49th Shelf “Most Anticipated 2015 Fall Poetry Selection”, The Relativistic Empire is Andreyev’s second poetry collection, combining the brevity and lightness of a comic strip with the complexity and richness of French symbolist poetry. Spare, yet rich with meaning; suggesting narrative, while forcefully pushing away from it, these poems strive for an edgy involvement with the world and language. Only a poet straddling borders of sound and sense could achieve this.
Wanda Praamsma: I’m curious about how The Relativistic Empire came together. Did you have a plan for these poems?
Samuel Andreyev: No, and in fact I never do, with any of my creative projects. I discover the work, and my own potential as a human being, through the act of doing—so if I know what’s going to happen ahead of time I just get bored. I can only work productively if I go into it blind: if I am surprised by what transpires during the process, there is a far higher likelihood that the reader will be, as well. After enough preliminary, exploratory work has been done, I start to have a sense of the parameters of the project and what the material can do—though in the case of The Relativistic Empire, it took nearly three years of persistent effort for this to happen, and a further three to finish the book.
WP: You’re a composer, as well as a poet. How does the composition of music and poetry interconnect for you?
SA: I don’t see too many differences between the two practices. Both are concerned with sound, rhythm, form, and temporality, as well as the patient exploration of raw materials and their potential for building structures. What mainly sets them apart is that it is possible, with extreme effort, to use language as a vehicle for transmitting precise messages, whereas in music, this is categorically impossible. Both are extremely challenging disciplines if you want to engage with them at the highest possible level. They have always been complementary activities for me. When I lived in Toronto, I was active as a composer and performer while simultaneously running The Expert Press and publishing small editions of contemporary poetry, which was rarely my own work. When I’m exhausted by hours of intense concentration on a piece of music, I can work on a poetic text with renewed energy, and vice versa.
WP: And what are you hearing when you write poetry? Many of your poems in this book are structured in short lines, or very short lines—is there a reason for this?
SA: We live in an age of unprecedented verbosity. I’m sensitive to a peculiar yet widespread cultural anxiety which consists of feeling you must talk yourself into existence or else face certain oblivion. There is tremendous value in getting straight to the point, with no prevarication (even if my points tend to be oblique)—and then jumping into the getaway car. In addition, I’ve often noticed—in literature as well as in music—that the more simple, precise, and clear you are in your expression, the more mysterious and unknowable the work then becomes.
WP: In the long poem that the book is titled after, you work in 11-line stanzas. What is the significance of this form?
SA: Composing poems with simple formal constraints like the one you mention allows a very steady rhythm to manifest, which can help create a trance or incantation-like effect. Besides, predictable forms are wonderful vehicles for unpredictable content. I’m by no means the first poet to work this way. Tom Raworth wrote a book-length piece called Eternal Sections in 14-line stanzas, and Jay MillAr’s Accumulation Sonnets all have 15 lines. In all three cases you have these open forms with no punctuation or capitalization. Beyond that, though, the actual concerns addressed by these three works could hardly be more different.
WP: The titles of your poems are superb—such great lead-ins and at the same time, great puzzles. How do you approach this part of your process?
SA: I have a pronounced antipathy to titles that have a descriptive function, because if the description is good enough, you’ve gotten the point and there’s no need to read the poem—and if it’s bad, you wouldn’t want to anyway. Very often I choose titles which function as a spur: since they’re the first thing you see, they should grab the reader’s attention and make her or him want to engage with the text. On very rare occasions, I deliberately choose a title that has nothing whatsoever to do with the poem it leads into, but usually there is a connection of some sort. Early on in the composition of The Relativistic Empire, I experimented with suppressing the titles, but I didn’t like the effect at all. Titles for poems are like the buttons on a jacket—they somehow hold the thing together.
Samuel Andreyev is a writer, composer, teacher, and performer. His vocal, chamber, and orchestral compositions are performed in countries around the world. He operated The Expert Press, devoted to contemporary poetry, for several years in Toronto. His first full collection of poems, Evidence, was published by Quattro Books in 2009. Born and raised in Ontario, Andreyev studied composition, musical acoustics, orchestration, electroacoustics, and musical analysis at the Paris Conservatory (CNSMDP) and IRCAM (Paris). He has lived in France since 2003, where he is currently employed as a Professor of Musical Analysis at the Conservatoire de Cambrai, and as a freelance composer, writer, and oboist. Connect with Andreyev on Twitter @samuelandreyev.
Wanda Praamsma grew up in the Ottawa Valley in Clayton, Ontario. Her poetry has appeared in Ottawater, 17 seconds, and Feathertale, and several literary non-fiction pieces have appeared in The Toronto Star, where she worked for several years as an editor. She has worked, studied, and lived at various points in Salamanca, Spain, Santiago, Chile, and Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and has travelled to many places in between and beyond, including Cuba, India, and the Balkans. Praamsma currently lives in Kingston, Ontario. a thin line between is her first book of poetry. Find Praamsma at www.whywandawrites. com, or connect with her on Twitter @wpraamsma