Greetings from Blachford Lake, up near the east arm of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories.
Via the satellites, I've been working under the direction of Al Filreis at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, transcribing some recent and classic dialogues on poetry and poetics that will eventually be published in Jacket magazine once the journal takes up its new residence in Philadelphia. Occasionally, I hope to post on Lemon Hound a few excerpts from discussions I'm working on, and wanted to start with these selections from a conversation with Christian Bök featuring Charles Bernstein and students from the University of Pennsylvania.
Here is a link to the PennSound audio file of the discussion. This discussion, a reading, and other Bök recordings can be found on his PennSound author page.--Michael Nardone
Bök on constraint-based work and meaning:
If what you’re suggesting is that I’ve demonstrated that it’s possible for a person to be an avant-garde poet and actually mean something, right, when indulging in this kind of formalism, I could say yes, but what seems to me true about any combination of words, you know, according to any series of formal rationales, is that what we call meaning is really, in a certain sense, a side-effect of a particular kind of activity. That no matter what combination of words I might use, no matter how they are arranged, disposed, no matter what kind of formal, formalities brought to bear upon them, you’re going to find some sort of way to make them, those associations mean something to you. It seems to me that meaning is always the side effect of that activity.
T.S. Eliot used to say that meaning was the meat the burglar throws to the dog. That you had to put some meaning in the poem so that, you know, something else could take place, right. You had to satisfy those readers who are begging for some sort of rationale, some sort of purpose for this activity, which, in many respects though, is done for its own sake, you know, as a kind of hedonistic enjoyment of language, language free from the need to mean. It takes a little holiday. For me, that’s what’s going on in [Eunoia]: language has taken a little holiday from the dictionary. I’ve merely shown some incipient or possible combinations and permutations of the words that are actually imminent within the dictionary, within the language itself, but have been somewhat occluded or eclipsed by other activities in language.Bök on his working conditions while composing Eunoia:
While I was working on Eunoia, I was a PhD student at York University. I was working sixty hours a week. Forty at a retail book store, a giant monopoly, and spent the other twenty hours tutoring students in chemistry and algebra for fifty dollars an hour to make up for shortfalls in my income. Then I would go home and I’d work for a few hours on my dissertation. I was trying to complete my graduate work at the time. And then once that work had been completed, usually around ten or eleven o’clock at night, I would proceed to work from about eleven o’clock until four or five in the morning on Eunoia, and then probably get up two or three hours later to go to work.
So, for about four or five years at least, quite sleepless, a real insomniac, I would crash on the weekends. I was unpleasant. [...] And I couldn’t get money to support this project. It was impossible to get a grant. In the seven years I worked on it, I couldn’t seem to get funding for it.Bök on the ideological and historical conditions of being a Canadian poet:
Canadian poetry, in effect, defines itself against the kind of colonial experience of being at first a colony of Britain, and now an economic colony of the United States. There’s a great deal of, at least historically, a great deal of xenophobia around poets who are influenced by international practitioners of writing. So, certainly, for the last thirty or forty years, the main concern has been to produce a kind of home-grown poetic experience that would be a lyric expression of the innate essentiality of Canadianness. You know, what does it mean to be a Canadian? What exactly is a Canadian?
I find that pretty tiresome because it always comes up with the same set of clichés and hackneyed sentiments.
As a consequence, the literary history in Canada is very conservative and doesn’t have a very rich avant-garde tradition. Despite the fact that the country has been around as long as the avant-garde itself, it doesn’t have a long or deep experimental writing history. So, in a certain sense, it’s very difficult, I think, to be a poet under those circumstances, especially if you are doing something unorthodox. At the same time, however, at least until recently, socialist democracy meant that there was actually money available to support artistic endeavor and creative activity in a way that may not be the case now in the United States. But that’s, of course, changing. We have an increasingly conservative political agenda in our country, which is threatening many of these institutions, cultural institutions, which were created, in effect, to try and protect Canada from the cultural incursions from the United States.