Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Natalie Zina Walschots talks to Sachiko Murakami

NZW: The timeline for Project Rebuild has been incredibly compressed. I first heard of the project at the beginning on July 6th , and a physical version of the project, the book Rebuild, was launched at the Pilot on September 7th, a mere two months after the original invitations to renovate were sent out. What was it like working under such a compressed timeline? How was a book produced so quickly?

How does the website, Project Rebuild, function differently/independently of the book, Rebuild? What came first, the plan to writ ea book or the plan to design a website?

SM: ProjectRebuild.ca and the book, Rebuild, are separate but interconnected entities. Here’s how it all went down.

I began writing Rebuild in 2008. I was 28, of an age when many of the friends I grew up with were beginning a phase of life that involves marriages, mortgages, and children. I was nowhere near any of these things. But I found myself daily in conversation about real estate, no matter whom I was talking to. I suppose this was partly fueled by my own anxiety about never owning property, at least not on a poet’s salary. But much of it had to do with living in Vancouver, which, as Reg Johansen pointed out to me one evening, is and always has been an economy based on real estate. The fact that Bob Rennie (a major real estate developer) is a household name in Vancouver speaks to that, I think.

The spark that brought both Rebuild and Project Rebuild to life arose from living for most of my adult life in East Van. Vancouver is divided into east/west by Ontario street, and once Ontario street was a marker that divided classes as well – affluence on the west, working-class on the east. (Not quite so any more). I’ve spent a lot of time walking the city, and when you walk Vancouver – especially East Van – you see a lot of Vancouver Specials.

The Vancouver Special is something of a provocation. I began thinking and writing around this question: Why do Vancouverites feel so strongly about this house? What makes something “beautiful” or “ugly”? Whenever I’d talk to someone about the Vancouver Special, I would never get a shrug of indifference. I’d always get a reaction. And that was interesting to me.

The book, Rebuild, began there, and expanded outwards to Vancouver’s real estate culture, condo development, its planning history, and then collided with a few other messes. One of those was protest culture; while writing this book, Parliament was prorogued, the G8 occurred in Toronto (while I was in Vancouver) and the 2010 Winter Olympics happened in Vancouver (while I was in Toronto). The other was the sudden death of my father.

That’s how the manuscript got its final shape. During all that I became increasingly interested in collaboration. I wrote one poem about the Vancouver Special (which appears in the book in several forms), and then sent it out to Vancouver poets, inviting them to “move in” to the poem and paint the walls, rearrange the furniture, add a second story, do with it as they saw fit. I was interested in creating a conversation about the Specials, and about testing my own ability to let go of control of the poem.

This was in early 2010. Quite a few poets responded, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the poems. I read some of them at AvantGarden, a Toronto reading series, and someone (Jenny Sampirisi) suggested that maybe Toronto poets should be allowed to move in, too. I was surprised – I wasn’t sure Toronto poets would have any interest in the Vancouver Special. But I was eager to see what would happen.

I asked a friend, Starkadur Barkarson, to design the architecture of a website that would make it possible to “move in” to a poem. I asked my friends Marian Churchland and her partner Brandon Graham to draw the Specials that would represent each poem on the website. And then in the summer of 2011 we launched the website. There are over one hundred poems on the site today. I see the site and the book as complementary to each other, but separate entities.

NZW: When you were working on the original Project Rebuild poem, “Vancouver Special,” did you have any idea what the project would ultimately become? If so, how did the idea of a collaborative project change/influence your composition process?

SM: As above – no, Project Rebuild took me by surprise! But the transformation of the “renovations” definitely affected my composition process. I started renovating my own poems, and Rebuild contains many of these renovations.

Those renovations were appealing to me because of my ambivalence towards the lyric poem. I’m not sure I trust it – or myself – entirely. There’s something about the self-satisfaction I get from writing a Really Good Poem that I want to destabilize. One technique was to allow the public into my poem, as in Project Rebuild. In Rebuild, I often undo on one page what was set up on the previous. I want to unsettle myself, to never get too attached to one way of writing. I get in these poetic ruts where all my lines are the same old tricks, and I don’t want to rest there.

NZW: You mention that Vancouver Specials are considered ugly, and that neighbourhoods have actually enacted bylaws to prevent these perceived architectural eyesores from creeping into their neighbourhoods. How does Project Rebuild engage with a poetics of undesirability?


How does a poet inhabit a poem? How does the idea of residence and customization change the writing and revising process? Do you find that this increases or diminishes a sense of individual authorship/ownership?

SM: Well, firstly, I think Project Rebuild encourages participants to see their poems, as I say on the site, as rental units of language. Once a poem goes up on the site, it's open for anyone to move into. Second, I don't delete any poems, although I do cull some of the spam. It's an unedited anthology, but one that is constantly being edited by the participants every time they respond. That's an open space, a vulnerable place to put a poem. Each poem becomes a part of a (editorial) conversation that you can read via the backwards/forwards links on each page. So your triumphant flourish can become undone by someone. a.rawlings had her poem exploded by Darren Werschler, for example. I think it speaks to the conversation we are always having when we are writing - responding to that which was written before us/to us/on us. I think it's an interesting diversion from the idea of anthology, which is exclusive and collected with singular vision.

NZW: What makes the poems that make up Project Rebuild particularly architectural?

SM: I'm not sure if the poems on the site are particularly architectural - I don't edit what goes up there. In the book Rebuild, on the other hand, I engage with some traditional forms, some procedures. Reading about architecture and city planning and the politics of taste brought to mind a few arguments I heard about Canadian poetry around the time I started writing this book. There's something about the notion of there being rules to beauty that irritates me across the board.

NZW: How do you see the collaborative process of renovation different from traditional forms/processes of revision?

SM: I had toyed with the idea of each revision overwriting one single poem, so every time you visited the site you'd see a the latest renovation, which might have been a more accurate translation of the renovation process. Editing is a form of renovation, and that process is usually invisible in the final product, the Poem; the scribbles, the scaffolds, have been taken down by the time it's gone to print. I was interested in making that process transparent, and so you can view the progression of the renovations by clicking back/forth through the poems. It's also different in that the agenda/subjectivity/aesthetics each editor/renovator/writer is bringing to the project is not submerged beneath the facade of the Poem, as it would be in a traditional edit.

NZW: How do you feel that Project Rebuild engages with the aesthetics of economics? Of tenancy?

SM: I think the certainty that the idea of "home" offers is more or less an illusion. I think that illusion extends to language. I think Project Rebuild (and, I hope, the poems of Rebuild) troubles that illusion.

NZW: What is the difference between buying and renting a poem?

SM: Interesting. I think the idea of "buying" and "renting" a poem speak to our expectations and engagements with a text. I get the image of the poem as My Last Dutchess hanging on the wall when I think of buying one. I get the image of singing along with the old pipes in the poem when I think of renting one.

With the creation of a static object, a solid version, of the book Rebuild, is the project functionally over? If not, how does it continue?

As I said before, Project Rebuild and Rebuild are associated texts but separate. Project Rebuild will remain up indefinitely. I know there are a few people introducing it to students in their classes to introduce students to collaboration. I hope it sparks an idea for collaboration of their own.


Not failed attempts at beauty or stating.
Unique answers to specific questions.
How may I fit my family into the equation?
How will we make the mortgage?
How much land will be allotted,
and to whom? What can't I afford?
How may we state the look
of elsewhere? How can I make myself less
abstracted? In the house but not of it.
Grace of a front lawn, stucco sophisticate.
All that glitters stuck in the surface.
Sheet shocks sense into reflection.
Wood sliced into beam better becomes
the forest. Can't see the trees for the city.
Could you move to the east? A little farther?
Sachiko Murakami, from Project Rebuild

Sachiko Murakami's first collection of poems, The Invisibility Exhibit (Talonbooks 2008), was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her second collection, Rebuild, also from Talon, is hot off the presses. She has been a literary worker for numerous presses, journals, and organizations. Most recently, she initiated Project Rebuild, an online collaborative poetry project. She lives in Toronto where she co-hosts the Pivot Reading Series. You can follow her on Twitter at @SachikoMurakami. Murakami will be reading at the November Pilot, this Sunday 27th, at The Sparrow in Montreal.

Natalie Zina Walschots' first book of poetry, Thumbscrews, won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and was published by Snare Books in 2007. Her next book, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, is forthcoming from Insomniac Press (Spring 2012). Her poetry has recently appeared in dead gender, Carousel, broken pencil, The Peter F. Yacht Club, dANDelion, ditch, Last Supper, Misunderstandings Magazine, and Open Letter, and is forthcoming in Matrix. Natalie completed her MA in English/Creative Writing at the University of Calgary. She has served as the Managing Editor of both filling Station and dANDelion magazines. She also co-curated the Flywheel reading series from 2005 to 2008. She recently served on the executive board of the Scream Literary Festival as the Volunteer Coordinator. She now works as a writer-in-residence through the NOW HEAR THIS!/S.W.A.T. Program, the literacy outreach arm of the Descant Arts & Letters Foundation. Natalie writes live concert reviews, album reviews, interviews, blog posts, and articles for Hellbound.ca, Alternative Matter, Angry Metal Guy, About Heavy Metal and Exclaim!. She is the Managing Editor of, and contributor to, Canada Arts Connect Magazine. Along with designer Eugenia Catroppa, Natalie recently founded Golden Spruce Entertainment, a promotions company specializing in heavy music. Her base of operations is located in Toronto.

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