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Geist blogger and Editor-In-Chief of Poetry Is Dead, Daniel Zomparelli, will be organizing an ongoing series of interviews with poets, and people doing interesting things with poets. If you are a poet doing interesting things or have a tip off for Daniel, you can email him at email@example.com.
Garry Thomas Morse is the author of Transversals for Orpheus, Streams, Death in Vancouver, After Jack, and Discovery Passages. He is a poet who challenges genre, or rather, busts it. Geist.com met with Garry to talk about his genre busting prose.
Daniel Zomparelli: I was explaining to you one day about how you muddy the waters of poetry and prose. And I meant it in the nicest way possible. In your short stories in Death In Vancouver, you move the reader quickly through the narrator’s thoughts, to the visuals of outside, to the subtext, to dialogue in an unrestrained fast pace. I was able to go back and read through parts and find different scenarios of what I thought happened. To me, this is what poetry does, do you approach fiction/prose with the same approach to poetry?
Garry Thomas Morse: For my own part, I cannot approach fiction in the same way because of my own wacky poetic process. This method of writing poetry has been derided at least since the Romantics, but the poem does arrive to me in lengthy bursts of inspiration. It’s been a source of irritation since my young years. I become moody as a gravid mare while carrying around the poem, if I can even say that. I write it as a form of exorcism. Since writing After Jack, I only tend to write serial poems or long poems instead of what Jack Spicer called "one night stands", which we see a lot of in journals and published books.
So when I interpret the poem, I feel the language is revealing itself to me, and if there is an audience, it is eavesdropping on this state of being in which I am merely an instrument, supplanted by the language and what it has to say and what voices emerge, etc. I have been criticized for having this viewpoint, and while it is perhaps an arrogant egocentric stance to take, in surrendering my ego to the text, I feel subject to this unwieldy force that leaves me tremulous in its wake when interpreting a text. It is exhausting, which is why I don’t necessarily like to do readings, and I delight in my own lonely discoveries more than an audience might ever perceive.
With fiction, for me, there is a different kind of work ethic. There is still inspiration but it is something I have to trigger, to initiate by putting pen to paper or clack to virtual canvas. And I mean it’s something one goes to like an imaginary job, even when not working at one's business or "real jobs". I find it helpful to set hours or a routine. I wrote all of those stories in notebooks in a number of Vancouver pubs, so there is perhaps an experiential authenticity to its “slurreality”. You are quite right about there being different scenarios of happenstances because to me the book was like the same story being retold from various perspectives with similar characters. And there is some overlap here and there between stories, although merely as shadows in the eyes. That means YOU are telling the story to some extent, depending how you decide to gather what really went down.
There’s also a nod to the novels of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, and their own Bergsonian experiments with narrative space and time. By this, I am referring to narrative shifts based on vague formulae inherent in the content instead of an all-knowing omniscient narrator. Sometimes the proximity of another character is enough to cause a reaction in the narrative and sometimes a sense of consciousness erupts in the middle of the telling. And I owe a great debt to Daphne Marlatt and one of her writing workshops, as it was in one of these workshops that due to her presence and inspiration, I began to find my knowledge of poetic structure was being informed by an emotional sensibility that enabled me to enter into prose, starting with the prose poem. This goes against the grain of T.S. Eliot's notion of depersonalization, because for me the intellectual and emotional form an aesthetic synthesis that "feels" quite natural to me, even as I am aware it is and is not a type of artifice. And what is the result? Chicanery or sincerity? Who can say, eh?
And the short answer is HELL YES, because I am a poet attempting prose. Be gentle with me.
DZ: I love the idea of Fitzgerald, Gatsby and Zelda finding new forms in your work. My favourite part being how Gatsby is the handsome DJ whose name pops up everywhere, but the Fitzgerald is having trouble getting any attention at all. Please tell me this is an allegory for avant-garde writing.
GTM: Well, if there is something running through the whole book, it is a sense of the pathetic or the unfulfilled, or quite simply several characters who feel they have all the time in the world to do whatever they really hoped to do, until they are rather rudely interrupted and as Shakespeare says, "it is too late." I was often thinking of Joyce’s story “The Little Cloud”, although F. Scott Fitzgerald does express this concern about one of the characters in The Beautiful and Damned, whose writing starts to decline after his first success due to his social obligations and writing watered down pieces for Hollywood. That’s if you don’t have time to read A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, which is more of the same worry for seven volumes.
And I'm not sure it's avant-garde so much as our reading habits have changed over time so that our expectations are lowered to the point that we resist something that challenges us and call it avant-garde when it is merely pushing around our expectations a bit more. I often wonder why we are so desensitized to blatant misogyny, jarring violence, litters of prettified corpses and patronizing formulaic propaganda we find in most films yet balk if an expletive or derogatory expression pops up in the mouth of a fictional character. Of course, now that The Great Gatsby movie is being redone in 3D, we won't need any more great books. Phew!
DZ: In the story “Salt Chip Boy,” you rewrite language, I'm assuming for the future, and this to me was lyrical prose. The reframing of language in prose creating poetry. At certain points I could only understand the story through the sounds the words created. Was this a way of refreshing a language that already exists or a complete destruction of language? Or is "extirpate" a better word choice?
GTM: Well, in what is left of our English courses, broad statements are always being made, such as T.S. Eliot ended the language in "The Waste Land" or one cannot write poetry after one turns 25 or one cannot write poetry after Auschwitz. I was responding to all this talk about the speculative genre and its general lack of experimental language, trying to imagine the utilitarian business language of Ancient Rome and also how this might be reconfigured in a pell mell hodgepodge medley in the future. As you know, I ended up expanding upon these ideas and writing a highly overstimulating series of five novels called The Chaos! Quincunx, which will include the complete destruction of language you refer to. And just for you, sir.
To answer your followup question, I'm going to have to take the liberty of inserting a snippet from one of the stories called "Dry Gray", which is about parsing a phrase in French on a napkin picked up at a rather ubiquitous coffee chain:
The man lifted a pointless pen & started to tap at the surface of the small device. There was something strange & simian about the man's movements, although he was managing with relative ease to manipulate that small slender pen without a point. After several more tentative taps of the nub, he lit up. Gray had a vision of the first man discovering fire as he offered him the glowing list of results.
1. Make disappear completely (unroot, destroy)
2. Tear up by the roots until it cannot grow back
3. To remove radically -> extract -> Remove a tumour
4. To make (person, thing) leave with difficulty
So you see, they are going to completely uproot & eradicate the secrets of my soul. The greying man palmed his device & stared back sleepily. Gray pointed to the dark writ on the brown serviette. "see, that's what the napkin says."
DZ: The language is quite interesting, but seriously, what is “blogging” and “smurfing” within “Salt Chip Boy?”
GTM: At some point in my childhood I taught myself to read Roald Dahl and because of this autodidactic effuppery, I am overtly conscious about how language is presented in a context before the rules arrive, like Homer's Odyssey before Plato decided that everything had to be grammaticized. So "Salt Chip Boy" is quite simply some scraps of language waiting for its rules to arrive. Perhaps the interesting bit is that the characters enjoy partaking of "our language" as a kind of vintage fantasy.
I enjoy the pre-existing definition of smurfing as a financial term for a form of money laundering in small transactions. No offense to the smurfs. And I am almost certain there are depraved online sites dedicated to the graphical realization of smurfing (NOW IN 3D). Of course, I don't have a future gloss for 2088, so I have no idea what it would mean by then. All I know is there are a lot of male smurfs and they often use the word in a derogatory fashion in one another's company. Because they can!
In the future, blogging may be this atrocious activity of talking about oneself superfluously in lieu of providing content. Not at all like the highbrow videos of tragic accidents (and kitties) today. Or this shamelessly brilliant interview.
DZ: Some writers don't like to address this type of question, but do you have any particular influences in the world of (short) fiction?
GTM: Well, while I write books of poetry and also decadent voluminous works, the short story is still a form that mystifies me. In particular, I am completely in awe of the short stories of Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway and Alice Munro. There is something to the story that is short and simply told that also reveals something mean and petty and terribly sad about human nature, really without saying much at all, even while hinting at a larger interconnected story in general. I mean, I can write short stories, but I will probably spend the rest of my life aspiring to them as an art form. I mean where it seems if you take one word out and the whole thing no longer works. Maybe that is just a myth, but the excellent writers make you believe wholeheartedly in it.
DZ: I'm going to make a statement, and you can talk about it or not. In "Two Scoops," the reader falls into dreams within dreams within story within porn and the dizzying story is wrapped in consumerism. Once again, the destruction of language is brought up, but through advertising. The idea that advertising is destroying language is made clear by the dizzying control it takes. The power we let it have on us in choices. Don't think, just buy. Less questions, less answers, less language to discuss.
GTM: Heh heh, you just reminded me of one of my favourite SNL advertisements, where they keep wrapping food with more food, like a hot dog in a burger wrapped in a taco inside of something bolognese, etc, which is absurdly spot on, if not a gooey allegory for these times of excess. The closest thing I can think of is how William S. Burroughs relates advertising to various forms of conditioning, so this is really retro old hat stuff gone recyclage. The point in such works is not to tell the reader anything but rather to immerse them in an experience which is a refraction of what we experience everyday. At some point, it would appear to be more effective for literature to set up shop across the street from advertising and to sandwich board similar techniques without making direct eye contact. Statistics show that people who have been exposed to The Chaos! Quincunx start to have commercial memory lapses, no longer quite certain whether they ever used Feltcro or not. They also have higher levels of oxytocin, and therefore glow more often, make more friends, succeed more often at job interviews, and so on.
We want to attract more web traffic so we should talk some more about porn. Some time ago, I saw a feature on porn censors in Canada and however wrongly, it struck me as slightly amusing to have this body of people in Ontario reviewing porn flick after porn flick and deciding on how to rate the content along with other criteria. I suppose the point of the story is that someone has gone missing, or at least has been absorbed by some kind of trafficking outfit, and the nationalistic censors are not really equipped to realize this or even form a helpful opinion. Actually, I snatched the idea from Ingmar Bergman's The Rite. And stay tuned, because the porn censors have more adventures in The Chaos! Quincunx, where they are attacked by yummilicious pornographic products. And that is another question, whether some porn is more honest than advertising because it is selling itself and not deceptively using the promise one thing to sell another? Or is it less exploitive for the news stations to show Internet footage of people getting shot or having their heads kicked in? I am only going by news I saw this week. This will offend some or many. Discuss.
DZ: "The Book" in my reading, is a long poem—a Fugue if you will—but the more I read your work, the more I think about what is a poem. As a writer, do you feel a necessity to place a term on your writing?
GTM: "The Book" was exploring an idea of Mallarme's, that everything exists only to end up in a book. In this case, the protagonist takes this abstract idea literally and thinks a great deal about what must be sacrificed to such an ineffable entity. I've always maintained that Death in Vancouver is a book of stories, although people keep calling 'em poems. In French literature, the divide was really less clearly defined, particularly when the prose poem became a popular entity, even before those American Modernists began to borrow these concepts and promote them more widely. So far as I know, one of the earliest forms of meta-fiction was written by Guillaume de Machaut as a series of poems/songs about an old guy who was impotent yet who expressed his interest in a younger lady in the courtly love tradition. That was around the 14th century, even before Oprah could tell us what was fiction and what wasn't.
Death in Vancouver is a collection of stories, but they are also embryonic material, like the seeds of other things I am writing and have yet to write. As with serial and long poems, I like how such oeuvres start up and maintain internal conversations. The protagonist in the book is the forerunner for another novel series I am writing called The M Trilogy. And just as I borrow (and critically discard) voices from Dostoyevsky or Beckett, I also borrow from myself. I tend to see all of literature, whether poetry or prose, as a series of nurse logs that other living things grow out of. It is through a foundation full of nutrients that entirely new things can grow, tenuously attached yet also independent in every way. That is how I set out to rewrite other things and end up with entirely new books. Strange but true.
I don't know if "The Book" is a fugue in either sense of the word, although you are quite astute to use this term. The M Trilogy is one kind of fugue, in the sense that my grandfather and father went out of their minds and suffered severe delusions and this has heavily influenced the way I interpret the state of a character who goes into fugues, for lack of a better word. The Chaos! Quincunx is more or less written in the form of four fugues that are polyphonically drawn together in the final part. In this way, the characters and situations become like motivic devices. Although I do not always understand what I am doing at the time of writing, I cannot escape the way musical constructions affect the way in which I put together my poetry and prose, even subconsciously.
This type of "wit" is abstract and elusive and downright Haydnesque, although in terms of content or "story", it likely makes no difference whether this is noticed, just as my operatic improvisations are often too subtle for many sound poets to perceive as an unformalized approach to the synthesis of language and music that pleases neither the novelists nor the opera directors nor the "avant-garde". And I concur, it takes far less energy to surrender to what we already know, and of course instinctively to scoff. I often think we have lost sight (or sound) of what Henry James and Gertrude Stein and even bp Nichol were doing in their prose works, which is to say, treating it as an abstract medium more like painting where words and phrases become more like strokes of the brush than mere semantic vectors, mere verminous carriers for decaying ideas.
So no, I find such terms to be redundant and often inaccurate. I thought I'd end up a fussbutton Classicist to be honest. I was kind of shocked to find I was being called a contemporary poet. Zoincks!
DZ: The stories all appear timeless, or rather, in a time between the 50s until now. I didn’t even realize the time frame of Death In Vancouver until Padam “googled” something. Were the stories created with a sense of timelessness or are they supposed to be current day? I ask this purely for selfish reader reasons.
GTM: I will take this as a fronthanded reacharound compliment. My approach as a writer is to visit the works of the past in order to understand how they would project into the future. Right now, I see a lot more about our society in older novels. I see the decadence of our society in The Satyricon and I find the avarice in The Human Comedy of Balzac. I find our political and social hypocrisies in Proust, our financial crises in the works of Dreiser, and our issues of abstraction and alienation in the writing of Musil, which appears to address our problems with coping with information overload, even before various technological advances.
So I suspect the sense of timelessness arises from recognizing how the past reflects forward into the future. Or perhaps I do not possess the data capacity I feel is necessary to write about what is important in the present. There are some souls who can make something profound of our present times, but they are rare and most likely unknown. One has to be able to capture all the surfaces without being flattened oneself, in order to ensure what they capture can survive beyond fifteen minutes. I tend to feel that documenting "the present moment" is like taking a snapshot that rapidly ages amid a glut of other photographs. This is surely the point, finding the one moment of beauty or depth or shading among our endless galleries of gatherings and ceremonies. If something truly worth recording were to happen, we would likely be too distracted to notice. I am sure that the extraterrestrial opinion would be that we only ever attend parties and do nothing else. Such is the sad and amusing irony of our times.
DZ: In Death In Vancouver, the story is about more than just the characters, but also about the narrator. Is it not a story of the artist attempting to create timelessness, knowing its futility and fighting death with every chance he/she has?
GTM: This is really a technique that is at least as old as Milton's Paradise Lost, where the nature of the material being presented is changed due to a narrative shift. In this case, the narrator suddenly appeared like one of Somerset Maugham's narrators, those impassive storytellers who are brutally frank with the other characters. In an old film, the narrator would have been played by Herbert Marshall. I realized while I was still writing that Padam's character was influencing the third person narrative from the beginning, and in not the most objective fashion. Padam's character is somewhat styled after the admittedly talented Benvenuto Cellini, who nonetheless would always tell a story in such a manner that everyone, including Leonard Da Vinci and Michelangelo, had the wrong idea, and it was fortunate that he, Benvenuto Cellini was on hand to save the day, because he was absolutely correct about the matter in question, and so on.
DZ: You detail a hotel called the "Istoria" but it is visually representative of the Sylvia Hotel. Why the name change? Or why the amalgamation of hotels in Vancouver? I am asking, essentially, why Vancouver?
GTM: Originally, I decided to call the hotel the "Istoria", as this is the root of the word history, from the Ancient Greek ("a search, a means of enquiry") and this left it open to a wider concept, because it is "EveryHotel" in Venice or Marienbad or wherever. I now realized it would have far more self-serving to call the book The Sylvia Hotel Poems, whatever I tossed inside of it. As for Vancouver, I still think of it as a transient city and what is more, a frontier town. There is something disparate and disjunct about this city, even as we global our way towards a supposedly refined sense of cosmopolitanism. I mean, I wrote some of the stories at the Ivanhoe and the Lamplighter and the Bourbon and the Wolf & Hound and the Irish Heather, and the Irish Heather is hardly gone, but it has been displaced from its historical positioning as containing part of the town jail, which was a story in itself stemming from Jack Deighton and John Clough to the self-numbing heroin addicts in the courtyard and alley. I am sure the ale and scotch tastes just as terrific but that is not the point. The point is only that we don't notice these subtle transformations and inherent relationship or simply become complacent about their importance. And is it really important? I was fully aware at the time of writing that the characters (whether historical or architectural or "real") would soon vanish. I am sure they already had by the time the book was published.
DZ: The overpowering beigeness of the hotel, reminds me of so many of the renovations we see to historical spaces. The beige finds its way throughout the story. What does this signify for you considering you locate the story in Vancouver?
GTM: What I was getting at with the Sylvia Hotel was a sense of community like a drawing room of the past we no longer share. For better or worse, many of the same characters would return every evening. In fact, at the time, I though it prudent to change the name of the hotel so as not to expose anyone unduly while they were enjoying themselves. But the renovation was very much like the character Padam's Botox treatment. In the real sense, it was good to enlargen the windows and let the light in and repair the furniture. But by doing so, the entire character of the place changed. I am not even criticizing this improvement, although this is an allegory for the fashion of making such changes in Vancouver, what is more popularly known as gentrifying city space. It's like when the cat in the popular children's story died. When Mr. Gottago died, they had to replace him with a new cat that Padam likes to call Mr. Gottastay. And now I've just broken a few more hearts.
In terms of the story, the period after the renovation is like some postlapsarian world where nothing is quite the same. It is meant to convey the sense of loss we feel or ought to feel in Vancouver as a whole. As I have indicated, such a personality transplant to a historical site is probably not important and shouldn't matter to us, right? The overpowering beigeness is just that sameness, that sense of the same hotel lounge from sea to shining sea, in every city, where we can be comforted by the knowledge of that beige sameness waiting for we weary travellers.
DZ: Without revealing too much, the final part of Death In Vancouver returns to this almost rant/dream/stream of consciousness style of writing. This to me returns the story to poem. It had me wondering, what do you consider a poem and what do you consider avant garde prose? When we reach the realm of avant-garde writing, is there any reason to genre-fy it?
GTM: I look at this issue the other way round, since most publishers approach books genre-first, because that implies proven sales formulae and that further implies formulaic characters and situations. So I tend to call my prose work genrebusting because I see no reason to settle in a particular mode. If I were to typify my writing, I would perhaps limit myself to a set of predefined rules and then I wouldn't be able to do what I wanted or at the very least, I would not enjoy myself, which is naturally the most important thing. I might have to come up with a plot and that seems abominable and awfully artificial to me. I try to write according to what I enjoy and if someone else enjoys what I write, all the better!
DZ: This book of stories comes to represent or re-present dreamtime. Which, to me, created a feeling of anxiety throughout each story. There is no break, there is no pause, just a stream of consciousness. Can you speak a bit about the use of dreamtime in the stories, or in your work?
GTM: Sometimes I think there's something culturally atavistic in my approach to writing, as my mother's family included a number of Kwakwaka'wakw Chiefs who maintained and expanded upon certain traditions. Keep in mind, this is something I scarcely understand myself, but I am aware of an intensity, a ferocity of desire to will the world of literature or opera or even dreams to spill over into life. I refer to the Kwakwaka'wakw even when I am handling dusty old European literature because the divisions between dream and life and not so expressly made. Also, there was no such thing as after-dinner theatre because even the most theatrical performances served a communal function, a ritual in which the one who may lead must be "clean" and then wildly erratic and then exorcised and then tamed before returning to the community.
I suspect that the feeling of anxiety, even of horror, stems from something deep within all of us. There is Apollonian art, if it is art, meaning art that supports the state and what is does (say, reading a poem at the Olympics or penning a play to raise awareness about gout) and then there is Dionysian art. The latter is more commonly found in myth and the ancient plays and in Wagner's music, where some part of our psyche is being tapped in such a way that we become nervous. We are staring at a warped reflection of ourselves and this confuses and troubles us, mostly because it defies definition. It is something of a backdoor catharsis because it may put some people off and ultimately feel good to others, even if it stings a little.
Funnily enough, I found my character and that of my particular Kwakwaka'wakw line in a family story about a healer I included in my upcoming book Discovery Passages, which contains no moral or lesson like some of the other stories that are about hubris and the like, perhaps due to alterations during translation. The point of the story seems to be that you can claim your own birthright like Jacob from Esau if you're crafty, and if someone questions the nature of your magic too closely, their guts should be yanked out. So, we're good, right?
DZ: Until the next book.