As a poet, I’m indebted to Stephen’s work on not only the long poem form, but in particular, the life-long poem. Here are a few notes from my conversation in this fourth and final instalment of thecanadaproject interviews Stephen Collis:
About life-long poems and The Barricades Project
SC: “Well, in a way, the journal is the poem: I’m always writing, doing docu-poetry/poetics by entering things into my journal, including words and sketches. I’m now onto Journal #89: yeah, I keep track of these, they are usually black, with bound hard covers: I’ve over 25 years of journal writing, a daily practice, and the last 50 of my 7 journals are this art book type, unlined black.”
And it is in our discussion of these journals that S.C. speaks of the life-long poems as a kind of movement toward… the “horizon”.
SC: “I guess … The Barricades Project is the horizon I write towards, and this is what a life-long poem is for me—you never get there, but it provides direction and impetus to your work. Again like a Venn diagram, there are poems and books that will overlap substantially with The Barricades Project, but it will also always remain substantially outside of any of the poems and books I actually publish. Anarchive, The Commons, To the Barricades—these all feel like The Barricades Project (See Part 1 of this interview). But so do parts of On the Material and Once in Blockadia. [It’s] about forms not about product, about in-forming, occupying journals, it is the process of living-writing the unbound life and the bound; [and it’s also about] exceeding boundaries into ‘the beyondery’ –”
Steve goes on to say “life-long poems hover outside poetry” and I add, …are perhaps intricately engaged with questions of inside/outside…in speaking about these things we speak about long poems such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, with its defined structure and form, and we speak about how the long poem often negotiates, contemplates, mediates notions of scale, of size, the “epic” or “the saga”…quite often made with elaborate structures (Milton’s Paradise Lost, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) and boundaries, with limits. One example Steve laughingly recalls is William Morris’ The Earthly Paradise, which Steve describes as “ horrible “ (which makes me immediately want to read it, devour it): it’s about 40,000 lines in verse of rhymed end-stopped couplets…
(in my notebook, I write: The Rape of the Lock! Ugh.)
Going deeper: poets, fragments, and the life-long project
Steve and I speak about the influence/presence of the Romantic in this idea/ideal: that to be an artist is to live in opposition, to engage in social change…we share a laugh when I interject, “and then you met ‘CanLit’” and Steve responds, with a Bob Dylan quote, “to live outside the law, you have to be honest” and speaks about his work and reading of both Robert Duncan and Phyllis Webb, both of whom he describes as “anarchists…they wrote of an alternative/alternate world”…
I’m surprised by Steve’s take on Robert Duncan and he reminds me of Duncan’s work: e.g. The Passages poem, fragments of which reoccur throughout Duncan’s oeuvre and Steve mentions a 1940’s essay Duncan wrote for The Nation, “The Homosexual in Society,” and how Duncan at that time outed himself as a gay man.
Steve also cites Phyllis Webb’s Kropotkin Poems, “it’s epic” and written by a woman and he sees it as a model for his idea of the life-long poem and the long poem and their inter-relationship with place/space…also with incompleteness which leads back to walking and of course to Wordsworth (The Prelude, being the only part of his projected “Recluse” that Wordsworth completed.)
Steve adds in a later note to me: “the Kropotkin Poems never were written – just fragments, some of which she published. It’s the idea of them, the intent and ambition, that draws me. Their “openness” in being incomplete, and the struggle Webb went through in (not) writing them. How do you write the anarchist epic? By not writing it, Webb’s experience seems to say.”
The horizon we write toward is the life-long poem, is the Barricades Project, writing toward, that is the life-long poem.”
We discuss the voice of the barricades, “problematic yet necessary” and Steve speaks about what I call the urgency of now, how will we live together…S.C. speaks with respect for other poets such as Cecily Nicholson, Jordan Abel, in how these poets “track the we” and his own passion for writing toward an inclusive we, that trans-movement between self and other.
My biggest desire is to be in conversation about a shared space, to be engaged.”
We end our afternoon exchanging ideas about how to make poetry out of the public sphere, out of the political and we discuss the documentary as a strategy of research, how to report and make voice, how to transfer, evoke emotion, how to compress, probe, excavate, remove, redact, destroy, subvert, and yes, how to make new, this language.
Stephen Collis’ latest book is forthcoming from Talon Books: Once in Blockadia. For more information about the book, visit Talon Books’ website.
Read the rest of the interview below: