PJ: …Could we talk about your formative years in Surrey/New West? Specifically, when did you start writing poetry, and who were your early inspirations? I imagine living in New West, which is a stone’s throw from the Fraser River, must have some influence in terms of your notion of, well…I’ll let you take it from here.
RSS: I love that phrase, “formative years”: they seem to take the long view with me. Heh. I’ve always had this chronicle-compulsion, just didn’t realize for a long time, that my addiction to writing things down was part of a writing practice, was what defined me as a writer: images, sounds, rhythms, always these were in-coming to me and I took them, language-bits: held, rubbed, stored, taken-out again. My father reading me Mother Goose Nursery rhymes, me, a copy-cat, inventing my own. Scribbling.
So, early inspirations: fairy-tales, nursery rhymes, TV adverts, street signage, dictionaries, the sound of my parents’ speaking/arguing in English-Gujarati (my mother’s mother tongue); the sound of how Other People spoke.
New West when I grew up there, was a well-settled place in the sense of its relation to the colonial history of the province, The Royal City, and as the daughter of a United Church Minister, I settled into place, if that makes sense. My first book, children of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood Editions, 2013), explores this idea a fair bit…
And yes, always, the river: I can’t get away from it. Every time I cross The Fraser into/out of Surrey, I have to look up, look at those grey waters, effluent-filled, that deep undertow current: I grew up hearing stories about the grasp of that current, how she’d take you in…”
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.
Read the rest of the interview below:
In conversation: thecanadaproject interviews Stephen Collis, Part 3…
When Stephen Collis won the 2015 Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy, I thought about his commitment to both poetics and activism, and this past July, Steve was kind enough to chat with me at the JJBean at SFU Woodward’s. I scrawled lots of notes while speaking with Steve and he’s added to my raw transcript: the conversation began with his most recent trip to the U.K. and then shifted to an exchange about Steve’s growing up years. I’ve tried to capture our give-and-take, below:
SC: I grew up in a political household, both my parents were public school teachers in the 1960s and 1970s in Victoria, B.C. There was always a lot of kitchen table conversations. I was the youngest of seven, and politicized by my elder siblings and their experience and conversations about the 1960’s.
My grandma is from Nanaimo from the time of its coal mining community-roots, and her grandparents were originally from North England (Northumberland) and Scotland. I grew up in the 1980s in a culture that included logging on the Island and a strong awareness of the eco-impact of that culture.
In my 20’s I messed around, worked on a fishing boat and in hotels. At 19 I had a child, my son, who is now 31…during that time I became interest in mapping the land, in geography, in the idea of place as a central ‘marker’ of the long poem… [and I] started thinking about the life-long poem as a space within which to live, inside the poem, inside place, the long poem as a project of space…
I attended the University of Victoria, although I kinda “walked out backwards with an English degree”: wary of universities and of institutions, I spent ten years as an undergrad. I’ve now been writing and publishing for 25 years (!). My first book was published in 2000, having published chapbooks and in literary journals during the ‘90s. It was at SFU that I found writers such as G.Bowering and Roy Miki and thought, “maybe this is an okay place”…by age 34 I had a PhD studying Robert Duncan and a job—Jordan Scott was one of my first students.
The whole point of art is liberation
RSS: How did your interest and activism in ecological issues come about?
SC: Because I was the youngest, Dad and I were able to spend time together. He was near retiring, and we spent lots of time outside in the natural world, taking canoe trips. These moments strengthened my sense of geography, place, environment. As well, the “radical hippy” views of my older siblings were a continuing influence as well as their arts and music practice(s)…so I came to literature informed by the notion, the ideal of liberation.
RSS: Your philosophy/attitude to teaching, I’ve always experienced as open and generous…
The year I was born, my parents took in a Nigerian university student for a whole school year and I’ve learned since it’s the custom to always keep a baby held and close to the body and my mom was busy and I was the last of her seven kids, so it was the Nigerian (Richard) who carried me everywhere, “he always carried me”….
I guess one thing we haven’t talked about is my sister Gail, who had a huge influence on me—as an example for a person for whom the world, life in it, was political through and through—without espousing particular politics herself. She was also an artist without practicing a particular art, a thinker and a reader too. My most meaningful discussions about how to live, what to do with my life, etc. were with her, and she read and commented on everything I wrote early on, encouraged etc. She died of cancer at the end of 2002, and I still feel, writing, that she is one of those I’m really writing for. She told me my theme as a writer would be “revolution,” and in most ways I’ve stuck to that. Sort of a “commission” in this.
On Refugee Tales
RSS: This year’s Refugee Tales never seemed more timely given world events and you were there.
SC: [It’s] a walking tour of South England similar to the pilgrimage walks in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Last year’s walk was in Kent, walking from Dover to Crawley; this year, we walked from Canterbury to London. Along the pre-planned route, we stayed in church basements with a team of organizers and we stay in place likes church basements. Over a hundred people participated including, folks from NGO’s, as well as the actor, Jeremy Irons. I was invited to participate by David Herd who will visit SFU in spring 2017. There is a book, an anthology, from last year’s walk, which was launched in Canterbury in July, Refugee Tales.
RSS: And you’ve a piece in that anthology.
SC: A collage, “The Lawyer’s Tale” exploring the idea of displacement…”it was hard to get a narrative out of the lawyer”.
RSS: This year’s walk was a few days after Brexit and I’m interested if there was any reverb from that on the walk?
SC: A sampling of places on the walk: Gravesend: “white and run down” and voted to leave; at a local pub, we saw the King George I nationalist flag. I kept a journal for facts, docu-notes, especially bits of said things, conversations, when walking, and tried to capture a lot of intense dialogue. Those of us on the walk wore tee-shirts and passersby would stop and look. In London, people thanked us for the walk.
RSS: Your description of The Refugee Tales walk reminds me of images from the film adaptation of Children of Men.
SC: In thinking of this walking action and the life-long poem, there is a kind of simultaneous, “always present/always absent” quality of a life-long poetics. Walking with us were former detainees, from an all-men Detention Centre in the U.K.: mostly African, Sri Lankan, Chinese; ¾ of detainees, African. A year ago, a few Kurdish men. Many hold the status of “undetermined” and their hope is to achieve the oxymoronic designation, “Leave to remain”. The purpose of the walk was to raise awareness, and to challenge the practice of “unlimited detention.”
I did give a talk, the first year on the walk, on the commons, landscape and resource extraction (lots of talk, interest in the UK in fracking and “shale oil,” mining in park land, etc.). Talked about climate refugees, too. The Refugee Tales is one of those projects I like because it overlaps with my main interests, while remaining autonomous/outside. Think of a venn diagram; there’s a small space where the Refugee Tales and my work in and around the commons, The Barricades Project, and Blockadia intersect.
Another point, and perhaps relates to the comment below about privilege: we cannot afford to silo ourselves in the current crisis, and need to be aware of how most contemporary social issues intersect. So while my focus might be on, and my energies directed towards, climate justice (and sometimes, more broadly, social movements that challenge the current economic system), I see the way all manner of struggles intersect. I also see it as a crucial practice to support, show solidarity with, and give space to those who have been most marginalized, violated, and exploited by capitalism and colonialism. So I think this is part of what draws me to the Refugee Tales project, and in turn is part of what Indigenous solidarity, decolonization, and Indigenous leadership/ideas are so crucial to the work I do around climate justice. I’m still working out what this means to be a poet living and writing on—and out of a love for—colonized land.
- In conversation: thecanadaproject interviews Stephen Collis, Part 1
- In conversation: thecanadaproject interviews Stephen Collis, Part 2
- Stay tuned for part 4 of thecanadaproject interviews Stephen Collis
In conversation: thecanadaproject interviews Stephen Collis, Part 2…
On Decomp (Coach House Books, 2013)
SC: The basic idea was Jordan (Scott)’s: leave a book outside and see what happens to it; use that as a prompt for a more material ecopoetics. Our conversations refined the idea to BC ecosystems and Darwin’s Origin as our text. Once we had recovered the books we left outside for a year, the process was pretty long and laborious. We spent a few years going back and forth—often line by line, word by word, adding, amending, editing one another—to the point where for a lot of the book , neither Jordan nor I can tell “whose” writing is whose. That wasn’t always easy—we didn’t always see eye to eye—but the process was rewarding (and we’re still good friends). Full collaboration like this is a real commitment, but I love it.
The book did take shape “organically,” as we worked and re-worked the material we had; we wanted all along to keep close to what was “readable” in the recovered books—to let what an ecosystem did to the books set our a language, with a grammar and lexicon etc. etc. But luckily we also agreed that any puritanical sense of the “concept” was of no interest, and that we wanted second level reflections, self-reflections, commentary by others, etc. to be part of the project. It’s messy, but I think necessarily and productively so.
SC: I am lucky enough to 1) teach the books that I really love, and 2) to focus my teaching around key social issues. As a “scholar” I would say my primary focus is on the relationship between poetry and social movements. So this is the frame for many of my literature courses. Obviously, there’s a close relationship here between my own poetry and objectives as a poet and those that shape my teaching. How else to bring the necessary passion to the classroom?
In teaching creative writing I’ve learned to do two things: open as many doors as possible to meaningful ways of exploring the world through writing, and then to step back and try to help emerging writers come up with the best version of what they have shown they are trying to do. So it’s a matter of on the one hand opening up the possibilities of a writing turned out towards the world (a writing engaged more with otherness than self), then letting go, letting the writer feel their way towards what they are already doing, and helping them understand what that is. So teaching for me comes down to the practice of radical empathy—to demonstrate my empathy for certain ways of writing, and then to feel empathy for what the student’s interests are and try to guide them as best I can.
RSS: Collaborations in other media—what’s that been like, traversing the line between subject and object?
SC: If you mean collaborations with artists working in other media, I absolutely love this, but haven’t done nearly enough of it. Jordan and I had to figure out how we would work with photography on our own. It was the blind leading the blind, but we’re happy with the results.
Once in Blockadia includes some collaborative work, with artists Genevieve Robertson and Jay White. We did several walks together along the existing and proposed new pipeline routes in Coquitlam and Burnaby. This involved setting up beer can pinhole cameras along the route for “counter-surveillance;” some of these images are in my book—as well as Genevieve’s prints made using bitumen. They are open, collaborative artists, and it was fantastic working with them. Really, all I did was walk and talk in this collaboration, but we all three share an interest in the commons, in the enclosure of space and the erasure of other modes of inhabiting the world.
On Upcoming Projects
SC: I’m now writing a prose, non-fiction book, Almost Islands—sort of a memoir of visiting Phyllis Webb over the years. It’s about place, the Anthropocene, displacement and migration, and how to live and write on this coast in the wake of colonization and the midst of resource extraction. It’s also about the relation between poetry and the political, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and the British socialist William Morris. It’s kind of crazy. I’ve drafted about two thirds of it this summer and will finish and revise next summer.
Beyond that, I don’t like to project too clearly, even though I usually have a sense of where to go. Because I change my mind, or have it changed for me by oil companies and lawyers! One thing I have my eye on is translating the presocratic Greek philosopher Empedocles. Strange, but I’m drawn to his Love and Strife (Eros and Eris) cosmology (which strikes me as fertile ground for “The Barricades Project”), and have translated one fragment already (published in TCR a few years back). I have a shelf of Greek dictionaries, translations etc. ready for me to give it some attention.
Stay tuned for part 3 of thecanadaproject interviews Stephen Collis
In conversation: thecanadaproject interviews Stephen Collis, Part 1…
RSS: What draws you to language? What turns you away?
SC: As a reader, I am definitely drawn to thick, almost opaque language—to sound and texture, which despite the thickness of the surface, can still be quite lyrical (think Lisa Robertson). As a writer I think I’m always trying to keep both the medium and the message in dialectical interplay; I’m compelled to say something “about the world,” but find the challenge and the interest in the material means of that saying—the sound and pattern of a language that often resists or at least complicates saying. As I get older (always a terrible thing to say) I find more and more I want and need that tension—that I dislike, or at least find myself disengaged by, writing that is too transparent or too impenetrable; I hunger for the messy middle, for the dialectical struggle of the in-between.
RSS: What is happening with The Barricades Project?
SC: I have been pursuing this “project” for almost twenty years; it remains a search for poetic material in the history of social struggles, and remains true to its poetics, derived from Robert Duncan: “the intention of the boundless is manifest in the agony and restoration of pages or boundaries or walls.” This means that the desire for the boundless—social revolution, an open-form poetry—must be found in the “agony” of the boundary (the historical struggle at the barricade or blockade, the desire to shut some things out and down) and the written page (one can desire as open a poetry as one wants, but there’s still the page awaiting you, if you plan to continue being a poet).
It also means that any boundary found or created produces its own “beyondery”—calls forth the possibility of its surpassing. For my life-long poem, this means that process has to take precedence over any product (be it a poem or book). Form is death; form-giving is life, the anthropologist Tim Ingold writes. So I find myself realizing that there never will be some fat tome entitled ‘The Barricades Project”—there can only be a continuation of the search and the agony, the struggle and the resistance—and the books produced along the way will be just so many way-stations, so many pauses and markers of ongoing movement. That’s a bit romantic, I know, but there it is. I have always found my books to be incomplete, small flawed gestures towards something so much larger. But that makes political sense to me too, for what people have struggled for so long is always something larger than the small moments of resistance that are engaged in in the here and now. This has to be so—otherwise all these defeats do not amount to anything. Social movements and “movements” in the work of art (I mean large aesthetic structures that are composed) are made of so many discrete moments, acts, words and people that compose something that is larger than the sum of those parts. That’s the utopian heart of what I think I’m doing.
RSS: How have the events of the past few years changed or transformed your writing, your view of your writing?
SC: I think these experiences, in the long run, have simply clarified and sharpened what was already going on in my writing. At first I found I needed to assert the primacy of direct action, grassroots struggle, and “doing” over “writing.” I recognized that, when push came to shove, poetry wasn’t the only thing I had to do—I had to stand and be counted in other ways too. Because art alone is never enough. It’s a small and obvious point that many others have been more articulate on than I am being (for instance, the Commune Editions poets); poetry doesn’t change the world; only people collectively organizing and taking action can do that—if we are lucky. But poetry has a role nevertheless, does some of the work that organizers call “capacity building.” We need ways to express and share our solidarity, and poetry is one of those ways. So I suppose I’m once again more a poet of the in-between (a dialectical thinker, when it comes down to it)—I want to write and I want to act, but one cannot replace the other.
The fact that corporations and the state care enough about poetry to bring it into a courtroom, or to busy themselves reviling a poet, has been pretty instructive. I’m still not sure what to do with that information, but it’s now a part of what poetry is to me—it’s a little darker now, a little more dangerous, a little closer to the madness of exploitation than I had thought before. All this is tangled up in Once in Blockadia, which is part documentary poetry, part meditation on the politics of and possibilities of art in the Anthropocene (a term I don’t really like but use as a convenient shorthand).
RSS: In looking at your poems, readers and reviewers often comment on…
SC: I think different readers comment on different things. For some, my work seems quite lyrical and expressive; for other readers It’s difficult and experimental. I probably get too much credit for being “an activist poet” (there are quite a few others), but I think this also means a lot of people who might otherwise have read me, don’t—the emphasis gets placed on what I do, not what I write (see above comment about doing and writing and note the irony!). The focus on the activist part of the activist-poet (please note that these aren’t terms I personally prefer or use) perhaps indicates a hunger for such figures and such boundary-crossing work, just as it also probably indicates a lack of the same (obviously).
Sometimes readers and reviewers just “get it,” and that’s wonderful. Because that “getting it” is really about me learning something about what I’m doing, and about poetry, from those readers and reviewers. And that’s a wonderful gift. As far as a reader/reviewer’s response goes, as a writer, all I’m really after is an ongoing conversation. To be read means to be in conversation. That’s all I can ask.