Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Adam Dickinson

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Adam Dickinson’s poems have appeared in literary journals in Canada and internationally. His poetry has been translated into Chinese and Polish. His work has also been anthologized in Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets, Post Prairie, The Echoing Years: An Anthology of Poetry from Canada and Ireland, The Shape of Content: Creative Writing in Mathematics and Science and in Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems. His first book of poetry, Cartography and Walking, was shortlisted for an Alberta Book Award. His second collection, Kingdom, Phylum, was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. His most recent book, The Polymers, is published by House of Anansi Press.

Adam is currently Associate Professor of poetics at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he teaches poetry, creative writing and literary theory.

Please send your questions and comments for Adam to

On Writing, with Adam Dickinson

Adam Dickinson is Open Book: Toronto's April 2013 writer in residence.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Polymers.

Adam Dickinson:

The Polymers is an imaginary science project that combines the discourses, theories, and experimental methods of the science of plastic materials with the language and culture of plastic behaviour. The book attempts to synthesize or map the social expression of the most common plastic resins: Polyester (1), Polyethylene (2,4), Polyvinyl Chloride (3), Polypropylene (5), Polystyrene (6) and Other (7). You can see these numbers, incidentally, if you look in the little recycle symbols on the bottom of plastic bottles and other objects. In pataphysical fashion, unconventional research into such diverse subjects as line-ups, boredom, political movements, gossip, diets, archetypes, hoaxes, financial credit, classical conditioning, cutlery and partial forms of attention, has produced poems that function as particular atomic constituents of the molecular formulas for each specific resin. Through intentionally diverse poetic terrain, including lyrics, various procedures, constraints and formal mutations, the poems express the repeating structures fundamental to plastic molecules as they appear in cultural and linguistic activities such as arguments, anxieties and trends, to name but a few. 

Recent Writer In Residence Posts


Now that The Polymers has been published and launched, I am currently working on a new and related poetry project, one that also explores the intersection between poetry and chemistry. I thought I would spend my final Open Book blog post telling you a little about this new work. Its current title is Anatomic; it will be a book of poems that explores the ways in which the outside writes the inside of the body – both negatively in terms of pollution and positively in terms of the various microbes we depend on for our health.


I write each poem out loud. The act of writing for me always involves recitation (and sometimes even digital recording) as I listen for ways to adjust the rhythms, the shifts in register, or the leaps between disparate language games. The Polymers is a new reading experience for me because of its relatively elaborate conceptual framework and also because of the important presence visual elements have in the book. Large images of molecules and visual poems have become fundamental components of my reading style as I evoke the manners and measures of the scientist presenting his unconventional research for audience scrutiny. I think of my readings as performances, as outlandish lectures by the preternatural Pataphysician bearing diagrams and charts.


Sara Peters, Michael Crummey, and I have been on a brief reading tour over the past few days. It was great fun reading with the two of them and hearing their marvellous new work. We started in Montreal at an event hosted last Wednesday by the fine people at Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore and then moved on the next day to Toronto for the Anansi Poetry Bash. The Bash was a real blast. It was a treat for me to get the chance to show a few molecules, talk with friends, sign some books, and generally toast the arrival of this project I have spent so much time working on.


An important new arts organization was started last year by Vancouver writer Gillian Jerome in response to conversations on gender and representation initiated by Sina Queryas and Natalie Zina Walschots (a.k.a. Natalie Zed). The Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) is a non-profit group of about 350 writers, artists, critics, and academics. The organization has three main goals: 1) to track statistics on gender representation in reviewing; 2) to bring relevant issues of gender, race, and sexuality into the national literary conversation; and 3) to create a network supportive of the active careers of female writers, critics, and their literary communities.

Codex Seraphinianus

This has to be one of the most fascinating, mysterious, and beautiful books of all time. It’s an imaginary encyclopedia of an imaginary world, one not that far removed from our own, but just enough so that its alien images provoke reflective consideration about the nature of our own categories, classes, and distinctions between nature and culture. Luigi Serafini wrote the Codex Seraphinianus in the 1970s; it has appeared in several reprinted edition since then. It is still a relatively rare book; however, thanks to ubuweb, you can peruse the Codex from the comfort of your laptop.


Poetry is often most interesting when it shifts the frames with which we approach contemporary situations, materials, or ideas. There is William Carlos William’s red wheelbarrow hanging up there on the poetry wall like Duchamp’s urinal. There is Frank O’Hara’s breathless elegy on its way to the suburbs for a dinner party. There are Kenneth Goldsmith’s traffic reports typed out on the ones. Changing the frame can provoke us to look at the commonplace in less common ways. Changing speeds, changing orders, changing mediums, changing other variables of apprehension can make visible certain patterns or anomalies that might not otherwise be apparent. Here is an example of what we might call a visual poem involving earth’s temperature reframed at breakneck speed.


One of the things I look forward to most when giving a reading in another city is the chance to have a post-reading drink and chat with the other readers and poets who live in the area. I had an opportunity to do this in Cobourg this past weekend when Stuart Ross joined us for a couple of pints and some poetry-talk. As the evening wore on, several of us drifted off to our various lodgings, including my wife, Erin, who was staying with me at a Bed and Breakfast just outside of Cobourg. I had a crudely drawn map to the B&B and a vague sense of where to tell the cabby to take me; however, I also wanted to explore Cobourg a bit, so I told Erin I would meet up with her later.


I had the honour of reading at the Cobourg Festival of Poetry this past weekend. It was an absolute blast! The reading took place in the Art Gallery of Northumberland in beautiful downtown Cobourg. Part of the pleasure for me was getting to do a literary event with my wife, the amazing poet Erin Knight. The two of us don’t get the chance to read together that often, so this was a special treat. The fun started as soon as we entered the gallery building where we were confronted with enormous piles of Spam. The canned meat product was part of promotional material for “Spamalot,” which was showing at the theatre also located in the building.


I was listening to bpNichol read from The Martyrology the other day by way of recently posted recordings from readings he did at Simon Fraser University in July of 1983. Just before breaking for lunch, Nichol pauses from his reading and mentions how he lost the manuscript of the long poem three different times. It was missing for six months at one point, he said, only to be eventually discovered at the back of a closet. It got me thinking about what it must have been like to write in a pre-digital age when manuscripts existed in precious individual hard copies. We never lose our writing anymore.


In light of my last post on bioart, I want to share with you an intriguing experiment proposed by a 24-year-old software engineer from Atlanta by the name of Rob Rhinehart. What happens if we were to reduce food to its basic raw materials of vitamins and minerals? What if we were to replace conventional food and conventional eating with the consumption of those chemical raw materials in their recommended ratios? Rhinehart has done just this, replacing all of this food with a chemical cocktail he whips up in his chemistry lab/kitchen every morning. “Soylent,” as he calls it, contains all of the necessary nutrients of a well-balanced diet in their essential chemical form. He only eats solid food now a few times a week (usually when dining with friends).


I’ve never been particularly good at making travel arrangements. The details get the better of me. I feel a great deal of anxiety that perhaps I’ve booked the wrong flight, or scheduled it for the wrong day. I print out two copies of the boarding pass even though I need zero. Things like this.


In The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics (edited by Craig Dworkin), Charles Bernstein updates Pound’s dictum about 20th Century poetry by quipping that rather than simply making it new, poets need to make the poem live. Christian Bök has been trying to do just this through his ambitious Xenotext Experiment, where he is attempting to insert a poem into the DNA of a bacterium. The aim is to encipher the poem as a set of instructions into the genetic nucleotides of the organism in order to cause the bacterium to create a benign protein. This protein, the result of an amino acid sequence determined by the original poem, will be legible as its own complementary poem.


Kenneth Goldsmith has turned weather reports into poetry and Nathalie Miebach has turned raw weather data into sculptures and music. What does a hurricane sound like as a musical score? Listen for yourself:


Ecopoetics has emerged as an attempt to reinvigorate and reposition writing in response to ongoing ecological issues. Such work frequently interrogates language and political discourses (among others) often in a distinctly activist mode, engaging experimental poetic methods and procedures. Poets, activists, scholars, and artists from all over the world converged on Berkeley this past February to share readings, presentations, and conversations. I was part of a panel that conceived of ecopoetics as a set of innovative research methods and compositional practices designed to extend ecocritical inquiry in unexpected directions.

Poetry and Uselessness

I had the great pleasure of reading at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo yesterday as part of their “can lit kicks ass” reading series. It was my first chance to read from The Polymers with the book in my hand (the box arrived just a day earlier). My hosts were generous and the audience was attentive, posing some thoughtful questions about poetry and science following my reading. I’ve since been thinking about some of those questions and also about the subsequent discussion I had with students from Claire Tacon’s creative writing class. There has been, in my experience, a persistent anxiety about poetry’s so-called marginalized cultural position.

Lift Off

Let me say immediately that I am thrilled to be this month’s Open Book: Toronto Writer-in-Residence. My third book of poetry (The Polymers) has just been published and I plan to share with you some of the adventures associated with launching it. If you are in Waterloo this Thursday April 5th come and see me at the “Can Lit Kicks Ass” readings series http://canlitkicksass.blogspot...

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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