Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Adam Dickinson

Share |
Adam Dickinson

This spring, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer's Craft class conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June. In this interview, Malvern Collegiate students Merlot Duncan-Cole and Brittany Bosley speak with poet and professor Adam Dickinson (The Polymers, House of Anansi Press, 2013).

Merlot Duncan-Cole:

Hello Adam, my name is Merlot and my partner’s name is Brittany. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer our eager questions about your poetry; we look forward to your responses and learning more about your life and inspirations.

Brittany Bosley:

While reading your biography, I noticed you studied sciences and literary arts at Brock University. Both subjects are polar opposites, yet you managed to incorporate science easily into your poems. What created your drive to lean more towards literary arts than science? What aspect of science interests you the most (for example how you wrote a poetry book entitled The Polymers)?

Adam Dickinson:

Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding, I teach in the English Department at Brock University. I have no formal training in the sciences; all my university training has been in literature. Nonetheless, you are right to point out that I have always been interested in science. Rather than seeing them as polar opposites, I think that science and poetry practiced at their limits have much in common. They both rely on imaginative play, on the potential of patterns to emerge when ostensibly disparate contexts of understanding are brought together. What happens, for example, if we take an insight in one seemingly unrelated area of science and apply it to another? Similarly, what sorts of questions about culture and language emerge when we juxtapose unexpected linguistic environments? So much valuable problem solving and critical thinking has emerged from patterns discerned in unexpected relationships. In The Polymers I am interested in the sorts of ethical and epistemological questions that get reframed by the unexpected juxtaposition of culture and chemistry. What if we were to think of plastic (its proliferation as waste, its relationship to the oil industry) as not simply the expression of certain questionable cultural priorities, but also as something intrinsic to culture itself? In other words, what if we exposed the ways in which culture is polymeric; what would the identification of cultural polymers tell us about our complicated relationship to plastic and plasticity? Ultimately, my intention in the book is to apply the structure of polymers (their repetitions, chain-like dynamics, their chemical behaviour) to what I see as analogous phenomena in culture.


In an interview on Open Book: Toronto you were asked, “What one poem, from any time period, do you wish you had been the one to write?” and you responded with “Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself.’” Why did you choose his poem out of the billions of poems out there? I noticed in his poem he uses sensory details, much like yourself. Does this poem influence your works; do you aspire to create something like his poem?


I admire the grand scope of Whitman’s vision. I admire his formal innovations. I love how inspired I get every time I read “Song of Myself” (I love teaching it). What I admire most is the ways in which Whitman explores the very big in the very small (“a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars”). He identifies the larger philosophical implications in seemingly insignificant people or situations, enacting the kinds of unexpected juxtapositions I was mentioning earlier. I also admire what I consider to be his chemical approach to the subject: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” The subject is a composite being, a contingent arrangement of relationships prone to reconfiguration. All of this is very relevant for my work, especially my next poetry project, which examines and attempts to write the chemicals and microbes present in my body.


For an in-class assignment, I made a poem* out of your poem “knowing where to look” and one of Emily Dickinson’s. I highly enjoyed reading your poem, because it is very relatable. For example, there is one line that goes “Do we risk a kind of flight that teaches us to jump” and it reminded me of how I take risks every day, just watching what and how I say things to people. What aspects of nature inspired you to write this poem? Were there any other contributing attributes?


Thanks for your poem. I love it! My original poem came out of thinking about patterns. I remember being struck by the notion that shells have their evolutionary origin in the idea that waste could be worn on the outside of the body. What if other biological capacities and morphological circumstances owe their origins to similar unlikely sources? What if flight, as an idea, emerged from the lessons of leaves? What if one species took an idea from another and applied it in a new way? This poem was inspired by the tendency of forms and phenomena to repeat in the natural world, to express themselves in oddly distant and differing situations. The poem extends itself to the intellectualized emotional world of the speaker in order to speculate about potential lessons for thinking through love in terms of the unusual patterns the poem hypothesizes. Risk is a matter of weighing one’s options given the patterns one discerns.


In Cartography and Walking and Kingdom, Phylum the first thing I noticed were the titles. They are both science-related while your poems, I feel, are more life events and nature-oriented. Cartography is the science of drawing maps and Phylum is below kingdom and above class. Why did you choose these titles? And for Kingdom, Phylum why did you not include the full seven biological classifications? Do you feel you are filtering or classifying the world with your poems?


Both books are interested in scientific attempts to make sense of material that is difficult to control or delineate. Cartography is the science of making maps; it is, consequently, involved in a continuous relationship with error (much like poetry itself), given the impossibility of accurately representing three dimensions (the world) in two (the map). Kingdom, Phylum explores the science of taxonomy, which is also involved in a continuous relationship with error given the fact that the creatures and circumstances we attempt to classify often resist the systematic categories applied to them. Cartography and taxonomy, therefore, represent incredibly interesting sites of tension between order and disorder, between the necessity, on the one hand, of attempting to logically make sense of the world, and, on the other hand, the realization that any such attempts can only be contingent and dependent on the precise contexts with which they are employed. I chose the titles of both books in order to reflect this tension. The content, however, is a more figurative exploration of these themes (I prefer to approach my subject matter from an unexpected angle). Kingdom, Phylum, for example, is divided into temporal, spatial, and moral orders, treating some examples from each. I felt these broad yet fundamental categories would allow me some flexibility as I wrote the poems. Any poem is, in some ways, a kind of filter or classification inasmuch as it represents one way in which a particular subject or form has been framed. There are always other ways to write. The filter can be adjusted to radically different settings.


On Canadian Literature Online you said, “I have in my own work become increasingly interested in matters of process and form over matters of content and rhetoric.” That was in 2010, and as the years go by do you still believe that statement to be true? In my writer’s craft class we discussed how form and rhetoric is essentially the same thing, how do you classify them as different?


There is no question that form and content are connected. I have tried to pay more attention to the materiality of my writing, to the physical manifestation of language itself, but also to the ways in which form might be re-conceptualized to enact the content of the poem. For example, in The Polymers it was very important for me to find ways to both generate and render the poems in ways consistent with structural aspects of polymer chemistry. I used, among other devices, anagrams, anaphora, repetition, visual poems, polysyndeton (a polymer in language), and plastic paper. All of these formal dimensions were essential to enacting the polymeric structure of the poems. The emphasis on process meant that the content of some poems was determined entirely by the material and formal circumstances of a particular compositional procedure. I think of this really as just a broadening of what I understand to be the possibilities of the poem.


Due to global warming, and the way the human race treats nature, for example how we litter, use non-hybrid vehicles causing pollution, and the polar ice caps melting, we might not have such a beautiful scenery as you’ve mentioned in your books such as your poem “Into the Field” where it says “the way the sun could smell to us balled up in hillocks of hay”. What are your plans for future poems if this continues?


I’m very interested in the potential for poetry to be an activist force in the face of environmental degradation. The Polymers is very much an ecopoetic project that seeks to critically explore Western petroleum culture’s dependence on plastic. My next project involves making a toxicological and symbiotic map of my own body in order to identify the toxic chemicals in my blood as well as the necessary microorganisms that inhabit me and keep me alive. It is a project concerned with the ways in which the outside writes the inside — both in negative, toxic ways, but also in necessary ways when it comes to associated microbiological health. I think poetry is very relevant to these concerns because pollution is fundamentally a matter of experimental writing — we are creating chemicals that affect the endocrine system in our bodies, interfering with how hormonal messages are sent and received. Pollution and the ethical issues associated with it are also a matter of signification: we can’t care about what doesn’t signify for us. It is the role of poetry and art more generally to expand the field of signification (expand the conversation) when it comes to environmental issues, so that what doesn’t matter might begin to. My plans for future poems involve continued attempts to broaden and reframe this conversation.


And here is my poem I mentioned in my question in case you are interested:

I found you where I last looked

It would be life (Emily Dickinson)

If it’s a matter of learning to fly (Adam Dickinson)

What quizzical avian saw the potential (Adam)

Putting up our life (Emily)

At our own peril? (Adam)

Do we risk a kind of flight? (Adam)

That teaches us to jump (Adam)

I could not see you freeze (Emily)

For you served Heaven, you know? (Emily)

If it’s a matter of learning to love (Adam)

Then I am in paradise. (Emily)

Adam Dickinson is a writer, researcher and teacher. His poems have appeared in literary journals in Canada and internationally as well as in anthologies such as Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets and The Shape of Content: Creative Writing in Mathematics and Science. His collection Kingdom, Phylum was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. He is the author most recently of The Polymers (Anansi 2013). He is also working on another poetry project that involves testing his blood and body for chemicals and microbes. When not giving his body to science, he teaches at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he researches intersections between pataphysics and ecopoetics.

“Never regret anything that made you smile.” says Brittany Bosley, a young girl from Canada. By this she means, why regret something you once wanted, something that once made you joyous. In her spare time she enjoys working out at the gym, hanging with friends and eating food. After graduating, she intends on pursuing a career in psychology. Brittany is a very caring and outgoing girl, who always has a smile on her face, most likely due to the amount of chocolate she allows herself on a daily basis. One of her life goals is to go skydiving which she hopes to pursue soon. She currently resides in the pyramids of Egypt with her camel Pharoh.

Merlot is one of a kind, born in Toronto, Ontario, moved around many times, 14 houses to be exact. Has lived in Dunville, Burlington and Toronto, or simply summed up all in Ontario. All of this moving has lead her to become impossibly close with her family and well adaptive to any situation. Moving so often has also allowed her to make new friends quickly and with ease. Hobbies include movie marathons, hanging out with friends and participating in arts and crafts. Expressive, helpful, humorous, sarcastic, honest, outgoing, shy, human. These are the things that make up Merlot Duncan-Cole.

Adam Dickinson was Open Book: Toronto's April 2013 Writer in Residence. Visit his WIR page to read his blog, his interview with Open Book and his reading and website recommendations.

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.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page