Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Long Ago Burned Into Your Brain: An Interview With Damian Rogers

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Rogers, 2009.

In this interview Damian speaks about the brand new Griffin initiative Poetry In Voice/Les voix de la poésie, her earliest memory of poetry, the aesthetic affinity she feels with popular music, and finally her new work.

Her answers are generous, articulate, and insightful. Enjoy.

JL: Damian it strikes me that you've been quite busy since the launch of Paper Radio. I'm wondering if, firstly, you could tell me a bit about the project you're working on Poetry in Voice and where you are at in the process.

DR: Scott and Krystyne Griffin hired me a little over a year ago to start developing a bilingual poetry recitation contest for high-school students in Canada called Poetry In Voice/Les voix de la poésie. I joined the project in the fall of 2009, at the same time that Paper Radio came out, so you're right, it has been a blindingly busy year.

We launched the program this fall (http://arts.nationalpost.com/2...) and we are currently working with 12 schools in Ontario on the pilot program. The pilot finals will be on April 12 in Toronto and then we plan to expand the program fairly rapidly over the next few years to the national level.

It's an amazing project for me to have the opportunity to work on — it's incredibly satisfying to help build something I really believe in. My grandmother used to recite poetry about the house when I was a kid and I know that contributed to the fact that I write poetry today.

JL: I'm interested in speaking more about the project, but can we stay on your last comment for a moment? It seems to me that the real impetus behind the Poetry In Voice/Les voix de la poésie project is the link between recitation and practice/enjoyment. Over the past few years, I've read several eloquent arguments about how a lot of poetry is almost intrinsically designed to be recited and memorized--in effect, spread among the population.

I wonder: is listening to your grandmother recite poetry the earliest memory you have of experiencing poetry? What was her connection to poetry? Did she recite it to you or did you hear her from afar? What kind of poems did she recite?

DR: That's interesting, I've never thought about what my earliest poetry memory might be — I feel like it was always there. My mother read me children's poetry before bed when I was very, very little and my grandmother used to read Kipling's "The Elephant's Child" as a set piece at family gatherings for decades before I was even born, complete with delightful character voices. Though that is prose, the lines are so lush and lyrical that I can quote snippets of it from memory without hesitation: "the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever trees..." My grandmother also quoted bits of Shakespeare and she loved archly reciting Dorothy Parker. "Why is it no one ever sent me yet / One perfect limousine, do you suppose? / Ah no, it's always just my luck to get / One perfect rose." She’d deliver this to me when we were alone on the couch.

I only know a couple of my poems by heart, but I will say that the ones I'm able to remember are also the same ones that I can’t imagine trying to rewrite. I am locked out of them, they are fixed.

My memory of my grandmother reciting poems or reading stories out loud at home also reminds me of another aspect of recitation that appeals to me. I interviewed Alice Notley a few years ago and she compared her poetry practice to performance art forms — specifically she was speaking of a Flamenco singer she’d seen — that have a long history of being created for the intimacy of small rooms. She had also seen Dylan at a huge arena in Paris and found that experience sort of bankrupt of any intense energy exchange.

I believe I know what she’s describing, as my own musical tastes have led me to a life spent in smaller clubs. I saw a band at Sound Academy recently — a good band — and I felt so disconnected from the performance that I didn’t get that buzz I go to shows to feel. I remember realizing when I saw Bowie in high school that I was watching the JumboTron screens more closely than the stage. I think the exciting thing about learning to recite a poem is not that you might have the opportunity to wow the crowd during a wedding speech — though that’s cool too — but that you could tease open your grandchild’s mind in the living room with lines from poems you’d long ago burned into your brain.

JL: I can really relate to what you said about not being able to rewrite something committed to memory. It's like trying to change the pattern on treebark.

Who could have resisted a life in poetry after having such indelible lines delivered to them personally? Certainly one place where the PIV will really recreate this intimate experience is that people who want to be in this competition will have to practice for and to each other in basements / classrooms / etc. Teenagers will practice to parents and parents may want to participate by learning about the poet their child has chosen and look him or her up, etc.

You've mentioned music and I do want to touch on this because I'm curious to hear about how you feel music contributes to your poetry. I felt there was a deep connection to music (maybe not the most meaningful qualifier but "popular" music) in Paper Radio and that really stood out for me about the book because I don't think it's really done that much in Canada (Kevin Connelly's Revolver comes to mind initially). But I know you've also edited Bill Callahan's (formerly Smog, now a solo artist) poetry book and if I recall correctly have actually read at concerts. So if I can try to narrow my question a bit, I guess I'm wondering if you feel that music is mostly a subject in your poems because it's been a part of your experience or if it has a way of influencing the way you write?

DR: Well, I can answer that in two parts I think. Back to my childhood influences, I grew up with music around me. My grandmother (my mother and I lived with my grandparents from the time I was a baby until I was about 8 years old) played piano and I'd sit next to her and listen and sing along to these old popular songs from the 1920s and 1930s. When we lived alone, my mother started playing guitar and she'd play songs by the Beatles and Linda Ronstadt and I'd sit next to her and sing along. This undoubtedly has a lot to do with why I liked to stand so close to a stage when I grew up. Though I took mandolin and piano lessons as a kid and I know a handful of guitar chords, I guess I preferred to have music wash over me from a very close proximity than to lose myself in the process of playing it myself.

When I was about 12, my mother made me a folder of her favorite poems as a Christmas present. We didn't have a lot of money, but my mother was very creative and I have to say that this collection of photocopied poems is the only present I remember from that year. She took the poems from a hippie anthology called *From Beowulf to Beatles* — so my folder included poems by Whitman, Dickinson, Ferlinghetti, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, etc. I nearly memorized "Suzanne" just from reading it over and over, though I didn't hear Cohen's song until I was much older. So song lyrics were literally conflated with poetry for me early on. I don't think song lyrics and poems are interchangeable, but I think I benefited from looking at them as if they were.

As for how that all turned out, I spent much more time in my twenties and early thirties hanging out socially in various urban music scenes than I did in literary communities. When I lived in Chicago I did some book editing for Drag City Records at the same time that I was working as an assistant editor at Poetry Magazine. David Berman was spending a lot of time in Chicago at that time and we had a number of close mutual friends through Drag City, so when his book *Actual Air* came out in 1999, it was a big deal. Suddenly these two distinct spheres came together. Friends of mine who never read contemporary poetry loved that book, but it was also reviewed in Poetry. The possibilities that opened up in my mind were revelatory.

It was really amazing working on Bill Callahan's book ten years later, though that book was very close to being finished by the time I first saw it, so I don't want to overplay my involvement. The language is very poetic, but in the end *Letters to Emma Bowlcut* was published as prose, which I think served the work best. The other book I worked on for Drag City that influenced me is *How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life* by the guitar player John Fahey, which came out in 2000, right before I left Chicago for New York. I had no idea what I was doing — and that book was just a box of mixed-up, stained papers pulled out of the trash when I started — so that was a big learning experience. I'm afraid to look at it closely now as I think I'd just see all the mistakes I made. I learned a lot about music working on that book, too — I didn't know who John Fahey was before that project. I've always siphoned off the superior musical knowledge of the people around me.

And I have read at rock shows. I help Kevin Connolly help Jason Collett curate the writers at his annual Basement Revue series at the Dakota, and I've read there a couple times, and I've also read with my friend Kate Boothman's band Sunbear a lot over the last few years. For the most part, I feel very comfortable in those environments, but I always get nervous before I read to an audience that is there to hear music. The trick is to only read a couple poems at a time, to get off the stage before they get too tired of being quiet. So far no one has thrown anything at me.

I've been lucky to be able to read with musicians I admire and who I think write great songs, like Kate, Julie Doiron, Julie Fader, Jennifer Castle. Jason Collett stunned me by setting one of my poems to music and performing it at The Dakota last month. I find that a lot of my musician friends are more interested in poetry than you might expect, especially in Toronto. I find that really exciting, that the audience for poetry isn't as small as we tend to believe.

JL: I really like what you said about Berman here, and it's worth saying that Berman's accomplishment is quite rare. That is, someone who has experienced success -- let's qualify that with the word "critical" -- in both poetry and music. I used to naively wonder why more musicians didn't have poetry books I'd heard of and vice versa and the answer is clear: music and poetry are very different. Yet -- no, that's not exactly right. In feeling, they are not. In execution, yes.

Music lyrics and poetry are inextricably linked for me, too. I remember once I was at an interview and someone asked me to name another genre that had influenced me and I said visual art, and then I said -- gasp -- that the arrangement of images on a canvas could be instructive to the way one shapes their stanzas (it was my first interview, leave me alone!....) But, seriously, the answer was so obvious I hadn't even considered it, and that's how I knew it was true: the genre I'd started poetry in was song lyrics. There's something about that that's influential on one's style, I think, a certain appreciation of aphorism and a carefully-placed emotional line. I often think I'm trying to do something like write a pop song when I write a poem. But you can only think that way for so long because ultimately it is counter-productive at the level of craft. With exceptions, what generally works in a pop song is anathema in a poem and vice versa.

How is life post Paper Radio? Are you working on new material? If you are, can you feel anything that's changed about your subject matter, form or style, or is it too early to tell?

DR: Hey, visual art has been a huge influence on me as well, don't be sheepish about that answer. I was much more in tune with what was going on in Surrealist art when I was younger than I was with the poetry of that movement. I'm also very interested in how words are composed on the page. It's all for real.

Life post–Paper Radio has been good. I've grown up a lot through the process of letting go of all that material. I wasn't in a rush to publish, so it felt kind of risky to have everything out there after all that time of hiding a lot of it. But it helped me move forward and be less concerned with things I can't control.

I've been working on new poems in earnest since the summer; there was a long dry spell after finishing the book and I had all these ambitious ideas of what my next book should be, but when I did start writing again, of course, the poems asserted themselves from a different part of my brain. I'm more drawn to creating a certain effect through sound and image than I am in telling a clearly defined narrative, but I do still love stories.

I don't think I'm ever terribly deliberate about subject matter in the sense that I don't sit down to write a poem with that worked out ahead of time. I write more "toward" than "about" and I don't know where I'm going until I land. At least, that's the only way I know how to write poems that excite me. Having said that, I've realized that the pervasive metaphor that emerges in my recent poems is the story of the crossroads. I was reading the book *Flash of the Spirit* because Jean-Michel Basquiat mentioned it as an influence in the excellent documentary about him that came out last year (*Radiant Child*), and the myth of the crossroads is a very ancient, deep story we've carried around the world.

Funny, that makes me think a bit of John Fahey again and his obsession with collecting old blues records. Anyway, stylistically I'm interested in how patterns re-emerge — visual patterns, sound patterns, vocal patterns — and how this relates to language and story. How can I feed on everything I love and then find a way to integrate it all in a modern way, how can I find the language that best communicates my own obsessions and anxieties? So these new poems, they scare me, because maybe they don't "make sense" the way some of my earlier poems do, but what the hell, the only reason to do this strange activity is to try to learn something.

I'm attracted to the ways a hidden world asserts itself beneath the apparent world; the way human beings resist falling asleep completely, though both comfort and struggle conspire equally to distract us from that shock of connection we might briefly experience through art or music or religion. Or whatever, a hockey game for that matter. Where does that flash of transcendence break out and can it be captured or at least tracked through language?

So I hope I'm able to learn something with these poems. I hope that I will be able to play in a small room. I hope I get that much closer to a ring that will always be out of reach.

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.

Jeff Latosik

Jeff Latosik’s first book, Tiny, Frantic, Stronger (Insomniac Press), was published in Spring 2010.

Go to Jeff Latosik’s Author Page