Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: Stephen Cain

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Stephen Cain's desk

Stephen Cain is known as one of Canada's most innovative poets, an heir to experimental writers like Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery and, of course, bpNichol. So he was a natural choice to edit bp: Beginnings (BookThug).

bp: Beginnings brings together rare and out of print bpNichol pieces written prior to his masterwork The Martyrology, giving a fuller portrait of the Canadian literary icon. The text includes Nichol's first chapbooks Beach Head and Cycles Etc., the minimal lyric sequences of The Other Side of the Room and The Journeying and the Returns, and various concrete and sound-texts such as Lament, The Year of the Frog and Ballads of the Restless Are. It is an invaluable insight into the development of one of Canada's most creative writers.

Today Stephen joins us as part of our National Poetry Month celebration. He takes us into his workspace for Open Book's At The Desk series, where writers invite their readers to see how and where they write.

He talks with Open Book about the bpNichol poem over his desk, George Perec's favourite letter and ants in Canadian literature.
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I prefer to write in close, cave-like spaces as opposed to the distractions of cafes, outdoors, or in proximity of a window. Most of my composition occurs at night, when the stimulus of the day has been sublimated, and I can give myself up to the rewards of unrestrained writing.

That said, I also like to have numerous tchotchkes and meditative objects about me, both to inspire and to remind me of the reasons I write.

As I work as a poet and academic, the way my desk space is set up now would seem to reflect both these occupations, and is quite appropriate to my two latest projects: Etc Phrases, a homolinguistic translation of bpNichol’s Allegories, and bp: beginnings, an edited collection of Nichol’s early poetic sequences, both published by Toronto’s BookThug.

I haven’t purposefully set objects up to refer to those books in this photo; Nichol’s influence is always around in most of my writing life. Over my desk I have a poster of his concrete poem “water poem 5” which I liberated from the TTC many years ago, and my collection of his books, and books related to his writing (from the Four Horsemen, the TRG, and Steve McCaffery), are at eye level on my desk shelf.

Knowing my interest in the materiality of language and the alphabet, my family often buys me physical letters for Christmas and birthday gifts. The H is front-and-centre, acknowledging that it was Nichol’s talismanic letter, but there is also a blue W, the favourite letter of Georges Perec, the French Oulipian.

André Breton’s office space also had a lot of Surrealist objets trouves, including a collection of rocks and agates, and I have found poetic inspiration in a number of crystals (as did Roger Caillois) that I keep atop my computer’s CPU.

Other items reflect a series of projects I am currently thinking of embarking on: a wooden ant, assembled and painted by my youngest son, pointing to a future essay on ants in Canadian literature; my mother’s old Ookpik doll, for when I revise my book on Canadian nationalism during the late 1960s; and a pillow bearing the acronym WTF, for when I start going over scraps of poetry I have filed away and can’t remember composing.

My partner, the artist and writer Sharon Harris, got me into street art several years ago, and gave me the framed Rocky Dobey pen and ink sketch on the wall. Depicting the White House under attack from spider-like creatures, it alerts me to my political commitments and the struggles for social justice that I try to represent in some of my poetry.

But it can’t all be about writing in enclosed spaces, so the small Blue Jays pennant reminds me of the importance of getting outdoors, and the promise of spring after this long winter and the “cold coming we had of it/ just the worst time of the year.”

— Stephen Cain

Stephen Cain is the author of I Can Say Interpellation (2011) and three earlier poetry collections: American Standard/Canada Dry (2005), Torontology (2001), and dyslexicon (1998). He also composed a collaborative series of micro-fictions, Double Helix (2006) with Jay MillAr, and co-authored The Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages (2006) with Tim Conley. The former literary editor of the Queen Street Quarterly, and former fiction editor at Insomniac Press, Cain lives in Toronto where he teaches avant-garde and Canadian literature at York University. His latest publications include a chapbook from BookThug called The Etc Phrases (2013) and he is the Editor of bp: beginnings by bpNichol (BookThug 2014).

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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