Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Steven McCabe

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How do you write a poem without using a single word? It seems like a paradox, but linocut artist Steven McCabe gives the surprising and beautiful answer in the form of his newest book, Never More Together (Porcupine's Quill).

Steven speaks to us today about how he created a wordless poetic narrative, as well as about racing against the construction of a house and a secret printmaker's trick that requires lemons and a lamp.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Never More Together.

Steven McCabe:

Never More Together can also be read as Nevermore Together, with a sense of loss driving the action. To summarize the overarching theme in one sentence I would say ‘The surveillance state intersects with prehistory.’ Eras and times overlap and interact. The Biblical story of creation is reinterpreted from a more pagan perspective. Elements of the narrative including a love story, a single mother, and street protests, are interwoven with serpentine energy and Neolithic consciousness. Carl Jung said that in times of crisis human beings revert to primal symbols, a suggestion not at odds with this poetic tale.


This must have been a huge undertaking — how did you approach the making of more than 100 linocuts?


Slowly! The process involves germinating ideas, sketching ideas (with captions), storyboarding & rearranging the order of images, and meeting with my editor before drawing on the linoleum itself. Then carve. Each block takes about three hours to carve. Repeat the entire process (above) after the first 30 or so carvings. Then glue the linocut blocks individually on plywood blocks. Then print the images, by hand on a press. Then scan the prints to create a digital file for the publisher.

Across the street from where I live they were tearing down a small house and putting up something bigger. I decided to race them. I would note their progress and at the end of (usually) a very long day measure what I had done against my imaginary competitor. This artificial motivation served me well during an exhaustive process.


When telling a story without words, your process must be very different. How did you shape a narrative without leaning on words?


You discover a rhythm with certain sounds and repetitions in the image. Sometimes the sound aims into a new direction and you follow. Sometimes it returns to the beginning (or original idea). Never More Together is like a blending of ancient epic with free verse poetry. Heroes create a new world with the help of ‘gods,’ or nature, or other dimensions within a non-linear, impressionistic narrative. It was like directing a silent film with images constantly shifting in an alchemical montage of motifs and character revealing aspects of the plot.


Tell us a little bit about your workspace and process. Do you have any rituals while working?


Each project calls for its own process. This one involved a lamp and lemons.

Remember printmaking from high school art class and the thin, hard, rubbery surface of linoleum with sharp cutting tools that often slipped? To avoid being punctured I worked with two lino blocks at once. I kept one block warm (softening) on a tower of books (topped with an empty soup can) beneath a photographer’s lamp. I switched them every few minutes. Every half hour or so I would get up and wander to the kitchen. I drank a lot of water, with slices of lemon, working under that hot (illuminating) lamp during a summer heat wave.


The story deals with propaganda, freedom and social upheaval. How did these themes pique your interest? Do you find yourself drawn to the same subjects and narratives as a reader?


I read journalistic essays about politics and culture. I read about things that dovetail perception and experience in books about film or art or cultural anthropology. I read a lot of poetry. I’m currently reading The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski. World War Two, 1940s, and it’s like a Hieronymus Bosch landscape.

In Never More Together a Gestapo-like figure sets fire to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This image was allegorically influenced by a burning police car left unattended for an inordinate length of time during G20 demonstrations in Toronto and subsequent uncritical media coverage.


What was your approach when you hit rough patches with this project?


When I was tempted to take a long break and renew my energies I kept going. I listened to Alan Watts on YouTube for inspiration of a ‘higher’ order. I looked at the house across the street. I listened to everything from the Ronettes to Mozart. I paged through the wordless books of Frans Masereel and Lynn Ward. I kept figuring out the percentages of what I had left to do.


What are you working on now?


A few things! I am slowly developing a new poetry manuscript. And a children’s story, though not a cartoon, told comics-style with thought and speech bubbles. Over this past year I did a lot of drawings relating to a 7th century poetic treatise and will flesh out this out over the summer. And I continue to address poetry (using digital & original art) at my WordPress blog poemimage.

On June 12 I am launching Never More Together at Tango Palace in Toronto’s east end.

Steven McCabe is a self-taught multidisciplinary artist born in Kansas City, Missouri. McCabe is the author of four full-length collections including Hierarchy of Loss, Jawbone and Radio Picasso, and the co-author and illustrator of the chapbook Orpheus and Eurydice: Before the Descent. His work is included in a number of anthologies, most recently in Poet to Poet (Guernica Editions 2012). He has collaborated with dancers and musicians creating numerous multimedia poetry performances, and since 2003 has mounted three solo exhibitions featuring ink drawings, paintings on canvas, assemblage, and video. He is the creator of a Wordpress blog; poemimage, where he addresses poetry with digitally manipulated images. He is also a filmmaker, whose video poems have screened in festivals and online platforms. McCabe lives in Toronto.

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