“Poetry exists in a gated community within the world of song.” In conversation with David McGimpsey
David McGimpsey’s poetry is irreverent in its whimsy, whimsical in its irreverence. In his new collection Asbestos Heights (Coach House Books) one encounters poems with titles like “Every time a poet is denied a council grant, a blind child is given back the power of sight,” “Alexander Mackenzie was the first of Canada’s prime ministers to be attacked and eaten by owls,” and “Unfuckable is the new thirty;” these are interspersed with poems about baseball, Mark Twain and flowers. Typical stanzas in the book are stridently atypical— witness the opening of “Queen Anne’s Lace,” which reads “My therapist looked over her glasses./ “I hate it when you say that nobody cares/ if you live or die when I, for one, am/ quite excited by the idea of you dying.” McGimpsey’s work is humorous, certainly, but there is also a tenderness that belies its humor, ultimately subverting it. Last month I emailed with McGimpsey about Asbestos Heights, Canadian poetry, teaching and Beyoncé, among other topics.
JEFF ALESSANDRELLI: Hi David! To jump right in, I just listened to your podcast interview with Mike Spry, and towards the end of it you state that the trait you most deplore in yourself is “stubbornness.” I’m curious, then, if you think said stubbornness manifests itself in some way/shape/form in your work. And if so do you view its presence as positive at all or 100% thoroughly negative? Should all poets writing today be stubborn with regards to their chosen themes and subject matters, whether they’re writing about beauty, bats, bugs or Beyoncé?
DAVID MCGIMPSEY: The four Bs! Saying I deplore my stubbornness is an obvious kind of bragging. My stubbornness has, as you suggest, been quite beneficial. I see that trait so profoundly in my dear father and, right now, I can’t remember a single time where he was being “stubborn”—even where people were telling him “Johnny, forget about it!”—where I thought he was being anything but totally cool. I’m not at all stubborn in belief, but in routine and execution I rely upon stubbornness to get me through. How can writing so many sonnets where the only measure against despair is a cold glass of Sprite be anything but a celebration of stubbornness? A stubborn “show must go on” mentality is good for somebody who does shows, however, sometimes I can’t help but feel I was not auditioning for a good movie role because I was so stubbornly focused on playing the part of Murray in a Tampa Bay area dinner theatre production of The Odd Couple and telling everyone backstage “the show must go on!”
JA: I love how some of your titles in Asbestos Heights— “Alexander Mackenzie was the first of Canada’s prime ministers to be attacked and eaten by owls,” “Unfuckable is the new thirty” and “Beef-borne illness,” among several others—are essentially mini poems unto themselves. They oft welcome the reader in with humor but can be subtly ominous as well. When you’re working on a poem does the title normally come first or last? Does it just depend on the poem or do you have a more tried and true titling method that you use?
DM: The long, absurd titles started, in some way, as a response to the tight, key-fitting gestures of naming poems. The poems in my book Sitcom are all with one-word titles—titles which help “solve” the poems. The comedy of the longer titles is obvious: a poem is supposed to be titled something like “The Cliffs at Cliffbrook” so the longer titles, by their sheer unending ungainliness, satirize that traditional rhetoric. As such, they try to work as both title and tease. They introduce the thematic material of the poem and immediately prepare you for the success/failures of the specific gesture of the body of the poem.
JA: Old standard but when is a poem a poem, a song a song? Or are they one and the same? Hot-tempered brothers that rarely speak? Some amalgamation therein?
DM: They are like twin brothers who keep vainly insisting to others “I am nothing like my brother!” In terms of the function of lyric, there is absolutely no difference between a song and poem. None. How can lyric poetry even be considered without its relationship to song? Lyric poems and song lyrics are identical in generic function but they are socially estranged. Articulations of the eternal difference between lyric poem and song lyric are mostly rhetorical acts meant to preserve poetry’s elite social capital, lest some poor kid claim that Dee Dee Ramone is a “great poet.” My poem “We should all thank Taylor Swift…” tries to articulate that social estrangement, where literary value becomes based upon a rejection of popular culture.
For the most part, the world of poetry is very uncomfortable with the vernacular clarity that the lyric thrives upon and, as such, poetry exists in a gated community within the world of song. Poetry, as a social movement, is generally antagonistic to the lyric and I too am not a strictly lyric poet or consciously seeking to reorganize poetry’s social order. I’ve taken lines from a poem and built a song lyric out of it and vice versa. I studied classical music and love American popular music and I think being aware of music has influenced my poetry in that I try to keep some respect for the vernacular while thinking of a kind of “tune.” Some of the poems in my new book, like “Beautiful Fat Pants”, are actual song lyrics.
JA: Ha! That T. Swift poem is one of my faves in the book. And I also like how you couch stubbornness as more a simply will or drive to succeed on one’s own terms. To rapidly veer elsewhere, you teach at Concordia University and, via RateMyProfessors.com, the overall grade 37 of your students have given you is: A. So you’re very good at what you do. I’m interested if you fell into teaching as a graduate student and just kept doing it or if it’s something you wanted to do or be as a kid. And does teaching affect your own creative work ever? Lecturing about literature to students, do you find ideas for your own literature?
DM: I don’t think Rate My Professor is a measure of success or failure. To me, things like RateMyProf.com render the process of education into a sad series of YELPy client-server exchanges, judged only by how much you smiled when you served up the chicken wings on ten cent chicken wing night. I think I’m good at my job and have worked hard at my teaching but, as such, I am able to remember that it is just a job. Not so long ago, a colleague of mine died and I remember, just like that, seeing his courses being posted for reassignment—professor TBA—and that was a potent reminder of the bittersweetness of overestimating your importance as an instructor. While it’s how I self-identify (when a customs official asks me what I do I say “I’m a teacher” not “I write a strange brew of poetry that is almost kind of American!”) I never had aspirations to be a teacher so, you’re right, it’s something I fell into in grad school. I’m glad I did. Besides making an actual living with your actual writing, it is the best profession for a writer to have. It materially locates you in a place where literature is produced: reading, research, libraries, desks, ideas, discussions, arguments about the Oxford comma, et cetera.
JA: This is explicitly referenced in the book directly and indirectly several times, but since Late Night Library is an American venue I guess I have to ask it: What is your own personal relationship to contemporary American poetry vis à vis contemporary Canadian poetry? Michael Robbins wrote a long laudatory sentence on the back cover of Asbestos Heights, a laudatory sentence commonly referred to as a blurb. Michael Robbins is a contemporary American poet. Do you read American poetry as actively as you read Canadian poetry? More actively? Rarely at all? (Since you have a PhD in American Literature, I assume during at least one point in your life you were all about us Americans and our words.) Do you have favorite American poets? And if in a single sentence you could describe the difference between contemporary American and Canadian poetry what might that sentence be?
DM: In college, like a typically unhappy young male writer, my favorite poets were Berryman and Lowell. That strikes me as predictable as saying “When I was fifteen I read The Catcher in the Rye and it blew my mind!” which is also, in my case, true. That they were American was not even a consideration—it wasn’t like I was ordering off the imported beer menu while the rest of us were stuck with maple syrup-flavored Canadian ale. I grew up as an anglophone in a French neighborhood in Montreal and, to me, the culture of English Canada and America were and are largely the same. When I got into poetry I followed American poetry as actively as Canadian poetry but this was not out of some conscious boundary-kicking spirit in me—I didn’t follow Australian poetry or New Zealand poetry even though those poetries also come from an Anglo-British colonial background that is very similar to Canada’s. The difference between French Canadian (or Québécois) literature and the literature of English Canada is quite profound—much more so than the difference between the literature of English Canada and the literature of the United States. While English Canadian literature obviously has tough roots in the historical particulars of a proud nation state, contemporary English Canadian literature can be safely read as a regional American literature.
What’s the difference between Texas literature and Maine literature? I guess it’s really something if you’re designing a book cover for Larry McMurtry or Stephen King, but the idea that it formulates into an identifiable difference of generic function is, I think, highly doubtful. The way one discovers Keanu Reeves is Canadian is basically an irrelevant “you don’t say!” fact which in no way alters the power of The Matrix. International readers of Douglas Coupland or Margaret Atwood read them without any anxiety about the little-to-nothing they know about Canada. My admiration for American poets I would hope is not intellectually compromised by the fact that when I read a poem I like I’ll sometimes say “fuckin’ eh.” But, unlike popular novels, poetry largely exists in self-identified “communities” of elite society and not in the world marketplace. Like the ballet, poetry is often structured as value-added capital meant to emblemize national or provincial character. Canadians are extremely patriotic and some of the third section of Asbestos Heights sports with this Yakov Smirnoff-like “In Canada we call a dollar a loonie bird!” jingoism. So, as “perfectly American” is always a ready kiss-off caption for how a Whitman, Dickinson, Williams or Ginsberg poem allegedly works, in the eyes of society, my poetry will always be as Canadian as a snowmobile ride with Celine Dion. Canadian poetry is just like American poetry but it is definitely sold separately. Poor John Berryman never won the Governor General’s Award. So, in a sentence, the difference between Canadian and American poetry is Canadian nationalism.
JA: Where do we go when we die? Why? Does language exist there? Music?
DM: To a place where we “cannot be deceived” as Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, which I take to mean even if death is complete nothingness shouldn’t God be praised for giving us such an amazing thing? It’s hard to imagine an afterlife without language, but, wow, what if there is and what if the language is German? That wouldn’t seem right. Still, I hope there’s language and that it’s Spanish and, yes, music, so I could still listen to Sandra Echeverría sing.
JA: Fuckin’ eh indeed. And I also hope there’s music in the afterlife, if only to allow us to listen to Sandra Echeverría and Nina Simone. Rapid shift, part deux— since a lot of Late Night Library readers are, obviously, aspiring poets and writers I’m curious if you could pass on what you believe to be the worst writing advice you were given as burgeoning writer, advice you possibly learned to actively write against. For example, as an undergrad I remember one of my professors—when I say professor I mean graduate student masking as a professor, although at the time I didn’t much know the difference— imparted to me that the key to being a great writer was rarely writing. Think about doing it a lot but rarely sit down to actually do it. Which confused me at the time and still confuses me. Any bad tips or pieces of writing advice you can remember being given when you were first starting out, first finding your way? And because there’s always a flip side—any advice you were given when you were young that you still utilize/swear by to this day?
DM: Wow. I honestly could not think of worse advice for a young writer. That’s crazy. When you’re young, energy and the desire to fill books with ceaseless despair and preposterous mooning over an idealized love is all you got over grandma and grampa. I’ve been told to “not seek publication,” I’ve been told I should explain to readers that I grew up poor, been told (repeatedly) that what I do is not “real poetry”, and I’m glad to say none of this advice ever really stuck. This field is strange and it’s no big deal in a way. Meeting a pompous writer or academic should be understood with the same compassion with which you’d greet a nine-fingered butcher. I was not exactly great with authority and, at first, I kind of took all teacherly advice with a bit of punk defeat (“Metaphor? Who the hell needs that?). When I was about nineteen I wrote a poem about Elvis which a prof saw and liked very much and he took the time to explain metaphor as if this poem was a real poem. It wasn’t advice per se but, in lieu of the scads of advice which try to address the constant cry of how do I get published?, it taught me something material about poetry and those things very much stayed with me and changed my attitude.
JA: Final question—if you were a betting man who would you bet on to win the World Series this year? In Asbestos Heights’ second section “The History of Baseball” you, in a poem entitled “Thomas Pynchon,” write “Learning to love baseball is fun./Bud Light funbo-fun, swatted balls funzo-fun.” Did your love of baseball specifically and sports generally come about separately or in tandem with your love of literature? And does the co-existence of those two loves ever strike you as being out of the ordinary? It doesn’t to me at all—I’m a poet and a big sports fan and those two features of me/moi are entirely at ease with one and other. But I lent Asbestos Heights to a novelist friend of mine and one of her “critiques” was “It’s cool that he writes about baseball and pop culture stuff. I didn’t know poets liked sports.” Do you get that a lot, the “I didn’t know that poets were actually people too” type of comment? Or at this point is her response an outlier of sorts? (i.e. most readers of contemporary poetry understand that contemporary poets also potentially like Twitter and T. Swift and the San Francisco Giants. And thus are free and able to write about those likes in their poetry.)
DM: One one hand, to say “I like baseball and I like Taylor Swift” is to say something as edgy as “I like sunshine and I enjoy the taste of pizza!” but, on the other hand, if the years I’ve been writing poetry serve as any example, saying things like this really bothers some poetry people. To me, liking sports or music or any aspect of popular culture were not at all antithetical to liking poetry. But, for quite a few in literary society, poetry is meant to justify their contempt for the culture of the working class. They see the culture of the working class as the representation of everything they are better than and they are not shy about calling any evocation of it “stupid”. The amount of times poets have proudly boasted to me “I don’t even own a television!” I estimate is equivalent to the amount of times a bar cover band has heard a request for Wonderwall. Thus the word most often used in review to describe my subject matter (which, yeah, I generally think of as fun and normal) has been “detritus” – itself one of those cutesy words (like “aubade” or “cipher”) that only exist in poems.
Of course, it’s not always like that and it’s not like my work has never been generously evaluated or never allowed its own. Metaphor remains metaphor and, in this regard, T-Swizz is no better or worse than the Lady of Shallot. I am in no way a populist and while I do like “stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off” I have no other aspiration besides my poetry being considered as poetry. As far as your bookmaking needs go, I am a New York Yankees fan and on my fridge I have $20 ticket that the Yanks will win the 2015 World Series, at 15-to-1 odds, from the Golden Nugget casino in Las Vegas. That’s as high-rolling as I get.
Purchase a copy of Asbestos Heights here: http://latenightlibrary.org/asbestos-heights
David McGimpsey is the author of five collections of poetry including Li’l Bastard which was named one of the ‘books of the year’ by both the Quill & Quire and the National Post and was shortlisted for Canada’s Governor General’s Award. He is also the author of the short fiction collection Certifiable and the award-winning critical study Imagining Baseball: America’s Pastime and Popular Culture. Named by the CBC as one of the ‘Top Ten English language poets in Canada,’ his work was also the subject of the book of essays Population Me: Essays on David McGimpsey. He lives in Montréal.
Jeff Alessandrelli is the author of the full-length collection THIS LAST TIME WILL BE THE FIRST. Other work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, Boston Review and five chapbooks. The name of Jeff’s dog is Beckett Long Snout. The name of his micro-press is Dikembe Press.