The Narrow Cabinet (Guernica Editions), the latest poetry collection from Asa Boxer, is a book about change, loss and the struggle to understand what the hell is going on in a world experiencing such rapid transformations. The movement is from (a) an old dispensation of tough-minded, rugged living and surviving troubled times through (b) a narcissistic sinkhole of complacency leading ultimately to (c) a zombie apocalypse. That is the general trajectory, but the work itself complicates the tropes. The old dispensation is by no means a paradise, nor is it dealt with nostalgically. The seeds of all the trouble are there from the start. But there is something admirable in the strength and fearless grit we find during that phase. In the sinkhole phase, the voice flits between depressive angst and lunatic outrage as oppressive forces exert ever more stubborn pressure. Here the speaker begins seeking the cause of the trouble that worsens until ultimately manifesting as zombie culture.
Asa Boxer’s debut book, The Mechanical Bird (2007), won the Canadian Authors Association Prize for Poetry, and his cycle of poems entitled “The Workshop” won first prize in the 2004 CBC Literary Awards. His poems and essays have since been anthologized in various collections and have appeared in various magazines internationally. He lives in Elora, ON.
Your new poetry book explores the high and low cultures of poetic form and Zombie apocalypse. A bit daring in this sometimes stuffy world of Canadian poetry. What work (art, non-fiction, sculpture, books, etc.) lead you on this intriguing path?
The zombie metaphor has exploded in popular culture to varying success: I don’t mean commercially speaking, but metaphorically speaking. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which launched the zombie genre, has one moment in which one cannot distinguish between the zombies and the rednecks hunting them. Many zombie films are just monster movies, though, where there’s merely the sense of an ambient evil lurking about in familiar places. Significantly, the genre is not about villains, not about character; instead, it’s about the evil in everyone, in your best friend, in your loved ones, in you. And the evil is not conscious; it’s not individual; it’s about blind bloodlust on a mass scale. So I started thinking about this kind of evil in our culture… mass movements, political movements, blind obedience, bloodlust for wars, social hate aimed at “them,” “those people” however framed, only in the zombie world, it’s the vital, living folk who are under attack. That’s a powerful metaphor at any time in history because governments and institutions are always at work trying to ply their systems, to get compliance, to slogan sling and propagandize and brainwash. Shaun of the Dead is a favourite of mine. Love the humour, and the metaphor is evident from frame-one as Simon Pegg gets out of bed and drags himself to work.
The zombie life is also the daily grind, all those who go to work never considering why they do what they do. Life in death is not an entirely new theme in poetry: the Romantics explored it in works like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ” when the ship is stalled in a dead sea and the mariners are starving. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” comes to mind. And of course, Frankenstein and his monster, borne of scientific hubris. I’m bouncing around here: all manner of other indirect influences and allusions abound in the book. The final poem is an allusion bomb, called “Four Quartets for Zombies,” after T. S. Eliot’s famous sequence “Four Quartets.” Thucydides and his acute observations about the senselessness of war, and the delusional way folks behave, the silly ambitions and promises of politicians contrasted with the realities of battle. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind, and their insights into human cruelty arising out of mass obedience to an ideology. So yeah, the high and low, the humorous and the horrifying, the popular and the literary. Humour and horror are closely allied, and I have a sardonic tendency. I find it hard to get away from satire, likely due to our moment in history. Northrop Frye said that satire is characterised by heroes who are unable to redeem their societies, and so all that’s left to them is to rail against it. My first book had a series of poems on lying, “How to Lie,” “How to Get Away with a Lie” and so on… and my second book was entitled Skullduggery. Hypocrisy bothers me, but I also see the human motivations. I don’t count myself outside of it. So I try to bring it to consciousness, and have a laugh while we’re at it.
You credit the help and mentorship of Michael Harris – for those who don’t know of him, can you contextualize what experience and energy his influence on your work has been?
Michael Harris is a wonderful craftsman, a lover of metaphor, conceit and humour. . . and not shy of addressing the heart life, not shy of the sentimental. When I first heard about him, I was attending Dawson College in Montreal. A friend of mine from high school came running up to me in the hallway with this big grin on his face. “You would not believe this poetry prof,” he confided. “I just had a class in which we talked about everything from dinosaurs to braziers.” I’d been looking for some guidance with my writing, so I went to the library and started reading his books. In Transit blew me away. It was exactly what I was looking for: I felt poetry should clarify, not obfuscate, and here was this luminous, accessible, beautiful stuff, page after page. So I went to his office and told him who I was. . . my father, Avi Boxer, was a poet, trained by Irving Layton. “Oh yeah, I know of him… So you come by it honestly,” he remarked. “Bring me a dozen poems next week,” he proposed. I was like, Oh shit, I don’t have 12 poems. So I scribbled away for a week, and showed up with these pages printed on a dot matrix printer, the edges a little toothy from the tear-away perforated runners that guided the sheets through those printers. Anyway, we didn’t even sit down. He glanced at them while I stood in the doorway, like they were Bazooka Joe comics and said, “This is shit.” “I know,” I replied. “Can you help me?” I don’t why, but I guess he took a shine to me, and it probably isn’t all that often that a poet gets that sort of attention. We kept in touch over the years, and he looked over a lot of shit, and made his suggestions in the margins, and gave me books to read. When I was much older, we really hit it off. We had a lot in common that wasn’t at first evident. In the early 2000s, Harris was spending time with Eric Ormsby and David Solway, and these poets had a powerful influence on my poetic sensibility, on my spirit, especially Ormsby. Reading his work, I tapped into a deeper level of my psyche and hit a vein and the good work started. There was something else going on there, too, to do with style and poetics and the international scene. Being critical, writing criticism became appealing to me. These guys (excepting Harris) could really eviscerate the most pretentious of the literati. This aspect wasn’t the best influence, I’d say, looking back. I think Harris understood this and didn’t engage at that level. But being critical really does help one get closer to what one wants to write. You have to figure out what you like and what you don’t like and why you don’t like it. . . and what kind of poetry you like to read and why.
Who are some poets you have grown to admire as of late beyond Canada?
Since launching and running the Montreal International Poetry Prize for a good number of years, I made a real effort at finding my favourite international poets in places that were pretty much being ignored, especially in the Caribbean, Africa, and India. I found Frank Chipasula, Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Joseph Ushi, Anand Thakore, Keki Daruwalla, Fred D’Aguiar and Kendel Hippolyte, folks I’d never heard of before, but who I found impressive. Others, well known, like Wole Soyinka and Joseph Komunyakaa were on my hit list for prize judges. McGill snagged Komunyakaa for their first run at the competition. A shame that covid lockdowns prevented McGill from being able to bring him over to Montreal. That would have been fun.
Some poems, such as ‘Spells of Moths’ arrive into the reader’s senses like a Dennis Lee poem from Garbage Delight. The opening lines of ‘Fits and Misfits’ represents the playful doom of this book. “There’s always an unforeseen factor that’ll melt a nuclear reactor.” How did you balance the playful with the abject?
I did not enjoy an easy childhood or adolescence. I had to face down a lot of bad behaviour, a lot of people who wanted to get their claws into me: siblings, an evil auntie I dubbed my aunti-christ, friends of the family, teachers. My instinctive reaction to people losing it is to laugh. There was a period when this was disarming, but in time, my humour turned darker, more ironic and lost its disarming quality. (A shame really.) I think I know how this came about. I was living with a foster family after my father passed, and my foster brother, who was just a couple years older than I, rankled for some reason by my easy laughter, remarked, “You know, it’s a sign of a miserable person to laugh so much.” Well, geez! eh? What a wallop! I was what? 13? 14? That really worked on me for some reason. Probably because at that age, you’re trying to figure out to behave to be socially acceptable and “cool.” He was definitely cool and I had a lot to learn, more than I realised, considering how deeply that comment affected me. In short, that combo of playfulness and abject seems to be hardwired for me.
When asked in a recent interview in the New Yorker what comes first, the idea or the form, writer and artist Patricia Locksmith said: “It’s neither one. It’s some sort of sentence. It’s sometimes a one-liner, almost approaching a joke or a short vignette. I begin with that, and it becomes clear pretty soon, I think, what I want it to be. So you do know fairly quickly what something is.” What is your answer to the same question?
Generally speaking, it’s the idea. But ideas are a dime a dozen. Often, I have an idea and write a poem out of it, but find it too thin. Then I know it’ll likely wind up condensed into a line or a stanza in another work. I feel poetic ideas have to find their contexts, and when stated, should feel earned, otherwise one is dealing with half-baked thoughts that don’t have that zing for the reader or audience. I always consider how an audience will receive the images and ideas in the spoken context. I don’t really worry about forms; that’s all in the editing for me. Is this the sort of piece that should rhyme? Should it feel more spontaneous and personal? That comes later.