The John Nyman Interview

Interview with John Nyman on the Occasion of the Publication of A Devil Every Day

Parents—Play, Video Games—Mimosa pudica, Self-promotion—Hip-hop, Erasure—Language, Houseplants, Ethics—Philosophies, Derrida—Your Very Own, Colonialism—Jim Johnstone, Poetry as an Artform—Horizontality, Hypocrisy, Doing vs. Saying—Stand-up—Binaries, Eggshells—Undecidability, Self vs. Selves—Meticulousness, Completeness—Aphorisms, Social Media, Provocation—Traditions, Decoration

This interview was conducted at 401 Richmond in the lately-stage capitalistic devilishly industrial erumpency called Toronto in April of no more regard for one child of god than another. It has been edited for clarity, but not for length.

Kevin Andrew Heslop: *making the sound of a cricket*

John Nyman: Wow. I’m very impressed.

Well, some of us get PhDs and some of us learn how to replicate the sounds of crickets of various sizes.

Yes, and one of them is impressive.

*chuckles* But which? John will not say.

*chuckling* I already told you what I was impressed by.


Parents

John Nyman interview on the occasion of the publication of A Devil Every Day. Players (Palimpsest, 2016), Slogan Substance Dream (Anstruther, 2018), The Devil (KFB, 2020), Your Very Own (Jackpine, 2021), A Devil Every Day (Palimpsest, 2023). John Nyman, when and where were you born?

December 1990 in—I mean, it was Toronto, but the specific borough—I think my mom had to drive down from North York to the hospital in the area that they called York.

And where did you grow up?

Basically the same place: North York. Toronto, inner suburbs.

I wonder whether you might selectively identify anything in particular to relate in the context of this interview about either of your parents or both of them?

Well, I don’t know. What kind of stuff do you wanna know?

Mm. First names.

*chuckles* My mom’s name is Mary. My dad sometimes went by his middle name, which is Eric, sometimes by his first name, which is Ron.

Are they creative and or academic?

Not really, no. Sometimes I think about my background in those terms… I know a lot of people in art and writing communities who have families that are intellectual and creative, but my parents aren’t really like that. They definitely have a lot of respect for literature and art and culture in general, and it’s not like they’re big STEM people or stuffy mathematic types or anything like that.

Mm. 

But it’s not something they ever did professionally. My mom, when I was growing up, was a stay-at-home mom for a while. She ended up working as a teacher’s assistant in middleschools and highschools, which is what she does now. She had a few other jobs in the interim too. And my dad’s always had different kinds of random jobs. The one thing about him is that he never really had a career per se: he was always trying to find whatever work her could do that would make some money.

Mm.

And in terms of art and creativity, one thing I always found interesting is that I always got the sense that when my dad was younger he hung out with a lot of artistic types. I think he always really liked music, and some of my parents’ friends who would come visit us when I was growing up were musicians. But my dad either never had any talent in that regard or never pursued it. He was kind of around the scene, I think, but didn’t really do any of that himself.

Would you characterize either of them as introverts or extroverts? Or is that too dumb a binary and down with binaries and also let’s explode binaries because there’s a poem about that at some point?

I just don’t think it’s something I would have a good judgment of, as their child.

That’s fair.


Play, Video Games

How did you play? As a kid, what did play look like for you?

Oh, yeah: as a kid, I was always a schemer. It seemed like my ideal job was to be an inventor or something: I always wanted to create something that didn’t actually exist, and I was also audacious enough to think I had the skill to create it. So I did a lot of paper crafts, arts and crafts, and trying to do weird things, trying to make stuff work.

Mm.

There was also a lot of imagination play: putting on little dramatic performances and pretending to be characters. And I’ve also really liked video games since I was quite young.

Mm.

As soon as I started playing games, I really loved it. And to this day I’ve always found it very soothing, but also a great place to house my imagination, somewhere that isn’t tied down by real-world concerns, quote unquote.

I think I saw—I don’t tweet, but—I think I saw in your Twitter bio that it says, Secret speedgamer (or something like that).

Secretly loves speedgaming.

Secretly loves speedgaming.

I don’t really do much speedgaming, but basically my guilty pleasure is watching it online. While a lot of people will bingewatch Netflix shows, I can’t do that kind of stuff: I find it’s too emotional for me.

Mm.

But I spend a hell of a lot of time watching people on the internet just playing video games, especially retro video games. It’s extremely repetitive, an internet hangout kind of place, watching Twitch streams and stuff. But I really enjoy that.

Hm. Because it’s emotionless; it’s cold and cerebral without the requirements of the emotionality of character and narrative.

I don’t know if it’s cold; I think it’s just kind of lukewarm, you know?

Mm.

One thing about video games is, while most games have some kind of story, most games have a kind of crappy story with very little depth to it. It’s just to make the environment a little more comfortable—like having carpeting instead of being in a concrete room, even if there isn’t anything happening in the room except a very systematic interaction of parts.

Can you elaborate that a bit?

Yeah. I guess I could tackle this from a few different directions, but I think it speaks to my emotional character, my emotional way of being in the world. I think it’s a good comparison to look at things like television dramas. Even with really cheesy television, things like sitcoms that have a romantic subplot, I find that even those are too emotionally intense for me, and I become really fascinated with them—

Mm.

—And invested in the narratives. And in a lot of my down time, I don’t really want that, right? So one thing I really like about video games and things like Twitch streams and this whole environment of people playing games for an audience and hanging out and chatting is that there is a little bit of interpersonal connection—there are people talking, there are topics, there’s sort of stuff to follow—but I find it’s very low-intensity emotional engagement. The engagement comes through the gaming side, right? Which, to me, is about looking at the interactions of pieces, players, strategies, and events in very constrained, rule-based contexts.

Mm.

And I’ve always found that very soothing, you know? I’m very logical and analytic, so I like playing with things in an environment where results are predictable and explainable, where things fit together in ways you can follow, and where you can experiment with those structures—and that’s to me what gaming’s all about. You repeatedly find yourself in a very similar circumstance, but you can do things a little bit differently and then get a logical chain of results out of your actions.

Mm, mm, mm.


Mimosa pudica, Self-promotion

Speaking of the way that you inhabit the world emotionally, and the need to quieten that part of the being in down time with video games and Twitch streams and that sort of thing, there’s mention in your book of the Mimosa pudica.

Oh. Yeah.

I was wondering whether you might, when you were a kid, might have been a Mimosa pudica.

*chuckles* So that’s the Latin name.

Mm.

But it’s one of these plants that has a few different names. Sometimes it’s called Sensitive Plant or Touch-Me-Not. To give context: for a year or two I actually had one of these in my apartment, I’d bought it from a local plant and food store. And it’s just a really neat plant. Apparently they’re very common in places like the Caribbean and other tropical areas. They’re basically weeds, but they’re remarkable for a plant because they move, which most plants don’t do. Essentially they have these fern-like leaves, and if you kind of whack them or if you shake the plant, then they just fold up really quick.

There might be some connection between that and my form of emotional being. You know, especially when I was a child—though this is something I still carry with me now—I used to throw temper tantrums a lot. I can be emotionally triggered by things very easily, which puts me into a state where I can be very withdrawn—

Mm.

—Or it can make it hard for me to relate to people on a so-called normal emotional level. So yeah, I can relate to Mimosa pudica.

Do you mind if I ask—this is personal; we can take it from the transcript, but—how does your partner share space with you when you’re in that space? Is she able to draw you out or is she like, We’ll just be adjacent for a little while and we don’t need to talk for a few hours or five or ten?

It depends: sometimes she can draw me out; sometimes I just need time. I’ve spent a lot of my life learning to manage it. A lot of the time I’ve spent in therapy has been about trying to understand what I need emotionally in those moments and figuring out how to give myself space. It can be difficult, but I come out of it eventually.

I want to get to the books in time but you had mentioned that you’re both sort of in the book and out of the book because you’re thinking about marketing—

Yeah.

—And getting it into the world. And I want to talk a little bit later on about the ways in which you’re doing so, but I could imagine that—if we were to continue with this metaphor of the Sensitive Plant that, when it’s shaken, is able to fold in on itself a little bit—the marketing process of putting a book out in the world prevents the folding in.

Hm.

You actually have to keep open even if there’s some sort of vigorous interaction going on. If that metaphor has wings, what emotionally has it been like for you to be in the process of releasing into the world a book that you’ve obviously been working on for quite a long time—I think something like seven years you’ve put into this book, right?

Yeah, it has been a very long time. Part of the reason why promoting it feels like such a different beast is that I haven’t really worked a lot on the poems themselves for several years. There was a process of doing the final edits, which may have taken place about six months or a little longer ago, and that involved a bit of redrafting and revision; but a lot of the poems in the book were mostly in their final form two, three, four years ago. So, that’s part of the separation. I can definitely say a lot about that: I think it’s a very interesting situation that authors and all kinds of artists get put in when we’re promoting our work, getting it into the world and in a sense representing it. I think that kind of thing is extremely different from creating an artwork; and to me it really speaks to the different selves that we inhabit, that we perform.

Mm, mm, mm.

But on the Sensitive Plant topic, yeah, I mean the whole promotion, distribution process for me—I’m really trying to manage it so that I’m not shaken up by something.

Mm.

Because it’s really easy for me to get really emotionally struck by something that happens in that process and then just throw up my hands and say, Well, it’s not worth it anyway. It’s not even really my book; it’s me from three years ago and that guy’s not even really here anymore so fuck that, I’m just going to go do my own thing.

Mm, mm, mm.

But I have to keep things stable enough and still enough so that I can keep spreading my arms out there and being like, Yeah, I’m the author. Come talk to me. Come say hi, get a signature—without feeling like something too emotionally disruptive is happening.

Mm, mm. That’s great. Incidentally, I’m just noticing what looks like a hare or a rabbit—

Yeah.

—Pendant that you’re wearing on your necklace. Is there a word that you can relate about its significance?

Well, it’s springtime right now. But a few years ago, I wanted to get some kind of pendant icon like this, and I figured I identified with the rabbit or the hare as an animal.

Mm. There’s an agility there that I can see.

An agility, yeah. I think it’s the combination of being able to exert intense bursts of energy and speed—

Mm.

—But also having an ethos that’s mostly about blending into the background and not getting in anyone’s way.

I see. Interesting. Yeah, I didn’t know whether this when-and-where-were-you-born-and-let’s-talk-about-who-you-were-as-a-kid business was going to be tremendously fruitful, but that feels like it interestingly sets up some of the work from an emotional/foundational point of view, maybe.

I think there are certainly some connections. I think this is common among different artworks, but part of what this book is about is me trying to capture something of who I am and trying to recognize the kind of archetypes that falls into, how it fits into the world, and give expression to that.


Hip-hop, Erasure

Okay, so now I’ve got a long question, so get comfortable.

Mhmm.

I look at your debut collection, Players, also appearing with Palimpsest, which I recall once describing to [Jeremy] Luke [Hill] as “theory kid does hip-hop.”

Yeah *chuckles*.

And I notice its references to Kid Cudi and Jay Z and MF Doom and the cadence of hip-hop throughout, hybridized between covers with poems like “Studies in Environmentality” and “Epistemologies” and its “Desk Index”. And I think about the complex nexus of its author, an author I happen to love and admire as a friend of nearly a decade; and I think about that author releasing Players two years before publishing a dissertation titled Double-Cross: Erasure in Theory and Poetry (UWO, 2018), an excerpt of whose abstract reads:

Erasure, I argue, performs a complex doubling or double/crossing of meaning according to two asymmetrically mobilized aspects of the text: textual thickness and responsibility. On one hand, erasure ensures that texts are doubled both within themselves and throughout their various contexts; thus, textual meaning is dispersed, branched, or thickened across multiple dimensions as texts are constituted in space and time. On the other hand, this sprawling, decentralized thickness is persistently juxtaposed with the fact of particular individuals’ responsibility for the concrete texts they write.

And I think about your arriving at a discussion, or perhaps at this point only the proposition of discussion, of whiteness in Canadian poetry through (1) fluency in the predominantly Black artform of lyric hip-hop and (2) the question of erasure. (I think there’s also a recurrent tenderness towards the maybe morally or ethically or ideologically neutral houseplants but we’ll get to that in turn.)

 I imagine that your construction of whiteness has been coloured by that intimate familiarity and engagement with the rhythms of hip-hop and has been framed by erasure, with whiteness as a kind of philosophical emptiness, proposal of the discussion of which can alienate and ostracize.

 Indeed, as you open your Negative Review essay “On the Topic of Whiteness in Canadian Poetry,” “This essay proceeds from the observation that focused, topical discussions of whiteness and white identity are largely missing from contemporary discourse in the arts—particularly Canadian letters, more particularly poetry. Actually, it might be better to suggest that the topic of whiteness has been vacated, in that it tends to be brought up most often by those who wish to leave it behind as they resettle in more bountiful territories.”

 There’s a lot there, but I wonder if you would say a few words about that trajectory from Players (with Palimpsest) to A Devil Every Day (also with Palimpsest; and we’ll get to [poetry editor] Jim [Johnstone] in a minute), perhaps especially addressing the twinned influences of hip-hop and erasure.

All right. Yeah, there is a lot going on in that question. It’s really interesting to see some of these things that I’ve written or researched put into conversation with each other. Hm.

 I mean, one thing I feel like I have to say about hip-hop is that I don’t think I have any fluency in it. It’s something I like, and one thing I’m trying to grapple with is engaging with that on the level of taste. And I think about the idea that, especially when I was growing up, we were already in an environment where a lot of things that had been produced by hip-hop culture had been commercialized and packaged and had become very popular within a largely suburban, largely white North American populace.

Mm.

And I guess one of the things that’s interesting and important to me is that, if you’re someone like me who grew up listening to that kind of music and liking it, there is something real to that, you know? And maybe there’s a parallel here in the juxtaposition between textual thickness and intention or responsibility. I think that there’s a certain viewpoint where my consumption of hip-hop as a white person takes place within a historical context, and is related to a historical play of forces and the very racial dynamics of that. But I think there’s another dimension where it’s just that there are parts of my brain that enjoy it, that picked up on those rhythms and sing those rhythms back to myself because that’s how my brain is wired. And something that really fascinates me is thinking about how that can be real, that it’s just a thing in the world, regardless of its relationship to historical forces—

Mm.

—Or to ethical relationships. I think that’s especially interesting when you bring art into it because sometimes art is framed as a very large political intervention into these big historical narratives, but art can also be framed on the exact other end of the scale where it’s just, This is who I am and I’m just trying to express myself in the world a little bit.

Mm, mm, mm.

So I definitely avoid the idea of any kind of fluency in hiphop. I know what I know; I’ve listened to what I’ve listened to; I remember far less of that; and a lot of what I remember I’ve distorted through my own experiences and tastes. And that is a strategy of composition for me sometimes, and I feel like it can open up into a lot of different things.

Mm.

What parts of the question am I missing there?

Erasure.

Oh, okay. Yeah. Lots of different ways to approach erasure, right? When I was doing my PhD, I kind of got into the mode where once you really start to explore a concept like that, you can see it represented everywhere. And I think what that means to me is, if we just think of the things that are around us in the world—or in discourse, the topics we can fixate on—they’re all bolstered by a lot of things that are left unsaid. And I think one thing that I learned about erasure is that I don’t think it should be a trigger to be outraged or to feel like that thing that’s left unsaid has to be forefront right now. You often hear discourse like, You can’t talk about X without talking about Y. But I think that’s a bunch of bullshit, because whenever you’re talking about X you’re not talking about Y, Z, A, B, C, etc. That’s just the nature of talking about things.

I don’t know anything about Kant, but if I did I might ask, Is there something like a categorical imperative there? Because sometimes I think that X can’t be spoken of without Y, that all of the other letters of the alphabet are excluded from discussion of X and in that sense are invoked in relation to it. Does that make any sense?

I think you’re getting at something there. I feel like what you’re referencing is something like a post-Kantian philosophy, or an attempt to revise this strain of philosophy that Kant might represent. I see it in maybe a Derridean lens; and of course I’ve spent a lot of time reading Derrida. A lot of people know of his idea of hauntology, which to me is really about exploring the conjunction of presence and absence. So, in a sense, whenever you have X, there’s also Y haunting it

Mm.

But I think what’s important to me is that this doesn’t mean we have some kind of duty to invoke Y as soon as X is invoked, because their relationship of co-presence isn’t such that they’re always co-thematic.

Mm.

I feel like we’re constantly in a relationship to the world where we’re limited in what we can talk about, what we can think about, what we can make thematic at any given moment, despite the fact that we may be aware of how everything’s interconnected and how everything’s present at the same time.

And so to discuss whiteness would not necessarily require an address to the consequences of, um, imperial judeo-christian heteronormative anthrocentric ecocidal suffragicidal white supremacy (or something like this)?

Yeah, of course. Again to put it in the framework we’ve been using: to say, You can’t discuss whiteness without discussing colonialism, I would just say, I don’t believe in absolutes, you know? I think there is something there to say about whiteness without the Y. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to say. That doesn’t mean it’s very useful. However, contextually, there’s a lot of different stuff that can be useful in a certain context or that we can learn from in a certain context. If we’re constantly creating this stream where one topic necessarily has to lead into the other because we feel some kind of imperative to do that, then I think that’s creating a different kind of relation; that’s cutting something else off.

Mm, mm, mm.


Language, Houseplants, Ethics

So I have two questions to follow from that. One is very short and one is longer. Which would you prefer?

*chuckles*

It’s a choose-your-own adventure.

Let’s start short and then maybe we can go to the longer one.

Is text vegetative?

In part, yeah—and you mentioned the houseplants earlier. When I think of the dynamic I worked on in my dissertation, of the thickness of text—the way it sprawls, occupies space, becomes different things—I think that’s kind of like the vegetative aspect of text. Text sits in the world, and if it has some life in it then it can grow; it can sprawl; it can do weird stuff sometimes, right? It can distort itself regardless of where its roots are, where it’s coming from.

Amazing. Does an instance of text that isn’t alive come to mind?

Well, I think that’s kind of—As soon as it comes to mind, it’s alive, right?

Ah.

I think there are certain things in history that are in a sense absolutely forgotten: nobody remembers them and no one ever will.

Mm.

But as soon as any of us did remember something, or even pointed to it, then it would get some life back.

Animate it.

Yeah.

In that sense, is English the most living language?

… I mean, I think that would require having too much of a stance on what life or living means.

Right.

I certainly think English is a very alive language; and in this vegetative sense, English is alive and growing in a ton of different places and in a ton of different ways. It’s extremely malleable. It has so many existences.

I’m thinking of it being the lingua franca of the internet and that bearing on the question of Twitch environments and the kind of neologism kiln that space is.

Sure. There’s a little bit of English as genome in almost all of the language that’s spoken on Earth—and that seems to be only increasing. And that’s a funny thing to come to terms with, right? I mean, to a certain extent, it’s palpable evidence of the lasting, often very negative impact that colonialism has had, that Western supremacy has had on the world. But knowing that about it doesn’t change the fact that it’s there, and it’s vegetating, and it’s growing, and it’s doing all kinds of crazy stuff that we can’t predict.

Mm, mm, mm.

Those things are both true.

And I’m thinking about the vegetative as not only something that wants more of itself and is kind of heliotropic, but also something that is in some ways curate-able or suggestible. I’m thinking about this conversation with Karen Houle where she was talking about how there’s no moral judgement to be made about whether the banana peel on the sidewalk or the banana peel on the compost pile is in a better or worse place, but it enters process more quickly when it’s on the compost pile, and in that sense it’s preferable, if your aim was to maximize process—which it seems like vegetation wants to do. I’m not sure that I have a question here but with houseplants being a recurrent theme and plants generally and plants being invoked in the epigraph from Aristotle, one of the two at the beginning of the new book… What of houseplants and their curate-ability? There’s something of neutrality that comes through in that quote from Aristotle, where people who take neither for nor against positions are equal to plants—and we’re not plants.

Mhmm. I think the idea of curation is really interesting there because, to my understanding, part of where curation comes from is this idea of care and this idea of care for things, right? And the tension in that dynamic is exactly what I’m thinking about when I think about plants. Because one thing I think is really interesting about plants is that we have this sense that they’re alive, that they’re more deserving of care, for whatever reason, than things like rocks and so-called inanimate things.

Mm.

And yet, to me, this is a very palpably different kind of life and deserving and respectability than when we look at things like animals. There’s a reason why veganism has a powerful moral and ethical pull behind it, yet no one would make such claims about eating plants: it’s nonsensical, right? So I think what’s interesting about plants is that we have this desire to care for them—and specifically I have a poem about the Sensitive Plant that really brings this up: if you see something recoil at your touch, we have an impulse to care for it and to recognize its life. And yet one of the other things I feel about houseplants is that there are a lot of ethical rules that don’t apply to them. Like, are you a bad person if you put your houseplants on a ledge that doesn’t have enough sun and it dies? You know, from a certain perspective, your neglect has killed a living thing; and yet to me there’s a very strong social, cultural, ethical tradition that says there’s no problem with that. There’s a certain curate-ability, I guess, to houseplants that lets you try things with them, that lets you experiment without feeling a certain responsibility to their lives. And this is extremely important to me: that there’s this continuum of living things on Earth.

So, veganism has some kind of moral claim because it’s defined by what one practicing veganism refrains from, whereas positively eating plants carries no ethical value. Is there a connection between ethics and refrain—and does this get us back to erasure?

Yeah, I mean, I think there are ways to construct an ethics that’s purely based on what one does, which doesn’t look at limitations and constraints. But I think most ethical systems have some sense of constraint, right? There’s some line that you don’t cross; and that’s how I think about it with plants. There are lines you don’t cross with people; there are different lines you don’t cross with animals; there are different lines you don’t cross with plants. At least in the Western tradition, this is an ancient way of thinking, looking at this sort of hierarchy of being. And yet I don’t think this kind of thinking has died: for all we’ve learned about the interconnectedness of ecosystems, for all the philosophical perspectives we’ve developed that recognize the interconnectedness of things, we still behave as if there are these categories of being. And that’s so endemic that I couldn’t even imagine a society where we didn’t do that.

Mm, mm, mm.

It strikes me—I remember—I have one friend who’s very conscious of the living things around him, of the interconnectedness of life. And I remember him saying once, Well, I don’t have any houseplants because it feels ethically kind of weird to me to keep a plant in your house.

Like a hostage.

Exactly: because he has a certain attitude toward its aliveness and its agency, you know? But I think that’s an instructive example just because of how rare my friend’s perspective is: it’s unusual to find someone who thinks that way.

Mm.

Much less unusual to find someone who thinks that way about an animal, right?

Mm.

You have another thought there?

Kind of: I’m just thinking about all the silly stuff we can do with houseplants and it doesn’t matter. You take cuttings from them; you propagate them to clone them. Even things like identity, right? I’ve got at least five houseplants in my apartment—all of them are in separate pots, and they all have this sense of being separate identities, but they’re all cuttings from the same plant.

Mm, mm.

So are those all the same thing? I mean, we don’t even care; and the fact that we don’t care says something about what kind of life those plants are to us.

Mm. So, do you think that part of your project, directly or peripherally, is to identify the agency or dignity or identity of plants?

Maybe. But there’s a kind of twist I put on it—and this is where the stuff about the Devil and evil comes in. One way to put it is that I like to play Devil’s advocate. And if there are any moments where I try to bring out the agency of plants, I also want to do that in contrast with the perspective where as soon as you can identify that agency, you also want to identify all the ways that you’re overstepping it and trampling on it practically all the time, because that’s how we inhabit the world as living beings: we treat plants differently. And that’s just inescapable: I couldn’t imagine a society where we had the same kind of ethical responsibilities to plants that we do to people and animals.


Philosophies, Derrida

This is one of the things that I am most charmed and beguiled by in this collection, especially in the aphorisms: not only are the poems sort of sometimes paradoxical, but they’re also self-subversingly paradoxical, so you, like, triple down on a statement and then you invert it and then you say, Even the binary between the inversion and the original thing was itself a construction with which we must no longer agree.

See, that’s erasure, right? And in my dissertation, that’s what erasure does: you can see the binary between two things, but then, once you see it a certain way, even framing it that way is ridiculous and you’re on the losing end of it again.

So, is there some—I don’t know anything about anything, especially philosophy, but—is there some kind of fundamental difference between a Hegelian dialectic and synthesis that’s substantially different from a Derridean worldview?

I think a lot of what I take from philosophy is—I think what ends up being really significant about philosophy, especially looking at those two thinkers, it’s not really about fundamental difference; it’s not about whether these ideas are different in some kind of Idea Plane, because honestly I don’t know. I think what’s important to me is that a lot of people spend a lot of time—we read a lot of stuff; we write a lot of stuff; we say a lot of stuff—trying to figure out where those differences are in that Idea Plane. And what actually makes Hegelian and Derridean philosophy different is how cultures and communities of people are spending their time dealing with certain texts.

Mm, mm, mm.

So, I think that if you’re trying to figure out what the difference is between a Hegelian and a Derridean, I’d say it’s really about what they read and what they talk about. I don’t have any kind of definitive statement about how they’re different in terms of their ideas.

So, the example of erasure that you mention—where you have the one thing and then maybe its opposite and then you say, Even naming some inversion as if these were two different things is a thing unto itself and we have to be suspicious of that—would you say that that’s some kind of essentially Derridean move?

Yep, I think that’s a very common and characteristic element of Derrida’s philosophy and his writing and speaking; and especially when I was doing my dissertation it’s something I felt I was finding multiple times in Derrida’s texts.

And if one of Hegel’s ideas is that you have A and you contrast it with B then it actually produces a positive thing, a C which is preferable to both A and B separately, that there’s a synthesis of its best parts: it’s something moving forward and presenting a positive in time, as opposed to the Derridean which is a turning around and a looking back at something which one, in the turning, has bifurcated.

I think that’s roughly accurate. Again, it’s funny because in order to do this you invoke another binary, which is—

*laughs*

—A roughly positive-looking or progressive philosophy versus a regressive or negative or constrained philosophy.

*chuckling*

But there’s also accuracy to that. I think what you’re abstracting from Hegel is an important philosophical point, but I think it’s also important to recognize that the reason Hegel is doing this is that he wanted to construct grand, future-looking visions of things like how human civilization would develop.

Mm.

How life would develop, how the universe would physically constitute itself. That kind of thing is thematically extremely different from anything Derrida wanted to do. Derrida is often characterized—accurately, I think—as trying to take texts—sometimes very short texts—and sort of open them up by digging into them, finding the many dimensions, finding all the space, all the angles, all the surfaces within something relatively small. His thought didn’t often go in the more expansive direction of trying to grow into the whole universe, which is extremely Hegelian in terms of how Hegel actually did his work.

Mm, mm, mm.


Your Very Own, Colonialism

I don’t know why but the word excavation is coming to mind—

Mm.

—And I don’t know if I’ve been consciously aware that the word cavity is within that: ex-cavation is to take out a cavity, to remove a cavity. But you can’t remove a cavity; you can remove material, creating a cavity.

Yeah. So in one of my recent chapbooks, Your Very Own… I guess to first give some context on that: the chapbook is based on erasing words and images from a Choose Your Own Adventure book  called Grand Canyon Odyssey, and it’s about exploring parts of the Grand Canyon. Anyway,  for the book’s epigraph I used a riddle that I really liked, which goes something like, The more of me you take away, the larger I grow. What am I? The answer is the Grand Canyon?

Mm.

Now that’s a cavity, right? A large cavity grows large by being less. And the fact is that semantically there aren’t necessarily distinctions between these things. In a certain discourse space, the positive or the material can become negative or absence.

“He keeps laughing, then finally says, Your answer is not so bad. But it’s not the one I wanted. Perhaps I will give you a second chance. Answer this one: the more of me you take away, the larger I grow. What am I? You are the Grand Canyon.”

I also wanted to keep that first part of the epigraph, because the Grand Canyon riddle itself is great, but I also love that it’s kind of secondary within the book itself, you know? And what happens in the book before then is—this is the protagonist talking to this coyote-trickster character who’s a sort of distorted representation of Indigenous mythological systems—what happens before this is that the coyote tells a riddle and then the protagonist gives an answer and the answer is totally plausible, but the coyote’s like, Well, yeah, that’s a good answer, but that wasn’t my intention, so we have to restart the game.

Mm, mm, mm. So, I had originally planned these questions in sequence in keeping with the chronology of the appearance of the books, but because we’re on the topic of Your Very Own maybe we’ll just jump around a little bit.

So, I think it’s safe to say that that book’s a creative extension of the dissertation, in which you cite Ronald Johnson’s Radi os, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, and Jordan Abel’s The Place of Scraps. I’m also thinking about Shane Rhodes, a poet I respect, who has “engaged with the treaties and land disputes involved in the colonization of Canada” and opened up “for consideration governmental policies that attempted to erase Indigenous peoples from the land through displacement and containment,” while Abel “focuses on the ethnographic documentation of Indigenous peoples, in particular attending to the colonial trope of the vanishing Indian—the belief that Indigenous peoples lost their cultural distinctiveness through interactions with Western culture.” Rhodes also crafts vinyl cut-outs of falling cowboys of the kind that one encounters in Your Very Own. And I’m also thinking about the Choose Your Own Adventure stories, with phrases like: “Be careful—some choices are dangerous!” and “You are responsible because you choose!”  (Another over-elaborated question, here.)

I think about that in a few ways: One, there’s a kind of Americanized judeo-christian individual freewill injunction; Two, a further Americanized illusion of free will because of course the choices are profoundly limited and pre-determined, which I’m thinking about in a capitalist context in which one is offered choice regarding the colour of their car but not whether they could board a high-speed train to get to where they want to go; and Three, a sense of freedom which, in the context of settler coloniality, disguises the consequences of one’s actions as those actions relate to and bear upon the more-than-human, not to mention the Indigenous peoples, whom the exercise of one’s apparent freewill affects.

 So, I don’t know that I really have a question here, but I’d love to hear about your thinking through this project, Your Very Own; the actual practice of erasure rather than just theory; and how that practice of erasure relates to this genre, and perhaps to the text in particular you chose.

In a way you kind of said all of it, right? I think your question mentions a lot of the ideas that informed my work on that book, a lot of the reference points that I was relating to and trying to fit into a tradition of. I think all I’d really add to what you said is that the way I see it, there aren’t correct or ultimate answers to these types of questions. Sometimes people will look at a project like Jordan Abel’s and suggest that this is a way of cutting away the illusions and the delusions of colonialism and finding what the land really is.

Mm.

Or something like that, right? But I think that’s kind of a bunch of crap. Like you were suggesting, there are enormous senses in which the kind of judeo-christian Western idea of agency and individuality is enormously limited, but it’s also a presence in the world that people really experience, that people really act on, and that changes the landscape. To me, when it comes to the effect that colonialism has had on the land of North America or Turtle Island, for example, I don’t think it’s true to say that what colonists thought they were doing was completely wrong or illusory, and that they were actually following a different set of actually true logics, I think the colonists came and brought their logic, and their ideas about agency and human activity with them, and those ideas interacted with other ideas, other ways of understanding truth; and that kind of mélange of things has created the world we live in. I feel like it’s a very profoundly mixed world.

Mm.

I don’t think there’s just a kind of base layer, then there’s a bunch of stuff that’s wrong or mistaken. I think that this is a very mixed space and these things operate with each other in different ways; and you can always peel back the layers and see something else, but those discarded layers are still around—you just kind of change their role.

Is there some kind of spectrum between those whose voices might be closer to a sense of what the landscape would be in absence of colonialism and those who are so far removed from—I’m thinking about this line from Robert Hass where he says “building thrown up in no relation to geography.”

That perspective is just too romantic to me. What I would suggest is that ‘no relation’ is a very intense kind of relation, particularly when we’re talking about buildings that literally sit on the land.

Mm.

I also have to say that I don’t feel like I have a lot of intellectual commonality with anyone who’s focused on imagining something like what would have been without colonialism.

Mm.

Or what might be after colonialism per se, if we understand ‘after’ to mean that something’s been wiped away or its influence has been cleared off.

Mm.

To me it’s profoundly unrealistic, and what we’re really talking about there are people’s fantasies. Those fantasies are important; however, when it comes to the road between a fantasy and what we see in the real world, there’s a lot that goes into that, there’s a lot of transformation and misrecognition along that bridge.


Jim Johnstone, Poetry as an Artform

Mm, mm, mm, mm, mm. Okay, so: speaking of bridges, someone who has perhaps more than anybody else in the country created bridges between poets and publics and poets and publishers is Jim Johnstone, somebody we both admire and respect. He edited your debut collection, published your manifesto, edited by Shane Neilson, with Anstruther Press, and has edited this most recent collection, A Devil Every Day.

In the acknowledgements of the former, you thank him with the sentence, Special thanks to Jim Johnstone, who edited the manuscript for print; I am deeply grateful for your perspective, support, and friendship. In the acknowledgements of the latter, you thank him with the sentence, Special thanks to Jim Johnstone, whose dedication to the craft and cultivation of poetry is unparalleled in this country.

Hear, hear.

And in addition to saying a few words about your relationship with Jim in your capacity as a poet and his capacity as an editor, I wonder whether you would say a few words about your sense of how Jim’s own project as a poet aligns with yours.

I recall having worked with him on a chapbook and expressing my hesitation to include the word “rapist” in the manuscript: should I use an asterisk in place of the first vowel? Should I euphemize the language? There’s no universally correct answer to this (or anything else), but I asked for Jim’s input, which was—and I’ll check with him about his feeling about our including this—“I think it should be included. If we can’t face the word, how can we solve the problem?” I imagine that his feeling is similar when it comes to the question of whiteness and its absence in explicit address in contemporary Canadian poetry: If we can’t face the word, if we can’t interrogate it and its contents, if we can’t agree on what it means, how can we solve the problem?

I think a lot of my respect for Jim comes from my sense that, in his own poetic project and in the people he works with, he is willing to go into that territory, at least in the space of poetry as an artform. Another thing I respect about him is that he’s very tactful: he wouldn’t have so many friends and so much good will with people if he weren’t; and he’s not the kind of person who’s out there putting potentially triggering or controversial concepts in people’s faces all the time, right? But part of his attitude towards poetry as I understand it is something that I think is extremely valuable and something that I value in poetry, which is the idea that we have respect for poetry as an artform in itself. In other words, there are territories we can go into where maybe no one pays any attention to what’s there except for poetry or the poetic. This territory is very much a poetry space, and we can raise issues there; we can use language that might not fit well or might not be very productive in other spaces. I feel Jim is very good at keeping that space for the poetic, protecting it, and fostering it—actually cultivating it—and allowing things to grow and happen there and allowing experimentation to happen there.

Mm.

I find that very valuable because I feel, personally, that in something like the poetry scene, especially in a smaller community like Canadian literature, there’s a lot of push to understand that what happens in poetry is actually very close to other things that happen in the world, sometimes cloyingly close; and I fear that  poetry as an artform suffers when you lean too heavily into tht push, because it puts things out of bounds or takes things that could be good for poetry and restricts them because they might be bad for the things poetry touches. I guess for me it’s always a fine balance. I don’t think there’s any poetry that doesn’t touch the rest of the universe, but I also think there is distance here: there’s poetry that’s really close to other stuff but there’s also poetry way over there, and you can go really deep in and make things happen in that distanced, special place. I think Jim’s very good at doing that in his work and in the work he edits, and I think that’s something a lot fewer poets and editors, especially in Canada, are really concerned with—and that not everyone puts time into doing.

I think there was a phrase in there, The cloying closeness. I wonder if you would say a few more words about that.

Sure. I mean, it’s just a question of political art, if you want to use that kind of language. I think a phrase like political art can be much broader than this, but in a lot of contexts it’s this idea that goes, How much of a commitment does artwork have to fulfilling certain social, cultural, and political goals? For some artists, editors, and publishers, art has an enormous responsibility to do that and is very heavily guided by that; and I think art can be that and it can do that. But art is a big space; it’s very broad, and there’s also art going on that doesn’t have so much responsibility for the social, the cultural, the political, etc. I think this idea of degrees of responsibility is very important.

Mm.

It goes back to the plant question. Now, there are lines that you shouldn’t cross with plants: there are things you can do with plants that are probably not ethical. But it seems like there is a lot more space there than there is with other kinds of beings. And I think we can look in a similar way at something like poetry, politics, art, culture.


Horizontality, Hypocrisy, Doing vs. Saying

So, looking at Slogan, Substance, Dream (Anstruther, 2018), here’s an excerpt:

We’re all awake, and we’re all dreaming. But we don’t all have the same dreams. A dream belongs to whoever dreams it, to whoever invests in it, and it belongs to reality as much as its dreamers do. I’m invested in a poetry that belongs to reality.

I’m invested in an idealism (of art, of poetry) without elitism. That is to say, without any metaphor of verticality.

Carrying on from the conversation we’ve been having so far, first, tell me about an idealism “without any metaphor of verticality.”

I think it relates a lot to some of the metaphors I was just trying to use a minute ago, right? This idea of poetry as a wide space and thinking very horizontally about it. That’s really how I see it. There might be territories that are more political or that might be about maintaining certain subculture groups or that might be about maintaining more social relationships. But my idea of not having this metaphor of verticality is to say that, The stuff over here isn’t purer or more what we want poetry to be; it’s just over there. They’re connected but also apart from each other.

Mm, mm, mm. I don’t know why this is bringing to mind—I guess it’s sort of related—I was thinking about this in the context of a comedian I heard’s line on the selectivity involved in what kinds of discrimination one opposes, which is itself a weird form of discrimination.

Yeah *chuckles*.

I’m also thinking about Paolo Freire and The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and this idea that the inversion of a problematic power dynamic doesn’t resolve the problem. And I think that that bears on the question of an idealism without any metaphor of verticality: there mustn’t be a higher or a lower or a greater than or a less than.

This is reminding me a little bit of the epigraph I used in A Devil Every Day, from Aristotle. It’s in a kind of complexly translated Ancient Greek, but the gist of it is that plants don’t say yes or no; they don’t make any distinctions; and if you don’t make any distinctions, then you’re no better than they are. But to me this dynamic highlights a kind of double-bind. I would suggest that if we don’t make any distinctions between things, if we just say everything is everything, then I think that’s profoundly naïve; you can’t really do anything with that; you’re sacrificing your agency. And yet if you insist on distinctions, then it becomes a paradox: it’s exactly what you were saying in terms of being selective about discrimination as another kind of discrimination. So I would suggest that the place we actually inhabit—that’s real—is somewhere in the middle of those poles. And there isn’t really any way to talk about it because as soon as you try to characterize where we are, you’re leaning too much in one direction, and so it’s either paradoxical or kind of stupid.

And I’m thinking about Rabindranath Tagore’s line to which “A Plant Is Not a Nation” is “indebted”: A mind all logic is like a knife all blade, it makes the hand bleed that uses it. So, someone who was exclusively separating things and categorizing things will hurt themselves.

Inevitably, I think—Or at least they make themselves very vulnerable, because they become a hypocrite, right? That’s another thing I’m fascinated by: the idea of hypocrisy. And I feel like I end up at this place where being a hypocrite is one of those things that’s really inevitable, and yet I think we have to try to avoid it.

Mm. Say that again.

Hypocrisy is inevitable and we must try to avoid it.

This sounds like one of your aphorisms.

Oh, sure. I have one that I’m posting very soon about hypocrisy, actually. This will be a bit of a preview, but it’s something like, I’m not even interested in possibilities or plausibilities, I’m interested in non-hypocrisies.

Mm, mm. And something that comes up a few times throughout your work is this idea of—There’s a distinction between saying a thing, being a thing, and doing a thing; and I think you’re very clear about the distinction between those three things. And I wonder if you’d just say a few words about the significance of that distinction.

It’s the same kind of horizontal territorial metaphor, right? But saying, being, and doing are different: we have different words for them. These are fundamental words and they have ethical implications. There’s a reason why we can talk about something hypothetically without doing it. That gives us different degrees of responsibility for whatever we’re making thematic there.

Mm.

And yet they’re obviously connected, and they have to be connected. I think that’s how I did the dedication for Slogan, Substance, Dream. It’s something like, For all those for whom to say is to do. Because in writing, that’s true, right? If you are a writer, then what you do is say things, so there’s a congruency there even though there’s also an obvious, intuitive drive to acknowledge that what someone writes in their novel isn’t materially what they’re putting out into the world—and there’s a distinction there.

Because what is it that they’re putting materially into the world—ink and paper?

Well, yeah, exactly. I mean exactly in that that’s part of it; but it’s very difficult: this gets into a lot of discussions about things like appropriation in writing, about what it’s appropriate for writers to do, what it means to write ethically. Or what an ethical art practice looks like, what ethical representation looks like. Again, this is an ancient question: again, you have someone like Plato who is very interested in the relationship between representation and action, drawing the chair compared to building the chair.

So this actually bears on some question of intellectual property and—I don’t know anything about law, but—I feel like culture as explicated through story is material: the boundaries between saying and doing there are quite porous.

Yeah, absolutely. Intellectual property and copyright law are heavily invested in this question. I mean, the idea of intellectual property is where saying something becomes doing something. Thinking about copyright, at what point is… If I say something you said, at what point am I infringing on your right to whatever it is you did by saying it?

Mm.

Or, how far can you go with just quoting something as opposed to reproducing it in your own name? To me it also—and this is something I try to explore in A Devil Every Day—it also relates to the question of irony and satire. It relates to erasure as well: we’re all familiar with satirical modes where people can say things, sometimes very extensively, but the whole point of their saying it is to show you how ridiculous it is and how they don’t believe what they’re saying.

Mm, mm, mm.

But those lines, they’re all a kind of a gut-check, right? I would suggest it’s virtually impossible to define any system that allows you to distinguish those.


Stand-up

So I’m thinking again about comedians, three of them: a pair, Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman and Letterman says something like, And then this happened, yada yada yada, and—And then Seinfeld interjects and says, You can’t just say that. You have to pay a fee: I get five percent of that statement. I’m also thinking about Norm MacDonald as a stand-up who often exposed the absurdity of telling a joke because he’d just—he’d tell a joke for fourteen minutes, a joke that could have been radically shortened and maybe compels one to question, Why is it that I’m so rapt listening and quite content to move towards an end that isn’t coming? And speaking of rapt listening, as I hope we are mutually—at least one of us is—we’re at 1:25pm, so we’ve got thirty-five minutes until the exhibition. I just wanted to relocate us in time.

Can I just say quickly about the question of comedy…

Totally.

It’s ethically very important to me because I think comedy and laughter and humour are another space where it’s extremely hard to systematically distinguish how the kind of gray spaces we’ve been discussing play out. Sometimes one of the ways I think about poetry, and especially poetry performance or a poetry reading, is as a kind of unfunny stand-up.

*laughs loudly*

It’s like—

That’s great.

—If you go to a poetry reading, it’s kind of like going to a stand-up show, but you can’t expect that it’ll necessarily be funny—though it might be.

Poetry as unfunny stand-up.

Because it does a lot of the same kinds of things. It might be political; it might have a genuine message; or it might just be a bunch of bullshit that’s supposed to make you laugh or think. Except I think the key difference there is that—and comedians are of course always complaining about this—at a comedy show, the audience expects to laugh and gets mad if they don’t laugh. Poetry audiences expect virtually nothing.

*laughs* A good thing because that’s often what they get *laughs*.

Yeah.


Binaries, Eggshells

So, one of the poems that stood out to me was “New Binaries”:

Someone said “the other side” and I pressed it 
into my palm and ushered them out. 

I was fearful I’d be outmoded, known
as a binarist when I wasn’t—it’s simple

as yes or no. I realize you don’t 
flip coins the way I do, but I’ve caught you 

defending your circle’s faces regardless. 
I’ve never been that close to anyone. 

Then again, I take “close” to be relative
and haven’t been liquid for ten thousand sunsets; 

I’ve been swimming and gorging myself on the dark. 
I am so tired of talking across

the pie chart to you. I want to blow up
into one. I want to fall apart. 

And I’m looking at that poem and I’m looking at the poem “The Devil’s Mind,” which ends:

And yes, it’s true, the Devil’s 
white 

But he doesn’t care that he is—
do you? 

Myself, I care about what I do. 

Any thoughts spurred there in the context of the conversation so far?

I think it’s interesting to put those poems in conversation. I’m not sure it’s something I’ve really done consciously. What I would say superficially about the “New Binaries” poem is that it’s all about—even on a formal, poetic level—trying to play out this process of constantly finding the binary and then subverting it, or feeling like you have to subvert it or that you’re a failure for not subverting it. And the way I composed that poem was about just trying to work my way through all that play and realizing how fluid things become: there ends up really being nowhere to rest. And of course that can apply to gender identity, gender binary, but there are really all kinds of other binaries when you’re thinking of abstract thought—or just very simple, socially real ideas of whether such and such is a bad person or whether they’re a creep or whether you should—

Mm.

—Affiliate with them or not.

Mm.

In terms of “The Devil’s Mind” and the point about whiteness there: obviously you can’t bracket the discussion of whiteness—you can’t talk about X without talking about whiteness—which is why whiteness is there in the poem. But just to bracket that for a second, I think that part of the poem is meant to be one of those moments that’s kind of on the verge of parody or where it’s potentially undecidable—that’s a Derridean term—whether it’s parodic or not. And it also relates to that fundamental question you mentioned earlier: Is there a distinction between being and doing? If the narrator there says, I care about what I do, the implication is that I don’t care about what I am, which is white—and yet any of us who are steeped in actual critical conversations about whiteness know there are many connections between those things. In the context of the poem, in some of the other parts of it you didn’t read, there are clear connections between those things because there’s an implied pattern: one’s behaviours and beliefs likely are linked to what they are, in terms of racial identity, because there’s a correlation there, right?

Mm.

In the context of “The Devil’s Mind,” the idea is that the Devil has a certain kind of blindness, which you can interpret as colour-blindness, and they see that as a just way of seeing the world—this old, ‘I don’t see colour’ idea. But the problem is that having that kind of belief is strongly correlated with being white, which means that colour is there again.

And I’m thinking about—and we’ll get to the marketing business again in due course, but—I’m thinking about one of the quips that you put on your Facebook page, which was, The binary/non-binary binary.

Well, look, I mean, this is the kind of thing that we might want to edit out of the interview, but that poem, “New Binaries,” was originally titled “Non-Binary.” And one of the things that happened was that that poem briefly appeared on the internet. Shortly after it appeared, the website received some complaints suggesting it was harmful or otherwise wrong for the poem to be published there—apparently because I don’t identify as non-binary—and the poem was removed.

Mm.

So there’s a lot to say about that, a lot that I don’t have any expertise in, but I think it’s at least formally amusing that you have a certain kind of identity—

*chuckling*

—That’s based on a commitment to non-binary-ness that then sharply distinguishes itself from others who don’t share that identity.

That’s great. Do you want to linger there for a minute?

If you want.

So, this is an instance where someone has claimed that saying a thing is doing a thing, that those two things are inseparable, that this was an affront or an attack on how they think about their own identity, right?

To be honest, there’s a lot of it I’m not really sure of. To me it’s like, I could construct plausible narratives of how the poem could be seen as harmful, but I don’t actually know what any of the people who complained meant. Keep in mind that the website didn’t share any of the complaints with me, and nobody complained to me personally. One of the things that disappointed me about how this episode played out was that it was a relatively small group of people who were thinking and conversing about these things, but there wasn’t much actual conversation. Nobody came forward and said, I know why this position on this issue exists, or, I know what this position is about or how to explain this position. It felt like the kind of case where everyone was like, Well, this seems kind of fishy, therefore we should retract it so that we’re not potentially wading into fishy territory. I find that very disappointing, you know? I’m not necessarily against censorship or constraining what a publication puts out there, but I would suggest they should know why they’re not putting something out there; and if they don’t know, it’s probably worth asking the question.

I can’t quote it from memory but I remember that there’s a couplet in one of these poems that I’ve been gorging on for the last week or so and especially over the last day: It’s white as eggshells and sticky as birdshit. It sounds like there’s some eggshells involved there.

Yeah, I think in that poem I was thinking of white fragility in that line, and it might even be “fragile as eggshells” or something like that. But sure: there’s a lot of that stuff going on. One of the things that I hope to do with A Devil Every Day, honestly, is to find those eggshells and crackle them a little bit, you know? I don’t want to ruin everything; I don’t want to upend things; but I want people to hear the crackle in these poems and to ask themselves, Is that too much? Because I don’t have an answer. And I suspect that with many of these questions it’s not answerable with what we know and what we’ve agreed on.


Undecidability, Self vs. Selves

So, on this question of is it parodic or not and the Derridean term undecidable, you refer to yourself in the author note for The Devil, which we’ll mostly skip over just because a lot of if not all of the work is in the new book, but you refer to yourself as “an atheist and (perhaps) an ironist.”

Yeah.

Is that an instance of an undecidable and can you tell me something more about this undecidable business and what it is that attracts you to it?

I think that’s a fair enough instance of an undecidable. There’s—You could have a certain kind of philosophical snobbery where you could say, Oh, that’s too low-brow or it’s too intuitive, this is actually a very complex kind of thing. But I don’t think it’s very productive here for us to get into that. I think “(perhaps) an ironist” is a good enough representation of an undecidable, the idea being that being an ironist itself is already about being caught between two positions, and the statement you quoted is just adding another layer of undecidability.

Mm, mm.

And I do feel that undecidableness propagates itself: as soon as you start questioning some of the distinctions you’ve made, then you can usually start to find more distinctions you can question. And then things start to fall apart, right? That’s why Derrida’s thought is called deconstruction. You start testing some of the joints, and you realize you can go very far back into your foundations and keep discovering them to be pretty slippery.

Mm.

Now, one of the reasons I’m attracted to undecidability and what makes me kind of a Derridean at—maybe not at core, but at—some of my cores is that I just think it’s very real: I think this is a compelling description of how things really are. I think if you try to look at what you’ve materially experienced, what your presence is in the world, you’ll find that a lot of it is based on this idea that I’m here—but I don’t know, right? Or, I know there are things it could be, but there is an undecidability here, too. And by actually committing to something in a very absolute way, you almost have to sacrifice part of the reality and part of the material reality of what you are.

So, “maybe not at my core but at some of my cores” indicates something fundamental about how you experience the self. I wonder if you could say a few more words about that.

It’s all of a piece with what I’ve just been saying, right? I mean, when I see undecidability as being a very real experience, there’s also undecidability about identity. It’s about acknowledging that I appear without being able to pinpoint exactly what here-ness is and exactly what my here-ness is and exactly what I am.

Mm, mm, mm.

And this thinking tends to multiply things: when you get in this mode, it usually feels more correct to start pluralizing? Even things we don’t conventionally pluralize, like the self.

Sounds like Rabindranath Tagore’s “a mind all logic.”

There’s a lot of vulnerability in this, you know? In a lot of ways when I say something like, Some of my cores and not just my core, that’s also a protective gesture.

Mm.

That’s saying that it feels too committed or too vulnerable of me to be one thing.

One of the things about those who are fluent in philosophy that I’ve noticed is that you treat thought like a Swiss army knife: it’s like, in this instance there are a few different applications that could best apply. I’m not going to commit myself to being a devotee to any one of these. And yet I do generally encounter people who say, This is the philosopher for me. You’re not prepared to make that complete a gesture because it would open you up to somebody else whose position you could imagine competently attacking yours. And so there are multiple selves or maybe a diffuse self, a cloud rather than a drop of water.

Yeah, and that’s how I try to carry myself in thought. Of course, I recognize that it’s also kind of silly, because if I say I’m not committed to saying I’m a Derridean, and yet he’s the philosopher I always turn to, then by default I basically am a Derridean and it doesn’t really matter what I’ve said about that. And I feel like, at that point, it’s almost a matter of taste, right? Like, are you more comfortable saying you’re undecided but then always talking about the same position, or are you more comfortable talking about all the positions and then saying you’re decided?

Nice. I feel like, again, we have a blending of the boundaries between saying, doing, and being here.

Mhm.

Okay, I did want to mention “Holy of Holies” because it’s one of my favourites.

Well you know “Holy of Holies” is not in A Devil Every Day.

But it is in The Devil.

It is.

Holy of Holies


The family praying softly at the table
knows best they’re eating dinner at McDonald’s. 

The rest of us have placed our bets on seeing
our holy city etched in red and gold

and round as rainbows. Everyone puffs up
and huffs from a paper sack. I’ve heard some cultures

hold that bread contains the Spirit’s breath, 
while meat’s smell speaks of Earth’s first secret: fire,

stolen, then clothed as if it were a master. 
I’ve also heard this place is famous elsewhere, 

at least with reference to its many copies’
carbon-copied meals; the refugees

from Syria, for example, after spitting
out their sponsors’ multi-culti dish

just wished that they’d been taken to McDonald’s
(which wouldn’t have been nearly as expensive).

We’re all alike, you know; we measure life
in small percentages and hope the fullness

of instants brings us hope for something else. 
It just turns out we’ve thrown away the noun,

like 3D-printed people counting up
our holy holies. But I can’t say I’m worried:

overstocked with fraudulent rewards cards
from a cousin who doesn’t talk about his job,

I’m glad to drink my seven coffees gratis
and receive the eighth one free (my holy holy),

glad to think that this is really Heaven,
really, and sit amidst the hundredth billion served. 

Do you want to say a word about it?

Sure. I feel it’s quite a strong poem. It’s kind of like the erased poem of A Devil Every Day: In the kind of compositional genesis of A Devil Every Day, it’s the one whose absence is most palpable. For that reason I’m also thinking that in some of the readings I plan to give over the next few months, I’ll probably read from “Holy of Holies” even though it’s not technically in the book, part of the justification being that it’s a bit of a bonus, right? In a way, the reading is a paratext to the book and not only a fragment of it.

Mm.

I think another aspect of that is that I’ve been practicing a sort of performance style for reading from A Devil Every Day where—

One’s not sure whether you’re offering stage banter or you’re reciting poetry.

Yeah, that’s the way I’ve put it to you before. I think another aspect of that is that I’ve been memorizing the Devil poems so that I can read them inexactly, thus also creating an undecidability: if I’m saying most of the words that are in the book but not exactly the same ones, is that exactly or not?

Ah, you’re mischievous.

*chuckles*

Mischievous, John Nyman.


Meticulousness, Completeness

So, I think this question might be unrelated to any of the questions I’ve asked so far, and it has to do with the meticulous technical requirements of producing a book like Your Very Own, replete with very carefully erasured digitized images throughout, although as must be evident to the reader by now you bring the entire nexus of your thinking, if I can put it like that, to each project. But as I know you, this meticulous work, which I imagine requires the removal of pixels at high magnification, seems to be almost adjacent to the strains of inquiry and practice we’ve been discussing so far. Inevitably it’s an act of erasure itself, but I wonder if you could tell me about the meticulousness of that and what you get out of it. Maybe there’s a correlation here between video gaming and working in a lukewarm pixelated space.

Absolutely. I found working on Your Very Own to be very soothing because the bulk of the compositional labour was actually very mechanized. The real compositional decisions, the things that people see on the page, required very little work, to be honest. It’s something that’s interesting about erasure poetry: what the author has actually done is very slight, and yet there’s a lot of work behind it, so to speak, both in terms of creating the kind of compositional attitude that leads one to make that decision, but also in Your Very Own there was a lot of work behind actualizing that in a visual space and just making it look good. And I just found it very enjoyable to do that. And I also like this idea—I think it fits with this conversation, and I feel like this applies to a lot of artworks—where when you create a piece of art, you work on it to a level of detail that is more microscopic than almost all of your audience is going to be able to see.

Mm.

But you work at that level of detail so that what they do see is complete—or at least comes across as complete. Because of course the work is always incomplete at a certain level, but to create a professional piece of art, it needs to be complete beyond the level most people are going to look at. And then of course you get the scholars and the researchers who are going to find all the fuck-ups you made because you didn’t look at that part microscopically enough.

Well, god bless them is all I can say.

*chuckles*

So, I hope you’ll enjoy this. It’s 1:44 and I would love to get another coffee before we see the exhibition. And so what we have in effect done so far, and which I hope we can return to, is have an interview about a book about which we haven’t spoken for about an hour and a half.

Yeah, I kept trying to bring it in—

*laughing loudly*

—But you just wanted to ask questions about other stuff.

We’re working our way towards it and then this canyon has intervened, a canyon which wouldn’t have been present had we not been walking through this building for twenty minutes to try to find a place to sit down. So here’s what I propose: we get coffee, then we go to the exhibition, and then we take another twenty minutes or so to sit down. Do you have time for that or no?

I absolutely have time for that.

*John and Kevin peruse the Cripping Masculinity exhibition at Tangled Gallery*


Aphorisms, Social Media, Provocation

*John and Kevin find a place to sit down on a bench in downtown Toronto*

And we commence part two of a conversation. So, in light of A Devil Every Day’s release—and we were talking about this a little bit—you’ve been drawing attention via “six years worth of self-destructive thought on evil, whiteness, hypocrisy, irony, shame, and the idea of normal” on social media, comprised of lines like “the binary/non-binary binary” and “People are too angry to care about the things they’re angry about”—

*chuckles*

—And “I’ve wondered whether it’s a mental illness to believe in philosophy.” So, what has this experience been like for you—if I can continue to frame you as a Sensitive Plant—with people quivering your ferns and leaves—

*chuckles*

—And stuff. And how do you feel about selling, about the act of bringing your work to market?

Specifically with the social posts, the reason I wanted to do it was that I had all these notes from a bunch of years, and I’ve been really interested in the idea of writing aphorisms and the aphorism as a creative form—as a form of writing but also as a form of thought, speech, and expression—so I felt there was some merit to those aphorisms I’d collected from my notes. There are some aphorisms in A Devil Every Day as well, although the ones in that book have a bit of a different structure: since they’re part of that book, they’re kind of related to the different speakers of that book, and in some ways they’re separated from my identity in a different way compared to what I post on social media.

That said, I still feel like with the social media posts, I don’t treat them as an expression of my personal beliefs or like, This is necessarily what I think. I think they’re potentially creative, thoughtful, provocative compilations of language, and that’s my intention in putting them out into the world.

I’m also interested in the idea that poetry, thought, writing doesn’t always have to take place in conventional forms; and I feel like with something like an aphorism in our contemporary literary culture, there’s not necessarily a perfect format for it. So I figure that, to a certain extent, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are as good as other formats. They’re a way to put the work online; they’re a way to create a record of it, which I think is kind of neat; it’s a record that people can refer to later if they want to, and that I can refer to later.

 So, I felt that I wanted those lines to be in the world somehow. But when it comes to posting them now, I’ve really tried to set up a wall there.

You don’t engage with comments, right?

No. Some people who’ve commented a lot, I’ve messaged personally; but I don’t want to be part of any kind of public discussion that happens around them. I just want it to be, These are things I worked on in the past; I think they’re interesting; they’re here now. You can read it or don’t read it; comment on it or don’t comment on it. I always respond to personal messages and things like that but I don’t think the public sphere of social media is a great place for discussion. And I’ve definitely been burned in the past simply by having discussions in that kind of space.

 I think the other thing to point out, which not everyone realizes, is that I planned in advance the whole schedule of posting these aphorisms or these little messages or lines. So it’s all very mechanized, for me: I’m just following through with the motions. It’s not a response to things that are happening immediately in my life or to any comments I’m getting on them.

Mm.

And in a way, I’m trying to think of promoting the book as kind of like that as well: I can pre-set a plan of what an appropriate way of putting this into the world looks like, and I’m trying to keep my day-to-day emotional life a little bit separate from that.

So, this reminds me of your having mentioned that, in the performance of the work, you’d said (and I hope you don’t mind my quoting this from our email): Mostly this involves trying to blur the lines between the poems themselves and typical stage banter (e.g., by reciting some of the Devil poems, which ‚’ve memorized, during the ‘banter’ portions). I’m still in the early days of figuring out this style of performance, but it could be something we talk about if you’d like to pursue it.

*chuckles*

And it seems to me that these aphorisms function as a kind of is-it-stage-banter-is-it-not? It dissolves or straddles a boundary.

Yeah.

This reminds me of a couple of sentences from your dissertation:

While the notion of asymmetrical collaboration clearly distinguishes erasure from the Romantic ideal of unified authorship and intention, it also indicates Phillips’s divergence from what I call symmetrical collaboration, which is represented by Cage’s and Mac Low’s proto-erasures as well as Burroughs’s early experiments with the cut-up. In works like Cage’s “Empty Words,” symmetrical collaboration manifests as the simultaneous and non-hierarchical voicing of multiple independent aspects of language. Here, meaning develops (ideally) from the total assemblage of words, letters, sounds, and sense experiences, as well as the fundamentally incommensurable contributions of Thoreau, Cage, chance procedures drawn from the I Ching, and the specific situation of each of the work’s readers and readings. Cage’s efforts to eliminate distinctions between the objective and subjective contributors to a work’s meaning are relatively extreme.

So how do you think about the blurring of that boundary between is-this-performance-or-is-it-colloquial-speech?

Yeah, I mean, I think that’s really the place where I want to be experimental, I want to play with it because that distinction is kind of always already blurred; but I also think we have tendencies to see things as either performance or genuine based on particular pre-set patterns. And when I think about something like poetry, I’m like, Well, this is such a small scene anyway. There’s a lot of diversity in terms of how it can or should be interpreted, so I feel like it’s fertile ground to create something that is kind of undecidable, I guess, in terms of how it should be understood in relation to me and how I think and how I live and what my work is and how other people should think about it.

Mm, mm, mm.

I think there are lots of paths for interpretation; and I hope that multiple paths are pursued and that there’s something to be learned, something to be gained from the ambiguity, the undecidability, and just the variety that comes out of that.

I get the sense of the undecidable as catalyst: it compels thought or reflection or is innately provocative as opposed to a statement one way or the other.

And it’s provocative in the sense that it encourages reaction and further production, right? It’s an opportunity to build on something—whether that’s through a public discussion or even just in one’s own thinking. It’s similar to presenting things that are potentially hypothetical: What if you thought about things that way? Can you imagine yourself thinking about something that way? Would your previous beliefs and commitments lead you to a conclusion or would you be left in confusion over it? And what’s the meaning of those states?

I’m thinking of what must be the etymology of provocation: in favour of speech, pro- vocare—in order to compel conversation.

Oh, I never even thought of that.

I think it’s usually thought of as inflammatory or something like that but that would be a straying from the etymology.

That’s really interesting. I really like that. Whether it’s a true or a kind of fantastical etymology, I like it a lot.

“To call forth” but in the sense of “to challenge:” Old French, provoceur; provocare, challenge from pro- “forth” and vocare “to call”. To call forth. So maybe it’s not to draw forth speech but to call forth some response.

Well, calling is related to speech, right?

So, in addition to the aphorisms functioning as a means to bring the work to the public square, there are also aphorisms throughout the book; and I’m looking at one particularly that beguiles me; and I enjoy that it beguiles me; and I guess that it’s one of those undecidables. From “Backwards Aphorisms:” 2. Judge an action by its outcome, not its intention. 1. A judgement is an action. Do you have any words to say about that particular excerpt?

Yeah, I mean I think it’s—if this is what we mean by provoke—it’s an opportunity for propagation, maybe moving from provocation to propagation.

Mm, mm.

I just think it’s interesting that we can take these different stances towards things, to say in one moment that I’m expressing myself and to say in another moment that I’m evaluating or judging someone else’s expression in order to form an opinion. But these things can blend in to each other, right? Again, the saying is the doing, but there’s also an opportunity to make a distinction. I think it’s curious.

I think in that particular aphorism, I’m also trying to respond to discourses that I’ll see in places like social media where people are trying to make ethical evaluations of things and literally trying to tell people whether they should approve of something or disapprove of it, or whether it’s wrong or harmful, or something like that. I always feel like there’s an opportunity to flip the logic of those sorts of pronouncements and suggest that there’s another way to look at it. Whenever you’re judging someone else, that’s also an opportunity to reflect on and potentially judge yourself, and that creates a completely different orientation toward the event.

I’m thinking of how social media takes place in a highly binarizing environment by virtue alone of the like button.

Yeah.

It’s like, Either you approve of this or you don’t. It’s like the most reductive and ubiquitous means of communication that has ever existed, if I can be so grand. The fucking like button.

I remember it being phrased to me this way by a fellow poet and friend of mine, Jo Ianni. He would say, I always get people coming up to me and they say, Jo, I really like your post on Twitter. And then his response would be like, Oh, so you’re telling me you liked it but you didn’t press “like” on Twitter. Personally I get the same thing: some of the people who’ve approached me have said, I think the things you’re posting are really cool, but there’s no visible interactions on the platform itself—even though they’re using the same word in their conversation that Twitter is trying to provoke them to engage with on the platform *chuckles*.

Amazing. I like that you’re folding in these words that we’re using and focusing on. I’m thinking that’s similar to what Shane [Neilson] says that he hears in response to The Negative Review. People won’t go up to bat and say, Hey guy on a limb, if you’re on a limb, I’m also on that limb with you. But they will say it in private.

Yeah.

There’s a distinction between—And speaking of performativity, what people are prepared to identify themselves with publicly as opposed to privately.

For me it is very important at this point in my writing and my career, quote unquote, to suggest that what I put out in public is very different from what I put out in private, very different from what happens in my private relationships with people. And I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s an opportunity to think more about stuff, to derive more meaning and more kinds of meaning. I think there’s something very ritualistic about putting something out in public, which relates to a very long tradition of publishing. And I don’t think of that as a kind of deception, you know? I don’t think that’s a mask for who we are; I think that adds dimensions to who we are and how we can speak to each other.

It also informs the maybe boundary you mentioned Jim being aware of and helping to cultivate of poetry existing in a space that is to be protected, of art inhabiting a playground without a required one-to-one relation to the way that one might associate oneself on some sort of metaphor of verticality.

Again, I think that diversity is a strength. I think we can do more with discourse because we have so many different ways to act out discourse.


Traditions, Decoration

So one of the several things I know you to be able to do better than I is to situate one’s work in a sort of tradition, to speak about it critically and with a deeply informed, third-party, observant remoteness rather than say god or intuition told me—

*chuckling*

—And I don’t know why. So—which is maybe more my move—I wonder if you’d sort of free associate on the tradition or traditions in which you see this work partaking, what it’s doing and what particularly it’s doing differently, if you were to consider your own work as a critic.

One thing I’m definitely not good at is giving the kind of—oh there’s a word in literary publishing and promotion where you kind of say, My book is like this author meets this author.

Mm, mm.

I’m not good at that stuff.

The equivalent term in film is comps. It’s like, “It’s like Castaway but in Idaho and the guy doesn’t know that he’s on a lake.”

Yeah, so I’m bad at that kind of thing, particularly with the poetry I wrote for A Devil Every Day. But I know some of the things I’m in conversation with. I mean, sometimes I think of this work as kind of like, If Socrates was on Twitter. I think there is a sense where I’m trying in an almost fantastical and ridiculous way to connect a very ancient tradition of thought to a very contemporary tradition of thought—

Mm.

—Because I do think that what goes on on Twitter is a form of thought, and I think treating it as a form of thought is part of my mission as well. I think there’s also some influence here from just really kind of sing-songy, almost doggerel lyric, you know? Things like chants, things like rhyming songs, nursery rhymes.

 When I think about the Devil I think about a tradition I’ve been calling folk theology. It’s theological in that it involves people trying to think through God and forces of evil and all these kinds of out-dated, stale religious ideas that we don’t talk about very much, but in a way that’s very much not systematic, not logical: it’s just based on people’s intuitions combined with the sort of language they might have picked up from church when they were a kid or from things their grandmother said.

Mm.

So I’m trying to be in conversation with that kind of culture; and to me, it’s significant because if there is something like white culture within Western culture, I think it has to do with that sort of stuff, these kinds of inherited ideas of Christian themes and characters that many of us don’t really believe in in any serious way anymore, but we still have the categories in our heads: we all know the archetypes of the angel, the Devil; we all know the kind of aphoristic folk wisdom about the forces of good and evil. I’m trying to play with those in a very ironic and satirical space.

In conclusion, now, I’m noticing the book is bookended with text art—I don’t know if that’s how you think about it—or visual poetry. Can you tell me about that?

I guess there are two ways to approach it. When I originally made those works I was trying to work in a visual poetry tradition, or a kind of conceptual art, conceptual writing tradition. And I was basically just interested in the visual form of plants, particularly the textures of plants, the way that plants have form and aesthetic texture but kind of avoid figure because they don’t necessarily have a specific shape they’re meant to conform to. And in particular, those pieces are meant to portray plants from above, which I think is very much beyond a figural or archetypal kind of shape.

So when I made the pieces I was trying to work with that. I hadn’t really considered them in the context of the Devil, of questions of morality and ethics. When I decided to include them in this book, partly I thought they were kind of neat works in themselves that I wanted to publish in that capacity. But I also thought of them as serving a kind of decorative function in the book.

Mm.

And maybe in a sort of very tangential way, through the roots of multiple kinds of critical theory that interest me but would probably take way too long to explain, I think the question of the decorative—of this sort of peripheral element—I think that’s part of the ethical and philosophical concerns I’m working through in the book as well. This question of, What is really essential and real and what is just window dressing? So I think it’s interesting to take these pieces that have a lot of conceptual backing to them, but then to present them as something decorative, so you could look at the page once and then say, That looks weird—and then keep flipping through.

It also refers back to this idea of text as being vegetative.

Exactly.

And I was very happy to vegetatively mingle in conversation with you. Aaaaaand scene.

*laughing*



 -- Website

Kevin Andrew Heslop (b. 1992) is a multidisciplinary artist born fifth-generation Canadian of Celtic-Danish ancestry. Trained as a musician and theatre actor, Heslop's debuts include the correct fury of your why is a mountain (poetry, Gordon Hill Press, 2021), six feet | between us (art, McIntosh Gallery, 2022), and mo(u)vements, (film, Astoria Pictures/Rose Garden Press, 2023). As of July 2024, his most recent publication in print is the poetry chapbook the rules of grammar will not save you at the hour of your death (with Roxanna Bennett, Baseline Press, 2024); his most imminent, the chapbook anthology of dramatic works for the stage and screen Human Voices Wake Us (with Taylor Marie Graham & P.F. Tego, Rose Garden Press, 2024). Heslop's non-fiction debut, a hometown discussion of Medical Assistance in Dying, is forthcoming from Gordon Hill Press in the Fall of 2025, with new works in film, vibrotactile sculpture, and print contracted to follow. He currently serves as Resident Interviewer with The Miramichi Reader and Parrot Art, Contributing Editor with Centred Magazine, Director with Changing Ways, and Extraliterary Liaison on behalf of six Canadian publishers to support the adaptation of their IP to the stage and screen.

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