Interviews

The Ben Robinson Interview Part the First

Photo credit: Steacy Easton

This conversation took place online between Hamilton and Montréal on November 6th, 2023 on the occasion of the publication of Book of Benjamin (Palimpsest Press, 2023). It has been edited for clarity.

ON FATHERHOOD | THE NEED TO HAND THEM SOMETHING | "HAMILTON" | ON BEGINNINGS | "A SENSITIVE MAN" | ON FORM

On Fatherhood

Kevin Andrew Heslop: I have a question in response to something you said a moment ago, that your relationship to time changed with the first born. And I wonder if you could tell me about that. What was it before then and what was it after and what did the change feel like?

Ben Robinson: Well, I think it’s hard to conceive of it before, you know? Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of it if my family goes up to be with my in-laws or something, you get this glimmer of, really, this is how I lived before. But I think before, I had so much time. I’m a person who guards my time—or was, anyway. I protected it. And that’s not possible *chuckling* with children, as you might imagine. And so there was a kind of ego-death. I don’t know about psychology in any major way, but there’s this sense that I’m not driving anymore.

Mm.

Or I’m not the priority. Can’t be. That was a pretty radical shift for me.

Mm. I mean, I’m thinking about the work, your writing, and I’m just trying to think through the chronology here. Your first baby was born in what year?

September of 2019.

And I’m thinking about this question of ego-death and facilitative egolessness—

Mhm.

—Where you might be acting more as a transcriptionist, or when you’re working with those startlingly resonant poems derived from misheard gibberish spoken to strangers.

Mhm.

I wonder if you’d say a word or two about how that experience of having a child informed your poetics, if I can put it like that. Or is it more project-specific?

I think at first it was this crunch of writing during a nap. Whereas before I would get up and I would read for an hour and I would make my way over to my desk when I felt like it. And now it’s like, Okay, you could have forty minutes, you could have three hours, but you’re not going to know which it is. It forced me to be (a) less precious and (b) a little choosier about my projects. It was interesting to see the quotes that you pulled from old interviews, and there are some that I certainly resonate with, but this idea of having three or four projects simultaneously is not really the case anymore.

Mm.

I feel like the focus is more effortful, maybe; and so in order to maintain that, you really have to pick what is worth working on.

Mm, mm, mm. I’m thinking of an interview that I was listening to recently with Michael Lewis—author of Moneyball, The Big Short, and other things—and he described himself almost as if written within his family crest was this sense of profound laziness. Sloth was a virtue in his family. And so he said that the reason that the books do well—he didn’t put it in these words—was that, If something’s going to get me off of the couch, it’s gotta be an all-consuming interest. It has to achieve a certain threshold of intense intrigue for me to undertake it.

               I wonder about a shift in that threshold. Do you feel more decisive in the projects you take on? Does it feel like you’re writing books right now or that you’re writing poems? I feel like the poems feel pretty cohesive as projects.

Yeah. I think my frame has shifted to books, for sure. Maybe less out of sloth, but for better or worse, I’m ruled by interest. I’m not good at faking it. Every six months to a year I think, maybe I should write a novel. But I could never do it. At least not right now. I just don’t care enough about fiction. There’s this great Eileen Myles quote where they’re talking about all the other things that they could do and the question they come down to is, Yes, but would I ever do them thoroughly?

Mm, mm.

Which I love so much and is so true for me. There are all these other things that I could work on or that might be possible projects, but more and more the projects that get done are the only ones that I feel like I could do thoroughly.

The Need to Hand Them Something

Mm, mm. One of the sort of prefatory questions that I wanted to ask you, given how much religion there is, how much Christianity there is in The Book of Benjamin and much of your other work—Without Form is obviously explicitly an erasure of the Bible, essentially—and given that today happens to be Sunday, I wonder whether you frequent church.

Yeah. Not today. I frequent church in that I work out of a church right now. A friend of mine just became an Anglican priest. When my family got evicted last year, we went and moved into the rectory with them for the summer, a little bit like Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy. It’s a decommissioned Anglican church, so it’s in pretty rough shape, but there’s a little desk in there where you can find me most days of the week, for a couple hours at least. But we attend church sometimes right now. I think, my family, we’re trying to figure out our relationship to church, to the Christian faith. That’s maybe obvious in the work. Whereas before I felt like I had to choose yes or no, I’ve arrived at a place where I don’t feel that pressure anymore.

Tell me about that.

Well, I think that part of my journey as a person, as an artist, has been to become a more fully integrated person, a path I think many of us are on. I grew up in the United Church, which is on the liberal end of Christian churches. It always felt a little bit like listening to the CBC, you know? A little bit of Vinyl Café in there. But we were doing that, and I think I always felt that tension, being out in the world, being in school, and being identified with the whole weight of—

Mm.

—The history of Christendom, you know? A hard thing for a young person to want to wear or identify with.

Mm.

Yeah. And so I spent a lot of my teenage years trying to figure out, Okay, what is my relationship to this thing? And for a while, I was really all-in; and then for a while, I felt like I was all-out. And I think lately I’ve found examples of people who have compelling faith practices that are neither of those or that are both of those. They’re using the elements that are working for them, and I think that’s part of what this project was, right? Sort of going through—

Mm, mm.

—Everything that had been inherited. It’s this rehashing of these stories and trying to find a way to tell these Biblical stories that works for me now or that tries to see them clearly. To decalcify them.

Mm.

Part of that is having kids too, right? Feeling the need to hand them something.

Mm.

As opposed to being a good post-modernist and bringing them up solely in the ways of critique. I want to give them something more than critique.

Mm.

And I think it’s come to feel like I need a lens. None of them are perfect. There are certainly flaws in the Christian lens. But I feel, maybe, more aware of those flaws now and more capable of having those conversations with my children. That pressure of, Okay, what do I think about the world? It’s easier as an adult to occupy that space of complexity and negative capability, but when a four-year-old is asking you these questions, how do you give them a world that they can inhabit?

Mm, mm, mm, mm, mm. I don’t have kids myself but I have, on occasion, had the impulse, if a kid asked, What happens after we die? Or is there a god? Or why are we here? Or any of the great big questions. If it wouldn’t be best for their development to say something like, We’ve been working on it. We don’t really—I mean, there are views, but there’s not—

Yeah.

—We don’t—What do you think? *laughing* But maybe something more solid than that is necessary to furnish the nascent psyche.

That’s been my feeling. I mean, even just to end the train of questions which goes surprisingly far sometimes. How many whys deep can you go before it breaks even your adult brain?

Mhm.

Hm.

*chuckles* I’m thinking of a Louis CK bit about that where his kid starts asking him why. Why is the sky blue? And then cut to ten minutes later he’s frustratedly saying things like, Because it is and there are things that are and there are things that are not. Things which are not can’t be because then they wouldn’t—Have you had this experience of the fraying algorithm of conversation with a child?

Oh, yeah.

The insatiable curiosity.

Yeah. It’s pretty impressive. It’s such a simple tool, the why. But if you ask it enough times, you get three or four deep and you’re like, Oh yeah, I’ve never gone that far before.

Mm.

And so, lately, this is where I’m at. I’m writing about living alongside a four-year-old and the amazing things that come out of his mouth. He just started kindergarten so he’s learning letters, he’s learning language, and I feel like I’ve never been so aware of these elements of language from words and grammar to even just the sonics. He’s always sounding things out and finding letters scattered throughout the world.

Mm, mm, mm. So this is resonating with my having been fortunate recently to travel fairly extensively in Europe and to have the experience travelling of being somewhere for the first time, and somewhere that’s significantly different from where I’m coming from; and it’s necessarily arresting, especially when there’s an unfamiliar language involved; and you find yourself sort of staggering through a grocery store in Finland saying to yourself, This is … People are trundling by with their carts. This is what a grocery store is like in—This is … Wow. This is … Oh my god. And how conducive that is for an artist’s practice, not that I think of myself in those terms, but this sense of seeing things anew without any preconceptions and how vibrant the world becomes as a result of that.

               And I’m imagining that, naturally, a child is seeing things for the first time all the time; and as they become increasingly verbal in their experience of it, you’re experiencing that vicariously.

Yeah, it’s pretty incredible. And I mean, for a poet, that defamiliarization that you hope for is right there on the surface. I think politically it’s really interesting too. Like, I just finished a poem the other day about taking him to go get his passport photo taken. Which, you know, is a fairly innocuous task that any of us might do. But why do we have to have passports? What are borders?

Good luck.

Why do they need to know who’s coming in and out of the country? Who does these jobs, right? And how much of that do you share with a child? Because I’ve tried to be a parent who’s open and honest with him, but there are also limits, obviously, to his understanding at four.

Mm.

Yeah. It’s a tough line to ride.

Limits to understanding and limits to understanding what the ingredients of the world are that produce recipes and sometimes those ingredients include suspicion or racism or colonialism; and how far do you go down that road before, at a certain point, the photo just needs to be taken because we’ve got to go pick your sibling up from daycare.

Mhm.

“Hamilton”

I’m thinking about this one-question interview with Laurie Graham in which you took notice of her author bio, which mentions where he ancestors originated from and how long her family has been in Canada; and so, especially on the back of a book like The Book of Benjamin, which we’ll get to a little later, I invite as comprehensive a family history as you care to offer—and also the recurrence of this phrase, “Has only ever lived in Hamilton, Ontario”—I wonder if you’d say a few words about how you got to where you are (without the intrusion of maybe more than three or four why’s, lest we be here all night: I know you have things to do) and maybe a word about Hamilton.

Well, Laurie’s bio sent me on my own genealogical journey. My grandmothers will probably read this, and so they’ll be maybe disappointed in how deeply I’ve been listening, but I come from WASPs, for the most part. My one grandmother was born in Liverpool and came to Canada when she was young. And then the other three grandparents have been in this country a little longer. They come from Ireland and England and Scotland, variously. Presbyterians, many of them. I learned recently that my great, great grandfather lived a block away from the rectory we were living in last summer. Which is pretty…interesting for me and has been part of puzzling out this connection to Hamilton, right? My bio has said “He has only ever lived in Hamilton” for a while; and I’m trying to think about what that means, that I’ve never really left. I mean, to travel, but my mailing address has always been in Hamilton.

Mm.

And five or six generations is nothing in the grand scheme of things, but that realization felt significant. That was somewhat of a tie to this place. The book that I’ve been writing alongside Benjamin is this ever-shifting poetry collection. Right now, it’s about Hamilton. Hamilton as a way of thinking about some of these broader questions. A lot of the questions that Laurie D. Graham’s asking, too: What does it mean to live in this place as a settler? What does it mean to call these places by these names? When we call it Hamilton, what are we invoking? We’re invoking the name of a land speculator, who only pulled up just over two hundred years ago.

Mm.

If he was around today, we probably wouldn’t be big fans of this guy. And so for me, I think Hamilton has been a challenge and a case study to apply to some of these broader questions.

Mm. I mean, I’m thinking of both this James Joyce line, where he says something like, If you describe with sufficient precision the intersection in your hometown it will be universally recognized as the intersection of the main streets of anyone’s hometown. And how the universal’s accessible through the personal. And I was thinking a lot about this having been born and raised in a place called London, Ontario, and how obviously directly derived from England its name was; and refamiliarizing myself with the river that had been unimaginatively stickered. As one of your poems has it—“He didn’t realize that in this country, when a white man / runs his boat into something, it gets named after him.”

Mm.

Remediation (from a manuscript in progress)

As my car crawls up the Niagara Escarpment
my ears pop reminding me
I am piloting an assemblage of metal and plastic
accelerating out of an ancient seabed.
The salt is gone, lake filled with
swollen carp, abandoned goldfish, a toxic pile
of three-letter acronyms no one knew about
until the Harbour Master hit it in the 60s.
He didn’t realize that in this country, when a white man
runs his boat into something, it gets named after him.
Fifty years later, RandleReef.ca is adorned
with a logo of a bird flying low over water.
After decades of consultation and assessment
a committee decided
the best way to address the spill
was to build a steel wall around it.
The final report anticipates it will take
two years to construct the wall, two years
to dredge outside of it. The wall
is expected to stand for 200 years.

And what I see is you treating your hometown and your given name as similarly available apertures. Something like this.

Yeah, I think that’s often the writing that is most impactful for me, that has this sort of particularity that you’re speaking about. And both the books are doing that in similar ways. I think they’re both borrowing forms. Even speaking about them here, they risk boredom. The genealogy form is, even as I’m recounting it—Oh, this is my great, great—We’ve all heard people do this, go on about their relations that we have no conception of. And so I think there’s a risk of that with Benjamin, certainly. And I sort of flirt with becoming boring. I think that’s in there for sure; and that’s an intention of the text.

               And local history has this as well. It’s an amateur form, which I found really interesting. And has been useful for me in thinking about Hamilton. There are people who do it really well, but I don’t know that it’s really possible to be a professional local historian.

*chuckles*

It’s kind of a contradiction of terms. But I think that Joyce is right, that if you do it properly, it can speak to things beyond the local, or at least beyond the particular local. We all have a local. And I think that’s the power of poetry, the power of a certain kind of writing, that it can withstand that paradox.

I wonder about this idea of risking boredom. I had noted, while I was reading Why Not Give In? something like, One has the sense reading your work that sometimes life is moving enough for poetry to consist in honest description.

Yeah. Yeah.

Beginnings

So, in Hamilton you were born; and I’d read you talking about how your grandmothers were English teachers, that your maternal grandmother was a big part of your starting to write, and that she transcribed your first stories by dictation. I wonder if you’d just say a few words about that.

Yeah, she’s amazing. She’s still part of my practice to this day. She was a teacher. She was teaching me before I was in school. She would teach me things and then we wouldn’t learn them for years in school so I was this annoyingly earnest kid who knew how to write cursive before he probably should have and was badgering the teacher about, When are we going to do this thing that Grandma’s been working on at home with me?

Mm.

Yeah, and then I think as I got older, it was less fun but equally instructive. We’d be reading Shakespeare or something like that, and she had a grasp on it. She’d taught those plays for—

Mm.

—Thirty years, forty years. So I’d be sent over to her house to work on my essays with her. Somewhat begrudgingly. But she was good. She fought through it. And what an education that was to learn from her expertise. She’s been giving me books my whole life, you know, she’s been reading CanLit for forty, fifty years, right? She still gives me books that I haven’t encountered that are incredibly useful. And I think, out of anyone in my family, she’s the most—I have a very supportive family, but—she’s the one who understands my work the most. Which is maybe not that shocking. She has the training, right? She’s a highschool English teacher and so her critical abilities are there.

Do you feel like you had a predilection towards writing?

I don’t know. I wanted to be like a sports agent when I was nine. I still remember, at a certain age—probably when I was too old and should have known better—telling my parents that my career goal was to play in the NHL. And they were very gently like, You know, you’re twelve. You’re playing house league.

Hm, hm, hm.

We’re not here to crush your dreams. But I don’t know that I thought of myself as an artistic person or a writer in that way at that time. It was just another thing that I enjoyed. I don’t think it became identity-based or a career goal or whatever it is—professional aspiration—until later. But she definitely laid the groundwork for a lot of what I’m doing now.

Mm, mm, mm. I’m thinking that the term “professional local historian” and likewise “professional poet” are both impossible. It’s necessarily all amateur, aspirational to participate in a larger conversation, to be driven by love rather than by commerce.

               And I remember your having said in another interview that you felt free in your writing because you weren’t beholden to its commercial appeal.

Mhm. Mhm.

How does that bear on thinking about audience? And is there some kind of transition that happens in a writer’s experience where this one pastime among many starts to invest in audience and how to structure things in order to present them to a person, to facilitate a particular experience for them?

I don’t know how I think about audience. I’ve been thinking about it with this book a lot because there’s an interesting thing that happens with a book. My friend Ben (who is in the book with me) around the time that the book was coming out, asked me, Does this feel like just the next logical step in the journey or does it feel like a major milestone? And, for me, it just feels like the next logical step.

               But there’s a certain perception from the outside. As small-time as small press can be, there’s still this cultural capital. Some people are still impressed by having written a book (no matter how thin or small that book might be). And having written Benjamin has put me back in touch with tenuously related people—old neighbours and friends of my parents and all of these people who I never would have conceived of as my audience. I wasn’t writing for these people. It’s strange to be thinking about conceptual literature and drawing lessons from Anne Carson and then to have the book read by people who, if I was tailoring a book for them, I would not be writing this kind of book.

Mm.

And that’s not to say that I’m not thinking about audience whatsoever, but I guess I wanted to write a certain kind of book. And I wanted to do it well, as best as I could; and I hope that the readers who needed it and who were up for that kind of book would find it.

               I mentioned Anne Carson. She has quickly become my Patron Saint. Fawn Parker and I were talking about this the other day—who also has a book out with Palimpsest, and so we’re kind of going through the same stages together—but I’ve moved on from WWJD to What Would Anne Carson Do?

*chuckling*

And I don’t know how much Anne Carson thinks about audience. So sometimes that’s a freeing perspective, to put on my Anne Carson diva robes and work from there.

I haven’t read probably nearly as much Anne Carson as you have, but my sense is that she’s not in dialogue with mortals. She’s entertaining herself in dialogue with all that has been and all that ever will be, or something.

Yeah.

And yet something that she does (and what I see you doing in The Book of Benjamin) is to decalcify, a good word of yours. She could have Orpheus in a supermarket, right?

Mhm.

In the check-out line holding a bag of limes or something. Anyway, earlier than Anne Carson, one of your influences would have been a book of poems by Leonard Cohen that your grandmother gave you in your teens—is that right?—and provided a keel, say, to the lyrics that you were writing? Does that sound right?

Yeah. That’s right. 16 or 17, she gave me Book of Longing and Let Us Compare Mythologies. And they were probably the first true poetry collections that I read. There’s the poetry that gets in, for all of us, to a certain degree or another, but this was the first direct engagement with it. And I think Cohen was a natural figure. I’d come to writing and to poetry from music and he’s maybe the crossover figure. I don’t know how conscious it was for her, but she seemed to know what she was doing with that and those books. They got through to me.

Mm, mm, mm. I feel like a lot of that is timing, that she would have sensed that you were ready for those books at the right time.

Mhm.

Like a sort of sixth sense.

Mhm. Maybe the best time to read Cohen.

Yeah. Yeah, there’s something of the perennial sixteen-year-old in Cohen, I think.

Yeah.

Libidinal, longing, insecure. I don’t have any other self but this one.

Mhm.

So, transitioning from music—And then you continued to play music with “Also Ben” or “Ben as well.”

Yes.

And I guess there was a forking of a road which then had parallel chutes that you were travelling down simultaneously. Poetry and music separated in a way, and that happened in your mid-to-late teens.

Yeah, I think I first came to poetry in my mid-to-late teens and then I did an English degree; and so I was studying poetry, but it wasn’t something that I was writing. I played music—Music was the priority through university. I was gigging in a handful of bands. I picked up pedal steel guitar and became moderately serviceable at it, enough to go up and make the sounds with that sort of folk country revival. And it was a way in the door. And it was great. I still play with “Ben as well,” and we’re still working on music fifteen, sixteen years later.

An image just came to mind of you guys at 73 and 82 and 91.

Yeah. I think that might not be far off.

A Sensitive Man

*chuckles* Thinking of this phrase “Ben as well” and “also Ben,” I was reflecting on the gentleness of much of what I’ve read of yours. I mean the way that—There’s a poem that ends with that phrase “Ben as well,” and how unimposing, unassuming its effect is—like a silent snowfall or something.

               And maybe there’s a question here about sensitivity and masculinity. Masculinity’s one of the themes, in a way, of The Book of Benjamin; and I wonder if you’d say a few words about that and maybe ever feeling that the archetypal something-or-other didn’t fit.

Mhm. No, I think you’re right.

One of my closest friends is also named Benjamin.
People often ask if this is confusing for us, though
we lived together for two years and never once
confused the other for our self.

We are known collectively to our friends as “the
Bens” or “Ben & Ben.” Our wives specify “my Ben”
and “your Ben.” Sometimes we are “Ben” and
“other Ben.” I become Ben R again; he becomes
Ben M.

Ben and I have played music together since
we were teenagers. Ben does not perform under his
first name or last name but his two middle names.

At shows, we often find ourselves meeting new
people, sometimes both of us at the same time.
We introduce ourselves as “Ben” and “also Ben” or
“Ben” and “Ben as well.”

This is something that I’m thinking about a lot lately because I’m writing about fatherhood and masculinity more explicitly. It’s in all of my work. It’s in Benjamin certainly with the patriarchs. Yeah, I do feel like masculinity doesn’t really fit for me—or at least certain masculinities that I was offered.

Mm.

I could always pass, you know? I knew how to do it.

*chuckling*

And when I was younger it felt less effortful.

Mm.

But I think it took finding people who were similarly sensitive, you know? I’ve been working with Al Purdy’s “sensitive man” as a draft title for my new poems, but maybe less ironically than he was wearing it, or with a different kind of irony. Yeah, I think I *chuckling* really am just a sensitive person. I’m realizing that more and more. I feel things deeply, and I find the world overwhelming in a lot of ways. And maybe this gets to what we’re talking about, this transcription of the real. This almost Bernadette Mayer idea, that the material is all out there and it’s utterly compelling. But at the same time that it’s compelling, it’s overwhelming, right?

Mm.

And that’s just the world. I think that there was also something about a certain kind of masculinity. I worked as the stick boy for a hockey team, for the Hamilton Bulldogs. They were an AHL team. They’re OHL now. My dad’s worked for them since the 90s as their team physician. So for three or four years, through highschool, I worked there, a pubescent teenage boy hanging out in an almost exclusively male environment. And I think that was a place of, This is not me. And people could see it there. The people I worked with were kind to me, but it was pretty clearly not my place, and so I did my time and then moved on.

I mean, I feel like something that could connect music and poetry and sport is that they’re different forms of worship and some of them are a little bit more abrupt than others *chuckling* or something like this.

Yeah. Yeah. And it’s funny to go back now, right? Because now I’m taking my son to these games. My older son and I went and saw the local soccer team, Forge FC, win the championship the other day. And it’s really exciting, but also, the first hockey game that I took him to, there were four fights in the first period; and so what do you tell a three-year-old about what’s happening between these teenage boys on the ice?

Mm. I just had an image in mind of your at a certain point saying something like, Okay, I’m going to write a poem about this and I’ll get back to you, like, three days from now.

*chuckling*

Do you subject the little ones to poetry?

He asks, sometimes. Increasingly. The four-year-old for sure. We’ve tried to instil some curiosity about the lives of others, as you do, and so often, before he can leave the dinner table, we’ve all had to have a chance to share what we’ve been doing, and I have days where what I do is go to the church and write. And so he’s trying to figure out what that’s all about; and every once in a while he’ll ask what I’ve been working on. He just got into Shel Silverstein, which is maybe the gateway. Silliness is the road to a four-year-old’s heart, sometimes.

Mm.

I’m trying not to pressure it. If it’s something that he’s interested in, I’d be happy to share that with him. But music comes so naturally, I think that’s more what we share.

And so, after having endured abrupt rituals you recognized weren’t your own, and then continuing on to an undergrad in English, you took a graduate degree in Library Sciences, right? I’m wondering about that. Cataloguing appears so thoroughly throughout your work; and I think it bears on this question of relating the facts of the world and that, by accretion, they will move you.

Yeah. Well, I mean, before I ended up in English, I thought I might be a social worker, which seems laughable now.

I can see that.

At McMaster, social work is a double major, and most people pair it with Health and Aging or Sociology and I paired it with English, which should have been the first sign that maybe it wasn’t going to work out. And the social work half did not go well and the English half was going well and so at the end of my second year I decided, you know what, I’m just going to do the arts thing—whatever comes of it. And so I went into English and then worked, ironically, some social work-y jobs for a year after school; and then I don’t even know how I ended up at the library, if I saw a posting or what. But eventually it became clear that the library is this mix of English, of the book world, and social work.

Mm.

And it seemed like it would be a good fit. I ended up working in the library as a clerk before I realized, Okay, if I’m going to be here, I’m going to go get the training. I had wanted to do a graduate degree of some kind, anyway. And so Library Science seemed to make the most sense for me.

Mm.

I think you’re right that I do see it in the writing, certainly. I mean, part of it is that public service work has really shaped me.

Mm.

Speaking before about being a sensitive person, there’s nothing like sitting on that information desk where anyone can walk in and say anything or can call and ask you any question under the sun. And so it has eventually, trial by fire, made me a more secure person, just having the wildest conversations with people over the six years that I’ve been there. But research is certainly there as well, particularly with the local history stuff, but also using all of the tools that are available. Half of Benjamin is appropriated texts from Google, and though I wasn’t learning about Google Alerts explicitly in my program, I was thinking about similar tools. You mentioned my Gibberish poems and those came directly out of library school, finding this auto-translate feature on YouTube and thinking through, Okay, here are the accessibility implications in the library setting, but in the back of my mind there’s always this, Okay, but what is the artistic potential? What is the poetic potential? So I’ve found the library has been a really ripe place for skewing these technologies. I was messing around with thermal receipt printers for a while.

Tell me.

Well we use them at work: when you check material out, you get your list. I accidentally printed one of my school essays—I selected the wrong printer—so the big scroll comes out and it’s got the whole thing on it. And that was another moment of, Okay, how can I abuse this technology? So I bought my own and was experimenting at home. They have a couple exhibition spaces at the Central library in Hamilton, and so I created this project printing poems horizontally on these long scrolls of receipt paper, and over the course of ten pieces of this receipt tape, you got from the beginning to the end of the poem. So the library has been ripe for the happenstance of having these technologies around. And even in a more conceptual way, too, you’re right: cataloguing, thinking hierarchically, building these systems. I mean if you look at Benjamin, it’s engineered, it’s structured, it’s almost geometric in the way that it’s put together.

Mm.

I think there’s something to be said about that, this sort of visual organization of knowledge or information.

On Form

I mean, now that you say that, I’m starting to think of the whole book as a single poem and its turn as this wonderful move from the sacrifice of Isaac and then the elided lines from the children’s memorial garden and Emily’s stone there. That being the peak of the emotional crescendo of the book followed by a denouement. Had you thought of the book in those terms, as almost a device—and/or do you think of poems in that way? You bring a real clarity and precision of architecture to this book.

With Benjamin in particular, it’s been interesting to hear what people call the pieces. I don’t know that I think of the individual pieces necessarily as poems. I think poetry was an approach for this book; I think I will always approach language through the sensitivity of the poet. There’s an attention to white space; an attention to form; an attention to the page here that I think is indebted to poetry. But yeah, I think that the book, especially once I had a critical mass of pieces, it became more about that broader architecture, especially because the book is so structured. There’s some pretty strong structural elements which made it hard to typeset and hard to do, basically, every part of turning it into an actual book from a word document, right? Because there were these real limits on—Okay, this needs to stay on this page and this needs to stay on this page and here are the margins and—So I think, at a certain point, I was thinking about the book as the form. And each of these pieces, even more so than one would in a collection of poems, is in service of the whole. Which maybe frees you up to think more machinically—I don’t know that I conceived of it machinically, but certainly with the whole as the focus. And what does this piece contribute? There were a lot of pieces that got pulled out. A lot of the editing of this book was about removing, was about elision.

The only sign of Emily in the church garden is a
stone, a piece of granite about the size of a soccer
ball, with a plaque attached to it that reads:

CHILDREN’S MEMORIAL GARDEN
1996

In the centre, an excerpt from Elizabeth Barrett
Browning’s “Sonnet 43” – two lines that, here, are
drawn out into three:

I love thee with the
breath, smiles, tears,
of all my life.

Later, I find the rest of the poem and see, where the
plaque has a period, the original has a semi-colon;
out beyond that full stop, the poem concludes,
“and, if God choose, /I shall but love thee better
after death.”

Mm.

Because I had a strong sense that what was going to push it over the edge into territory that I wasn’t interested in was tone—I was really conscious about managing tone. The tone needed to be right. And I didn’t want to slip. And so there were things that I pulled out if they threatened the tone too much.

And when you’re thinking of tone there, I’m almost hearing what you’re saying in musical terms; and to introduce harmonies to a consistent root note, a fifth, say, or another strong harmonizing combination or two notes; and then maybe you could hear, momentarily, the introduction of a seventh that wants to—But then you have to take that out and return to a kind of a purer harmony. When you’re thinking of tone are you thinking in musical terms? And what was the terrain that you didn’t want to enter? And what kinds of things would you elide?

Yeah. I don’t know that the musical sense would have been the first thing that I would have come to, but I think you’re right. I think if I had to think about this book, they’re simple chords. I’m trying to think about what got pulled. At a certain point, I tried to make the connection between the left-hand pages and the right hand pages more explicit.

Mm.

I was trying to address—

Mm.

—What was happening on the left hand page with the right hand page. There were particular threads on the left hand that I had zeroed in on. One of them—well, he’s a Ben Robinson—but he was in the RCMP and he tased Robert Dziekański to death in the Vancouver Airport, and so I was thinking about what it means to wear the same name as this person and it was just getting into territory that was ultimately unnecessary. I think part of it is about managing tone and knowing what was right for the book; and part of it is knowing my abilities and what kind of book this is.

Mm.

I’ve had some people mention Naomi Klein’s new book. She’s thinking about names. I don’t know if you know about it but it’s about doppelgangers and doubling and these were all things that came up. The double has a long literary and outside-of-literary history as well. But I think it became clear to me that I was not writing sociology. I wasn’t going to write the treatise on names and naming. This was something a little different and something more particular.

Mm.

And so eventually I think I came to my senses and tried to stick to my strengths.

Mm, mm. You say “strength” and I think that word’s etymology refers at one point to the rows of the sinew of flesh and muscle—

Mm.

—And how that book feels—you’d mentioned aspiring to be a fully integrated person—feels in a way like a combination of strands of quite different chapbooks and that you synthesized a lyric tone, say, with data collected online through Google with variation in form.

               And I’m wondering whether you think of the book as in that way a sort of synthetic consequence of the quite different strands of your previous work.

Mhm. Yeah. I don’t know how intentionally, but I do look at my chapbooks—And I think at the time, I didn’t know how it all connected. And there was a bit of anxiety about, What am I doing here? And how does each piece relate to one another? And it came together. I think you’re right that this is the book where, intentionally or not, I sort of figured out how to connect those pieces—or, I hope that it connects for people—but that was the experiment.

I’m aware of time. It’s eight minutes after nine. We’d originally intended to go for ninety minutes, which would leave us with twenty-two for now. Does that work for you or do you have time to go a little later?

I’m good. Everyone’s asleep and it’s quiet so we’re good.

Okay. Amazing. There are many more questions to ask.


 

Of Danish and Scottish ancestry, Canadian citizenship, and Nichiren Buddhist faith, Kevin Andrew Heslop lives at artist residencies around the world, most recently in Costa Rica, Serbia, Finland, France, and (currently) Brazil, with Denmark and Japan on the horizon in 2024.

As he travels, Heslop facilitates in-depth dialogue with leading artists, most recently Canadian playwright Camille Intson, Brazilian performance artist Guta Galli, Brazilian artist Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Canadian poet Arleen Paré, Italian installation artist Remi Picó, Maltesian photographer David Pisani, Canadian Mi'kmaw writer Tara McGowan-Ross, Canadian poet Benjamin Robinson.

Heslop is also the author of the correct fury of your why is a mountain (Gordon Hill Press, 2021); curator of six feet | between us (McIntosh Gallery, 2022) and in medias res (Westland Gallery, 2023); director-producer of mo(u)vements. (Astoria Pictures, Rose Garden Press, 2023); co-author, with Roxanna Bennett, of the rules of grammar will save you at the hour of your death (Baseline Press, 2024); co-author, with P. F. Tego and Taylor Marie Graham, of Human Voices Wake Us (Rose Garden Press, 2024); and writer-director of Some Things Are Too Important to Take Seriously and Art Is One of Those Things (Astoria Pictures, 2024).

Kevin Andrew Heslop

Of Danish and Scottish ancestry, Canadian citizenship, and Nichiren Buddhist faith, Kevin Andrew Heslop lives at artist residencies around the world, most recently in Costa Rica, Serbia, Finland, France, and (currently) Brazil, with Denmark and Japan on the horizon in 2024.As he travels, Heslop facilitates in-depth dialogue with leading artists, most recently Canadian playwright Camille Intson, Brazilian performance artist Guta Galli, Brazilian artist Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Canadian poet Arleen Paré, Italian installation artist Remi Picó, Maltesian photographer David Pisani, Canadian Mi'kmaw writer Tara McGowan-Ross, Canadian poet Benjamin Robinson.Heslop is also the author of the correct fury of your why is a mountain (Gordon Hill Press, 2021); curator of six feet | between us (McIntosh Gallery, 2022) and in medias res (Westland Gallery, 2023); director-producer of mo(u)vements. (Astoria Pictures, Rose Garden Press, 2023); co-author, with Roxanna Bennett, of the rules of grammar will save you at the hour of your death (Baseline Press, 2024); co-author, with P. F. Tego and Taylor Marie Graham, of Human Voices Wake Us (Rose Garden Press, 2024); and writer-director of Some Things Are Too Important to Take Seriously and Art Is One of Those Things (Astoria Pictures, 2024).