Assorted Sonic Bursts: David Eso
in Conversation with Shane Book

Shane Book

Malahat poetry board member David Eso talks with Shane Book about the influences informing his poetry, his return to the University of Victoria to teach poetry in the Department of Writing, and his two poems, "S.T.A.R.S." and "Beast Friend," published in Issue #200. Shane Book is the multi-award winning author of Ceiling of Sticks and Congotronic. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he grew up in Canada and Ghana.

 

The Malahat Review's Issue #200 is our fiftieth anniversary issue. It features Victoria writers past, present, and future. Be sure to check out the Issue #200 page for book reviews, interviews, and a complete list of contributors.

 

You’ve moved around quite a lot lately, Shane, both providing and receiving education. Can you identify some differences in the various poetry communities you encountered? What imprint have they left? What peers, mentors, or emerging talents stand-out from the recent past and what has their work meant to you?

 

First, I want to preface what I say with a disclaimer: whatever I’m saying is just the generalizations of one person — it is in no way meant to be a full picture... In the San Francisco/Bay Area I found a vibrant literary community. The poets were varied and not much concerned with mainstream acceptance (whatever that means) — they seemed to be writing with a great urgency and individuality. Many aesthetic camps but lots of cross over and a sort of fusion that was much bigger than what many people usually think is going on there — namely the last sputterings of the Beat Generation. Sure, there are a few hangers on to the Ginsburg-ian dream but mostly they’re all gone. There are so many poetic poles in that region, from the restrained, conservative work being fostered at Stanford University to wilder and more trenchantly political expressions coming out of the Oakland/East Bay communities. In Santa Cruz, there was a cluster of poets out of the University of California, Santa Cruz and the colleges in the region, such as Cabrillo College. The scene seemed bifurcated generationally and aesthetically — the baby-boomer-1970’s-I-walked-out-into-the-forest-alone-wearing-a-mask-made-of-my-soul-and-contemplated-it type poets versus a radical vein of rea,l innovators. As far as I could tell, the twain did not meet. I moved to Santa Cruz with a Canada Council Grant and the goal of working on my first book, so I was pretty insular and met very few people, though I did reconnect with a someone I’d known at grad school, the Santa Cruz poet David Lau.


In New York City, the concern was and seems more and more to be about the business of poetry, making it into the major mainstream magazines, winning prizes, getting a book out with a big trade publisher. It seemed to me to make the work done in the universities and outside of them more cautious. Surely innovation happens there too — though it seemed less frequent and therefore more miraculous? The stock-image comes to mind of a few grass blades pushing up through a crack in the asphalt. I’d read about the days when New York City below 14th street was a hotbed of avant-garde art practice but those days seem totally over. The island of Manhattan has transitioned into being an outdoor mall for the wealthy.


In Philadelphia, I was there to learn how to make movies and so I didn’t mix with the poets or writers much. I did go to one thing at the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, a great reading by Pierre Joris from his translations of Paul Celan’s work. As usual, poets teach at the many schools in the Philly area: Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the community colleges and so on. Philly is a better place to be any sort of artist than, say, Brooklyn or Oakland because it is much cheaper to live there. Philly artists seemed to live like the bohemians we used to read about in the San Francisco days of Philip Lamantia and Bob Kaufman, working minimally and having tons of time to write. There’s a vibrant poetry scene in Philly, everyone from current Poet Laureate of Philadelphia, Yolanda Wisher, to poet and fiction-writer Linh Dinh. I read with Yolanda once, before she became Poet Laureate, but for all I knew all the writers were under glass. Basically, I never talked to writers or went to readings, except for one given by Fred Moten, an awesome poetic power.


In Iowa City, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop dominates the literary culture. It felt like the Workshop constructed a Noah’s Arc of poets, with two of every kind admitted to the program: a crazy mix of all kinds of aesthetic styles. There were Surrealists, Language Poets, Sonneteers, Confessionalists, Bukowski-esque maniacs, pastoralists, and everyone in between. Students socialized, i.e. drank together, based on their aesthetics. It was so weird. And also wonderful. I’d never been in a classroom where every writer was super well-read and also a good poet. Very intimidating, while being challenging. I felt like my peers pushed me to be better, work harder.

 

The fiftieth-anniversary issue of The Malahat Review includes two poems by you: “S.T.A.R.S.” and “Beast Friend.” Both in subject and approach, these stand apart from much of the other poetry in the issue. Given the influences from wide-ranging communities you have just described, I am curious about your own practice. What were some watersheds in the development of your vocation during your years in the U.S. — or perhaps earlier — that are given life in these two poems?

 

One major moment for me as a poet was coming to UVic's Department of Writing as an undergrad and taking a poetry class with Lorna Crozier. I applied to UVic to study and write fiction. I took the poetry class because I thought it would help me write better sentences. Lorna's passion for the art and her patience and willingness to call us out for lazy writing as well as the intellectual debates we had in the class caused me to become fascinated by poetry. Then I took a class with Patrick Lane and my fate was sealed. From them and indeed from all the teachers I had in the other areas I studied at UVic, be it fiction, nonfiction, journalism, film, or photography, I learned how to use language and how to think about language whether that was the grammar of the moving image in cinema, or the language of still images in photography, or the rhythm of language in poetry, or narrative structure within prose sentences. When I finished at UVic, I arrived at New York University thinking I was going to be way behind the other student poets. Instead, I found that their writing and reading was at a much less developed level than what students were doing at UVic. 


Meeting and studying with Philip Levine was the saving grace of my going to NYU. He was tough, and hilarious, and very serious about poetry. He pushed me to write in new ways – mostly directly within his lineage, of course. So he had me read some of his former students like David St. John and Larry Levis — encouraging me in particular to emulate Levis. Phil had such a commanding presence, and an intense charisma, that I determined it would be easier to acquiesce to his aesthetic predilections than to resist them. From Phil I learned what I call a “free verse form,” which is basically a first-person centered poem that tells a story using plain language amidst nearly invisible syllabic constraints, using a unified “voice” or persona that usually resolves in epiphany. I also learned to write discursive, longer poems with wide Whitman-esque lines and I was exposed to a host of poets I never would have read. I remember Phil telling me about how when he graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the nineteen-fifties, he had been heavily influenced by his teacher John Berryman, who had encouraged Phil to write in a plain-speaking, conservational style and Phil had become enthralled by Walt Whitman. When he went to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow, his teacher at Stanford, the poet and critic Yvor Winters, accused Phil of being a “Whitmaniac.” I loved the idea that Whitman had at one time been out of fashion and that someone had invented such an insult.


Anyhow, I learned as much as I could from Phil and then I decided to go to the Iowa Writers' Workshop as he and many of my other writer heroes had. My main reason for wanting to go there was I had heard it was not so conservative or aesthetically narrow. That turned out to be true. Also, I wanted to be in a setting with the most skilled young poets, the best and the brightest, as it were. That also turned out to be true. And terrifying. But it forced me to work harder than I ever had at writing poems and it made me read widely, just to keep up with my fellow students who all seemed to have attended Ivy League schools as undergrads and to have read and memorized the entire English language canon and beyond. They were also all impeccably confident and fiercely ambitious. 


At Iowa, I spent the first semester scared to write anything for fear of being ripped apart in class by the teacher, humiliated in front of my peers, as that seemed to be what happened to anyone who workshopped a poem. Eventually, by Christmas, I got over the fear and started to produce work again. At Iowa, because of my exposure to so many other kinds of poetry from so many other traditions, my work changed dramatically. I felt freer and excited to have whole “other traditions” to draw on, namely the modernisms and avant-garde as manifested from the early 20th-century with Mallarmé to Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts movement, to the contemporary avant-garde of San Francisco poet Michael Palmer. As the great Los Angeles poet Will Alexander once said to me outside a classroom at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, “Surrealism becomes a state of mind.”


At the workshop at Stanford, the wilder work I handed-in was met with stony silence so I was made to call on my more conservative training to produce a sort of mainstream lyric the students and the professors were prepared and willing to discuss. So that experience caused me to write two books at once; those two manuscripts became my first very different two books, one done in the period style of contemporary poetry and one operating in a more innovative mode. Being at Stanford forced me to confront the multiple aesthetics I'd absorbed over the years and really evaluate the established borders between several conceptions of what poetry is and/or could be.


Going to film school in Philadelphia got me writing screenplays and working in cinematic modes: documentary, fiction, and hybrid forms. I had to really think in images and consider sound not just as music but as designed space, mood, atmosphere, and texture. I was editing sound and images, too. Long days in a darkened editing suite listening to endless takes of the same snippet of dialogue or watching slightly different images from the same moment in a scene proved to be a meditative space. I started writing poems while editing, often using portions of speech I was hearing in my headphones or using images I was watching on screens. I had long been interested in the links between cinema and poetry and started to search out examples of filmmakers who were also poets or interested in poetry. This led me to work on one of Guy Maddin’s feature films, an immersive, hands-on experience working in visual poetry overlaid with a patina of narrative. All of these experiences only deepened my interest in how to make poems out of different kinds of language, disparate texts, assorted sonic bursts, assembling them as one would cut together a sequence in a film, different shots put side by side, and so on. This sort of cinematic thinking, thinking like a visual artist and a sound artist undoubtedly led to me writing the kinds of poems I'm working on now, two of which appear in the fiftieth-anniversary issue of The Malahat Review.

 

As a new faculty member at UVic, can you note your first impressions of the poetic community you’re re-joining? What opportunities and conundrums do you expect this institution, city, and region will introduce at this point in your writing life?

 

Everyone I’ve met at UVic and in the Victoria arts scene has been very friendly. I think this city has a lot of opportunities — its size makes it a place where one can more easily get to know the players in the different arts worlds. It is in a sense “knowable.” Whereas New York City is so vast that you could live there your whole life and never even visit all the corners of all the boroughs, let alone know what was going on in the various art worlds. I like that Victoria is pretty chill — I think it’ll be a good place to get a lot of work done.

 

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