Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

Dispatches from Antarctica

An (extended) interview with The Weakerthans' John K. Samson

Winnipeg’s The Weakerthans are the most lit-friendly band in Canada. Thanks to John K. Samson’s natural lyricism and attention to imagistic, poetic detail, the “texts” of this politically conscious band rival the work of many of Canada’s most celebrated poets. Within a four-minute rock song, Samson delivers lyrical prowess that just might wake up the slumbering poets of this nation--lyric, formalist and avant-garde. The Weakerthans have recently signed to Epitaph, a prestigious independent label based in LA. Jon Paul Fiorentino harassed John K. Samson by email in the early months of 2003.

JPF: Tell me about the impressive range of literary influence that informs your songwriting process: from Michel Foucault, to Catherine Hunter, to P. G. Wodehouse.

JKS: I guess my early impulses for writing came from what is considered very mainstream CanLit, writing that I get the feeling is smirked at from the hip centres of literature. Specifically I would single out Margaret Laurence and Carol Shields. These women write the voice of women in my family--women I love and didn’t always listen to closely enough. Women’s stories that are, in many cases, utterly lost in graveyards.

Poets like Catherine Hunter and Patrick Friesen, both criminally neglected, always provide hints about how to clear the throat and speak the way I want. I’m obsessed and inspired by the heavyweight Americans of fiction: Don DeLillo, Denis Johnson, Rick Moody, Grace Paley, etc. Sometimes I do the old “start with one of their sentences and keep writing then erase their sentence and see what happens” shtick. Imitation, flattery, etc. And there’s always some W. H. Auden in my head, and I love him more and more, though we often argue.

I guess there is some kind of dialectic I’m working on, half-consciously--lots of what I write is a response of sorts, especially to “political” writing. I wrote a silly song responding to Foucault in the character of a senile Antarctic explorer, because I couldn’t find any other way of trying to figure out what I thought of his work. And of course I’m still not sure.

And in the end I’m a frustrated and failed poet. There is, I swear, a difference between lyrics set to music and poetry. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are not the same. Intellectually, politically, this troubles me, but it is just something I know from experience. My best work often arrives when I’m grappling with poetry and switch to song (or vice versa) out of grief and failure, gnashing my teeth and seething “fuck shit fuck shit fuck fuck fuck” under my breath before I calm down and try to make something that will redeem me from whatever pile of garbage I have produced of late. Pretty dumb process, I guess, but sometimes it works.

Everyone’s got their inspirational proverbs from the wise ones about process. Mine is from Frank O’Hara, who is right up there on my list of those who should not be dead: “You just go on nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.’” Advice I wish I would take more often.

JPF: Tell me about Auden--is it a political affection/discourse that you engage in with old Auden? Tell me who else should not be dead. Tell me who should be dead.

JKS: I first came across Auden when I was twelve, in a college textbook called The Modern Poets: An American-British Anthology published in 1963. Found it in the basement of my childhood home and carried it around for years. It contains two or three poems by all the biggies, and smatterings of the totally forgotten. It also contains photos of the poets, posed unfailingly with a cigarette. Auden’s picture is the coolest--perched on a fire escape in NYC with a smoke and a sly smile before the wet wedding cake face had fully set in. I cut out the picture and framed it, and started smoking, and then writing poetry. Maybe I blame him for both habits.

I don’t think I was reading any of it too deeply, but discovered a few years later that the political and cultural questions that were being asked by the scene were somewhere in his writing, and that I would judge other poetry against his, whether I really understood Auden or the work in question. When I was nineteen or twenty I went to NYC for a week, to see the city of course, but also more importantly to see the apartment block on St. Marks, and the bars he liked. While I was there I bought a book of essays, Less Than One, by Joseph Brodsky because I loved the photograph of him on the back cover. In it I found an essay about Auden called “To Please a Shadow”; I was giddy to learn that in the late sixties under terrifying conditions in the Soviet Union, Brodsky had been obsessed with the exact same photo of Auden as I had been. He described it perfectly: “It was the face of a who is interested in your story though he knows you are ill. A face well prepared for everything, a sum total of a face.” Then near the end of the essay Brodsky wrote, “Every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language.” Woo! This coincidence or convergence excited me, and I started to read poetry and criticism more seriously.

Around this time one of Auden’s one-liners struck me hard. He said something like, “When J. S. Bach wanted to praise the Lord he could write a sonata, today if a poet wishes to do the same he has to employ indirect speech.” This affected me profoundly. I suddenly realized that I didn’t really understand Auden because I was looking for sad romance and confession in his work, and there wasn’t any. Most of my work naturally revolved entirely around sad romance and confession. So I started to imitate Auden by using the vernaculars of politics and religion and love, which are natural and interesting to me, to attempt to say something that moved beyond their grammar. No more “you done me wrong” songs, or as few as possible. It is still my strategy, I guess.

But something about the way Auden used, say, the language of Freudians and then Marxists and then Christians bothers me. Like these theories had no real connection to actual lives? Political engagement was somehow belittled and dismissed somewhere in Auden’s process. I can’t go along with this strain in his work. Exploring explicitly political writing, feminists for example, especially Adrienne Rich, who I admire deeply, presents a whole other set of problems for me, and is a sort of counterbalance to my boyish modernity. Anyway, reading Auden still gives me a fluttering feeling in my chest that very few things do.

JPF: You describe your realization of modernity as “boyish.” Is this completely subjective or is there something more universally applicable to the notion of modernism as a kind of self-aggrandizing, myth-making ideological structure? It seems that you are quite willing to admit that you fell for Auden for all the wrong reasons, but he is a political poet with political content as well. Is it too much of a stretch to assume that the unrequited romantic desire for the poet is maintained and deemed necessary by a modernist ethic/aesthetic? How does a writer like Adrienne Rich take you beyond modernity specifically?

JKS: Sure, I do think there’s something dangerous in the glamour of Modernist style. But Auden is perfect for problematizing (terrible word, if it does in fact exist) Modernism in general, because he kept editing his own body of work until he died. Most contemporary editions contain the original versions of his poems, but if you read the Collected Poems that he edited himself, you will notice that the politics have been altered significantly, and often he discards poems entirely. For example, the “September 1, 1939” poem that everyone quoted after the Trade Center bombing (wouldn’t have been my choice) isn’t even included in his endorsed Collected. Totally disowned.    

Poor thing. This gives us a whole new way to read Auden--the sharp negative of the poet Auden wanted to be. And we can play the two versions off each other. I think it’s fun and rewarding. So maybe the official Auden has no political content at all, but the unofficial one reeks of it due to its status as unofficial. Maybe?

I don’t think Adrienne Rich takes me beyond modernity, but shows me the real potential of it. I see writers like her and John Berger as the best contemporary representatives of the Enlightenment, saying simply, deftly, that history has meaning, that justice isn’t just an empty word, that humans have responsibilities to other humans, that Marx was right about a few things and that rich people are actually pretty boring. They say lots more than that, of course. They both defy categorization, seem to write about everything and write about it well. I guess they are both unashamedly committed to what a postmodern critic would call a “totalizing world view.” Whatever it is, I like it very much. It’s like Rich and Berger are saying, “Okay, you can stare off into the middle distance and be a Modernist hero consumed by your own individuality, or you can play those little language games about the death of the idea of the individual until you drown in a sea of thesis, but I’ve actually met some people out there in the world, you know, other humans, and I care about them.”

JPF: I want to get back to the subject of Samson as poet. A well-known writer recently told me that you were his favourite poet. He is not alone in his poetic preference. How can you claim that you are a failed poet when your words are loved by so many--from the indie rock fan to hyperliterate scholars?

JKS: Of course I’m a little flattered. But isn’t there something perverse about saying, “John Samson is my favourite poet?” Isn’t it more someone making a comment on contemporary poetry rather than on my work as a lyricist? I mean, look, my entire reputation as a poet is based on twenty or thirty lyrics set to music. I write maybe four to six songs a year, and that’s a very good year. There’s not a lot of room for literary transition and growth and experimentation within that process. Take a great book of poetry--my favourite lately is Karen Solie’s Short Haul Engine. It has more stunning images and wonderful leaps of language and thought than a dozen Weakerthans albums could contain. I simply don’t believe I am as talented as someone like Solie, but even if I did, there just isn’t room within a pop song for that kind of expansiveness. There are things that make up for this, of course--melody and collaboration are sublime things that poets don’t get to use. I also perform in front of lots of people, and can’t explain how powerful and useful that can feel. No one form is better than the other, but they have differences. Listen, honestly, when someone comes up to me and tells me that I am their favourite poet, my first thought is, Well, this is a person who refuses to engage with contemporary poetry. I’m simply offended on behalf of all those writers I love who are dismissed because they work in this marginalized art form called poetry. I may take it the wrong way, but I can’t help it. It pisses me off. Guess I’m a little touchy, eh?

JPF: Yes, you’re very touchy. But when you say, “And in the end I’m a frustrated and failed poet,” do you type this with a straight face? How can you arrive at the end when you haven’t even begun? Will there ever be a beginning: that is, a book of John K. Samson’s poetry? Perhaps Karen Solie would be first in line to purchase a JKS book.

JKS: Fuck’s sake, Fiorentino, stop picking on me. All right, not “in the end” but certainly in the present. Even though I have been working on poetry haphazardly for the past decade, very little of it is readable, and this is an important point for me: I have to deem it readable in order for it to exist. Poetry is not therapy--it doesn’t exist just because I write it. It must be received by someone. It must do something somewhere in the world in order to qualify as poetry, and the poetry I’ve written hasn’t been there yet. So I still say I don’t qualify as a poet. We can fight about it some other time. And I like to think that Karen Solie wouldn’t stand in a line for anything, other than a beer or a carnival ride.

JPF: Why do you suppose poetry is so marginalized? Many would claim there are too many small presses and too many books, others would suggest there is an overarching cultural illiteracy at work. Is there a self-fulfilling cultural elitism at work in the production of poetry? Is it possible that some poets deserve their obscurity for buying into this elitism?

JKS: Ah, I don’t know about that. I don’t think there can ever be too many books, and as a co-owner of a small press I’m pretty much forced to think of publishing as a valid form of activism, still a vital weapon against mainstream hegemony despite the obvious ironies. Tom Wayman wrote somewhere about the unique power that poetry has due to its marginalization. There’s so little glory involved that perhaps the motivations behind it are more valid than any other art form. And everyone, it seems, at some point tries to write a poem. The democratic impulse behind poetry, good or bad poetry, is resilient and inspiring. I guess the reaction to poetry that I encounter most often is the anti-intellectual brand, so I don’t think about that idea of self-fulfilling cultural elitism much. Obscurity is generally a product of the market. Market economies have no real logic that I can figure out, I mean there are the obvious fetishes and promotions, but I for one am still bewildered by the whys and hows of what gets consumed and what gathers dust. Elitism probably has something to do with it at times, but it can’t be the only reason.

JPF: Isn’t it possible to be “consumed by your own identity” and still be accessible, relevant and perhaps even generous? Think of Whitman and his exuberant self-involvement. Think of the great confessionals like Plath. Do you ever fear that your desire for that which appears to universalize may come back to haunt you? Do you believe in altruism?

JKS: I have a lot of fears, but that’s not one of them. There can’t really be a Whitman or a Plath these days. Doesn’t such an attempt immediately slip into parody somehow? My point is there has to be a balance between the personal and the universal, or a bridge. Specifics are most powerful when they are universal, and vice versa. I don’t think we should throw out the great models of “personal” writing like Plath and Whitman, but I get the feeling that the culture doesn’t allow us to work effectively from these points of reference anymore. How are Whitman and Plath understood by the mainstream today? I get the feeling that their personas are more important than their work, which is depressing. Some cardboard cutout of what we want an artist to be. Raging radical spirits inoculated with romance and sold as safe tragedy to the mainstream. Just like one might see the Beats’ role as the two-dimensional avant-garde that the mainstream required and devoured. Not that there was ever much there to snack on. The fate of the Beats can be used as evidence of the culture’s need to appropriate and control. A bunch of essentially apolitical but good writers were deemed radical and great by the mainstream and used as a convenient and non-threatening foil, then became a part of the canon. I think this kind of pseudo avant-garde might invite young writers into dangerous dead ends. The resort of Exuberant Self-Involvement in the sunny state of Late Capitalism. Resist the “Wish you were here” postcards.

JPF: How did you arrive at theory? If the senile Antarctic explorer (great song, by the way) is a thinly veiled lyric “I,” then what does this reveal about your relationship to literary theory and poetics? Have you read much Cixous? Derrida? Barthes?

JKS: I’ve never read Cixous actually. Some Derrida, which I sort of enjoy in a “this is fun but I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about” kinda way. I love early Barthes, often travel with a copy of Mythologies, which I think is hilarious--when there is no David Sedaris handy it is just about the very best thing to read if you are stoned in a motel room far from home.

I must say that reading a cross-section of French postmodern stuff last year depressed me deeply, to the point that I didn’t want to do anything and stopped writing for awhile and had a big nihilistic mope. I think this was partly due to the fact that I don’t have a particularly scholastic mind. I refuse to be an anti-intellectual, and I hate the rolling of eyes people do when confronted with something difficult to interpret. The life of the mind is the only life I’m interested in. But still, I felt demoralized by how little I understood, and even more demoralized by what I did understand because I found it so depressing. I felt senile and left behind, like an Antarctic explorer--one of the last great and silly projects of modernity, before the world wars showed us total horror.

I’m still trying to work my way back into these thinkers, because I know there’s something important there. Frederic Jameson is the one who I actually love to read. He’s a Marxist and a postmodernist, gotta admire the courage to say you’re both, and is especially concerned with the “ironies of cultural production” in Late Capitalism. This has real resonance for me, being a performer and working in music--probably the most disposable art form under capitalism. Jameson thinks (or I think he thinks) that postmodernism as a condition is a super-structural expression of Late Capitalism. This just feels true to me, and gives me a place to read this stuff from.

JPF: An understanding of Jameson informs any discussion of cultural capital greatly. How does this critical knowledge affect your position, being a singer in a rock band, which is a highly commodified position? Can you look at your cultural position with a Jamesonian lens for me? For us?

JKS: Saying I have an understanding of Jameson is a bit of a stretch. I’d go with “an appreciation of.” But I would think a Jamesonian would consider my position as a singer in a sad socialist rock band hopelessly absurd in a number of ways. And, hell, she’d be right. It is a weird position to be in. I’m certainly not complaining, I love what I do, and can’t believe how lucky I am. But as for changing the world, Jameson confirms something my experience as a political writer always shouted about: that cultural strategies for revolution are way more difficult to envision and practice than I thought they were when I started playing punk rock. This is important for me to know--that the form I work in is severely limited in what it should be able to do due to many factors, which include: capitalism, who I am, where I live and, in a historical sense, what time it is. And just saying that these facts don’t apply to me--the honourable punk-rock strategy--might not work as well as I hoped.

Still, Jameson doesn’t rule out hope with a capital H, unlike most of his postmodern peers. I’m not sure what practical form his hope takes. He talks about something called “cognitive mapping,” which is “the practical reconquest of a sense of place.” I think that’s what I want, that’s what we’re all yearning for. I have no idea if what I’m doing, if what anyone is doing, even gets to lift the tools for that task. Back to O’Hara, “You just go on nerve.” And honestly, even if I decided what I am doing is useless, I would still do it. Playing music with my friends in front of other people who are listening, half-listening, not listening at all, is more fun than anything else I can think of.

JPF: What are you reading right now? What are you listening to right now? What are you wearing right now? 

JKS: Been reading lots of fiction, the new David Eggers and Zadie Smith and Tim O’Brien and Annie Proulx. My friend Alissa York is about to publish her first novel, Mercy, which I love. Met a writer named Danzy Senna in NYC whose first novel, Caucasia, is excellent. Just finished Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer by a guy named David Winner, which is as much about art and architecture as it is soccer. Spent a lot of time reading sports books over the last year, especially baseball, which has the best writers, and boxing, which is always so fucking strange and political. Also first-person accounts of polar exploration like South by Ernest Shackleton, Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen and Alone by Richard E. Byrd. Good yarns. Poetry from the usual suspects. As for listening, I guess I’m listening to myself way too much. Go through writing periods when I just don’t listen to anyone at all. A friend just introduced me to Joel R. L. Phelps, which I like a lot. The new Jets to Brazil record, Perfecting Loneliness, is so very good, and its songwriter, Blake Schwarzenbach, has been a huge influence on me for a decade or so. The Paperbacks are a Winnipeg band fronted by my friend Doug McLean, who has also been a big influence, and their debut album will likely change the world. As usual, I’m answering these questions in bed during South Park commercial breaks, half drunk and a quarter clothed. 

JPF: When is the next Weakerthans album coming out? Any other projects? 

JKS: We’re hoping it will be out in the first six months of ’03, but it could be later depending on all the variables. I won’t be able to focus on any other projects until the record is finished and I have my scheduled minor nervous breakdown about it, which is still a few months away. I hope my next project will be a collaboration with my friend Kathleen Olmstead, Toronto poet and raconteur. We want to make an insert for Gideon Bibles that mimics their “Where to find help when:” section. For example, instead of “Where to find help when: Feeling Inadequate” we want to research quotes for more practical concerns like “Where to find help when: You Ate Too Many Burritos.” I’m hoping the Canada Council will kick in some funding. 

JPF: Is there anything else you are dying to say? 

JKS: Mr. Fiorentino, sir, you are a good man. Thank you for a lovely conversation.

The Weakerthans’ new album is entitled Reconstruction Site and is available from Epitaph Records in North America and Burning Heart Records in Europe. Samson’s publishing company, Arbeiter Ring, can be found at