Michael Lista (left) has published poems in Border Crossings, Descant,The James Joyce Quarterly, Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, The Walrus, and The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008. His first book, Bloom, is forthcoming from House of Anansi.
Mark Callanan (right) published his first collection of poems, Scarecrow, in 2003. Several of his poems were included in Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets. A regular book reviewer for Quill & Quire, his essays and reviews have appeared in The New Quarterly, Books in Canada, and Canadian Notes & Queries. His second book of poems is forthcoming from Signal Editions/Vehicule.
MICHAEL LISTA: As with a prize-fighter or fresh produce, I’d like us to begin our discussion of Jason Guriel’s Pure Product with our item on the scales. There’s a talismanic quality to its page count: 49. That’s one page longer than the 48-page minimum required of a collection to be considered a book (as opposed to a chapbook or pamphlet), and to qualify for the subsidies and awards so essential to publishing poetry. In her essay “In Praise of Smaller Servings” from her book Little Eurekas, Robin Sarah writes that “a 48-page cut-off would make more sense as a maximum length for a poetry collection.” And from the first line of the first poem, Guriel is concerned with size; “Less” he writes “cooked by crooked/ math—is more/ than enough.” What do you think Guriel want us to make of Pure Product—and poetry in general—as product?
MARK CALLANAN: What Sarah is attacking in her piece is the bloated nature of the average contemporary poetry collection (those padded to fill out the larger cup size of 100 pages) where a false sense of proportion is at work: that bulk, rather than lean construction, lends weight. It’s a strange compulsion that seems to have been derived from the fiction market, in which readers are deemed (by marketing departments, largely, rather than authors) to prefer the hefty beach read, the cinder block that misaligns the spine as it is toted from airplane to beachfront—the weight of money well spent.
It’s a very North American concern with materiality, with having enough of the given material: the up-sized fries and drink, the Sherman tank of a car (the Hummer: who the hell thought that was an efficient mode of conveyance?). We like to know we’re getting enough for our money. Why that should have leaked into poetry, I really don’t know. It seems to me that poetry, having so scant an audience to begin with, is in the very liberating position of not having to give a shit about commercial concerns, of being able to be entirely, unselfconsciously itself.
So Guriel’s urge here is to reject that compulsion and instead create something compact and beautiful. The products of his collection, the poems themselves, are very much concerned with the idea of artistry. The product—art, I mean...or Guriel means—comes from context. In “Shopping Cart, Abandoned on Front Lawn,” Guriel alludes to Marcelle Duchamp’s readymade art; in “Dearest,” the hair of a loved one that would have once been a cherished inclusion in an envelope, becomes, in our modern, Twitter-ridden times, “that impossible hair lovers now / take for granted, take a moment to / pluck, mid-fuck, from tongues.” And right there in the first poem in the collection: “tiny things / can’t help being, next / to nothing, something.” At the same time, Guriel is conflicted over the metamorphic qualities of art. In “Alchemy,” for instance: “A trifle’s potential— / its capacity for alchemy, actually— / can leave you longing for lead.”
When Guriel writes, in “Assemblage,” of the “four glass marbles (the sort whose sole point seemed / to be to round out a pouch)” in a poem about combining various artifacts to form an artistic whole, it’s hard to believe it could be anything but critical commentary on the state of contemporary poetry, on other poets’ products.
ML: “The weight of money well spent.” I like that. Yes, I think you’re right; “Assemblage,” like so many of the poems, is a very canny shot at what Guriel sees as the general sloppiness of the average contemporary poem. This is a great poem to talk about actually, because it shows Guriel working a signature, and successful, technique. The form-content double reverse. What’s striking about the poem is the dissonance between the meticulousness of the form (it, like nearly a third of the poems in Pure Product, is a sonnet) and the slothfulness of the speaker’s thinking. The speaker has no sense of scale. In his “glass-faced box” he “forced together/ four glass marbles” which we know can fit into a “pouch.” So the scale is established. He adds a “feather.” This is where the logic bends like a funhouse mirror: he adds “wallpaper.” How much? Who knows. He adds a “wedding dress(?!),” “teddy bear entrails” and “an antique ice skate.” You mean he puts all that into the little box? But he had to force the marbles in. It doesn’t make any sense, and yet the speaker is “pleased how little work was entailed.” The fact that Guriel couches all of this in the rigor of a well-made sonnet is a brainy foil to the brainless folly of the thinking therein.
And of course he’s talking about poetry behind the poetry. That’s something we find Guriel doing often: overlaying the melody of lyric with the harmony of aesthetic commentary. It’s never didactic or professorial, though. Take “Spineless Sonnet” for example. The first hint for me that he was talking about more than just a sock puppet was the word “argyles,” which he deploys here as a verb. How delicious! What struck me reading it was that, when writing a sonnet, too, “your will argyles/ the plain white weave” of the woven page. Eureka!: the rhyme scheme of a sonnet is argyle. We can hear the poet worrying about the strictures the sonnet puts on expressiveness when he writes: “The sock’s got half a mind–/though one half too few–to refuse to smile.” And we hear the sonnet itself manipulated into life through the sock puppet when it “grins and bears the voices in his head.” This is all very, very fine work, and though the thinking is extravagant, it’s never gaudy, or at the expense of the lyric.
This is part of the reason why Pure Product is such a noteworthy book; the generation of Canadian poets who came before us, Mark (you, Guriel, and I are all about the same age) force fed us the fallacy that one must either be a thinking poet or a singing poet. One was either avant-garde or lyric. What no one wants to admit is that most of the so-called avant-garde poets can’t write, and most of the so-called lyric poets can’t think. Guriel strikes a bold middle ground; he consistently strives to overlay serious lyricism with serious aesthetic commentary, and he does so with grace, effortlessness, and humour.
MC: You say that Guriel “strives to overlay serious lyricism with serious aesthetic commentary.” I think that’s a valuable point to consider, how his poems successfully combine intellectual inquiry (and specifically, inquiry into aesthetic concerns) with deft lyricism. Guriel’s poems are proof of what should already be obvious to us as readers: good writing is not empty guff, like the voice actor whose rich baritone sells useless gadgetry—pretty to listen to but empty of anything approaching meaningful insight; good writing is good thinking committed to print.
It’s interesting that you should bring up Guriel’s use of form here because a close consideration of form is something integral to Guriel’s process. When he describes “the necessary tubing / that defines / the nothing blowing / thru ducts,” (from “Thinginess”) he’s talking about form, the “tubing,” and content, the “nothing”—Pound’s “water poured into a vase.” But, there’s a third, implied element in Guriel’s poem: the unprocessed “nothing”; the “nothing” before it’s shaped by the act of writing. For Guriel, form and content are, paradoxically, both separate and inseparable. That same poem wonders what product would result “if you could isolate / the thinginess / from its thing”: the implication being that you can’t isolate “thinginess”; you can’t distil it. That “if” is a big if.
I think, layered upon that, Guriel is approaching the very philosophical notion of the platonic ideal: that the “product” I mentioned earlier (the poem or painting, the abandoned shopping cart) is the manifestation of an archetypal form, “poetry behind the poetry,” as you put it.
When Guriel writes sonnets, he’s not “writing” sonnets; he’s thinking in sonnets—which is, I think, the key to a good sonnet (or any successful form): that it comes out not as an imposition on a thought but as the only natural vehicle for that thought. As clever and off the cuff as these poems seem to be (and much of their apparent nonchalance comes from Guriel’s propensity for using glib pop cultural references to approach more weighty considerations), Guriel is someone who not only weighs each word very carefully, but calculates its density. So, yes, behind these snappy little songs, there is a very keen mind at work…thank Christ.
ML: I think you’re dead right when you see the Platonic Shades behind Guriel’s thinking about form. At the heart of the book, in fact, Guriel shows us that the form-content problem is really a fractal iteration of an older, broader human dilemma: mind-body duality. Even the book's title is one of its tidy spirals; the purity of mind-form at once at odds and at home with the product of the body and its contents: Pure Product. The more we meditate on the central image of “Thinginess,” the more that “necessary tubing” (and the straw on the book’s cover) comes to resemble the human brain, with so much “nothing” blowing through its ducts.
There are a number of Shakespearian references throughout Pure Product. Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, and The Henrys all have their place. But the guiding Shakespearian figure puppeting the whole affair is Prospero. He’s there in “Alchemy,” his staff whittled down to wand. And the final two poems, “The Storm is Over” and “Footprints on the Sands of Time” position us on Prospero’s island with Guriel’s trademark light touch. Like Auden in “The Sea and the Mirror,” Guriel, here in his Ars Poetica, is playing matchmaker to Ariel—pure mind, pure form—and Calaban, the body unensouled.
And like The Tempest, Pure Product seems of two minds about the destiny of literature. In “Alchemy,” Guriel’s world is always “a wave/ of some wand away/ from perfection” but the poem he perfects his world into is destined to live “in the shadow/ of the shadow/ it gives birth to.” “Conscience,” he tells us, is “the news/ from poems” that “try in vain/ to warn us.” “Books deserve the care of Golding’s Piggy/ cradling his conch, his democracy,” he writes in “Five Sonnets for Summer Storage in the High School Book Room” but the classics he shows us are either “piled in stacks for summer,” or “lined up along reinforced steel shelves/ like suicides manning their last ledges.” Guriel doesn’t go quite as far as Prospero; he never abjures his staff and book. But do you trust him when he tells you “there’s/ still a place for you in poems?”
MC: Do I trust Guriel? Yes. I think he is offering readers a place by doing us the service of giving us his best work, and not the rest. He has, in a way, complimented us by refusing to fob off draft-stage poems and half-baked “poetic” musings on us readers.
What I like most about Guriel’s work, though, is his refusal to provide pat answers to the questions he raises, to force closure. Instead, he admits his ambivalence by allowing opposition to exist within his work, by refusing the definitive answer. He is “of two minds about the destiny of literature,” as you put it, and about what makes art art, and about whether art is even worth making in the first place. That he is willing to admit this uncertainty without it seeming like philosophical posturing is, to me, an indication that what we are dealing with here is not a snake oil salesman or a ponderous bore, but a poet of genuine talent.
What Guriel tells us is that there will always be a place for us in poems, as long as we care to make our place there. We often don’t, which explains the lugubrious tone that appears in some of these poems. Guriel laments those classic texts “piled in stacks for summer”—art’s inability to connect to its readers. He sees the act of creation (of creating art, I mean) as both necessary and ultimately futile; doomed to be ignored.
And yet, as he points out in “Footprints in the Sands of Time,” the last poem in the collection: “it’s taking as long as / the ages for the well-made / words of Ozymandias / to biodegrade”; ars longa, vita brevis. It’s interesting that he should have picked the word biodegrade, which I think of as the unnatural—the human construct—being reabsorbed by the earth, being broken down by the environment, being wiped of its human stain. If there is a conclusion here, it’s that despite everything, something of ourselves persists beyond ourselves. In that way, Guriel is very much a poet of the human, of folly, of foible, of striving and inevitable failure, of, ultimately, our capacity to transcend our limitations and the pedestrian nature of our means (the sock puppet, the duct, the storage room) to achieve sublimity.