Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Interview with Jason Guriel

Can poems be entertaining? Jason Guriel thinks so. Jason Rotstein speaks to the Toronto poet about his new book Pure Product.

Jason Guriel’s critical sensibility and reputation for finely crafted short poems is known both in Canada and in the US where, in 2007, he received the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry—the first Canadian to be so honoured.

He is the author of one previous collection, Technicolored (2006), and his work was anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008.

Guriel's second book of poems, Pure Product, appeared last Spring. He lives in Toronto.

Go here for to read Mark Callanan and Michael Lista's discussion on Pure Product.

Jason Rotstein: How long have you been working on this collection?

Jason Guriel: About three years, I suppose. Some of the poems go back further. I hadn’t been working on a book of poems, but then Véhicule Press offered to publish one, and I didn’t want to say no. Anyway, once I looked at the poems I had on hand, I realized that a slim manuscript had been quietly coalescing.

JR: How has your work changed or evolved since your first volume, Technicoloured?

JG: Technicoloured was largely, though not entirely, about film. I’d been writing poems about film, and it was suggested by an editor that I put together a collection of poems on the topic. Since the publication of Technicoloured, however, I’ve become much more interested in the individual poem, as opposed to the book-length project that’s unified by a specific topic. Basically, I’ve become much more interested in poems, as opposed to poetry. This doesn’t mean the poems in Pure Product don’t share concerns. I’m just not writing to a particular topic, is all, and I think the poems are better for it: more self-contained, more enjoyable, less directed by the grant proposal (not that I’ve ever aligned my work to a grant proposal, but you get the point).

JR:Tell me about your working practice. What is your working routine?

JG: I write on the go, sometimes composing in my head as I walk. Things get transcribed into a notebook on the subway or in Starbucks or some such place. I try to wait as long as possible before I open up a Word doc.

JR: How would you describe your work? How would you describe one of your poems? What do you think distinguishes you as a poet?

JG: I hope that what distinguishes me is that people think my poems are entertaining. To that end, I try to get down to the business of entertaining the reader as quickly as possible, with an eye on the exit. I certainly don’t want to overstay my welcome. I do want my poems to have a relatively linear argument that a smart reader can follow, though I want the argument to be booby-trapped with twists and surprises. (You can’t mess with the reader if you don’t establish some expectations to mess with.) I’m always after original images, metaphors, and similes that shock but still make sense. And I want some unity of sound and for my line-breaks to be meaningful if not playful. In short, I want the reader to feel like she’s in good hands. These are the goals, anyway. And none of this is to say that I want an overly accessible or ‘simplistic’ poetry.
JR: Why “Pure Product?” Is there any significance to the reference to William Carlos Williams’ “To Elsie” from the collection Spring and All?

JG:Yes, it’s nicked from Williams – “The pure products of America / go crazy” – though maybe I’m not using the idea the way Williams intends it. Anyway, I like the notion of the well-made, sturdy, iconic thing, the poem as a pure product. Many of the poems, too, seem to be about pure products, though this wasn’t planned. There are poems about sock puppets, the white covers of J.D. Salinger paperbacks, Jimmy Webb songs, Derek Jeter’s batting stance, chain link fences, Coke cans, these sorts of things.

JR:  Do you see Pure Product as in anyway propounding a theory or new theory of “pure poetry” or of poetry in general for that matter?

JG: No, not really. I just hope the poems are entertaining.

JR:  What does the importance of Toronto or Canada mean as a place to you in your work?

JG: Beyond the fact that I live in Toronto and have written most of my poems there, the place has no influence on my work that I’m aware of.

JR: Do you see there as being a brand of young Canadian poet of a new generation that is searching or reaching for a greater audience beyond Canada’s borders?

JG: I think so, though there have always been Canadian poets who publish outside of Canada: George Johnston in the New Yorker, P.K. Page in Poetry. Robyn Sarah is certainly one such poet. Daryl Hine’s another. Funnily enough these poets, despite their international successes, aren’t always as revered in Canada as those more professionally and consciously ‘Canadian’ poets, the ones who don’t seem to court an international audience (if that’s what it is, an act of courtship).

JR:  How do you balance the desire to be recognized outside of Canada and staying true to your Canadian roots?

JG: Well, I like Canada, and a poet who lives in Canada is more likely to have a Canadian publisher, and publish in Canadian magazines. Mainly, though, I just want to publish in good magazines that will be read, regardless of their country of origin. I wouldn’t have a book with my Canadian publisher – wouldn’t have been discovered by Véhicule Press – if I hadn’t been published in Poetry, an American magazine, which got Véhicule’s attention. The quality of the venue, and not its national affiliation, is what’s important.

JR:  Are long poems in abeyance or even so much as dead?

JG: I’m pretty sure I don’t know, but I suspect they’re doing more than fine. They’re certainly of a piece with the book-length project, which seems to dominate the poetry world to an unhealthy degree.

JR: The poem “Conscience” strikes me as a concise statement of your poetics. The poem has the form on the page of a thought or moment of experience passing in and out of consciousness.

JG: Hmmm, that’s interesting. “Conscience” really just presents a series of metaphors for the idea of a conscience – the thing that prods you along, the little Lucifer on your shoulder. I would say that the opening lines of “Less” offer a better example of a statement of my poetics (in so far as there is such a thing): “Less / —cooked by crooked / math – is more / than enough.” Actually, a lot of the poems could be said to offer poetics statements, though this wasn’t planned: “Assemblage,” “On Derek Jeter’s Batting Stance,” “Alchemy,” “Long Poem,” “Money Is Also a Kind of Music”. It was pointed out to me that “Shopping Cart, Abandoned on Front Lawn” offers a subtle critique of so-called ‘experimental’ poetry, though the critique (and I can see it) was unintentional.

JR:  I have noticed from your biography that you never went for an MFA. Who were or are your teachers and mentors? What is the importance of poetic models regardless of the poet’s stage in career?

JG: I took creative writing as an undergraduate, and the novelist Richard Teleky was an important mentor, though I would say that his influence was less on my work than my temperament. In terms of poetic models, if I’m not reading poetry that excites me I’m probably not writing it. I need to be spurred on.

JR: . Practically every poem in the collection is structured around or defined by a single complete, eloquent thought combining a reference to pop culture and a literary allusion. What is the importance of analogy to music or concept albums in this collection, in the way that the first collection seemed indebted to the influence of movies?

JG: Well, it’s not meant to be ‘the music book,’ if that’s what you’re asking. But the music is there, you’re right, though I would add I’m more interested in a good single than a concept album. One of the really subtle influences on Pure Product is the idea of the artist who has devoted his life to the crafting of the artefact that’s popular but a well-made work of art in its own right. One example would be the songwriter Jimmy Webb. Another would be the generic ad man, whom Paglia has compared to the anonymous folk artists who once worked on cathedrals and now work on, say, M&Ms commercials. My poem, “Money Is Also a Kind of Music,” celebrates this idea – in particular, the classically trained session musician who may have once played on jazz records, but is a professional and not above working on a pop song, not above turning money into art. The music on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which is, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful music of the last century, was played by session musicians. Its lyrics were supplied by, among others, Tony Asher, an ad guy. We’re so hung up, as a culture, on the notion of the artist as tortured outsider, that it’s fascinating when art – when a pure product like Pet Sounds – gets made within a very commercial system.

JR: How have your ambitions in poetry changed from the time when you first started writing?

JG: The goal is still to write a good poem, which is to say, a poem. Over time I suppose I’ve gotten less interested in the idea of ‘projects’ and books organized around some novel subject matter.

JR: Does writing poetry play a cathartic role for you?

JG: Not really. But finishing a poem – applying the finish – is an amazing feeling, and hard to beat. Still, it often leaves you at square one, which can be rough. Novelists have something to wake up to, but poets are people who have to settle for a string of one-night stands.