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Interview with David McGimpsey

Interview with David McGimpsey

In this except from a new book of essays, the Montreal poet discusses his love for Alice Cooper, his songwriting chops and the link between poetry and sitcoms.

David McGimpsey was born and raised in Montreal. He has published four books of poetry, Lardcake (ECW, 1996), Dogboy (ECW, 1998), Hamburger Valley California (ECW, 2001), and Sitcom (Coach House, 2007). McGimpsey has a PhD in English Literature and is the author of the award-winning study Imagining Baseball: America's Pastime and Popular Culture (Indiana University Press, 2000). His travel writings frequently appear in the Globe and Mail and he writes the "Sandwich of the Month" column for EnRoute magazine. A member of Montreal-based rock band Puggy Hammer, he teaches at Concordia University.

Alessandro Porco is a poet, critic, and scholar from Toronto. Currently at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he is working toward a dissertation on the subject of hip-hop poetics and writes about hip-hop for Maisonneuve magazine. Visit his blog.

Jason Camlot is the author of three  collections of poetry: The Animal Library (DC Books, 2000), Attention All Typewriters (DC Books, 2005) and The Debaucher (Insomniac, 2008). His critical works include Language Acts, co-edited with Todd Swift (Vehicule, 2007). He is Associate Professor of English at Concordia University.

This interview is adapted from a longer interview published in Population Me: Essays on David McGimpsey (Palimpsest, 2010), edited by Alessandro Porco.


Alessandro Porco: You mention learning to play classical guitar at the McGill Conservatory of Music, yet you loved the shock rock sound of Alice Cooper. I’m curious about any resistance you may have encountered growing up (and, perhaps, still today) in navigating between such “cultural situations” with ease.

David McGimpsey:  Of course I meet that kind of resistance all the time and, in some ways, it always surprises me. This resistance, of course, never actually comes from a stuffy Julliard professor looking down his or her nose at me as I besmirch the sublimity of Mozart. The resistance more often comes from sheltered MFAs, insecure grad students, and poetasters whose cultural palate, to use a comparison they will appreciate, is as extensive and refined as the menu at Arby’s. I should say, however, that I am not championing “the people” or the wisdom of the streets: rarely do I express knowledge and enthusiasm for products which are as culturally sanctified as the blues. I would rather write about The Karate Kid.

So, this dismissal, to put more of a spin on it, usually comes from good middle class folk who are trying to show off their decent educations and who just want to write their fancy poems about prowling mooncats or how awful that mean old Dick Cheney was and who would never think of themselves as enforcing class divisions. Good people know it’s not nice to say somebody who was born poor is unsalvageable, but somebody who publicly likes NASCAR or enjoys drinking diet soda from the can— well, good luck explaining that at the next departmental cinq a sept.

There’s a yawning, routine anti-Americanism which comes into play in this, of course, and it’s impossible to defend against the screeds of Canadian jingoists. I understand the role of elitism in the cultural production of poetry and how it simply does not welcome reference to working class culture (beyond sad imagery about defeated fathers in undershirts watching sports on the tube) and, on occasion, picking up on the simple bigotry behind it all, hurts to hear. But it remains strange to me that most of this tut-tutting comes not in service of actually promoting the ancients (my poetry is actually fond of the ancients, is conscious of both canon and repertoire) but mostly in service of trying to preserve a provincial notion of elitist social order organized around the idea of “poetry.” To keep it free of references to Miley Cyrus. Not in the name of Milton or Wordsworth, but in the name of some rather recent Canadian book of poetry with a title like In the House of the Moth-Stone. Not in the name of Mozart, but somehow in the name of boxed wine and sensible sweaters.  I actually prefer my snobs snobby. 

Jason Camlot: On the topic of Canadian jingoism and anti-Americanism, can you say a thing or two about the significance for your poetry, not just of American culture, but of American poetry, and how the fact that you live and write in Canada might color the way you approach and represent “America” in your poetry?

DM: Being a Canadian, I think one does have a unique opportunity to participate fully in American culture without any real need to represent or testify. So, I approach America in my poetry, the way I approach America in real life: as a grateful tourist. The sense of appreciation and gratitude for the pop myths and metaphors I was brought up into (the protocols of rock concerts, the plot arcs to sitcoms, baseball stats, celebrity gossip, and so on) is, I hope, born out of sincere affection. I actually think Elvis was a great artist, I think the Beverly Hillbillies is hilarious, I think baseball is beautiful to watch, and I seriously want to know if Lindsey Lohan is going to pull through. I’m not trying to spin gold from dross but to simply account for my actual life and interests, not the life of someone whose poetic curiosity only extends to the backlists of Canadian publishers and the squabbles within provincial literary hierarchies.

My affection for American pop culture is, I think, unambiguous and, I assume, has been enjoyable for my best readers. A few times I’ve seen how this accounts for a misreading of my poetry which I’m sure will trail me to the grave: that is, when a critic takes contemptuous displeasure in an American culture reference and imagines I must hate what they have been conditioned to hate and therefore assume my goal is satire (I couldn’t possibly be saying I watch Family Matters, could I?  I couldn’t really prefer Celine Dion to The Tragically Hip, could I?) and then wonder why my satires don’t seem to go far enough. I have no interest in apologizing for that or defending that as governing poetic conceit in the face of the myriad weepy grievances Canadian intellectuals have against the United States. After all, I do not write about American popular culture: I write about my life and American popular culture is the metaphoric vehicle through which the tenor of my life is moderated.
AP: Could you talk more about your view of the structural relation of the sonnet and the half-hour sitcom?

DM: The half-hour sitcom is a character-driven genre. The comedy arises from understanding certain character concepts and types. The comedy gets richer when the character is understood and stable— as such, the serial comedy character is fairly impervious to change. Norm does not suddenly go off beer, Lucy does not suddenly decide that just being up-front and casual with Ricky is the way to go. This kind of character-building is as crucial in stand-up, where the stand-up character is a version of the real person but a more refined version. I want that same similarity and distance in my poetry: it’s the subtle difference between Larry David the person and Larry David the character on Curb Your Enthusiasm. For my serial poetry, I’ve always been trying to refine the rhetoric of the character-speaker and adapt it within an understanding that the speaker is not me but to make sound like it was. Confessional-sounding but telling lies. The aim in the series of the poems, however, is not just to create a comedic character (though there is one and I call the speaker “Tubby”) but to have a security in character which allows for the next episode. Sonnets are also a string of worry beads, often a negotiation of an anxiety, a test of foolishness. Even in other repeat-form poems, like Tennyson’s "In Memoriam," or Byron’s "Don Juan," the characters of the piece are destined to find their character identity and the heart of the poem rests there. When, in Tennyson’s long poem, the speaker makes late gestures of acceptance and change it doesn’t seem credible, it seems like a gesture to revive and finish the piece— the poetry equivalent of those last seasons of a sitcom where there’s suddenly a new kid who ages from birth to seven years old in the off season. 

JC: You are a songwriter as well as a poet. You have written songs in a great variety of popular forms, including slow bittersweet ballads, punk tunes, stadium-rock anthems, and narrative love songs to name a few. Based on your experience of having written both, can you talk about the difference between a song and a poem?

DM: The formal construction of popular song lyrics hasn’t really changed much for hundreds of years: whether it’s John Dowland or Dolly Parton (who I think is the best living songwriter), lyrics usually follow a basic rhyme scheme (in couplets or alternating) and use relatively short lines. Poems do not usually have to be as trim as song lyrics as a result: they can be but they don’t have to be. Perhaps this is what allows for understood simplicities in song lyrics. It would seem ridiculous to write the word “womanizer” 32 times in a poem, but in Britney Spears’ “Womanizer” it makes more sense.

Of course, popular music does have some draw to the immediacy of relatable emotion. The haunting simplicity of Hank Williams’ songs seem to come from such a known, true place that they can be picked up on a guitar quickly and felt forever. That kind of emotional transparency is a rare creative gift and one which few can aspire to—why Leonard Cohen singled out Williams as the one “a hundred storeys above me in the tower of song.” I wouldn’t want to create some mechanism of positional superiority between two things which have related generic functions, but I do like it when Pound says that poetry begins to atrophy when it strays to far from music. Music was my first love. I can say with absolute certainty that the first artists I admired on my own terms was Alice Cooper. He sang about real things that mattered: songs about cutting class, songs about giant spiders, songs about strutting into a room when you don’t know her.

AP: This volume of essays has suggested you have numerous roles— entertainer, flâneur, cultural critic, rebel, tragedian, etc. But what, if anything, do you imagine the poet’s role to be?

DM: The way I see it, the poet has no social role to fulfill. Few people read poetry so the “poet” barely has the responsibility to read or even write poetry. There is always a temptation, perhaps itself a hippie hangover, that poets should be engaged in “changing the world” or “rocking the vote” or whatever goodworks function which best flatters the demographic of poetry world. That’s all fine, of course, and as I assert that the poet’s role in our society is to celebrate the freedom of individual, I don’t mean the poet should be some kind of self-conscious lone wolf or a libertine estranged from social convention. I would hope an individual’s pride would make a poet feel responsible to be well-read and conscious of the genre itself and not just the work of their friends, but since I know many poets whose knowledge of poetry is limited to the work of their friends, maybe I’m making things up which have nothing to do with poetry. Maybe the best poets are the ones who read poetry but, by now, that has all the echo of residual ideology. A poet’s role could never be that self-consciously helpful— being a poet is not as important as being a mother or a father, not as helpful as being a nurse or a scientist, not nearly as lucrative as being the floor manager at an American Eagle Outfitters.